#Rhodesmustfall: institutional racism in South Africa and beyond

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Our Co-editor, Sarah Jane Cooper-Knock, explores the recent protests around institutional racism at the University of Cape Town and Rhodes University in South Africa. She also asks what questions these protests raise for universities beyond South Africa.

Transition and transformation can be profoundly different processes. The one requires a shift between two different scenarios; the other demands that those scenarios are fundamentally and radically dissimilar.

In the noisy street protests of post-apartheid social movements and the silent, stooped, dejection of those returning from another fruitless search for employment, we sense the same refrain: the ANC’s ascent to power in 1994 marked a transition from apartheid, not a transformation. Economic inequality, political marginalisation, and racial discrimination still profoundly shape the lives of South Africa citizens.

Twelve days ago, that refrain was taken up by Chumani Maxwele at the University of Cape Town, who threw human excrement over the statue of Cecil Rhodes, which looms over the university campus.  Quickly, his protest attracted supporters across the campus.

Rhodes’ statue stands in recognition of the donation of land and money that he gave to found the university at the turn of the 20th century. But, as protestors highlight, these were resources stolen from the country’s indigenous population by a man who shaped the legal foundations and vitriolic rhetoric of racial segregation.

Speaking about his protest, Chumani Maxwele argued, ‘for us poo – as a political statement and a strategic position – is precisely about our shame as black students. We feel a shame. And that shame is that our parents where we come from Khayelitsha, Langa, Nyanda, Gugulethu, and the other rural areas, they still use the bucket system 21 years after democracy… you ask yourself then how do you return that shame or transcend such a shame?… what is it I can do to change this? To bring this to the ivory towers? To the affluent? [So that they can] see [what] the city that they belong to – the city that they love so much – … does to other people. For me, as a black person, all I am doing [is] bringing my shame to this university [and] to my friends – my white friends, my black friends – [so that they can] see my shame and see my reality… my shame, my brother’s shame, my sister’s shame, my mother’s shame. I want it to be a collective shame’

The protest has sparked an emotive debate over the politics of memorialisation. Whilst some have suggested that the statue is an historical marker with no symbolic significance, and others claim that it stands in recognition of the positive contributions of a flawed individual, there has been a groundswell of voices gathering around the hashtag #rhodesmustfall, which have argued that the statue remains a potent symbol of an untransformed country.

Such arguments have sparked similar protests at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. As student Camalita Naicker states, ‘there is no argument for why this university should still be named Rhodes. There is no argument for why this town should still be named the town of Colonel Graham’.

It will be interesting to see whether Rhodes Scholars at the University of Oxford – known informally to each other as ‘Rhodies’ – will also take up this call.

UCT’s Vice Chancellor, Max Price,  has stated that he will instigate a consultation on the removal and replacement of the Rhodes statue and has personally supported calls to shift (but not destroy) the monument. There has been a cautious welcoming of this move by many students, but also a recognition that institutional transformation will require total – not totemic – change.

In 2013, black students constituted only 29% of the student body, and black professors represented only 25% of its academic staff. There is currently not a single black female professor at the university. UCT is not alone in this regard. Across the country as a whole, only 14% of the university professors are black. In part, these figures are indicative of much broader and deeper inequalities in South Africa, and beyond. But they are also an indication that the admissions, hiring and promotion processes at universities need critical attention. UCT has recently attempted to reform its admissions policy, but there is still a long way to go.

Nor is it just a numbers game. Institutional racism also works to silence and marginalise students and staff who do make it through the door. Maxwele argues that he and other black students feel under constant pressure ‘to look white, act white, speak white’, or to remain silent. Another student, who was involved in protests at Rhodes University, echoed this perspective, claiming that her university was primarily concerned with ‘making whiteness feel comfortable’ in ways that ‘promot[ed] structural violence against people who look like me: people who occupy and embody what it means to be black’. Whereas the university should be a space of diversity and inclusion, she argued that institutional racism was pervasive, and white staff and students were not forced to ‘account for the ways in which institutional culture protects them – it creates a safety net for them in ways that does not exist for people who look like me’.

These protests are a powerful testament to the urgent need to transform the academy, not just in South Africa, but also elsewhere. In the UK, for example, we must reflect upon the ways in which institutional racism reproduces itself in our universities today, intersecting with discrimination on the basis of gender, class, sexuality, and so on.

The questions raised by students at UCT must be answered by universities across the globe.

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