Mikaela Erskog, The Daily Dispatch
Events such as the student-led #RhodesMustFall campaign at UCT and the recent formation and actions of the Black Student Movement at the university currently known as Rhodes reveal the extent to which South African universities have not been central and progressive hubs of social transformation.
Concerningly, this moment also indicates a lack of critical engagement with how seriously students are invested in the transformation of historically colonial educational institutions.
Yet, what really has had many of the students at a loss is the complete ignorance shown by academics and political leaders who are misreading the nature of the recent student activism. Responses by the likes of Free State University VC Dr Jonathan Jansen and Dr Thami Mazwai have coloured students as unintellectual, unthinking rebels without a cause.
These reactions suggest those supposedly at the helm of the transformation agenda are not critically aware of the actional dimension of transformation.
Put simply, a vast majority think of transformation in narrow, static and elitist ways – ways that prevent them from recognising the lifeless quality of their conceptions of transformation.
This has led to the failure to recognise the actual significance of the student contribution in the critical and political work of transformation.
“Transformation” in the South African university has become as flat and as crudely drawn as the rainbow sketched out by the infant nation of 1994. This is evident in the unreflexive and condescending way transformation is predominantly contained and disseminated by older generations. Whether it be the university’s upper administration or the top tiers of academia, the transformation agenda is dictated from above. It is then handed out to students in neat, colour-coded binders. For the old guard, transformation is about imbizos, reports, demographics and speeches.
This is not to say that bureaucracy-driven processes for transformation are entirely antiquated. Research such as the report on the Rhodes University Institutional Culture Staff Survey (2014) created by the office of equity and institutional culture provides important information that should inform transformation initiatives. It exhibited the concerns of staff about prevailing institutional inequities and the lack of serious transformation.
Yet ultimately, when the agenda for the transformation of education is driven from above it tends to establish an uncritical, hierarchical relationship with students. These processes position the least powerful (students, grounds staff) as perpetually inferior to the “actual” drivers (teachers, chancellors, directors). Older generations articulate and lead educational transformation, students are meant to follow.
Bureaucracy-driven transformation concretises the imagined relationship between academic and student. By doing so, it undermines the intention of transformation – to create an active, self-determining and critical student population.
What is actually frightening about the “vandalising” of statues and black students occupying elite institutional spaces is that transformation is no longer being legislated or decreed from the institutions councils and senates. What is jarring for those who cradle transformation-by-numbers is that students know that transformation does not happen on paper. Real transformation exists in actions. Actions that alter previously established norms. Actions that manifest from the will of human beings.
The university currently known as Rhodes is known [in this dispensation] for it’s apolitical student body. Have students, in the 20 years of “democracy”, collectively voiced dissident political opinions with such force? Have students openly and collectively discussed and challenged the politics of oppression?
Is it not then transformational to see a black student movement gathering in public to discuss the institutional racism and it’s effects on those worst off in society? When the apolitical shifts to political, that is in itself transformative.
At UCT students occupied the Bremer building, renamed it Azania House and used the space to explore African intellectualism. When students occupy, claim and remake previously exclusionary spaces, they are actively participating in determining spatial and intellectual transformation. As intellectual and theatre practitioner Augusto Boal explained in his seminal text “Theatre of the Oppressed”, “The [uneducated] mustn’t just liberate its Critical Conscience, but its body too. It needs to invade the stage and transform the images that are shown there.”
Transformation does not exist until it is enacted by those it seeks to transform. By the very action of it being participatory and student-driven, the “transformation agenda” is transforming.
The students involved in the events at the universities are critically conscious of the horrors that plague their society in general and their universities in particular. They are invading exclusionary conceptual and physical stages. They are determined to change exhibited image because this is part and parcel of the process of transformation. As Boal put it, “The action of transforming, is in itself, transforming.”
Students cannot consider a university to be transformative if they are not involved directly in the transforming. If the shape and form of student participation in transformation makes some uncomfortable, that is a “you-problem”. For the likes of Dr Mazwai to think they can dictate to students “their purpose” is deeply patronising. That approach reinforces an authoritarian version of transformation that continually treats young adults as unknowing children.
In an interview on Your World on SABC news, Mbali Ntuli stated that taking down statues is not dealing with “the real problems”. She, like many others, completely misses the point. Taking down Cecil John Rhodes’s students indicates how students are using their intellect to engage how our deeply troubling past is alive and well in the present.
#RhodesMustFall has not been about an inanimate object or a dead man, but about using the weight of the collective to catalyse a national conversation about present inequalities. It is about the political will of students to determine the physical and intellectual spaces they inhabit in a way that reflects them as people.
In the Black Student Movement at Rhodes, working class black students find that their daily hardships come from a system that depends on their oppression. Responding to this by exposing their discontent for the maintained norms and figureheads of that system, is taking seriously the real problems of their lived experiences.
The nay-sayers and finger-waggers are not taking seriously the transformative quality of recent student activism because it would compromise their untransformed power and privilege.
Much like other dissident activist groups in South Africa, the Black Student Movement is not interested in perpetuating exploitative systems of oppression. We do not believe in an education system that thinks of transformation as something accomplished by conforming to bureaucratic channels that exclude student voices. Learners must lead in the fight for real transformation.