Since the 12th of March this year, a movement defined by the slogan #RhodesMustFall has dominated discussion at Africa’s highest ranked school, the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa. At the surface, students are protesting to remove a statue of Cecil John Rhodes at UCT from its symbolically dominant position on upper campus. Even the Vice-Chancellor of UCT advocates for the statue’s relocation — a suggestion that the school’s senate has endorsed. However, this movement is about much more than an old statue. It’s a demand for UCT’s authorities to close the gap between post-apartheid South Africa’s principles and its reality.

To some, Rhodes’ legacy mainly includes his financial contributions to a prestigious scholarship and his “generous donation” of UCT’s campus. However, to most Southern Africans, he is the face of imperialism. Responsible for the deaths of millions of mostly black Southern Africans and one of imperialism’s strongest advocates, Rhodes casts a dark shadow on human history. He remorselessly enriched himself through diamond mining at the expense of the country’s indigenous population. However, it would be a mistake to assume that this debate is purely about the place Rhodes occupies in history.

Some opponents characterize the movement as a childish attempt to hide the horrors of the past. They see the debate as no more than another example of mostly black South Africans being unwilling to see past the horrors of apartheid. However, the #RhodesMustFall movement not only seeks to unmask Southern Africa’s history of racial discrimination and white supremacy head on, but it also focuses on the present failings and future ambitions of South Africa’s education system. Specifically, it is a movement that seeks to change the curricula, lecturers, policies and practices that disenfranchise South Africa’s people.

When students from Oxford University, in solidarity with the movement, sent photos of themselves holding a banner that read, “Decolonize education. Rhodes must fall,” it may not have been immediately clear to some people what they were talking about. However, for many African students, that banner expressed personal experiences many have faced in the school system since childhood.

For example, when I was in 5th grade in Mbabane, Swaziland, a new rule was instituted in my school, a rule that I did not fully grasp until I was 16. The rule was simple — at school we were expected to speak English and not our own language, siSwati. At the time, I didn’t understand the ignorance and hubris this rule represented, nor was I aware of the systematic violence used to enforce this linguistic code. The rule rested heavily on the notion that African cultures were inherently “savage” and “backwards” — a notion that still lives today in South Africa’s education system.

My experience shares a number of similarities with the status quo for indigenous students, teachers and employees in post-apartheid South Africa.

On a symbolic level, the #RhodesMustFall movement is about breaking down white supremacy and embracing multiculturalism at institutions of higher education. On a practical level, it’s about creating “avenues for real transformation” to avoid the alienation of students who come from underrepresented communities. In the long term, it’s about mirroring the diversity of South Africa in the education system. Schools lack enough lectures in indigenous languages like isiXhosa or isiZulu. Maintenance staff are treated poorly. And unfair financial expectations are often placed on students from impoverished backgrounds. Above all else, #RhodesMustFall is dedicated to making education the inclusive system it must be to shape South Africa’s future.

In a similar campaign at the London School of Economics, students asked “Is My Curriculum White?” We should be having these discussions at Yale. We should stand in solidarity with other colleges where the problems may be starker but the underlying principles of equal opportunity and tolerance are identical. In an age when the hallways of colleges such as UCT and Yale are increasingly filled with diverse students, it is necessary for the system to similarly evolve.

Wabantu Hlophe is a freshman in Branford College. Contact him at wabantu.hlophe@yale.edu .

  • Roland PJ

    What was the reasoning behind your school’s English speaking rule? Swaziland is a traditional african kingdom – why on earth would English language be enforced in its school system? On the other hand, perhaps that policy has helped you experience what is certainly an impossible pipe dream for less privileged africans than you – attendance at a very prestigious American university.

    • africanrevolutionary

      I think you might have missed the point of his article. He wasn’t saying that he shouldn’t learn English, but rather expressing his frustration with the repression of his local language. P.S. Swaziland has two national languages, English and siSwathi. All he’s asking for here is an equality for both languages, not a deification of the foreign language at the cost of the local.

      • Roland PJ

        I suspect there might have been practical reasons – for example availability of text books in siSwathi. A good response then, in my humble opinion, would be to address that. I admit I’m guessing. Banning casual speech in any tongue just sounds like tyranny.

  • Robert

    And yet you write in English…because few would understand if you did not.

    • Scott

      Maybe those just happen to be the people who need to hear it?

      • ShadrachSmith

        As air-head reasons to dismiss a reasonable discussion point go: that’s one.

        You are just convinced that everybody who disagrees with you is both wrong and promoting injustice. In that belief, you are wrong…and promoting injustice.

        • Scott

          I actually hadn’t dismissed Robert’s point. I am, however, dismissing yours, because it has nothing to do with the above article. Nor have I stated my thoughts on disagreement for you to be able to guess what I am and am not convinced of. If that feels like injustice to you, rather question your manners and debate tactics.

  • lightandtruth

    The King of Swaziland is an absolute monarch ruling since 1982. Any systematic violence used to enforce some unheard of rule that you claim to be was done at the hands of your black countrymen. Most of what you have written is rubbish. “UCT increasingly filled with diverse students”, UCT only has 32% whites so what are you even talking about. Removing statues in South Africa is not going to help that country in any measurable way. Cape Town is not Baghdad. The Rhodes Memorial has always been a tourist destination as well as Rhodes cottage in Muizenberg Beach. The tea room and restaurant at Rhodes Memorial has employed black South Africans for years. The #RhodesMustFall campaign is nothing but political theater.

    • Scott

      Take that racism back to where it came from if you’re not up for a reasoned discussion. Or respect the authour enough to respond to points he actually made. The colonising of education certainly doesn’t require that the actions be taken by white people. Therefore, disadvantaging an indigenous language because of an enforced privileging of another doesn’t make “most” of what he wrote “rubbish”. I’m not sure what sort of privilege makes you think you get to shut down arguments you don’t like without engaging them. But that’s exactly the type of colonised attitude the authour is referring to.

      • ShadrachSmith

        The list of reasons you don’t listen to others is long and boooring.

        Want to discuss the legacy of Mansa Musa, Islam, and the Mali kingdom on black slavery?

    • Motlatsi Molefe

      32% !!! That’s too many considering that there are less than 9% white people living in South Africa… the rest of your argument is as weak

  • NathanielAdamTobiasC

    ‘I believe that my writing in Gikuyu language, a Kenyan language, an African language, is part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggles of Kenyan and African peoples. In schools and universities our Kenyan languages – that is the languages of the many nationalities which make up Kenya – were associated with negative qualities of backwardness, under-development, humiliation and punishment. We who went through that school system were meant to graduate with a hatred of the people and the culture and the values of the language of our daily humiliation and punishment. I do not want to see Kenyan children growing up in that imperialist-imposed tradition of contempt for the tools of communication developed by their communities and their history. I want them to transcend colonial alienation.

    ‘Colonial alienation takes two interlinked forms: an active (or passive) distancing of oneself from the reality around; and an active (or passive) identification with that which is most external to one’s environment. It starts with a deliberate disassociation of the language of conceptualisalion, of thinking, of formal education, of mental development, from the language of daily interaction in the home and in the community. It is like separating the mind from the body so that they are occupying two unrelated linguistic spheres in the same person. On a larger social scale it is like producing a society of bodiless heads and headless bodies’.

    —Thiong’o, Ngugi wa. 1998. Decolonising the mind. Diogenes 46: 101–104. (4pp)