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CAPE TOWN, South Africa — The statue of Cecil John Rhodes, situated high on the campus of the University of Cape Town, usually gives the old colonialist a magnificent view of the city, of the land that he once ruled, developed and exploited for his personal profit.
But his line of sight has been blocked lately, first covered by black garbage bags that appeared after a recent “poo protest” in which protesters flung human excrement on the statue, calling it a symbol of racist and colonial oppression. Since then it also has been covered in tape, graffiti and posters. Most recently, the statue has been covered by boards, boxed up until a final decision is made on where to move it.
“The issue of poo is very metaphoric for us,’’ said protest leader Chumani Maxwele. “We’re using metaphor for us to explain our collective black pain. We show our collective disgust.”
The British-born Rhodes was a businessman and leader in the Cape Colony, which makes up a large part of the modern republic. Today, he is widely seen in South Africa as the archetypal colonialist, who earned his wealth through the exploitation of the country’s natural resources and subjection of African labor.
Rhodes’ connections to UCT are deep: The land the university is built upon was bequeathed in his will and scholarships for local students are funded by his estate. At least one of the buildings on the campus bears the names of his close political allies.
“My institution celebrates this man,” Maxwele said. “At UCT you have all signs of symbols which celebrate white structure … all signs of celebration are there before you, my black brother, but nothing about you is being celebrated.”
Following the end of apartheid and the first democratic elections in 1994, South Africa set itself on a course of racial reconciliation. This meant that black and white South Africans would move forward together for the sake of nation building. It also meant that many monuments and institutional names dedicated to apartheid and colonial-era white leaders would remain standing, including that of Rhodes.
But while black South Africans were free, many dramatic economic disparities between white and black South Africans remained and have continued 20 years later despite the country being known as the “Rainbow Nation.”
Another student protest leader, Kealeboga Ramaru, said the activism against the statue was “somewhat of a critique” and a “reworking” of the idea of the Rainbow Nation. She said students were organizing to argue that the university does not recognize black voices.
“[What] we are seeing is a kind of questioning this rainbow nation,” Ramaru said.
A Rainbow reckoning
Writer T.O. Molefe noted that many of the students protesting were able to go to the same schools and live in the same social circles as their white counterparts. However, they still did not feel fully integrated.
“They show that the Rainbow Nation was a glossy overlay on a messy society that has yet to come to terms the effects of a brutal and unequal past on the present. They show, too, that the Rainbow Nation overlay was perhaps an impediment to reckoning,” Molefe said.
Molefe said he believes “far too many” South Africans accepted the idea of the Rainbow Nation and that the country could be at peace with itself despite its huge economic disparities. “Therefore far too many people did nothing to strive for the egalitarian society we all were promised.”
Since the first protest three weeks ago, university authorities have held meetings with students and set up white boards around the statue, wrapped in black plastic, where students could write down their opinions.
The initial “poo protest” involved only a handful of protesters but soon, in social media and public squares, UCT students continued to complain about transformation at the university — a catchall term meaning the transformation of South African society away from its racist, segregationist past.
UCT has come under criticism previously for its slow pace of change: Whites dominate teaching positions and last year authorities were forced to admit that 20 years after the end of apartheid, the university did not have a single, South African-born black female professor.
Dr. Shosi Kessi, a lecturer in UCT’s psychology department, said the statue was just a starting point for voicing student frustrations with the lack of transformation at the university. While the statue was symbolic, protesting it was still important.
“What this campaign shows us that it’s also about access to symbolic resources … these are resources that allow people to develop self-esteem and positive self-identity,” Kessi said.
Not just a statue
The protest has not been without critics. Many South Africans, including fellow students, have been loud in their condemnation, with some hurling racist vitriol at the students, particularly over social media.
“If our fellow students are themselves racist, it shows its not a safe space,” said Thandeka, an activist who did not want to give any other name because she receives a scholarship from the university.
“A friend of mine asked me ‘Why are you acting like a kaffir?’” she said, referring to a racist pejorative.
Many white students had joined the protest early on, agreeing that the statue should be removed. Some even joined the occupation of a campus building, sharing bedrolls and meals with black students. Few are willing to speak to journalists and none with their own names due to a reluctance to be seen speaking for the protest.
Ramaru, one of the protest leaders, said that white students had joined the protest for racial transformation at UCT. However, their role was limited to one of solidarity and support.
“Their presence should be a form of solidarity rather than trying to dictate the direction of this process,” said Ramaru. “The main thing is they take directives from black students whose struggle this is.”
For more than a week, students occupied the Bremner Building, a modern, somewhat stately administrative structure on campus. On the top floor, where a conference room is adorned with large oil paintings of the university’s previous vice chancellors, an observer could see bedrolls, empty drinking glasses and a waste basket stuffed with cups and used paper plates.
On a sign outside, students taped a poster board over the building’s nameplate, re-christening it “Azania House.” Azania is a reference used by some liberation organizations as a rejection of what they consider the colonial nomenclature “South Africa.”
During their time there, the students held nightly meetings where they watched documentaries about apartheid and the killing of South African mineworkers.
Outside the building, Thandeka said that she wasn’t politically active before the protest but has found a new voice now. As she explained what the protest has meant to her, cheering and acclaim could be heard from inside.
“You hear that?” Thandeka asked. “That is the first [time] that is happening. Black acknowledgement. Applause.”
At a recent meeting at UCT about the protests, the university’s president of convocation, Barney Pityana, a former anti-apartheid activist who had allegedly criticized the protest, was heckled. Maxwele said young people are tired of being led.
“It’s a rejection of our fathers. We are saying to our fathers, with respect, sit down and we will deal with white power ourselves,” Maxwele said.
Kessi said that UCT students are not alone in their frustration with the slow pace of change. “This kind of thing signifies the beginning of a rainbow nation, imagining a transformed nation where those oppressed by the system are making demands that can have real changes in their lives. It’s not the end, it’s the beginning."
The protests at UCT have set off similar demonstrations at other South African universities. Students at Rhodes University have demanded that the name of their school be changed. Last week at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Howard College campus, a statue of King George V was vandalized with white paint. A sign was hung reading: “End White Privilege”.
When the statue was boxed more than a week ago, the students at Azania House celebrated, albeit in a subdued way, while preparing for a barbecue. A DJ had set up a mixing board and speakers and music was already starting to pump.
Ramaru said that while the students had won a victory on a statue, they would continue to occupy the building until their demands for racial transformation were met. “This movement is not just about a statue, it’s about decolonizing the colonial structure, the curriculum and everything it stands for.”