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 email@example.com .