UCT needs to reckon with its past and forge its future

    Mwinji Siame believes that student protests are bringing in a big change to the country, one that university academics and management need to embrace.

    Students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and elsewhere in the country and on the continent have been raising the issue of free, decolonial education since the colonial moment. This has been done under different slogans, under the banner of refusing to learn in Afrikaans, for instance, or of Rhodes Must Fall last year, but it has been done repeatedly nonetheless and it has been repeatedly ignored.

    Now that the moment has come to reckon with this arrogant refusal to hear the cries of black students and its consequences – or what American novelist and social critic James Baldwin describes as “The Fire Next Time” – institutions like UCT have insisted on taking the same route that got us to this juncture, tabling exams for 7 November and fleshing out the logistics of the new year. In addition, private security and police remain a mainstay of their arsenal of non-solutions, further traumatising and brutalising the same students they expect to sit and write these exams. In other words – ignore, deny, ignore.

    But how long can such a strategy hold before reality comes to bite, to rip, to burn? Not long, I think.

    You see, the difference between students and higher ups, between those who are young in mind and those holding onto old thinking – is vision. Students have a vision of a society where education benefits all, the whole of society, and not just a few, where it is free and it is decolonial. They have seen that for as long as there are those who are excluded – from not just the university, but from society – because they are poor and black, there will always be fires to put out. And so, what better act than to come up with a solution for the long-term. But before this long-term solution is implemented, before the new is born, the old must be removed, uprooted.

    Unlike the higher-ups, the younger generation will not suspend or attempt to suspend the revolution, to defer the moment. Rather, they will meet it head on. They have already said that the time is now. They have said “No retreat, no surrender.” So whether exams are written now or next year, whether classes are full or empty, whether the state and the university manage (for a short while) to dismantle the student movement through violent repression, change will continue to happen.

    The best and only step that management and academics can take if they wish to survive this change is to heed the call, and join students on this project of rejuvenation. In the immediate term, this means postponing exams and working together with students, workers and other staff members to implement solutions towards the realisation of free, decolonial, education. It also means that when exams are written, the content they cover must be relevant and must extend beyond the classroom. This would certainly be a first decisive step towards the envisioned future.

    No more engagements with key stakeholders, no more flustered, racially charged emails about “intimidating” and “violent” protestors, no more private security deployed to violate students. No more “blended learning” to disadvantage already disadvantaged students. No more ignoring.

    If universities do not take constructive action and address the rot that students have unearthed – a rot that they are part of – then it is also almost certain that those with vision must and will continue to do what universities have, unsurprisingly, refused to do – reckoning with the past and forging the future.

    Mwinji Siame is a graduate student

    Featured image by Sepideh Azari