“This is the start. This is the start of something great,” said an English Literature Honours student, Julia Norrish. The sense of a new beginning was a sentiment shared by many other students.
“This is the start of a real discussion about transformation. It is a happy day,” said second year Law student Lebone Matshitse.
“This is a triumph on so many levels. This is really the start of a new level of consciousness at UCT,” said International Relations Honours student Nomonde Ndwalaza. Ndwalaza, standing beneath the now empty base where the bronze Cecil John Rhodes once sat, who recalled a black lecturer discussing how when he was a student, they protested in the “right way”, the “white way”.
Chumani Maxwele, who started the month-long protests against what students termed “white imperialism” and “institutional racism”, chose not to follow past protests at the university. Last month, Maxwele – the same student who was arrested after showing President Jacob Zuma’s blue light brigade the middle finger in 2010 – allegedly threw human excrement onto the offending statue. What followed here numerous student protests, debates, and an accelerated transformation programme by the University.
On Wednesday evening, the University Council voted unanimously for the removal of the statue from its prominent position on upper campus, pending a decision by Heritage Western Cape. Just after 5pm on Thursday, Rhodes finally lost his position overlooking the Cape Flats. Masses of student protestors, UCT alumni, UCT academic and support staff, and supporters from the broader community filled Jameson stairs, Madiba Circle, and the rugby fields to witness what protesters termed “history in the making”.
Following some pushing and shoving by some of the protesters and taunting of police officers, the removal happened to the sound of thundering “Amandlas” and “Ayeyes”. Protesters climbed onto the empty base and broke out into songs which had become synonymous with the #RhodesMustFall campaign, but this time with a celebratory tone.
But there were moments of seriousness too. Student protester Kgotsi Chikane said this all happened without the assistance or approval of white South Africans. “Black students are reaching a higher level of consciousness. We can no longer wait for whites to reach a progressive level of consciousness,” he said. “If they are not ready, we will have to leave them behind.”
Senior lecturer in Media Studies at UCT, Dr Musa Ndlovu, said students should think carefully about how they chose to celebrate this “victory”. “We must remember that the ‘winner takes all’ mentality is what got us to this Rhodes debate. Twenty years from now, a new generation will be asking these students the very same questions they are asking of white South Africans,” he said.
Ramabina Mahapa, the president of the Student Representative Council (SRC) reiterated previous statements, saying the removal of Rhodes was just the start. In the pipeline for the movement was tackling the outsourcing of UCT workers, increasing the number of black academics, and transforming the “Eurocentric” curricular.
Mahapa also said that the SRC would now take a step back and allow the transformation movement to lead the campaign for further transformation at UCT. “This does not mean we will not support them but in case the next SRC is not as supportive, the movement will be able to stand on its own feet”.
The University would now await Heritage Western Cape’s decision on the ultimate fate of the statue, following their application for the removal and a mandatory public participation process. Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price said he was proud of his students and hoped that whatever decision HWC made, it would not bring the statue back onto campus. “I hope that we will be able to accelerate the process and that HWC will decide that the statue not come back,” he said.
Price said the renaming of the Jameson Hall was next on the agenda. “Renaming Jameson Hall is on our agenda and it is a matter we hope to tackle soon. Also something for us to think about is outsourcing workers at UCT,” he said. Price said the University could set an example for fair labour practices when it came to outsourcing because they were already paying workers double government’s minimum wage and had revised labour practices. After saying again how proud he was, Price drove off with the celebratory sounds of his students echoing through a changed UCT upper campus.