It’s been more than eight months since Chumani Maxwele, a student at the University of Cape Town (UCT), threw human faeces on the statue of colonialist and racist Cecil John Rhodes that overlooks the grounds of South Africa’s premiere university and the city of Cape Town on 9 March 2015.
His action marks the unofficial start of a year of protests and unrest at South African university campuses that have been marked by the call from students across the country to decolonise the South African university.
In this special multimedia project, The Oppidan Press will attempt to lay out the landscape of South African student protest in 2015, from occupations to marches, and show why it is so absolutely crucial that our institutions of higher learning change dramatically for the good of students and for the country as a whole.
Though we work as journalists, we are students ourselves. These issues affect us directly. We will not pretend to be ‘objective’ or neutral on this issue. As individuals and as an organisation, we support the student movements and their allies across the country and continue to do so today.
In this project we have spoken to student activists, trade unionists and academics and relied heavily on them to fill it with content. We would like to thank all the people who got back to us and agreed to let us use their words, pictures and thoughts in here.
We would also like to thank the School of Journalism and Media Studies at The University Currently Known As Rhodes, without whose financial support this project could not have happened.
Good luck and strength to those still protesting.
Before we begin properly, it is important to understand the landscape of student protest in 2015. This timeline is by no means exhaustive but it should, at the very least, give the reader some sense of the world we find ourselves in
9 March - Chumani Maxwele threw human faeces onto the statue of Cecil John Rhodes on the UCT campus and toyi-toyi’d with approximately a dozen protesters at the statue. Protest movement Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) begins.
17 March - The Black Student Movement (BSM) at Rhodes holds first public meeting in solidarity with RMF and is physically locked out of the University administration building after attempting to peacefully march through it.
19 March - Following racist backlash on social media towards the BSM’s demand that the University transform and is renamed, the Student Representative Council call an Emergency Student Body Meeting to address the issue. So many students show up to the meeting, presided over by the Student Representative Council and Vice-Chancellor Dr Sizwe Mabizela, that the meeting has to be moved to the Great Hall.
20 March - Rhodes Must Fall occupies Bremner Building, renames it Azania House. RMF Intersectionality Audit Committee is started.
24 March - BSM attempts to hand over a memorandum of grievances including a demand for Rhodes to accommodate students who could not afford to travel home or afford to stay in residence over the short university vac to University management but is once again barred from the administration building.
27 March - UCT’s senate votes in favour of the removal of the statue and following the vote, the statue was boarded up pending the final decision from the university’s council.
27 March - After compiling a list of students who needed accommodation during the short vacation the BSM manages to get Rhodes to pay for bus tickets for those students or to accommodate them in residences.
9 April - Statue of Cecil John Rhodes removed from UCT
+- 16 April- Open Stellenbosch founded.
17-18 April - A colloquium on curriculum transformation is held at Rhodes. The BSM receives support from students at Wits, UCT and Fort Hare.
May - The Trans* Collective at UCT is launched.
June/July - Zizipho Pae, a member of the UCT SRC, makes homophobic remarks on social media regarding the Supreme Court ruling making same-gender marriage legal in the United States. Thato Pule, a member of the Trans* Collective, resigns from her position as SRC Chair of Transformation and social responsiveness in response and helps launch #BigotryMustFall where the Trans* Collective and UCT Queer Revolution team up to advocate against Zizipho Pae continuing to occupy office.
20 August - Open Stellenbosch releases the Luister documentary about the lived experiences of black students on the Stellenbosch campus. The video quickly goes viral and generates both massive waves of support as well as racist backlash.
26 August - Upon receiving an unsatisfactory response to their memorandum about free vac accommodation being provided to needy students, the BSM disrupts a meeting in the Council Chambers at Rhodes and occupies the space, renaming it the BSM Commons.
28 August - A Rhodes University Senate meeting scheduled to take place in the BSM Commons is moved off campus to the Gavin Reilly Postgraduate Village (GRPGV), allegedly “out of respect” for the occupation. BSM members march to the GRPGV and attempt to gain access to the site. They are actively prevented from doing so by Rhodes staff. Rhodes places a call to the police who divert several units, including a canine unit, from a roadblock on the nearby N2 highway. Once the BSM eventually gain entry, the Senate meeting is suspended but some staff members stay behind to engage with the BSM. Peter Wentworth, a Computer Science lecturer is caught on film throwing water in the face of a BSM photographer as she enters the meeting.
30 August - The BSM disrupt the first day of the Highway Africa conference at Rhodes. Conference organisers give them a platform to speak immediately after Mabizela.
2 September - In response to Luister, several white Stellenbosch students create an event on Facebook titled #whereisthelove asking for students to come and share positive stories about studying at Stellenbosch. The event is quickly hijacked with scathing criticism of its organisers, particularly by students at Rhodes University who mock them for their campaign to ‘spread the love’ instead of dealing with issues of racism on campus. Despite the criticism and strong online backlash, the event is still held.
October - #StopOutsourcing mass protests take place at universities across the country, demanding that institutions cease outsourcing work to contractors and instead hire staff directly in order to ensure that they are paid and treated properly. This is supported by every student movement, as well as trade union NEHAWU.
13 October- ReformPUK launches at North-West University.
14 October - Following the announcement of a 10.5% increase in student fees at the University of the Witwatersrand, students shut down campus under the slogan #WitsFeesMustFall.
16 October - Rhodes SRC calls an Emergency Student Body Meeting to discuss student fee hikes. Wits Senate holds meeting in the middle of continued student occupation and agree to suspend fee increases pending discussion.
19 October - National #FeesMustFall protests begin in earnest.
21 October 2015 - As protest continue, thousands of students
march to the gates of parliament.
22 October 2015 - Another demonstration is focused on the ANC’s
headquarters at Luthuli House.
23 October 2015 - The nationwide protests culminate in a march
Government capitulates and Zuma announces a announces a fee freeze for 2016.
15 January 2015 - Protesters disrupt registration at Wits. The university calls in private security to protect the campus resulting in complaints from staff and students of militarist conditions.
7 February 2015 - TUT students protest against student leadership
15 February 2016 - Protesters at UCT burn artwork after protests at about the lack of affordable housing for students. Shacks are erected on campus in an occupation called Shackville.
19 February 2016 - Students at the University of Pretoria protest
the language policies at the university.
22 February 2016 - Clashes between students and protesters erupt at a rugby match at UFS.
24 February 2016 - Protesters at NWU set fire to the Science building and staff cafeteria after students are injured in clashes with police using rubber bullets and tear gas. The Mafikeng campus is evacuated and classes suspended indefinitely.
Rhodes Vice Chancellor addresses students about financial exclusion. A small group of students set up a barricade onto campus, in solidarity with those who have been financially excluded. This is removed by campus security and the Vice Chancellor.
CPUT students march through Bellville to demand that 78 students who were suspended last year during the #FeesMustFall protests be allowed back on campus.
29 February 2016 - Classes resume at UFS following violent clashes.
8 March 2016 - The TUT Soshanguve campuses are shut-down for a month after violent clashes between private security, the police and students.
9 March 2016 - Rhodes Must Fall Oxford stage a march demanding the removal of a Cecil John Rhodes statue at Oriel College.
In putting this project together, we reached out to every student movement in the country. Unfortunately, not all of them got back to us. Those that did, however, span campuses across the entire country and are fighting for a myriad of different things. Read more about each of them here, in their own words.
Black Student Movement, Rhodes University
The BSM is a collection of students at Rhodes, who have fought for the name of the University to be changed, free accommodation for poor students over the April and September vacations and a complete transformation of the small Grahamstown-based institution.
“The Black Student Movement is a group of students concerned about the institutional culture of Rhodes University. This institution is exclusionary to the disadvantaged and marginalised students, who are just as much a part of the university but do not receive any support. This movement came out of conversations about our personal experiences as marginalised students who are not able to cope because of the structural, class-based, and intellectual oppression of the Rhodes environment. There are students suffering due to the inequalities and injustices they face daily. We formed the Black Student Movement to take the responsibility of eradicating this structural, class-based, and intellectual oppression.
We are inspired by the philosophy of Black Consciousness and the way it attracted people to join the struggle against apartheid. We are also inspired by the way it united South Africans in fighting against the structural oppression of the apartheid system. In this movement, we also include concerned students who support our struggle. We have come together to champion the cause of the disadvantaged and marginalised students and to fight institutional racism.
It is our duty to work with students who are struggling academically. The Black Student Movement will develop a program to support students and empower students in their academic work. The movement is multilingual. It promotes intellectual diversity and open communication.
It is our duty to challenge the colonial legacy and symbols that confront us every day. It is twenty one years after democracy in South Africa and we are still battling for transformation. We battle for all students at Rhodes University, but the fight is not limited to Rhodes, and we encourage students at other universities to support the movement. We are in solidarity with the wider community of Grahamstown in their struggles against continued colonial oppression.
The Black Student Movement is inspired, inclusive, democratic, and determined.”
Open Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch University
Open Stellenbosch describes itself as: “A collective of students and staff working to purge the oppressive remnants of apartheid in pursuit of a truly African university.” The collective has primarily been in the media for its work in dismantling the university’s language policy, which disenfranchises many black students from tertiary education at the institution.
Open Stellenbosch did not respond to our calls for submission but we thought that we would be remiss if we did not include them because of the impact that their Luister documentary that they produced with Contraband Cape Town had on the national conversation about student movements. Watch it below:
Rhodes Must Fall, University of Cape Town
Rhodes Must Fall was the first organised student movement to spring out of the decolonisation protests. It has held protests on the UCT campus and at the gates of Parliament.
“A collective movement of students and staff members mobilising for direct action against the reality of institutional racism at the University of Cape Town. Formed as a direct result of the Open Air dialogue that took place on Thursday 12 March at the University of Cape town.
The chief focus of this movement is to create avenues for real transformation that students and staff alike have been calling for; calls that the institution have thus far ignored or silenced.
While this movement may have been sparked by the issue of the Rhodes Statue, the existence of the statue is only one aspect of the social injustice of UCT. The fall of ‘Rhodes’ is symbolic for the inevitable fall of white supremacy and privilege at our campus.
UCT students, workers, academics and interested staff members refuse to be alienated in their own university. If the institution will not bring true transformation to us, we will bring it to them.”
Transform Wits, University of the Witwatersrand
Transform Wits has been advocating for curriculum change at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and have linked up with and been responsible for student protests on that campus.
““Teacher don’t teach me nonsense.” - ‘Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense’ by Fela Kuti (1987)
“For too long the narrative of this institution has silenced the voices of the non-white student.” - Excerpt from speech by Ramabina Mahapa, President of University of Cape Town (UCT) Student Representative Council (16 March 2015)
“We are the ones we have been waiting for.” - We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For by Alice Walker
We take strength from the brave movements initiated and catalysed by our brothers and sisters at the University of Cape Town and the university currently known as Rhodes. The time for meaningful transformation at the currently institutionally racist university named the University of the Witwatersrand has come.
Thus, a fundamental part of our project is the rejection of the vision for the university set forth by management - namely that of ‘cosmopolitanism’. We want a university that speaks to and embraces us in all of our various identities as Afrikans. We want a university that is unequivocally Afrocentric when articulating a vision for itself.
To further understand why we reject the ‘cosmopolitan’ vision of this currently white liberal university, the university must understand who the #TransformWits body is and where we locate ourselves within South Africa’s socio-political-economic landscape. We are part of a generation that rejects ‘post-race’ liberal conceptions of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ and ‘non-racialism’ that have not delivered meaningful reconciliation for the country. That is, we reject the continued erasure of the intersectional experiences of Blacks by claims to universality which conceal the violence of white supremacist capitalist South Africa.
Thus, we are an intersectional movement that centres the struggles of Black South Africans. We subscribe to the definition of Black as articulated by Bantu Biko: “We have defined blacks as those who are by law or tradition politically, economically and socially discriminated against as a group in the South African society and identifying themselves as a unit in the struggle towards the realization of their aspirations.”
In other words, we are made up of and led by ‘non-whites’ who choose to be conscious about their positions in white supremacist capitalist patriarchal South Africa. We are an intersectional Black movement that recognises the various positionalities and privileges that we as a Black collective will have as a result of our various social identities such as race, class, gender, religion, sexuality and (physical) abilities. With this in mind, we believe that the best way for us to be truly transformative is to be a movement that works for and centres the most marginalized among us.”
Our first point of departure is that we are a generation, like those gone before us, which has the desire to contribute to meaningfully developing and shaping the continent’s future. However, this desire is impeded by the fact that we, we as young people who make up majority of the population on the continent, knows so little about ourselves. Our project is therefore about finally looking within and locating ourselves within the continent.
Transform Wits has a very long and detailed manifesto which we cannot include here due to space concerns. Read the full version here.
ReformPUK, North West University
ReformPUK are the new kids on the block when it comes to student movements as they were only launched in October 2015 but have put together the most detailed manifesto we have seen so far.
“As students of the NWU Potchefstroom Campus and with support of staff and alumni of this University we are vigorously campaigning for the eradication of racism and oppression on the Potchefstroom Campus.
We believe the university should engage seriously with the demands of the constitution to promote equality for all its students and the community at large and not just a privileged few. We also believe that transformation and inclusivity should become the most important issues for management of this university to resolve.
We maintain that the current administration of the Potchefstroom Campus is deliberately failing to implement proper transformation and inclusivity by their blatant support for a university culture which not only accommodates but actively promotes white privilege and patriarchal values interpreted through and maintained by the vestiges of Afrikaner Nationalism.
We re-affirm that the policies implemented in service of this problematic university culture create a social environment intolerant of the identity, intellect and experiences of black students. It also disregards the very notion that they are human beings with an equal stake in the success of this campus as a modern institution of higher learning which promotes values consistent with the time and place it occupies.
We reject the Apartheid campus created by this hostile approach and the high levels of separation created by the policies which this administration supports which includes inter alia an exclusionary racial policy; racial segregation in residences; the silencing of black students and the creation of barriers to inhibit and bar black students and staff from leadership roles within the student community and the academic fraternity.
We neither hate nor reject Afrikaans. We reject the way Afrikaans is used to exclude and discriminate against black students on the Potchefstroom Campus. We also reject the manner in which the administration uses Afrikaans to the detriment of the image of the language amongst other cultural groups in this country.
We refuse to be considered unwelcome visitors in an institution built, funded and maintained by all the people of this beautiful country.”
We reject the perverse notion of white supremacy which permeates the “PUK kultuur”.
We want to help create a truly inclusive African university which reflects the diversity and the rich cultural and intellectual heritage of the entire South African society and that of the continent. We subscribe to the widely accepted understanding of the purpose of institutions of higher learning and the role such institutions should play not only in educating and uplifting the students, but also imparting the values of the constitution to all its students.
ReformPUK has a very detailed manifesto which we cannot include here due to space concerns. Read the full version here.
Trans* Collective, University of Cape Town
The Trans* Collective is one of the more important movements in the country as it centres the narratives of black, trans women which is so often lacking from the public discourse. They arose out of Rhodes Must Fall and have fought hard to remain at the forefront of the conversation about intersectionality.
“The Trans* Collective UCT is a collective of transgender and gender non-conforming students and their allies at UCT. We are a transfeminist movement which positions confronting toxic gender constructs as indispensable to the decolonisation project within and beyond UCT. Politically, we are grounded in critical race theory, black consciousness and radical intersectionality.
Although we are based at the University of Cape Town, we position ourselves within the broader discussion of issues implicating our understanding of gender within our immediate space, higher education, South Africa and across the continent.
The Trans* Collective has emerged from a gap in the mainstream dialogue and political action which makes invisible the complexities, narratives, experiences, pain and oppression of trans* and gender non-conforming bodies and psyches. We recognize that colonization has had a severe impact on how we perceive gender and gender expression and thus we are reclaiming our space in the globalized decolonization movement and calling for our narratives to be instructive going forward. Moreover we problematize the fact that thus far the gender nuance of this decolonization project has privileged cisgender voices. Thus it is our position that although decolonization necessarily requires degendering – this can only happen after a process of decisgendering. By degendering and decisgendering we are ascribing a language to the process of rethinking and reimagining our understandings of gender while we embark on the process of decolonization.
The collective is guided by the following core values and objective:
- We leverage on the politics of our bodies.
- We consider our ‘Black Trans Queer Feminist Rage’ as instructive in our political thought and action.
- Building a family of critically thinking and proactive gender non-binary persons.
- Black consciousness, critical race theory, radical feminism and intersectionality.
Our modus operandi includes inter alia: The plan to engage the university community through organizing, educating and lobbying on, inter alia:
- education and awareness through talks, discussions, seminars and workshops,
- building a safe space for trans*, intersex and genderqueer students, staff and workers to build community,
- and lobbying UCT management and administration to see and hear our wants and needs.”
Over the past year we have engaged with many thinkers and opinionistas about how they feel about what is going on at South African universities. Below we feature several pieces we think are crucial to the national conversation. Some of them are from earlier this year and some were submitted specifically for this project.
You can flip through them all below.
Lihle Ngcobozi is a student at the University Currently Known As Rhodes and has been heavily involved in the Black Students Movement from the beginning. She is responsible for the creation of the #RhodesSoWhite hashtag which eventually led to an emergency student body meeting being called to discuss the lived pain of marginalised students at Rhodes. This piece was initially published on 19 March 2015.
There has been much backlash on the social media campaign, #RhodesSoWhite*, which I started on a thread on the Rhodes SRC Facebook page. The rationale behind the social media campaign was to expose the collective mental violence faced by black students at Rhodes University on all levels.
The backlash that this campaign has generated exposes not only how white students are [willfully] blind to the safety net created for them by being the embodiment of social, cultural, political and economic capital, that comes from whiteness. It also exposes how white students on this campus still believe in the trope that racism is racism only in so far as you are grotesquely overt in your disdain for black people.
The social media campaign attempted to show how racism exists not only on a macro level. Micro-aggressions, or what I call palatable forms of racism, are as rancid and putrid as those who have the blood of our foremothers and fathers on their hands. The campaign was to bring to the fore the intersectionalities of micro- and macro-aggressions faced by black students on an institutional level, but also in their interactions with other students on campus. We must dispel the myth that palatable racism is not an assault or visceral crushing of black humanity.
Although not surprising, a majority of those who felt ‘offended’ by the campaign have adopted a politics of erasure and silencing which, if not derailing the legitimate experiences and lived realities faced by black students at Rhodes University, have also been used a tool of balancing the debate. This “balancing” of the debate is such that it demands of black students to dislocate themselves from the structural violence imposed by whiteness, white imperialism, capitalism and white supremacy and locate themselves in the ‘lived oppression’ of white students at Rhodes University.
There are a number of implications that come with this burdensome demand made on black bodies at Rhodes University. The most salient of these implications is the implicit demand made by white students to black bodies to allow whiteness to mutate with ease, comfort and without resistance. This demand suggests further that whilst the black student is in the process of constituting her, his or their subjectivity, the student must suspend the project of the humanisation of the self and understand that white students matter too. This is a distraction. The very workings of racism and the upholding of white supremacy works to distract the Black political project of constituting and claiming black subjectivity. This in and of itself is the working of anti-black racism which has unapologetically found itself comfortable enough to claim its space on the Rhodes SRC page and, by and large, a number of white students on campus.
Additionally, this social media campaign has also revealed the problematic logics of ‘transcendence’ as a means of avoiding the discomfort of race**. Many students are of the belief that South Africa is in post-racial era where race and racism are things we should ‘get over’. This transcendence is an attempt to banalise and conceal race and racism, to depoliticise history and its legacy whilst delegitimising the process of redress and restoring the dignity of those violently dispossessed. It is important to locate transcendence as avoidance within the national discourse of race amongst South Africans (white or black). In doing so, we are able to insert the particularities found in our Universities into the national conversations of avoidance, denialism and erasure.
It should not then come as a shock that this has been the dominant response students at Rhodes have to the campaign. It is endemic of a citizenry which is non-reflexive, reductionist and invested in the depoliticisation of transformation and redress, thus making it unnecessary.
These conversations and forms of resistance from the students at the University of Cape Town and the challenging of the presence of historical artifacts of colonial violence should not be reduced to a removal of a statue, or the changing of the name of Rhodes University, or a social media campaigns. These are all entry points into broader conceptions of transformation and black students laying claim to space and the right for their space to be reflective of a transforming institution.
When student’s call for ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and rally behind ‘Rhodes So White’, as a collective, we ought to look deeper into the cause and align ourselves with any movement that vehemently rejects the untouchable nature of whiteness and its hold on shaping the experiences of black student at Rhodes University, The University of Cape Town and society at large.
*#RhodesSoWhite was co-opted from #OscarsSoWhite.
** Idea credited to Paul Daniel II.
Jonis Ghedi Alasow is a Master’s student in the department of Political and International Studies at Rhodes Universtiy. His research is on popular emancipatory politics with particular reference to farmworkers in the Western Cape. He has also been heavily involved in the Black Student Movement. This piece was originally published on 21 March 2015.
For the past few weeks, staff and students at the University of Cape Town have been protesting to ensure the removal of a statue celebrating Cecil John Rhodes – arguably the most ambitious and destructive imperialist in the history of Southern Africa.
At Rhodes University last week a group of students held a meeting to show solidarity with students at UCT while also discussing the name of our own university and the lack of meaningful transformation here. The meeting was closely surveyed by the Campus Protection Unit. Following the meeting, students embarked on a peaceful march to the administration building to raise their concerns. University authorities locked them out.
Staff and students at UCT and Rhodes are very clear: the colonial legacy must go and the untransformed institutions which it safeguards must move very quickly towards becoming useful and meaningful in the South Africa of today. Two themes are prevalent in these protests. Firstly, the legacy of Cecil John Rhodes. Secondly, the issue of meaningful transformation. These important themes are particularly pertinent here at Rhodes University where Cecil John Rhodes lends his name to the institution.
Rhodes University has hardly transformed from the institution it was in 1994. By transformation I do not mean the cop-out version where white minds in white skins are allowed to be replaced by white minds in black skins – the version of transformation that is widely supported by the elite public sphere in South Africa. By using the term ‘transformation’ I am rather referring to the radical process of including methods, people and ideas where they have been systematically excluded.
Rhodes University’s colonial name is certainly not arbitrary. Cecil John Rhodes would have locked those excluded today out of the University. Although Rhodes University prides itself on being a liberal, diverse, universal and accepting space, for many students Rhodes is not. It is rather a home for those who are white and middle class, or those who are prepared toassimilate into whiteness and the middle class, and thus Cecil John Rhodes is a fitting namesake.
Rhodes has a culture of exclusion. Many students do not consider meals like spaghetti bolognaise and lasagne to be ‘default’ meals in their dining halls and they do not consider having a ‘mare’ at the Rat and Parrot or Friars as meaningful social interaction. Many students do not speak English as a first, second or even a third language. These students are expected to submit work for which they have to read numerous academic texts in English before writing up their submission in English.
Rhodes University has virtually no support structure for students who enter their first year from schools that are not English medium model-C schools. (As Ashley Westaway’s recent paper about “dysfunctional” schools points out, the difference between black schools and model-C schools remains 21 years after apartheid). Barring the few who enter a vastly inadequate extended studies program, students are expected to fit the Rhodes norm and yet many find themselves in an environment that is hostile both socially and academically. Adapt or die.
Rhodes University’s adoption of English as a medium of instruction can be put down to matters of practicality and logistics. However, the University’s refusal to provide any meaningful support for numerous students who are expected to read and write in English must be attributed to its continuing colonial legacy.
When asked on a public forum about the lack of support for students who do not come from a background of English medium schooling, a senior pedagogue at the university argued that these students do not deserve special attention because “academic language is foreign to everyone”, as though mother tongue English speakers struggle as much as those who speak English as a second or third language. Anyone who has marked a few essays, exams or tutorials of first year students at Rhodes University will know that this is simply not true. Students are failing their first year not for lack of work ethic or intelligence. Students are failing because there is absolutely no accessible support for them within the institution.
The name of Rhodes University is undoubtedly an issue that is a ticking time bomb. The name must change, but the more fundamental change which is even more urgently necessary is a shift away from the colonialism this University continues to embody and propagate.
We must be very careful that Rhodes University does not rightly become Stephen Bantu Biko University whilst continuing to be an institution of which Cecil John Rhodes would be proud.
Dr Nomalanga Mkhize is a history lecturer at Rhodes University. She is incredibly active on social media and has not shied away from expressing her discontent with the status quo at South African universities.
There are people who construct transformation as akin to the coming of the barbarians, ‘Zumafication’, corruption, reverse racism, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, identity politics, hatred of whites, victimization of white men and many other such regressive notions.
In all this scaremongering and vilification, there is this sense that those of us calling for substantive and principled transformation are unaware of the multiple pressures facing universities.
On the contrary, it is those advocating for transformation who can see the future coming, and would wish to see our universities use their intellectual and other resources to chart forward a path that is informed by 21st century African realities.
However, there’s this predictable and tired little trick that conservatives in our institutions keep playing where they present themselves as being the singular true guardians of administrative and academic excellence of these institutions.
What is in fact being preserved is not so much a method of administration, which anybody can be trained into; but an imagined tradition that these universities are being passed down from one white generation to the next.
At Rhodes and the University of Cape Town, the imagined tradition is of an Anglo-Saxon educational experience par excellence that is filled with memories of fun and intellectual adventure on a safe campus before one entered ‘the real world’.
The problem of course is that this image of South African university life and education was false because the gates of that safe bubble were guarded by the Nats who eventually bankrupted the state by protecting and subsidising white advancement. But why talk about the past, as we are always told, so let’s just look at the present.
Over the past 20 years, fees of former white universities have become prohibitively high and it has become clear that students from all walks of life are struggling to pay to stay in university. As we all know, this is a global trend where many graduates are leaving universities with a high debt load. In South Africa, many Black students’ parents cannot even qualify for loans therefore some borrow from loans sharks or take early retirement so they can cash out their pensions to pay fees.
With these realities in mind, it is critical to adopt transformation as a process of substantively re-orientating our universities towards actively and positively engaging within African reality rather than as these exclusive bubbles of fee-paying students.
This requires that university communities- including alumni - face the reality that higher education is facing structural contradictions. Firstly, there will be a steady decline in the proportion of fee-paying students. Secondly, if they maintain high fees these institutions will become glorified finishing schools for the rich, and face intellectual irrelevance.
Thirdly, the reality is that scores of current students will never allow these universities to become elite playgrounds; instead they will do as they have done in 2015 and demand that strategic action be taken to ensure just access.
Vice-chancellors are not to blame; they cannot solve this problem by fiat.
But they need to able to identify principled allies instead of succumbing to self-appointed guardians of white heritage in our institutions. These are usually the people who regularly display gross incompetence at work, blame transformation for anything they can’t fix, and brazenly use their university positions to advance their business interests.
The only conservatives we must take along are the ones who say ‘this is how we radically transform and balance the books’.
The tertiary sector must find points of consensus to jointly make proposals to government on sustainable funding and other reforms necessary to ensure equitable access to higher education in South Africa.
Dr Joy Owen is the head of anthropology at Rhodes and teaches Power and Wealth course, which focuses on the wealth inequality inherent in the global economy. She talks to us here about the lessons she has learned from that course.
Transformation is not ONLY about the external world, it is also about the inner, the individual. So I never intended to provide a curriculum that is transformed. Rather I wanted to provide a curriculum that is ‘real’, a true reflection of the world that exists around us. The curriculum itself does not create or encourage transformation. It is the manner in which that curriculum is taught.
Since I started teaching the Power and Wealth course which focuses on the inequalities in the global political economy and more particularly within the ‘south’ (inclusive of South Africa, India, Latin America and other African countries), and the varied ways in which people/human beings are categorised so as to create a system of wealth for a few individuals (the capitalist system), I needed students to understand that they are a part of this system, whether consciously or not. I needed them to recognise that to truly transform the external - the world - they needed to experience an inner transformation; a transformation of the mind and the heart. Thus they could recognise that social divisions are created, have real effects and can be destroyed. I needed them to understand that the oppressor and the oppressed are intertwined in the creation and ‘acceptance’ of a hierarchical world order. And I needed them to know that as human beings, the fundamental base-line for all of us, we were responsible to each other to create a world order that was respectful and appreciative of difference while recognising the one true similarity we all share: our humanity.
It is therefore imperative for me to always be able to risk ‘myself’ with my students. I never ask them to discuss anything that I am not willing to discuss. I am always honest with who I am and what I value. So in the facilitation of my class, I talk honestly, not to young adults, but to people who have a particular socio-cultural history and who have been hurt, traumatised and rejected. I also speak to the very same people who have experienced love, freedom, passion and beauty. I therefore teach the embodied student, using my heart (my emotions), my mind (my intellectual grounding in anthropology) and my Soul (my being/my philosophy) to teach. It is tiring work, as I have to be vulnerable, supportive of my students’ vulnerabilities, and lead, even when leading is done intuitively. It is also work that is necessary.
Transformation is a process that takes one from one state of being to another. Some of us do so consciously and enjoy the process, while others ignore the need to transform and thus hate the entire process. In the end though, life, her lessons, our classroom spaces, the people we meet, the hearts we teach and our love for teaching and being taught guide us through transformative moments that are personal even as they are experienced in the social sphere of a diverse classroom. I love my students for they have also been my teachers and my guides. Thus, as I have worked to conscientise them to possibilities, they have confirmed that those possibilities exist. True affection across hierarchical barriers leads to the destruction of those barriers. Kind and generous engagement about social ills is possible and can birth solutions that are both practical and peculiar to a specific locale. Intellectual and emotional vulnerability that connects people across ‘categorical’ divisions and the continued strength and existence of empathy and the indomitable human spirit.
Transformation is not a once-off process. It is ongoing. And for a short time I can be a part of my students’ experiences of inner and outer transformation. Once they leave my class they move into other transformative processes and although I am sad that I do not get to witness their transformation, I have faith in their willingness to learn, to unlearn and then to teach. Not only through words but through their actions. I ask my students to embody what they know, as I try to embody what I know. We’re in this together. And together we have to carry each other through storms.
Therefore in the end, even if a curriculum is transformative but the person teaching it is not in the ‘business’ of transformation and the students are unwilling to stay the course, no matter how difficult, the processes of teaching, and learning will not be transformative.
Desire Chiwandire is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political and International Studies, Rhodes University. His PhD thesis focuses on Higher Education, Disability and Social Inclusion. He received his BSocSci (Hons) in 2013, and a Master’s in Political and International Studies (with distinction) in 2015 all from Rhodes University.
Under apartheid, the education of Black learners with disabilities remained low on the priority list of the National Party government’s as it catered strictly for the minority white population. This was statutorily legislated by the 1948 Special Schools Act (SSA) which provided for the segregated special education system that categorized and separated children with disabilities according to both race and disability. This however radically changed in 1994 when the African National Congress (ANC) came to power as it was inspired by the concept of inclusive education which enjoins universities to “support students with disabilities to be involved with their non-disabled peers to the maximum extent possible”. Therefore, the ANC began to pass numerous progressive legislations and policies to redress the historical marginalization student with disabilities which chiefly stemmed both from their membership of a minority and their disability identity.
These include policy documents such as the 2001 Education White Paper 6, Special Needs Education: Building an Inclusive Education and Training System, the White Paper on Post-school Education and Training. The ANC government also signed and ratified several international instruments which include the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007 as a commitment to remove all barriers faced by persons with disabilities in educational systems. To ensure equal employment opportunities for students with disabilities upon completion of post-school, the Employment Equity Act (EEA), No. 55 of 1998 was enacted and its section obliges companies and employing organisations to ensure that 2% of their employees are people with disabilities. Through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) the ANC also made concerted efforts in making funding available exclusively for students with disabilities in the form of bursaries and not loans. This special funding allocation for students with disabilities positively saw the rising enrollment numbers of students with disabilities in higher education institutions.
In light of a country which has and continues to enact many progressive disability-related legislations and policies an ideal South African university is the one in which ensures that all these documents do not just exist only on paper, but rather are actually being implemented. This practical implementation will be fully beneficial for students with disabilities in the form of making universities more inclusive and welcoming spaces which do not treat any student with disability as an afterthought. However, most participants for my current research which examines the social inclusion of students with disabilities have argued that most universities still lack the credentials to be regarded as ideal inclusive spaces. I agree with one of my interviewees’ who is the Head of one University of Technology in the Gauteng Province conceptualization of an ideal university expressed as the one which create a sense of belonging for all students with disabilities not to feel that you are being or there is pity on you, ensure that students with disabilities should feel that I belong here students should that they belong and are not marginalized or tolerated. That to me is the fundamental issues around inclusion in our higher education institutions.
This type of sense of belonging envisioned by this Disability Unit staff member seem to be remaining a pipeline dream in the lives of many students with disabilities in most universities. This is because policies which ought to be addressing their challenges are not being fully implemented either by the state or by universities themselves particularly the White Paper 6. Many scholars continue to express concerns about the fact that, unlike the United Kingdom and the United States anti-discriminatory legislation the White Paper 6 has never been promulgated into an Act. This they argue has weakened its use as a reference in law by students with disabilities in the event of being unfairly discriminated by their universities. It is however disheartening that this unfavorable snail pace implementation of these policies is being naturalised and justified by the ANC politicians through invoking an exclusionary discourse of the so called South Africa’s democracy is still in its birth, thus it is not ready yet to fully implement the inclusion agenda.
In 2010, the Minister of the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) Blade Nzimande himself at the Gala Dinner of the HEDSA Symposium also invoked this discourse as follows: “What is clear is that although laudable progress has already been made to ensure disability inclusion, much still needs to be done within the tertiary sector…[however], the reality is that the South African society and the tertiary sector are still in transition”. In response to Nzimande’s speech, it will be worth begging the question that when will the South African politicians stop using or employing the so called “country not ready rhetoric or discourse” as an excuse to not effectively implement disability-related policies? Drawing from the findings of my research, I feel this question ought not to be directed to Minister Nzimande only, but also to the entire non-disabled university community who are also becoming ignorant or failing to also socially include students with disabilities. This community include the top management staff, non-disabled students, lecturers and Vice Chancellors whose negative attitudes towards students with disabilities makes me refer to them as also drawing on the “we are not ready” discourse and by doing so they are also a barrier to the achievement of an ideal South African university.
Given that most South African universities were built when there were no building regulations which provided for their accessibility to students with disability therefore an ideal university is one which endeavours to prioritise funding to make adjustments to these buildings in order to make them accessible. To achieve the top management staff members need to earmark annual funding for meeting this need and should work closely with Disability Units. However, the opposite holds true, for instance, as argued by one Disability Unit staff member from a university in the North West Province who expressed concerns about the management staff member insensitivity to this as follows The former Director of Finances did not want to put the lift in our building which was inaccessible for staff and students with disabilities yet this building is an institutional head office of the university, he is one of those guys who squeezes a rand until it starts to cry (laughs). Likewise, the Head of one Western Cape Province university expressed similar concerns as follows: Making universities accessible can be done, but there has got to be a political will to spend the money, but you know at the university there is always competing claims there is never enough money for anything, everybody always think that they deserve that money whether for their nuclear programme, medical transplant programme, or their African language programme so disability and access always end up being pushed to the margins.
After speaking to student movements activists across the country, we asked them to send in their version of what the ideal South African university would look like. Here is what they had to say.
Gender Action Project, Rhodes University
An ideal university would be one which has progressive values and is proactive in creating a safe space for learning. The ideal South African university is one which would have a student body representative of the nation’s demographics, as well as being an inclusive space for students from other countries. It would also have teaching staff representative of the nation’s demographic.
Secondly, it is important for the ideal South African university to have a curriculum that is inclusive of African intellectual thought.
Thirdly, the ideal university would have tuition fees that are affordable and ensure that students from working-class families are not hindered from accessing any part of the university experience.
Fourthly, it would be a space where students with mental or physical disabilities have full access to adequate healthcare services and also, where such students are not discriminated against or excluded by lecturers or university policies.
In addition, the ideal university would support students who are marginalized, such as students of colour, gender non-conforming students, queer students, disabled students and others, in their academic pursuits and create opportunities to produce knowledge and fill research gaps.
Lastly, the ideal South African university would be a safe space for all students, where the university management is intolerant of students who perpetrate violence and where management actively takes a stance against gender-based violence (including sexual violence), hate speech and other forms of harassment.
National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU), Rhodes University branch
Transformation is still a problem at South African universities, even after 21 years of democracy. This is made clear by the various staff and student protests which have been occurring.
White domination over oppressed black students and staff is a major issue and there are far more white lecturers than there are black ones. This is indicative of the inequalities that we still face. Despite the fact that there are labour laws that dictate that workers should not be discriminated against, there are still problems that staff face.
There is a database for individuals to seek casual work at Rhodes University. However, there are people who have been working at the university for between 10 and 20 years who have not been given a permanent, long term job. This shows the unfair treatment of workers at this institution.
OUTRhodes, Rhodes University
Places of education are often said to be spaces deemed as liberal and progressive. However, there still remains strong heteronormative undercurrents- ones which have been institutionalised, accepted and vastly perpetuated.
In order for any change to occur, the heteronormative systems would have to not only be acknowledged, but interrogated as well. It is only once the systems of heteronormativity are challenged that universities can become spaces of inclusivity and equality.
University spaces and places are often greatly gendered. Most notable are the male and female binaries encountered on a daily basis - be this as a means to signpost bathrooms, or as a means of identification on all official forms. The very same dichotomy is littered within the pages of our curriculum. By focusing on gender in this way, universities and students alike marginalise those who do not prescribe to binary labels, whether the marginalisation be conscious or unconscious.
If the systematic marginalisation of “others” continues, what does one learn if not the same old norms? However, if these spaces of education and learning were to change in order to be more inclusive and less binary, then they could claim to have taught us something. They can then and only then claim that they have not just taught us about books, but also about our humanity.
A book may depict rape culture, but a university perpetuates it if it does not teach us otherwise.
A lecturer may speak about gender superiority, and very few will question it unless they have knowledge that gender equality exists.
A student may be misinformed about sexual orientation, and they may very well remain ignorant unless shown otherwise.
As much as students are willing to learn. There must be those willing to teach. Those who are willing to teach must also in turn be willing to learn.
With that said, the ideal university would be one where patriarchy takes a seat, where females have a say at the table, where all sexual orientations can be seated amongst one another, a space where an inability to speak a language properly does not banish you to the kiddies table, a place where rich and poor, black, white and everyone in between can eat off the same plate. But most importantly, it is an environment where your label will never precede you as an actual human being.
#PatriarchyMustFall, University of Cape Town
The ideal African university revolves around Africa. Thus it offers a variety of Afrocentric courses, and incorporates African content in all courses. LGBTQIA+ and black intersectional feminist content is also incorporated in course work. Furthermore, all students take at least one introductory course towards learning an African language.
The ideal university is accessible for everyone. It houses many gender neutral (not unisex) bathrooms across its campus and has accessible and efficient disability services. It also provides easy access to free sanitary products and sexual health products. The ideal South African university’s student and staff demographics reflect the demographics of the country.
This university is as inclusive as possible. All students and staff undergo sensitization training and there is an effective system in place to address exclusionary language, actions and spaces. As an institution, the university shuns cisnormativity; thus application forms and other paperwork allow students to self-identify their gender and indicate their pronouns. Student cards and other forms of identification are title free. This mindset also extends to the university culture where people introduce themselves by their name and their pronouns, e.g. “Hi, I’m <name> and I use <pronoun> pronouns.” In a decolonised South African university outsourcing and the exploitation of black labour is completely abolished, and the safety and financial stability of all workers are ensured.
Student safety is at the forefront of the ideal South African university. It has an effective and accessible discrimination and harassment unit, trustworthy and competent campus protection services, and has strong policies in place to address racism, homophobia, sexism, ableism, transphobia, etc. University residences take great strides in providing a safe and open space to all students at the university.All residences have the same rules and these rules are reinforced consistently.
Ultimately, the ideal South African university provides a safe, inclusive and accessible space for every single student and staff member.
Rainbow UCT, University of Cape Town
Rainbow UCT envisions a university institutional response to all sexual orientations and gender identities that is inclusive. It wishes to see not just the transformation of the university but rather the decolonization of this institute and ones all across South-Africa. In this process, Rainbow UCT stresses the fact that decolonization is hollow when queer bodies are and continue to be silenced. It follows that in order to arrive at the ideal South African university an intersectional approach is vital in order to define and understand the process of decolonization.
At a minimum level Rainbow UCT expects that the ideal university ensures that its structures are inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities and are respectfully managed. Practically this would include but is not exclusive to mandatory sensitization workshops for all student leaders, an orientation programme that moves firmly away from and challenges cisheteronormativity. The ideal South African university teaches content that reflects the diversity within the LGBTQIA+ community in order to provide a holistic reflection of society.
ReformPUK, North-West University
The ideal South Africa University would look, sound and think like South Africa. It would be a socially conscious and responsive space welcoming to all.
It would be a space where diverse intellectual opinions are not only encouraged but celebrated. This utopian place would encourage robust debate and not silence the voices of any student. It would be accessible to all. There would be no exclusion on race, gender, class, language, religion or sexuality. It would reject any form of discrimination and work to eradicate any remnants whether in its residences, cultures or even academic spaces.
The ideal South African University would be free. No one would be barred from receiving education because they are unable to afford it.
The curriculum of the South African University would not be Eurocentric in its teachings and the scholars it celebrated. It would move towards equipping its students to find African solutions to African problems.
Trans* Collective, University of Cape Town
WHO ELSE BUT BLACK, POOR, QUEER, TRANS WOMEN?
We ask what is the impact of having women students not reporting sexual assaults to DISCHO out of fear of not having their case attended to with the seriousness it deserves?
What does having an efficient Jammie Shuttle system mean for a student who has to make their way to Khayelitsha after their last lecture at 6pm everyday?
What do we do about the student living in Obs Square who does not have a meal tonight? What do we do about the student living in Liesbeek who has to decide whether to do without a meal today or go buy sanitary pads with the little money they have left?
Why is the only organisation that assists students with physical disabilities on the 5th floor of the Steve Biko Union!!??
What is UCT really doing when tuition and residence fees rise dramatically while financial aid support remains stagnant?
When will UCT listen to the black and poor students most affected by the admissions policy and the NBT as a requirement for admission?
What will be the impact of improved academic support programmes that are standardise across all the faculties?
These are not easy questions and we do not purport to have the answers. However what we do have is the commitment to listen, advocate and work towards finding the answers – not only for the betterment of the University, but also for our very survival.
We ask whether we can really say that UCT prioritises the safety of all students when they fail to enable the sexual health needs of the LGBTIQA+ through providing easy access to lube, dental dams, finger cots etc?
Does UCT think that black students, staff and workers have forgotten about all the other statues, monuments and artworks valorising white supremacy and undermining blackness and black pain?
What does it mean for a student who lives KwaLanga having to use public transport to get home after a 5pm exam?
Does UCT think that black students, staff and workers have forgotten about all the other statues, monuments and artworks valorising white supremacy and undermining blackness and black pain?
Who will hold UCT accountable for not providing any of the African foreign students with meaningful support when navigating the new immigration legislation?
What does it mean to have trans* students to hold in their urine until they get home because not feeling safe in any toilet. What does it them mean for them to risk their lives while using public transport because of the risk of a student card which misgenders them being exposed?
What is required when we speak to Senate about introducing a curriculum and research scholarship linked to social justice?
These are not easy questions and we do not purport to have the answers. However what we do have is the commitment to listen, advocate and work towards finding the answers – not only for the betterment of the University, but also for our very survival.