Students demanding that the University of Cape Town (UCT) set a date for the removal of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes on campus have entered the fifth day of their sit-in at the university’s administrative offices at Bremner Building. RA’EESA PATHER was there.
It began on Friday, when students marched from the statue of Rhodes on upper campus to the university’s management block at Bremner Building on lower campus. Once at Bremner, students interrupted a speech by vice-chancellor Max Price, stormed into the building and occupied it.
The protest was peaceful, with students singing anti-apartheid struggle and victory songs as a rallying cry for transformation on campus.
Beneath the statue of Rhodes, boards have been erected for students to air their views on the statue as part of the university’s Have Your Say campaign, which aims to encourage debate on the matter.
Some have cemented the call for the statue’s removal, while others have questioned how removing the statue would accelerate academic and staff transformation on campus.
The writings have also revealed the racism on campus.
“No 1 gives a flying fuck about you bunch of barbaric kaffirs. A statue won’t get you a degree you. Apartheid is over bitches,” one message reads.
Rhodes remains a divisive figure on campus. Some students, as well as the university itself, have argued that Rhodes donated the land where the university is built, and propelled progress in the country. Others have responded that Rhodes was a colonialist who oppressed black people and stole land in the country through colonial occupation.
Hundreds of students converged on Friday to march to the Bremner Building. The protest was well organised, with students stopping the march along the way to ensure everyone was safe. A notice was put out asking people to watch their step near the tunnel at the rugby field, which leads to middle campus.
“We don’t want any revolutionary injuries,” one student joked. “You mustn’t fall into the roads.”
The roads/Rhodes pun wasn’t lost on students, who shared in the good humour, calling it the “most polite protest”.
The good humour was momentarily dispelled when a tussle broke out after a man on the sidelines shouted “Viva Rhodes, viva!” at the students.
“Rhodes was greater than you,” he called out.
Some students rushed towards the man, while security attempted to calm the situation, urging them to ignore him.
From the crowd, one student responded: “This is what we mean when we talk about white arrogance.”
Negotiations between students and UCT’s management have broken down since the protest began. Although Price has, in his personal capacity, showed solidarity with students, agreeing that the statue should be removed, the final decision sits with the university Council.
Once they arrived at Bremner, the students joined staff and workers who were protesting outside the building in solidarity with students’ demands for transformation.
National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) UCT branch chairwoman Patricia Berry took the mic to thank workers for their “boldness to speak out”.
“The majority of workers that are not here, we know it because they are fearful of their jobs,” Berry said.
She went on to say that employers on campus mistreat workers, telling them that: “I don’t have to talk to you but you have talk to me,” or “It’s my world, get used to it.”
Student Representative Council (SRC) president Ramabina Mahapa told students that through its use of symbols, such as the monument to Rhodes, the university is discriminating against black people.
“Black people can’t be proud at UCT, because UCT doesn’t speak positively about your image,” Mahapa said.
Mahapa then announced to loud applause that a sit-in would be staged in Bremner Building.
“We need to sit down, we need to educate ourselves. We need to read Biko, we need to read Fanon. The whole night we’ll be studying in Bremner,” Mahapa said.
He again emphasised that the SRC “don’t want to talk” to management.
The SRC is represented on the university Council which is set to meet on April 15 to discuss the fate of the statue.
Leaders of the protest refused to allow Price to speak at the end of the proceedings, but students in the crowd became restless, chanting “let him speak”.
Throughout the proceedings, Price had been in the background, making notes on the complaints various representatives had laid. Speakers from the university’s transformation council condemned the slow pace of transformation on campus, and academic representatives rubbished the university’s reasoning that the lack of black staff on campus was a result of the 20 years it takes for a student to become a professor.
Price was eventually handed the mic. He agreed that the statue should be removed, and suggesting that teach-ins and seminars be held to educate students who were not at the protest and who did not know about Rhodes’ damaging legacy. But student protestors heckled and sighed in response.
“I can’t give you a date for the taking away of the statue, but I can give you a date for the decision,” Price said, as students loudly protested.
The students also demanded that the university drop charges of assault against Chumani Maxwele, the student who sparked the Rhodes Must Fall movement when he threw faeces at the statue two weeks ago.
Price said that a private party had laid charges against Maxwele, and not the university, which meant that the university had no influence. He attempted to detail the nature of the charges against Maxwele, but students began to make their way forward, past Price, and into Bremner.
Once inside the building, students toyi-toyed and cheered in the reception area. Traditionally, students are not allowed past the reception area without an appointment or invitation from an office-bearer in the building. The atmosphere inside the formal room quickly electrified as students clapped hands, and joined together in songs of protest.
The protests have caused divisions on campus, but they have also encouraged debate and understanding among students who have been encouraged to weigh in on the conversation.
More than a hundred students had packed themselves into the foyer at Bremner. But on the hot, stuffy summer’s afternoon, they soon exited the building to sing victory songs outside.
The students have claimed Bremner Building to “disrupt the normal processes of management” and “force management to accept our demands”. By Monday they had made their way to Archie Mafeje room, where management meets, so that they could “subvert” the activities of management.
The students will remain in the building for an indefinite period, supported by food donations. Black lecturers are lecturing students on transformation and Rhodes’ legacy, while tutors have been organised to assist students with their studies during test week.
“Comrades, bring your toothbrushes,” The Rhodes Must Fall movement said in a statement.
As the protest continues, students and management are still locked in a negotiation void. The Council will meet in less than a month, but the students have already shown they are unwilling to wait.