A couple of days after I joined the ranks of 1,000 Yalies for the March of Resilience on Cross Campus, I attended an intimate discussion Jonathan Edwards students were hosting. As a freshman, I had a lot of questions — I was confused about my place in the student activism that had erupted on Yale’s campus. I am African; I grew up in South Africa. I lived in a country where colonialism still casts its shadow, though I am not of color myself. I had limited knowledge of American history and a very superficial understanding of the context in which the movement was brewing. I had no idea where I fit into the evolving dynamic, so I went to listen. I had no intention of speaking, but as discussions wound down I decided to share a perspective that had been absent in the conversation. I hope to do the same here.
On March 9, 2015, Chumani Maxwele, a student at the University of Cape Town, took to the university plaza wielding a bucket of human feces. He flung the excrement onto the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, which sits looking down over the city of Cape Town from UCT’s upper campus. The statue was commissioned to recognize the significant land donation the mining magnate, Rhodes, had made to the university in 1928. But the statue also honored a man who played an important role in perpetuating imperialism and oppression in 19th century South Africa, who was responsible for the deaths of thousands of black South Africans. It was this aspect of Rhodes’ legacy that Maxwele was responding to. In the days following his actions, the Rhodes Must Fall movement — which calls for the removal of the Rhodes statue — was born. Weeks of protesting, discussion forums and demands sent to the university administration called for transformation, and the statue was removed.
In the weeks following, an unknown artist painted the area under Rhodes’s pedestal in the shape of the statue’s shadow. The artwork symbolized the shadow the statue continued to cast psychologically. There was still anger. There was still hurt. There was still work to be done.
A few months later, action began again. Students responded to a proposed 11.5 percent increase in tuition fees for universities across South Africa. The increase meant not only that thousands of students would be unable to continue studying their respective degrees, but also that education was becoming increasingly inaccessible to future South African students. Across the country, students organized protests that culminated in a march to the historic Union Buildings in Pretoria on Oct. 23, 2015. Universities closed for weeks, exams were postponed, students were arrested and police brutality flared in a way that reminded many of the last time students had gathered on such a large scale: apartheid.
Having studied at UCT for a semester before I came to Yale, I was surprised to find students asking questions about how to deal with history not just at Rhodes’ feet, but at those of John C. Calhoun. The parallels between the two figures are impossible to ignore. Colonialists. Racists. White men still standing as symbols of a painful history. Why are these two discussions, about two different figures, on two different continents, happening at the same time?
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As students gathered on Cross Campus in the early weeks of November, songs were sung, speeches were made and poems were read, before Zimbabwean Nodumo Ncomanzi ’17 took to the microphone. She yelled out “Amandla!” and the crowd responded “Awethu!” The isiZulu and Xhosa call and response translate to “Power to the people.” The phrase, which echoes the history of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, was used throughout both the Rhodes Must Fall movement and Fees Must Fall campaign. Its presence on Cross Campus spoke to the commonality and yet harsh separation of both cries for change.
This is just one of the complicated dynamics that Yale’s African students have to navigate.
“I hadn’t had time to see the systemic racism the Yale movement was looking to address,” said Mandlenkosi Dube ’19. For him, the situation was complicated. “I feel grateful to Yale for accepting me and grateful to Yale for the financial aid they offered me.” As a result, he found it difficult to understand the anger other students of color were feeling towards the University.
His situation introduces questions that many other students have had to ask themselves: How can someone be grateful and angry at the same time? What space is there for someone to be part of the system, while simultaneously opposing it?
Opelo Matome ’18, a student from Botswana, spoke about how this tension particularly resonated with African Yalies. “We are here on visas that depend on our academic achievements,” she said. Sacrificing academic commitments to be involved with Next Yale might actually mean that they would not be around to see the Next Yale they are fighting for.
In contrast, South African students did not have immigration concerns, and though Fees Must Fall erupted in the weeks leading up to final exams, many sacrificed the hours they would have used to study to join marches and debates. Protest leaders at Yale were forced to make similar sacrifices in the face of deadlines and tests. However, unlike South African universities, Yale was not closed during the period of protests. While many professors made allowances for the increased pressure Yalies were under, for African students, among others, there wasn’t space to ignore academics for two weeks.
It’s possible South African students were encouraged to make the sacrifice because they had seen those before them do the same during apartheid, or because there was never any doubt that if they continued to act, their goals of a 0 percent fee increase would be won.
“The political disruption of day-to-day operations is a more established practice in South Africa,” said Associate Professor of History Daniel Magaziner said. “The struggle is just one of the things South Africans do.”
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Some African students had complicated feelings about the movement at Yale because they felt as though their needs weren’t being represented well enough by Yale’s administration. In an email sent out to the Yale community concerning spring semester course selection, Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway linked resources to help students find courses about “the histories, lives and cultures of unrepresented and underrepresented communities.” These classes were taught in or cross-listed with the departments and programs in African American Studies; American Studies; Ethnicity, Race and Migration; and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. African Studies was not on the list.
Much of what this movement is addressing is a question of what constitutes knowledge, Magaziner said. This question is difficult to ask of an institution as steeped in tradition as Yale, and yet as students at Yale, Africans have a right to ask it. As less than 1 percent of Yale’s student population, African students are arguably an underrepresented group — and therefore, should have been included in Holloway’s list of subjects addressing such groups.
Matome also brought up this issue of intersectionality. “It’s difficult to be a black African student on campus,” she said. Africans of color are treated in the same way as other Yalies of color, they have a stake in the movement at Yale and yet, the American history most students looks to reframe is not theirs. “Many of us are physically present on campus,” she said, “but emotionally and mentally, we live in our home countries.”
Wabantu Hlophe ’18, a student from Swaziland and the president of the Yale African Students Association, would agree. “I feel like I have a foot on each continent,” he said. Some might think this is something standard that comes with the “international student package”; however, this “footing” manifests itself in a number of ways specific to Africans. For Hlophe, the distance brought up questions of involvement in the protests at Yale. While the task of tackling systemic racism is the same on both continents, the history of American colonialism and slavery differs from Africa’s.
In speaking about his reaction to South African movements, Hlophe said he felt no hesitation in becoming involved; he drafted solidarity statements in support of both Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall. In contrast, he said that he felt more distant from what was happening at Yale, that the burning desire to help at home was missing from his response to Yale activism. Hlophe said this might stem from the ambiguity of the movement’s goals: Were Yalies protesting to transform Yale, or were they protesting as part of a greater attempt to transform America? African students have a stake in Yale, but really not a lot of stake in America — many don’t plan to stay in the country after college.
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In my conversations with other African Yalies and South African students, one of the most common threads I saw running between both places was the question of how we take on the burden of our histories. Much of what these movements have constituted is dealing with our past, and what it means to “come after.”
Magaziner drew similarities between South African universities and Yale in this regard. He said that it is important to recognize that both UCT and Yale are historically elite institutions, built to educate white males. They were never built for women, or people of color. They were built by people of color.
“How then should students of color come to terms with occupying spaces that were never meant for them?” Magaziner asked.
UCT student Nompilo Sibisi, who remembers attending a teach-in held at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, expressed a similar sentiment. Sibisi recounts that a woman stood up and told the crowd she wanted to burn the walls of the university to the ground. For her, the bricks were laid with blood — stained with the oppression her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents had suffered at the hands of white people. And yet, it was the space she was expected to exist and learn in every day.
Lekha Tlhotlhalemaje ’19, freshman from South Africa, arrived at Yale in the midst of tense racial debates. Having attended UCT for a semester, she had experienced parts of Rhodes Must Fall as a South African student. Tlhotlhalemaje said it was a surprising experience to find that Yale students were also tackling the question of how to move forward out of a painful history. Still, for her, it was confusing to be thrown into a situation that had arisen out of a history of racism she wasn’t familiar with. “Although racism exists in South Africa, it’s a very different kind of racism,” she told me.
She said a lot of her confusion about what was happening stemmed from not knowing her place in the movement as an African student. YASA, for example, is run out of the Afro-American Cultural Center, and yet not all African students are of color. The question of place becomes a difficult one to answer. Tlhotlhalemaje said she feels very comfortable in the Af-Am House, and yet the question of how to exist at an intersection still remained.
Having experienced South African movements as well as Yale movements first hand, Tlhotlhalemaje has unique insight to offer about the similarities and differences between the student experience of both. When I asked which movement she felt more involved with, Tlhotlhalemaje said she was surprised to find she felt more connected to what was happening at Yale. She said she thought this was because the two institutions were tackling institutionalized racism in very different ways — RMF was sparked with an action, whereas the issue of renaming Calhoun has not progressed beyond discussion.
Hlophe commented that seeing Yale administration grapple with the issue of Calhoun’s name was like “watching someone trying to complete a test that you had already seen someone else finish.” The two universities and two student movements, despite their differences, could learn from each other’s successes and challenges — and maybe that’s where African Yalies fit into the picture.
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South African student Nicola Soekoe ’16 remarked that having spent four years at Yale, she finds it difficult to see South Africa the same way she saw it as an 18-year-old. She said that being at Yale has made her unlearn a lot of the ideas she had about race. This difficult process of “unlearning” refers to the greater change in rhetoric that has happened in South Africa and at Yale. Previously, South African students called for “transformation,” but as the goals of the movements grew, that language shifted. “Transformation” became “decolonization.” The shift recognizes that the “born-free” generation of South Africans is not just living with an apartheid hangover. Systemic racism has its roots far deeper, “and the older generations of South Africans just don’t see that,” said Soekoe. Until RMF, South Africa wasn’t as sensitized to the manifestation of implicit racism. People weren’t really speaking about cultural appropriation and the nuances of racism.
As a result, many questioned whether it was necessary for the statue to be removed. How would taking down a statue reform UCT’s institutional racism? Joy Shan ’15, a Yale student who moved to Cape Town after graduating last year, shared her views on the Rhodes-Calhoun tie in a News op-ed last September (“Changing our spatial vocabulary,” Sept. 17, 2015). Shan, a former editor of the Yale Daily News Magazine, said: “Targeting a symbol, I worried, would amount to only spectacle — a move that, though provocative, would divert attention away from the more subtle ways the university maintains white supremacy. It was the same reason I’d never advocated that Calhoun, my residential college, be renamed.”
However, in her column, Shan recounts how living in South Africa changed her perspective. Reconsidering the renaming of Calhoun in this new perspective, Shan wrote: “By learning to call Calhoun by a new name, we may begin to reconfigure our habits of everyday perception: how we see, hear and make sense of our daily interactions with one another. Here in Cape Town, institutional change remained a rumor until students roused a sleeping statue. It is time we do the same.” From Shan’s experience, it is clear that the stakes of the Calhoun question extend beyond the realm of symbolism.
A South African graduate student, Thuto Thipe GRD ’21, and Magaziner wrote in an article for the blog Africa Is A Country: “It was never just about a statue. Students have been, and are continuing to, call for the radical restructuring of political, social, financial and knowledge economies to reflect the lives and satisfy the needs of all.”
Similarly, the movement at Yale was not about a free speech email. It was not about Halloween costumes, and it isn’t about the name of a residential college. Thipe and Magaziner wrote: “It was never just about apartheid. It was about the future.”
Here, I couldn’t agree more. Yes, spaces must be decolonized. Yes, Rhodes and Fees Must Fall, but these movements are about more than symbols and fees. They are about what we as students want the future to look like. At some stage, when all the bricks have been torn from the walls of oppression, when there is no more left to tear down, we’ll need to begin to build.