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After fall of statue, South African university weighs colonial legacy (+video)

A contentious statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes was removed Thursday after a successful campaign by University of Cape Town students. But questions still remain of how South Africa should remember its checkered history.

For 81 years, the brooding bronze likeness of colonial titan Cecil John Rhodes has gazed out across the University of Cape Town's verdant campus.

That statue — hunched forward, his chin resting thoughtfully on his palm — stood by throughout the 20th century while the university around it slowly drifted from the ideals of Rhodes, one of its great benefactors. He was there as the school admitted its first black students and erupted in protests against white minority rule, as it appointed a prominent anti-apartheid activist to its helm and as it began an intensive program of affirmative action for disadvantaged students.

But if the Rhodes statue has often borne witness to history, it is now making some of its own. After more than a month of intensive student protests calling for the statue to be toppled, it was removed from its prominent location at the center of campus early Thursday evening.

As it came down, hundreds of students danced and celebrated the decision by the university’s council – its highest governing body – the night before.

The removal is a turning point in a conflict that has sharply divided both the UCT community and observers across the country in recent weeks, unfurling a widespread debate about how South Africa should remember its checkered colonial past. But the protests have also drawn pointed attention to the country’s present, and the vast inequalities that continue to pervade higher education here, more than two decades after the advent of democracy.

“What happens to the Rhodes statue is less important than what happens at UCT,” says Mahmood Mamdani, the Ugandan political and social theorist and former chair of UCT’s African Studies program. “More important than physical reminders of the past are its institutional and intellectual legacies. It is only when statues become symbolic of institutional practices and intellectual traditions of an era supposedly gone by, that they gain in importance.”

A colonial history

Originally founded in 1829, UCT is Africa’s second oldest university — and arguably the continent’s most elite, outpacing its African competitors in all major regional and global rankings. But in the two decades since Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first democratic president, the university has struggled to remake itself in the image of the new South Africa.

Although the number of black students at UCT rose steeply after the end of apartheid, whites still make up by far the largest racial group — just under half the student body of 26,000 — in a country where their overall share of the population hovers around 9 percent. Seventy percent of the university’s professors — a distinction reserved here for esteemed late career academics — are white men, and none are black women. Even the 30-person council that decided the statue’s fate is less than 50 percent black.

"Institutions need to transform around students and not expect students to conform around the institution,” says Ezra Mokgope, one of the student activists who gathered outside the room where the statue was being debated Wednesday evening. They eventually barged in on the proceedings.

Students like Mr. Mokgope say they are angry not just at the statue of Mr. Rhodes, but also at the slow pace of change on campus, and the limited scope of its so-called “transformation” policies. Although UCT has instituted preferential admissions for black students, for instance, graduation rates for whites still significantly outpace those of blacks. Recent university statistics show that 80 percent of white students complete their degree in the allotted five years, while only half of black students do.

“To transform an institution, you can’t just change admissions policies or respond to individual complaints about racial issues — it needs to be part of the university’s everyday business,” says Kesh Govinder, a mathematics researcher at the University of KwaZulu Natal who studies demographic change in South Africa’s universities. “This isn’t just a political issue, it’s an ethical one too.”  

A national reaction

The protests that led to the Rhodes statue’s ouster kicked off in early March, when a political science student named Chumani Maxwele marched a dozen students to Rhodes’ bronze feet carrying vats of excrement, and then hurled them over the seated figure. He says the action was sparked by a long-standing anger at the university’s failure to remove such a prominent reminder of its racist history.  In the weeks that followed, student activists gathered themselves under the banner of a movement they called “Rhodes Must Fall,” organizing pickets, protests, and sit-ins and swaddling the statue in thick black plastic trash bags.

They argued that displaying the statue was a tacit endorsement of Rhodes himself, a British mining magnate and governor of the Cape Colony in the late 19th century, who was among the most ardent and influential supporters of Britain’s African colonial empire.

“Rhodes donated land [to build UCT’s campus], but whose land was that? It was the land of our people. He killed our people,” says Wandile Kasibe, who is completing his PhD in sociology at UCT. "People are still living under the poverty line because of the leaders of the past… and therefore we cannot accept a situation whereby people are saying 'it's in the past.' No, it's actually in the present, today.”

And the movement quickly spread, with a group of students at Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape issuing calls for the school to change its name, and students at the University of KwaZulu Natal in Durban spray-painting a statue of their own colonial denizen — King George V — with the words, “end white privilege.” The move even broke the bounds of the university community, with several statues of colonial figures defaced across the country over Easter weekend, including a statue of former President Paul Kruger in Pretoria slathered with green paint by members of an opposition political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters.

'Rhodes must fall'

Meanwhile, at UCT the faculty senate voted at the end of March to support the statue’s removal, pending approval by the university council and the local heritage authorities. In the days that followed, boards were erected around the statue, covering it from view.

As they awaited the council’s decision Wednesday, a crowd of about 100 students blocked a small residential road outside the meeting room, carrying posters reading "All Rhodes Lead to... the Colonisation of the Mind. Rhodes Must Fall” as they danced and chanted songs popularized during the anti-apartheid movement.

As the closed meeting inside wore on into its second hour, the students became increasingly suspicious of the council’s intentions, eventually moving into the courtyard of the building, and then into the meeting room itself, where they wove between the council members chanting, “nothing about us without us,” before being asked to exit so the council could ratify its decision to remove the statue.

“I think a society really that is trying to break out into a new narrative needs the universities to be like nurseries of democratic debate,” says Jay Naidoo, a prominent apartheid-era student activist, trade union leader, and later politician. “I think [these students] have every right to build a road to the destination … that we in 1994 vowed in a covenant – to deliver a better life to all our people. That reality has not materialized." 

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