A week of university protests

Student movements around the country have taken to the streets to protest and express their grievances at the lack of accommodation and funding for needy students. Here is a roundup of most most of the activities for this week.

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA – FEBRUARY 17: Students clash with security guards during a protest at the University of Cape Town on February 17, 2016 in Cape Town, South Africa. Students continued with their protest against the shortage of student accommodation at the university. (Photo by Gallo Images / Die Burger / Lulama Zenzile)

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA – FEBRUARY 17: Students clash with security guards during a protest at the University of Cape Town on February 17, 2016 in Cape Town, South Africa. Students continued with their protest against the shortage of student accommodation at the university.                                                                   (Photo by Gallo Images / Die Burger / Lulama Zenzile)

This week student movements around the country all embarked on numerous protests highlighting issues of financial exclusion, lack of accommodation for black students, outsourcing and clearance of historical debt.

On Wednesday night a Wits University bus was set alight outside Knockando residence. No one has claimed responsibility for the fire and the university was investigating.

The protests kicked off at the University of Cape Town (UCT) when the Rhodes Must Fall movement erected a shack on Upper campus to protest against the lack of accommodation. The university sent private security and police to demolish the shack and RMF students responded by burning “colonial” paintings, a car, Jammie Shuttle bus and an administrative building on Wednesday.
A member of RMF who was present when the torching of the paintings, vehicles and administrative building happened explained the motivation for the burning: “The burning of the pictures is twofold, the one is that black people are very angry to be found in an anti-black institution and expected to just exist, or rather not really exist. And then to be confronted with these colonial artworks in the same way as being confronted with the Rhodes statue.”

“This speaks to the idea that black people are not taken seriously. So you can remove a statue but you think there is no relevance in thinking about the artwork or other aspects of the space which black people have to participate in,” said the RMF member.

The RMF member argued that burning down buildings was a resolution of the question of Frantz Fanon’s “revolutionary violence.”

A group of eight students were arrested and later released on bail after they were dispersed from Upper and Lower campuses using stun grenades and rubber bullets.

Also in Cape Town, #UWCFeesWillFall students at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) occupied their student centre and handed over a memorandum to UWC director of legal services Shervaan Rajie on Wednesday. The movement is calling for academic programmes to be suspended so that matters relating to financial exclusion, the clearing of historical debt and accommodation could dealt with first.

According to the #UWCFeesWillFall students nothing has changed at the university, “The university … made a promise that they will talk about the issue of free registration and historical debt being cleared, but instead we are seeing students … being asked to pay R4 800,” #UWCFeesMustFall member Monde Nonabe told GroundUp.

A member of the #UWCFeesWillFall movement who wishes to remain anonymous out of fear of victimisation by the university said that he felt historically black institutions such as UWC were not given the same level of attention as other historically white institutions.

At the University of KwaZulu Natal workers, with students in solidarity, fighting to be insourced by the university closed down the institution resulting in the university getting a court interdict against the workers.

On Thursday at the ‘University Currently Known as Rhodes’, students from the Black Student’s Movement joined the nationwide protest against financial exclusion under the hashtag #nisixoshelani.

We’re here and we’re queer!

Thato Pule is a firm activist for the rights of those in the LGBTI community.

“Our bodies are political … and we can use them to protect ourselves … our bodies are vulnerable and therefore are targets,” says Thato Pule a third year Actuarial Science student from the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Pule is transgender woman and she is proud of who she is. When Wits Vuvuzela spoke to her, she was confident and assertive. She wore a stylish multi-colour dress (yellow, white and brown) paired with a black coat. Her hair was tied up and her make-up was on fleek. She spoke with such a command that one could not help but pay attention.

When Pule is asked about her experiences as a young, black and gifted transgender woman, she responds “I have no say in what happens to my daily experience because it is at the hands of those who benefit from my subjugation.”

So many times, it has been said that the youth of today are lazy and have no mission. However for the likes of Pule, there is a greater mission for young people in this era.

Earlier this year, the #rhodesmustfall movement was started by UCT students. The movement was sparked by students demanding transformation at UCT, particularly the removal of the statue of colonialist Cecil John Rhodes.

Pule said #rhodesmustfall was a starting point for her own thinking and caused her to think about the inclusion on campus of “queer bodies”.

Pule was a member of the UCT SRC, the chairperson of transformation and social responsiveness, at the time. However, she later resigned from her position after controversial comments were made about the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex (LGBTI) community UCT SRC deputy president Zizipho Pae.

“We are institutionalising and normalising sin. God have mercy on us” Pae wrote after gay marriage was legalised in all American states.

These comments led to Pule posting to Facebook a picture that had tongues wagging. It showed the half-naked bodies of Pule and women in solidarity with her, standing in the UCT SRC president’s office. It was captioned “She invaded our personal space as queer bodies and now we are invading hers.”

She also criticises UCT as a whole for their lack of interest when it comes to issues relating to the LGBTI community. “UCT operates on the assumption that someone is either male or female,” she explains. Pule places emphasison residences, because she feels as though there is no consideration for people of all sexual orientations.

She is an activist with the newly formed Black Resolutions Movement which focuses on what she calls “black queerness.”  Pule believes that the fact that she is black changes the entire sphere of being transgender.

“Activism is not an option, it’s a way of life” Pule says.

Transgendered people have been in the news, with reality television star Caitlyn Jenner, formerly a man, revealing to the world her identity as a woman. She went through medical treatments to look like a woman before changing her name. While criticised by many, including some who claimed it was a publicity stunt, Jenner was also praised and received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award earlier this month.

Pule praises Jenner’s journey because she believes that it has helped to “introduce transgender people into mainstream homes.” However she still believes that is still much work to be done in Africa for people of all sexual orientations to be understood and accepted.

YOUNG, BLACK AND TRANSGENDER: UCT student Thato Pule stands up for the LGBTI community. Photo: Provided

YOUNG, BLACK AND TRANSGENDER: UCT student Thato Pule stands up for the LGBTI community. Photo: Provided

‘Picturing Change’ for university statues

A book written by Professor Brenda Schmahmann in 2013 explores statues, symbols and images at post-apartheid universities. It highlights the urgency felt now in 2015 in light of recent events at universities calling for transformation. 

A BOOK ABOUT CHANGE: Professor Brenda Schmahmann's Picturing Change discusses long existing  symbols and imagery at universities. Photo: Katleho Sekhotho

A BOOK ABOUT CHANGE: Professor Brenda Schmahmann’s Picturing Change discusses long existing symbols and imagery at universities.                            Photo: Katleho Sekhotho

IN THE wake of statues in South Africa being protested, vandalised and removed, University of Johannesburg Prof Brenda Schmahmann’s book Picturing Change, has been put back in the spotlight.

Wits University Press have re-posted on their website a link to the book in their catalogue.

Schmahmann, who taught history of art at Wits between 1989 and 2001, spoke to Wits Vuvuzela about her book, what symbols mean at universities and their influence.

The professor could not have imagined that statues would suddenly become headlines this year. “I viewed such questions as relevant already and not something that would suddenly become relevant in 2015,” she said.

Schmahmann said the book came about from an experience at Rhodes University in 2008 while she was a professor there.

“I was involved in initiating discussion about visual culture on campus that had its origins in imperialist traditions and how to negotiate it,” said Schmahmann.

“I was interested in finding out what other universities had done and were doing, and this developed into an extended research project which culminated ultimately in Picturing Change.”

The fall of the Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town (UCT) sparked much debate and Schmahmann believes that the removal of the statue points to a much bigger problem.

“I think the sculpture of Rhodes at UCT became in a sense a scapegoat for people’s deep sense of frustration, and probably less with UCT specifically than with a larger society in which the impact of poverty, lack of opportunity and sense of inequity is deeply felt.

“But, as I reveal in my book, the removal of art objects from view does not automatically lead to transformative actions,” said Schmahmann.

That it is not simply a matter of who is represented but how they are represented.

“There have been instances in which placing objects associated with British imperialism or Afrikaner nationalism out of sight and in storage has actually been used to curtail difficult discussions.”

Schmahmann said instead statues should be used as instruments to encourage questions around transformation.

“Why not ask artists for ideas about curating and responding to that object or image in ways that prompt new understandings about it?”

Schmahmann said the politics of the Rhodes statue at UCT was more complicated than at first glance, because it had been sculpted by one of the first female sculptors in South Africa, Marion Walgate.

“Imperialist this work undoubtedly is, but it is also bound up with gender politics,” said Schmahmann.

Because of the 2008 discussion, changes were implemented at Rhodes University with the removal of old portraits with community based work.

“I motivated successfully for Rhodes University to commission for the interior of its Council Chamber, and to replace the portraits, [with] a self-help community project of isiXhosa-speaking women,” said Schmahmann.

Schmahmann said the transformation of cultural symbols also happened at University of Free State University. The university received a grant from the National Lottery and with this they’ve been able to acquire a variety of artworks including those by Willem Boshoff, Noria Mabasa and Willie Bester.

“These have completely transformed the “feel” of that campus,” said Shmahmann.

Shmahman said she hoped the book would convince readers that the answer to statues was not to simply substitute colonial and apartheid era statues with those of struggle heroes.

“That it is not simply a matter of who is represented but how they are represented.”

Schmahmann’s book Picturing Change: Curating Visual Culture at Post-Apartheid Universities is available at the Wits University Press.

‘Fall of Rhodes’ the beginning of transformation

The University of Cape Town removed the statue of Cecil John Rhodes for the sake of its public image, and should not be praised, one of the activists behind #RhodesMustFall told Wits Vuvuzela.

The statue of Rhodes was removed from UCT on Thursday evening following a month-long student protest and a decision taken by the University Council.

“This is just a small victory, the university should not be praised. They only did this for their public image,” said Ru Slayen, one of the protesters members. Slayen said the statue removal is the beginning of transformation at UCT, and activists plan to start talks about transforming the university.

“The statue was provocative, undermining and sitting in the face of a black child, it’s like putting a statue of Hitler in a Jewish institution”
Students from Wits University have celebrated on UCT’s victory.

Wits SRC president Mcebo Dlamini said removing the statue was only the beginning and the transformation campaign was bigger than just UCT.

“South Africa is still untransformed,” he said “The statue was provocative, undermining and sitting in the face of a black child. It’s like putting a statue of Hitler in a Jewish institution.”

“We have always stood in solidarity with UCT students, but we are more interested on the questions that rise after the removal, such as the curriculum transformation,” said Shibu Motimele, one of the members of the Transform Wits.

Mzwanele Ntshwanti,Wits  3rd year Actuarial Science, told Wits Vuvuzela “I do not think student leaders should get excited, there is a long way to go,” he said. “It’s not just about the statue.”


A picture of Rhodes removed from UCT shared on Facebook by Herman Wasserman, Professor of Media Studies at UCT.

CARRIED AWAY: A picture of the Rhodes being removed from UCT shared on Facebook by Herman Wasserman, Professor of Media Studies at UCT.


OPINION: Why Rhodes must fall: Decolonizing space

“The #RhodesMustFall movement at the University of Cape Town has spread to other universities in South Africa, sparking debates about institutionalised racism and sexism. The campaign seeks to decolonize our universities.

As a former University of Cape Town student, I came face to face with the statue of Cecil John Rhodes many times, sadly, unaware of what the bold figure standing before me meant. My ignorance was unsurprising, institutional power makes a deliberate choice to cleanse figures like Rhodes so that Black people unknowingly accept them without questioning or fighting their presence.

As a science student at the university, I was confronted with a curriculum that was so white and Western you would swear Africans had never contributed to the sciences.  Africans only appeared as victims of malaria and HIV or as assistants to ‘great’ White, male, heterosexual, able-bodied scientists.

Our lecturers were mostly white and male. The few Black lecturers we had were always mocked for their accents or their lectures hardly ever attended because their lecturing style was not “appealing” enough, both by white and black students. All this in a university geographically located in Africa and in a country with majority black people. No wonder sometime early this year, when my Journalism Studies lecturer asked what I thought of UCT, the first thing that came to mind and mouth was, “I didn’t like it. I never felt any connection to the place.”

“a starting point to finally decolonizing our universities, minds and society”

The #RhodesMustFall movement at UCT began when student Chumani Maxwele threw human excrement at the statue of Cecil John Rhodes located at the centre of the university. The movement spread to other universities including Rhodes University, where students began calling for the name of the university to be changed. Students at the University of KwaZulu Natal covered a statue of King George V with white paint and students at Wits held a transformation talk.

“Black people bending over backwards to accommodate whiteness”

Defenses of why the statue of Rhodes shouldn’t be removed (and why Black students should stop being so angry) have come in far and wide. But, no amount of belittling, and calling the cause invalid, has deterred the students. Instead, they are building a stronger and wider movement.

Some may ask why now. But why not now? Students have been watching, for 21 years, Black people bending over backwards to accommodate whiteness in the country of their birth. Students are using the Rhodes statue, as a unifying figure to speak back (and black) to power! Finally!

It is important to note that an overwhelming majority of UCT’s senate recently voted for the removal of the statue. But what does this mean? What does waiting on an overwhelmingly white and male senate to decide on the fate of the statue mean? Should Black students wait for this decision – a decision that I feel will function to pacify the voices of the students or should they take matters into their own hands.

“We can’t breathe”

The #RhodesMustFall movement – along with the Black Students Movement at Rhodes University and the TransformWits movement at Wits, and other growing black consciousness movements on campuses in South Africa – is important and valid. Not only because it highlights the violence that these colonial figures and names carry with them, but as a starting point to finally decolonizing our universities, minds and society. To finally strip white privilege bare. To finally begin dismantling institutionalized racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. To finally start speaking our pain, without shame or fear of backlash and finally labelling correctly what imperialists like Rhodes, and others like him, were – white supremacist patriarchs that unashamedly massacred black people and looted our natural resources without any regard for the people Rhodes referred to as “niggers”. And those who reduce these movements to just the statue, are failing to see the wider picture these students are trying to paint.

Assata Olugbala Shakur, a former member of the Black Panther Party, now living in exile in Cuba, recently wrote a moving letter of solidarity to the UCT SRC:

“[Freedom never comes], until the Afrikan slave uses his force to break the shackles and obtain emancipation for himself,” she wrote. “You and your comrades have hands. Use them. Pull down the statue. If it doesn’t come down, think of something else.”

Black students across the country are crying, “We can’t breathe”. And these movements are an effort to break free from colonial shackles that still bind black bodies to this stay. What will happen if we do not listen to these cries?

STORIFY: #RhodesMustFall reveals entrenched racism

White students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) have taken to Facebook and Twitter with “racist” commentary, leading to further debate and clashes across social media, during the #RhodesMustFall campaign. Their comments have been shared under the hashtag #RacismMustFall.

If this Storify does not load automatically, please click here.


Black Thought Symposium: Rethinking society

Black Thought Symposium

RETHINKING BLACKNESS: Black Thought Symposium members meet weekly to discuss issues that affect black students at Wits. Photo: Mzoxolo Vimba

The first meeting of the Black Thought Symposium for 2015 was held in the basement of the popular bar/hotel The Bannister. A strange combination. Upstairs, young people were dancing to popular, hip sounds, while downstairs, this group was debating what black consciousness and blackness mean in contemporary South Africa.

These group of students meet every Friday to discuss and engage on issues affecting Black students at Wits, and larger society.

Black Thought was started last year as “a platform for black students to interface and discuss issues that speak of the black condition”, says Mbe Mbhele, 4th year LLB and co-founder of Black Thought. “We felt like we were not well represented at Wits and we did not have any platforms to ask certain questions about the culture and nature of Wits.”

“As black students we felt that we are not there yet. There are certain issues we have not yet resolved, and there are certain discourses we still need to have, in order for us to even begin speaking about a ‘rainbow nation’.” he says.

“The hour of Biko has arrived!”

The accessibility of historically white universities to black students and questions of black identity have been raised by students in other institutions as well.

Students at the University of Cape Town have been calling for the removal of the Cecil John Rhodes statue in the institution’s Upper Campus. The students have been voicing their concerns at the ways in which universities side-line black students by using hashtags like #RhodesMustFall and #TransformUCT on social media. They have been recently joined by Rhodes University students, who have also started a social media campaign on the same issue.

Mbhele says the issues these universities are facing are all connected, saying the problems of black alienation that universities face are as a result of the history of colonialism and apartheid.

“These are some of the concerns we highlight in Black Thought,” he says.

In between the discussions and debates, a platform is offered to musicians, poets, writers and visual artists to showcase their talents. This then also allows for discussions on the role that art plays in encouraging young people to think critically about society.

“What is the roles of an artist? What does an artist do in the process of liberating black people? How is [art] detrimental? How is it progressive for the struggle?” says 2nd year BA student and member of Black Thought, Koketso Poho.

Mbhele and Poho believe that Black Thought is growing. They say, in unison: “The hour of Biko has arrived!”

STORIFY: #RhodesMustFall outcry reaches Rhodes University

Demonstrations that began at the University of Cape Town (UCT) last week, calling for the removal of the Cecil John Rhodes statue have spilled over to Rhodes University yesterday, with students on Twitter calling for a change in the university’s name.

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