Is the University of Cape Town (UCT) transforming? What does transformation mean? In a series of articles GroundUp provides the key facts and arguments on the main points of contention facing South Africa’s oldest tertiary institution.
Following the rise of the Rhodes Must Fall movement at UCT, we have interviewed over a dozen active participants on various sides of the debate, and found much data on UCT’s transformation process. The students’ demands are listed in a petition on change.org, which at the time of writing has about 1,550 signatories.
From our interviews and the list of student demands we have identified seven contentious issues:
- symbols such as sculptures and other artworks as well as names of buildings on UCT’s campuses,
- the composition of UCT’s curricula particularly in the humanities,
- the racial composition of UCT’s student body,
- the racial composition of UCT’s academic staff,
- the exclusion of students on financial grounds,
- the admissions policy, and
- the wages of outsourced workers on campus.
This article touches on the first issue. In coming days and weeks we will publish articles on points 2 to 5. We have previously explained UCT’s new admissions policy (issue 6). Currently we do not have the resources to look at issue 7 but perhaps we will do so in the future (in the meanwhile see this and this). We also do not deal in this series with UCT’s gender composition.
Transformation is a stated goal in UCT’s strategic plan. The official explanation on the university’s website gives four transformation goals: “making the university a more representative institution in terms of its academic and support staff, and of its student body, promoting enhanced intellectual diversity, transcending the idea of race, improving institutional climate and having an enhanced focus on our intellectual enterprise on African perspectives.”
The university also states that it is committed “to the goal of non-racialism. A non-racial university is one where historical apartheid categories no longer have relevance to the probability that a student will be admitted or will pass; or to a staff member’s likelihood of promotion. A transformed university will be one in which we no longer hold stereotypical views of others based on their gender, race or disability. Such stereotypes may be dissolved because we have consciously overcome them and because the generalisations no longer apply.”
How these goals are to be achieved, what their precise meanings are, whether they’re sufficient and how to tell when we’ve arrived at the transformed university are much debated. For example, read this article by UCT vice-chancellor Max Price, and this response by nineteen UCT academics.
A summary of events so far
Debates and activities about transformation of UCT have been going on for decades. There are institutions on campus whose purpose is to oversee transformation. An examination of minutes of UCT’s various governance bodies shows that it is continuously dealt with, including the renaming of buildings. For example last year, a motion was put forward at UCT’s convocation — the body consisting of, among others, all UCT graduates — to “rename the J. P. Duminy Residence after a more eminent Vice-Chancellor”. Duminy was vice-chancellor from 1958 to 1967, and has been criticised for complicity with apartheid. For example he would not allow mixed-race dances on campus.
The current public storm started at a protest on 9 March against the statue of Cecil John Rhodes which sits on a main gateway to campus, the steps leading to the contentiously named Jameson Hall. A student, Chumani Maxwele, threw excrement over the statue, and this received widespread media coverage.
Maxwele in an interview on UCT radio said that the actions in relation to the Rhodes statue have a history going back to the 1960s and AC Jordan being forced to live in Langa while he was a member of UCT staff. Maxwele said, “The recent events happened with the arrival of Dr Xolela Mangcu who is continuously interrogating the status quo in UCT, and of course the 19 academics who” criticised UCT’s transformation policy. He talked about black students feeling uncomfortable at UCT because of its “Eurocentric structure” plus the names of the buildings and the statue itself which he describes as depicting a “brutal racist imperialist”. He said, “Those of us who know clearly this history are feeling traumatised by his existence at the centre of the UCT space. All of us pass there every single day.”
On 10 March the university’s Student Representative Council (SRC) endorsed the call for the statue to be removed. It called on the vice-chancellor to give a date by when this would happen.
On 20 March a protest led by the SRC took place. That day students occupied Bremner Building, where the administrative offices are located, and “renamed” it Azania House. GroundUp went to the occupied building and spoke to the students involved. There were about 30 people at the time. They have run political education activities and been addressed by lecturers from universities across the country. They have organised for their course notes to be brought to them and continued their academic activities.
Ru Slayen, who is doing Honours in Applied Math, has been a part of the movement from the start. He told GroundUp,“the SRC actually got permission from UCT for us to occupy this space for the original weekend [20-22 March].” However, students did not leave, and on the Monday morning [23 March] “people arrived for work and were very surprised to see that we were all still here.”
Slayen says that there have been between 50 and 300 students participating at any given time, with about 50 sleeping over.
The university administration has until now accepted the presence of the students. Price told GroundUp that he was excited about what’s happened, and that he was much more concerned with student apathy than the sit-in. “Most of us went through this in the 70s and 80s. It was formative. This will be formative for these students. It would be wonderful to have a moment like 1968 again.”
Price was referring to a student sit-in in 1968 after the university council, after pressure from the apartheid government, rescinded the appointment of black academic Archie Mafeje. Mafeje never was appointed by the university despite the sit-in. A room in Bremner building has been named after him; it is the one the students are occupying.
On 25 March a mass meeting took place in UCT’s Jameson and Molly Blackburn halls. Bekezela Phakathi in Business Day describes how Barney Pityana, chair of UCT’s convocation, was booed and jeered and forced to step down from chairing the meeting.
On 27 March, by a vote of 181 to one with three abstentions, the university’s senate voted to remove the Rhodes statue. Pending a decision by the university’s highest body, Council, and the Western Cape Heritage Society, it was decided that the statue should be boarded up.
There was much more division at a special general meeting of UCT’s convocation on 7 April chaired by Pityana. A number of people were opposed to the statue being moved and criticised the university administration for not taking action against the students. Several black graduates responded by talking about their difficult experiences on campus, including feeling alienated by UCT’s culture. Advocate Geoff Budlender, former head of UCT’s council, told the meeting that black voices had been “submerged” previously on campus but that was now “turning”. He said, “Either we can fight it, or we can embrace it. … But if we fight it, UCT will implode.”
Council met on 8 April to decide the statue’s fate. The meeting was disrupted at one point by students, described on Daily Maverick by Rebecca Davis. Nevertheless, Council voted unanimously to remove the statue. Although details are unclear at the time of writing, it appears the statue will be removed before the end of day on 9 April. It is up to the Heritage Society to determine the statue’s final fate.
For the occupying students the statue represents the slow rate of transformation at the university. Slayen told GroundUp, “For us the statue is symbolic, a good rallying point, not an end in itself.”
“My life’s about changing this place,” a professor in the science faculty who has been deeply involved in transformation activities told GroundUp. “Symbols mean everything”, he said. Symbols like the Rhodes statue are a constant source of indignity for black students, and dignity is the most important thing for people, he explained.
Zizipho Pae won the most votes in last year’s SRC election. On her Facebook page, where many people, black and white, with multiple views have been having a civil discussion, Pae expresses her support for the Rhodes Must Fall movement. But she also posted the following letter from a black student with whom she says she empathizes, but disagrees with respect to the importance of the statue:
“My mom is a domestic worker. She can’t afford to pay my UCT fees. I was lucky to get a bursary in first year, till third year - last year. … I had some fees that were not paid last year and my friends helped me cover those. My bank account was then left with 21 cents and by that time I had to move to a self catering res. I did not apply for financial aid. I literally nearly finished close to five days without eating … I was very hungry, but hunger was not the real issue. The issue was how am I going to pay for my fees. My fees are still not paid. I’m still trying to hustle for financial aid , and I don’t know how this year will end up for me. I have to dress like I’m not hungry. I have to beg for food to chow and I still have to deal with my books, after that [I go] to my room cry because I see no change. It’s very hard to stay in self catering when you have nothing at all … and I know that they are many black kids that are going through all those things that I am talking about, who don’t have friends like I do, who will hook them up with food. I believe that taking down the statue will need a certain amount of money. But wait, how is taking down the statue going to fill up the hungry kids out there, kids who are crying everyday with no food at UCT, who have no financial aid, no friends or worse. Removing his statue won’t solve that.”
But another student taking part in the Rhodes Must Fall movement who went to a township school and spoke at length to GroundUp about the difficulties she has faced explained, “It’s not [only] about the statue. There are so many things wrong at UCT that favour whites over blacks. These things will be addressed now.”
A view expressed by several members of UCT administration is that the university has been transforming, but that the student mobilisation will speed things up. In the remaining articles we will look at several of the other student demands and what the university is doing about transformation.
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