For the past three weeks, University of Cape Town (UCT) students have organised protests calling for the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from the UCT campus.
It’s a campaign that has spread to other South African universities such as Rhodes University and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, with messages of support coming from as far afield as Oxford University and the University of Amsterdam.
On the surface the campaign has been successful, with UCT agreeing to remove the statue, but students continue to occupy the university’ administrative offices with a list of demands that include: reducing the “extortionate” tuition fees; paying all UCT workers a living minimum wage; implementing “a curriculum which critically centres Africa and the subaltern”; and recognising that “ the history of those who built our university – enslaved and working class black people – has been erased through institutional culture”.
UCT students are of the view that the Rhodes statue pays homage to the legacy of imperialism.
Rhodes was a British colonialist who founded Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe) and Northern Rhodesia (now known as Zambia), which enabled him to gain control of 90 per cent of the world’s diamonds and rich gold mines, according to the American historian Robert Rotberg.
In his book, Founder: Cecil Rhodes and the Pursuit of Power, Rotberg describe Rhodes as “a white capitalist of imperial reach whose callous disregard for African aspirations was consonant with the prevalent European attitudes of the times.”
According to Rotberg, Rhodes’ imperial project was not driven by hatred for Africans, rather, as far as Rhodes was concerned, Africans stood in the way of imperial progress. Rotberg points out that for Rhodes, Africans embodied an “anachronistic barbarianism”.
Hence, Rhodes’ thinking was that “whites would take over, introduce Africans to higher things, and fashion colonies where a handful of whites would rule greater numbers of blacks and, naturally, rely on their labour,” writes Rotberg.
It is this discourse of the white man’s burden that the UCT students have been challenging for the past three weeks.
UCT Student Representative Council (SRC) president Ramabina Mahapa has been quoted in the media as saying that “black people can’t be proud at UCT, because UCT doesn’t speak positively about [our] image.”
According to Mahapa,“through its use of symbols, such as the monument to Rhodes, the university is discriminating against black people.”
This is not the first generation of black UCT students to voice these views about the Rhodes statue. Even white South African academics, such as Melissa Steyn and Mikki van Zyl carried out research in 1999 investigating students’ experiences of institutional culture at UCT.
One of their findings was that students were of the view that the historical self-image of the UCT was so deeply invested in whiteness that “it made it untrue that UCT could be seen as an ‘African’ university…”
What sets apart this new generation of UCT students from the previous generations is that they have successfully campaigned for the removal of the statue.
According to UCT Vice-Chancellor Max Price, the Senior Leadership Group of UCT supports the proposal for the removal of the Rhodes statue from the UCT campus.
Although this is historically significant, it does not fundamentally change the intellectual culture of the university.
TransformUCT, a grouping of black academics from different departments and faculties at UCT, points out that the Rhodes statue symbolises the intellectual landscape of the university’s failure to transform the colonial legacy which the university inherited from the country’s apartheid.
These include, “the underrepresentation and under-valuing of black academic staff at all levels… curricula that largely disregard African knowledges and practice in all their complexity.”
TransformUCT argues that such an institutional culture alienates black staff and students across the university.
The views of the TransformUCT are consistent with the findings of the 2008 Report of the Ministerial Committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institution.
Although the findings of the report are seven years old, some of the observations made in the report still accurately describe the intellectual climate of the university.
For example, according to the report, “some of the concerns about the institutional culture at UCT were a disjunction between the continuing ‘whiteness’ of UCT and the African contextual realities and aspirations of the University.”
The number of white professors at UCT stands at about 87 per cent, whereas black professors make up only 4 per cent of the professorial complement.
According to TransformUCT, white “privilege and exclusion go hand in hand and create the context for the current challenges around employment equity at UCT”.
The “continuing whiteness of UCT,” as 2008 report of the Ministerial Committee described it, strengthens the sense of racial belonging for whites at UCT, while at the same time, it alienates and ‘others’ blacks.
Whiteness a gold standard
Sociological scholarship defines whiteness as a dimension of racism that over-values white people over black people.
At UCT this manifests itself in many ways. For instance, according to Adam Haupt, an associate professor of colour in the media studies at UCT, the standard English spoken by whites is regarded by white students at the institution as the “gold standard to which we all should aspire; anything less makes you incompetent.”
In a recently published article, Haupt recounts a personal experience in which a student subjected him to accent discrimination:
“More recently, I have had to deal with a student who attempted to get out of my media studies tutorial to join a tutorial group headed by a younger and less experienced graduate tutor, who just happened to be a white woman. The student’s stated failure to “cope” with my accent outweighed the fact that I was one of the staff members who helped to establish the media studies major at UCT over the past 10 years.”
Black linguists argue that the policing of language is never about one’s verbs agreeing, or about one enunciating the ends of one’s words, but rather, is about denying blacks the opportunity to access economic opportunities and positions of social influence.
Rosina Lippi-Green, an American socio-linguist, writes that the Anglo world’s message to people of colour globally is that “you must assimilate linguistically, or we will systematically shut you out.”
It is this colonial discourse – the legacy of what Cecil John Rhodes represented – that black staff and students at UCT have to grapple with going forward.
Outside of UCT, the struggle against the colonial legacy of Cecil John Rhodes has to include a challenge against the mainstream image of Rhodes as some sort of a philanthropist.
It would not be a bad idea to proceed from removing the Rhodes statue at UCT to launching a worldwide campaign to change the name of the Rhodes Scholarship so that it accurately reflects the process whereby Cecil John Rhodes amassed his wealth.
The Rhodes Scholarship was made possible by Rhodes’ plunder of Southern Africa.
As far as I am concerned, what the Rhodes Scholarship stands for is an implicit message that no matter how bad colonialism was, whiteness, ultimately, is benevolent.
This is part of the ‘white man’s burden’ narrative. And that narrative has to change.