For more than two weeks, public debate in South Africa has been dominated by a statue. Students at the University of Cape Town have been demonstrating to have the bronze figure of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes removed from its central position on campus. Rhodes bequeathed the land on which the university was built, but he also slaughtered Africans by the thousands in colonial conquest and helped lay the foundations of apartheid in South Africa.
The protesters have occupied part of an administration building and wrapped the statue in black plastic. One even threw human excrement at the pedestal. We spoke with Kgotsi Chikane, a graduate student in public policy who is one of the leaders of the Rhodes Must Fall movement.
The Senior Leadership Group of deans this week approved the removal of the statue. Are you declaring victory?
Not yet. Not at all. The Executive Council, the highest decision-making body at the university, has to make the decision. Once the council has acknowledged that the statue must come down, it sends a symbolic sign to the rest of university.
Why have you focused your attention on this statue?
It's not just because it makes people feel uncomfortable, but because it's the biggest symbol of the institutionalization of racism. That's why we wouldn't want to pull it down ourselves. We want the university to acknowledge this.
This is someone we know was involved in mass genocide, and who oppressed and enslaved black people across Southern Africa. The fact that his statue can stand there proudly, in such a prominent position, and that people can walk past it every day without questioning it, that is a problem of racism. If we can see that the statue is a problem, we can start looking more deeply at the norms and values of institutionalized racism that don't physically manifest themselves, that are harder to see.
What are those hidden issues?
The real issue is the broader transformation of the university. I'm not talking about the transformation of the student body. I can walk out on the Jameson Steps and see that the student body has been fundamentally transformed from 20 or 30 years ago. Forget student numbers. Look at the fact that there is not one black, woman, full professor at UCT. Look at the law faculty, with 200 academics. Only ten are black, and only one of those ten a black South African.
We want a complete shift in the thinking about curriculum. It can't be Eurocentric anymore. We need a curriculum that is about our continent, and not just the negatives, but the positives as well.
Why is this protest happening now. Why didn't it happen two decades ago in the first years of democracy?
This is happening now because South Africa is coming out of its infancy years and into the teenage years of questioning everything. We're not taking the words of Nelson Mandela at face value. The idea that the 1994 political and economic compromise worked out best for all South Africans, we should be able to question that. I'm not talking about civil war and revolution, but to have young people's voices heard, for people to start questioning. If we don't, we'll just be sheep, and we don't want to be sheep.
What has the reaction been to this protest, and what does it tell you about the state of race relations?
The number of supporters has grown across all races. In Azania House [the protesters' name for the administration building they have occupied], this past week over 200 people came, across all races, to have this conversation. They were mostly black, but there were a lot more white faces than before.
We get backlash, but people should argue. We accept arguments. We want to bring people together not under the false veil that we must be unified because Nelson Mandela said we must be unified, but because we understand each other. I'm of the opinion that it will work out for best, that this will strengthen the bonds between the races because people are being more honest.
This protest began with one student throwing human excrement onto the statue. What was your reaction to that?
Everyone, including myself, condemned the action, saying this is not the way to get your point across. But the question comes up: What would drive a person to do this? I mean, I don't even know where I would begin to go to collect human feces. But I talked to him [Chumani Maxwele, who threw the feces]. He literally leaves his house, turns right and there it is in the street. He wanted the statue to feel ashamed, the same way he feels ashamed that these feces are in his living environment.
This has been one of the few protests across the county that has not become violent. The most we've had — besides occupying the administration building—is spray-painting on walls, and we condemned that immediately. We're creating a space where there's no violence, but where people can make the point that those who can make the decisions must start chipping away at institutional racism ... and, of course, remove the statue.