Rhodes’ statue falls, but toxic legacies linger

As the statue of Cecil Rhodes is removed from the University of Cape Town, South Africa’s academy still needs monumental change, says Martin Hall

April 16, 2015
Source: James Fryer

Cecil John Rhodes was controversial in life and death. Over the past weeks the fate of his statue on the campus of the University of Cape Town has divided opinion and prompted a countrywide torrent of words. Last week, the university’s council voted to remove the statue in a victory for the Rhodes Must Fall student movement.

The issues behind these protests are more substantial than the ongoing commemoration of a long-dead imperial dreamer. They involve three intertwined sets of challenges relating to the university’s admissions policy, the student experience and the demographic profile of its academic staff.

The University of Cape Town is South Africa’s most prestigious higher education institution. The task of crafting an equitable admissions policy is complicated by a toxic mix of marked economic inequality and the legacies of racial segregation, and by a constitutional requirement that universities address the continuing consequences of apartheid. As a result, Cape Town uses a mix of US-style affirmative action and what would be understood in the UK as contextual admissions.

This makes continuing dissent inevitable. The Rhodes Must Fall student movement’s demands are simple: “adopt an admissions policy that explicitly uses race as a proxy for disadvantage, prioritising black applicants”. But for others who are also demanding radical change, but who are grounded in the long and principled tradition of non-racism, any use of race as a criterion is anathema. White middle-class families see their children as unfairly disadvantaged. Many middle-class black students, born into a new country and beneficiaries of the best schools, resent the implication that they need a leg up to get in. And for a large number of aspirant black students from poor families and impoverished communities, the university remains as inaccessible to them as Rhodes intended it should be.

The student experience comprises the formal curriculum, the extracurricular opportunities of a traditional campus and the attitudes and expectations that people have of one another; together, the institution’s culture. Given that South Africa’s higher education system was built on a double grid of discrimination by race and then again by language and ethnic identity, this is inevitably a difficult area. As Max Price, the university’s vice-chancellor, has stressed, there is a pressing need to build an institutional culture of inclusiveness, where all feel welcome.

The alienation that students can feel was well expressed recently by Mbali Matandela, a fourth-year student at Cape Town. “The lectures don’t represent your history or your narrative at all. You don’t see yourself on the campus monuments or the naming of the buildings. You then turn to your books which don’t address you. Students learn from lecturers and lecturers learn from students, and you share an experience. When the experience is not there, you’re almost disconnected from knowledge itself,” she told the press.

The demographic profile of the academic staff cannot be separated from the student experience. White South Africans now comprise less than 10 per cent of the population as a whole, but a substantial majority of Cape Town’s more senior academic staff are white and those holding professorships are overwhelmingly male. Experience elsewhere, and particularly in the US, has shown that changing a university’s demographics is a long journey that must start with the recruitment of strong cohorts of doctoral degree students and continue with close attention to selection and promotion processes.

The problem now, and it is one that has sharpened around the controversy of Rhodes’ statue, is that more than 20 years have passed since the initial commitments of a new democracy. It is difficult to defend the argument that a further two decades will be needed before South Africa’s leading university will have a profile that reflects and enhances the abilities and expertise of its people as a whole.

Taken together, Cape Town’s contested admissions policy, fractured institutional culture and low levels of recruitment of black academic staff have come to stand for the slow pace of transformation in South African higher education more generally, and for the growing alienation of those coming of age. Sociologist and public intellectual Xolela Mangcu sees a clear danger of heightened conflict ahead. “If people can continue to behave in hurtful ways without knowing it, then surely a counter-reaction is inevitable? Between us and that outcome stand the students of UCT. They are our best antidote to racist psychosis. They are the miner’s canary that is foretelling us of the perils of racial war. Heed them, and heed them now,” he wrote in the City Press.

Statues everywhere can be complicated. They freeze a likeness of a person at a moment when it is assumed that their legacy will be celebrated for ever. This is almost always wrong and the streets and squares of cities across the world are littered with bronze and granite monuments to people who were responsible for heinous deeds. But now and again their moment comes and they prompt claims and counterclaims that force new and significant solutions for seemingly intractable problems. Rhodes was a megalomaniacal imperialist with an unshakeable belief in his racial superiority. With some irony, his fall may prove to be his most enduring legacy.

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