Race, Racism and Memorials in the University

The University of Cape Town’s decision to board up and ultimately remove the statue of Cecil John Rhodes hopefully opens up the prospect for a more deliberative debate on race, racism and higher education. I would have hoped for a deep deliberative engagement before a decision on the Rhodes Statute was concluded but given the emotional climate, this was not really possible. The decision was made with UCT already on its back foot; its legitimacy was in question in the eyes of at least its black students and staff. Feeling beleaguered, the University community hoped to quickly pacify the student revolt in the hope that things could get back to normal.

But this is not going to happen either at UCT or elsewhere. The Rhodes statue was simply a trigger point for a broader unhappiness about race, racism, and marginalisation at the University.  The universities, particularly the historically white ones, have been immersed in a bubble. They assumed that their intellectual atmosphere and their middle class constituencies protected them from a social explosion around race. But this was not to be because there is legitimacy to the criticisms of the students. How can there not be when there are universities 20 years after our democracy that still have more than two thirds of their students white? How can there not be unhappiness when there are universities that are organised around racialised federal principles, which when an incoming vice-chancellor tries to change, he becomes subject to attack by external right wing organisations including AfriForum and Solidarity? How can these students not feel offended when even in the more liberal and historically English speaking universities like UCT and Wits, the curriculum is not sufficiently reflective of our history or speaks to our historical circumstances.

The failure of transformation at our universities is all too apparent 20 years in our transition. But this is a collective failure of all of us, and not simply that of a single constituency. This is important to note especially given how quickly the ANC rushed in to voice support for the student protests without reflecting sufficiently on its own complicity in the failure of transformation. After all it was the failure of public policy in the 1990s and 2000s which accounted for the lack of postgraduate scholarships for black students that ultimately contributed to the poor numbers of black academic and professorial representation at the universities. In addition, there is scepticism of universities at the heart of government and this continues to be reflected in the underfunding of higher education, estimated by the Ramaphosa Task Team to be in the region of close to 65 percent.

But university executives are as much to blame for the lack of transformation. The racial representation of students in some of our universities would not have been possible without the complicity of some of us. The low numbers of African staff and professoriate has in part got to do with unimaginative recruitment and our failure to transcend the racialised networks that we have inherited. And the fact that so many Black students feel marginalised in universities speaks to our failure in transforming the institutional cultures of our institutions.

Yet Black academic staff must also engage in some self-reflection. Too many advocates of African representation in the professoriate tie their own personal promotional prospects to the cause with the result that the individual conflicts of interest compromise the legitimacy of their advocacy. Questions must also be continually asked about the importance of quality even though it incenses so many of us. After all, the university system is replete with examples in both the apartheid and post-apartheid eras of the appointment and promotion of academically deficient white staff. But our own track record in public institutions in the post-apartheid era has also not been great. The appointment of individuals with questionable skills has compromised primary and secondary education and much of the public service. The real victims of this have been the poor who have no option but to depend on public services for their needs. This tragedy cannot be repeated in the higher education system for it will destroy our universities and forever compromise the democratic and inclusive development project.

But even if there is legitimacy to the students’ critique of the universities, this does not mean that they should not think through the nature of their struggle and the solutions to the challenges. Consider for example the Rhodes Statue. Should the decision have been to remove it? Would it not have made sense to reimagine the memorial? What if another statue was built next to it commemorating the victims, with a collective plaque telling the full story of Rhodes and his brutality? This would have led to a reconceptualised memorial indicting Rhodes down through the ages. The myth of Rhodes would have been truly punctured, and a much more historically accurate memorial would have been established. This would have been a much more appropriate response, especially at a university.

The assumption that underlies the decision to get rid of the statue is that memorials are meant to glorify great leaders and heroes? Why do they need to? The real purpose of memorials is to visually represent a historical message, so that future generations are made aware of what happened in the past. This should be the philosophy underlying our naming processes and the establishment of our statues and memorials, not, as was suggested by some, to replace the colony’s and apartheid heroes with those of the revolution? After all, other than in one or two cases, it may be too soon to judge our heroes. Has no one truly understood the real message of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks which is about the Revolution’s leaders behaving no different from their predecessors?

In any case, it would do these individuals and many in the political elite well to remember that the indigenous tradition of naming is not to do so after individuals. This is a quintessentially western custom. The truly indigenous and African tradition is to name after symbolic events and/or to convey evocative descriptions of the particular place. This is not to suggest that there should not be naming after individuals. After all, western traditions are as much of our historical legacy as are more indigenous traditions. The sad thing, however, is that under the pretext of bringing to the fore indigenous traditions, our public naming processes have essentially followed western traditions without even realising it. This is a serious indictment of the historical knowledge of our political elite, and perhaps is the best example for why historical knowledge needs to be central to our memorialisation and naming processes.

But memorials and naming is not the only issue. The call here is for a deep deliberative conversation on solutions to our problems, whether they are to be about naming, or to do with our statues and memorials, about establishing new ones, or on how to transform our universities and other public institutions. These decisions must not be made hastily, and muscled through in emotive atmospheres, for they may result in choices that have unintended consequences. This is because these solutions require hard trade-offs which need to be understood before decisions are made.

For instance, in my own university, there has been a continuous call for the insourcing of all workers that have been outsourced in the last decade. It is a legitimate call given the salaries and living conditions of these workers. But can this be done without massive increases in the subsidy or in student fees? What would this mean for access for students from poor and middle class backgrounds? Or, to take a more generic challenge, what are the trade-offs required to make large numbers of postgraduate scholarships available to create the academic labour pool that would allow for the demographic transformation of the academy? Or, as importantly, what are the checks and balances to be put into place to ensure that quality is maintained as we dramatically change the demographics of our professoriate?

These trade-offs were not sufficiently engaged with nor deliberated upon in other parts of the continent, or in much of the developing world, with devastating consequences for both higher education and inclusive development in these societies. In much of this continent, universities are no more than glorified teaching colleges, with very little research and innovation. We cannot go down this same path for it would forever confine us into underdevelopment. This is why deep deliberative conversation is required on the solutions to our challenges. It is also why decisions must not be muscled through in emotive contexts. In this sense, the actions, behaviour and decision making in UCT’s ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign is far more consequential than we may have first imagined.

Read the article: Sunday Times 12.04.15

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