The spark for the UCT protests

The protests at UCT started on 9 March after Chumani Maxwele, a UCT student, threw faeces onto the statue. This action soon led to demonstrations where protestors used black refuse bags and banners to cover up the statue until their demands for its removal were met. The #RhodesMustFall campaign was born from these protests, which is a protest action established by UCT students and staff members who are seeking to bring down institutionalised racism at UCT.


The history behind Rhodes

Cecil John Rhodes was a British businessman who arrived in South Africa in 1870 shortly after the discovery of diamonds. A proud Englishman, Rhodes devoted his life to defending and helping to extend the rule of the British empire and had a dream of helping establish a ribbon of British territory from the Cape to Cairo. He was nicknamed “The King of Diamonds” after his success in founding the De Beers Mining Company. Rhodes became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in 1890 and is notoriously credited with helping enforce the system of migrant labour after bringing the Glen Grey Act into force. Rhodes is also credited as the founder of the state of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), under the administration of the British South Africa Company.


Maxwele speaks about his decisions

In a recent interview with City Press entitled “No regrets for throwing faeces at Rhodes Statue”, the 30 year old’s reasoning for his decision to throw faeces at the statue was discussed. Maxwele explained that his decision was not an impulsive one, but rather a response to years of pain and anger that he had experienced at the sight of the Rhodes statue at UCT. He told City Press that his decision to deface the statue was planned but that it was not triggered by any specific incident. He explained not only how he sourced the faeces from Khayelitsha township’s controversial portable flush toilets, but also how the decision to deface the statue was not about himself but rather about “the history of black people”. He went on to say that he felt that many black students “did not identify” with the names of buildings at UCT, including Jameson Hall and Jan Smuts residence, and that these names symbolised “pain and hurt” to some students.

Maxwele, originally from the Eastern Cape, is no stranger to controversy after being arrested in 2010 by President Jacob Zuma’s bodyguards for allegedly flashing the middle finger at the presidential convoy. Maxwele denied these allegations and the case was dismissed. He does not, however, deny or regret his actions on 9 March and was not expecting the repercussions that were experienced after his actions, City Press reported. Maxwele would not comment on why he had not acted out prior to this given that he had been studying towards a BA Political Sciences degree on a bursary since 2011.


The response from UCT

UCT responded to the protests with a #TransformUCT campaign which made provisions for assemblies and forums of discussion to initiate a conversation with the protestors and the university. According to UCT’s website, UCT’s senate met on 27 March and voted “overwhelmingly in favour of recommending to council that the statue of Rhodes be removed”. The proposal also recommended that the statue be boarded up until its removal, before being handed over to the heritage authorities. UCT responded to this proposal by boarding up the statue shortly afterwards, pending a council meeting scheduled in April.


Rhodes rage spreads nationwide

Since the statue of Rhodes has been targeted, calls to remove several other statues across the country have been heard. The EFF has claimed responsibility for two separate incidents in the Eastern Cape where historical statues have been defaced. These two incidents were the torching of the War Memorial statue in Uitenhage’s Market Square, as well as the dismantling of the Horse Memorial in Port Elizabeth. In Pretoria, the Paul Kruger statue in Church Square was defaced by the EFF over the Easter Weekend after they splashed green paint onto the statue. The Louis Botha statue outside Parliament is the latest statue to be defaced, but no one has claimed responsibility yet.

In their interview with Maxwele, City Press also reported that other universities have experienced protests in light of the UCT campaign. At Rhodes University, some students have criticised management and demanded an immediate change of the university’s name as well as a change in curriculum, culture and identity in order to reflect an African identity. At the University of KwaZulu-Natal, students have defaced the statue of King George V and have also called for its removal.


Criticisms of this behaviour

Professor Jonathan Jansen, president of the South African Institute of Race Relations and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, recently published an opinion piece in the Rand Daily Mail entitled “Erase Rhodes? That offends me as a teacher,” where he strongly condemned the removal of Rhodes from UCT’s campus. Jansen has labelled the removal as “anti-educational” and “anti-progressive” and went as far as saying that some of the protestors were “spitting” in Rhodes’ face because they were the benefactors of scholarships paid for by the Rhodes estate.

The Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, made a statement on 8 April encouraging South Africans “not to take the law into their own hands” and acknowledged that the transformative nature of the national agenda of government accepts that “the past cannot and should not be completely wiped off”.


The fate of Rhodes at UCT

UCT Vice-Chancellor Max Price announced on 8 April that the Rhodes statue would be removed from the UCT campus after a council meeting was held pending this decision. In a statement on the UCT website, both UCT and Heritage Western Cape confirmed that a permit had been granted to UCT for the temporary removal of the Rhodes statue from the campus. The permit grants UCT the right to remove the statue for storage at an alternative venue that must meet the satisfaction of Heritage Western Cape. A heritage architect will oversee the temporary removal of the statue.

Price also told the media that the council’s decision to remove the statue was unanimous and in a statement said that, “this is what a university is and should be about: we argue, we fight – and yet it is a fight without violence.” He also revealed that the university was happy with their decision, but that there was still a long road ahead following it.


Image: Kaylyn O’Brien 

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