Ever heard of the phrase “acquired taste”? Being and existing at the University of Cape Town (UCT) is an acquired taste of being. One ought to acquire new ways of being at the University. New ways determined by Western standards. It is not something that comes naturally for Black people and UCT illiberals are always ready to remind Black students and Black academics that they are so lucky to be in UCT. As such, assimilation becomes the order of day. The manner in which you dress, talk, eat, relate to people or even the manner in which you breathe is completely different from how we do things as Black people. Such ways of ‘being’ are extremely awkward at first but as times goes by you learn to conform to the White culture and to assimilate to Whiteness. You basically acquire the culture that will determine your journey with the University.
Being at UCT brings about deep seated internal fights for many Black students, highlighting the psychological intricacies of blackness in White institutions. Black students and academics alike are compelled to forge their identities and career trajectories in a space that does not understand their existence. The institutional culture coupled with White arrogance forces the Black majority to negate their being and thus adopt Whiteness as their way of life. What Black students and Black Professors at UCT have become now is a mirror, a mimic and an assimilation to Whiteness and its Being. We are yet to know what it means to be fully and proudly Black at UCT. We are yet to experience the total liberation to be in a White institution such as UCT.
Perhaps these are only my observations and experiences from my lived reality. Experiences of someone who was born in poverty, someone who learned from early on that the existence and survival of Black people in this world comes with a lot of pain and suffering. From a distance, it is easy to think that Black middle-class people have it easy in White institutions such as UCT. But, I quickly learned that despite one’s social status, UCT is not a space where you can wake up one morning and feel like you belong as a Black person. There are always going to be things that remind you of just how much of an outsider you are. Things that will bring you back to the lived realities of Black people. Such things can be in a form of rejection in social circles and failure to understand and identify with contexts in the curriculum and study materials. For me, my daily reminder was the statue of Cecil John Rhodes.
I must admit, before coming to UCT, I did not take much note of the significance and the meaning of statues that are in and around City of Cape Town. However, being the inquisitive person that I am, I went on to study the history of UCT. Some of my findings revealed how Rhodes donated the land where UCT stands today. Probing further, I learned that this is the same Rhodes who had done some of the most horrific and inhumane things to my Black forefathers and mothers. I was shocked at the audacity of Whiteness, how could, in this day and age, the “post-apartheid age”, UCT continue to honor such a person? Later, I was to learn that there is nothing “post-apartheid” about UCT, notwithstanding that Black people were now “allowed” to “exist” at the institution. Existence that is constantly under the White gaze, which is entrusted with making sure that the institution maintains its White standards at all costs.
I quickly realized that the White world continues to be insensitive to the plight of Black people. Most shocking was how Whiteness continues to be indifferent to our brutal history. A history that left many Black people dispossessed and stripped of their dignity. I was shocked at how Whiteness remains indifferent to how this history continues to shape the lives of Black people here and now in UCT. There is no doubt that the erection of the Rhodes statue at such a prominent site was a celebration of a man who played a big role in shaping the horrendous fate of Black people. Institutions such as UCT are quick to forget about the daily conditions that Black people are subjected to. Conditions that are a direct result of colonialism and Apartheid. These conditions of Black people were not to be discussed either by Black people among themselves nor by White people in their positions of administrative and epistemic power. The state of Blackness and conditions of Black people were not part of critical discourses at UCT. For to speak about the State of Blackness and the conditions of Black people in UCT was to directly and indirectly ask for consequence management and the political and ethical accountability of White people.
The Political Protest: Poo as a tool?
The brutality of the institution, the unexplainable experiences of racism by Black people at UCT’s lecture halls, seminar rooms and staff room meetings and the University’s indifference to Rhodes’ historical legacy of violence and brutality against Black people in South Africa were deeply symbolized by the statue of Rhodes, erected at a prime location. I got to a point where understanding and unpacking “Black Assimilation at UCT and White Arrogance at UCT” became my project. I felt compelled to “remind” Whiteness of the devastated state of my people in their own homeland. To share and experience with them the shame of our people. What better way to do that than to bring the human faeces, which Black people are forced to live with?
Many Black people are forced to live without proper sanitation, including toilets. In the Western Cape, the Democratic Alliance government introduced the bucket system for people in informal settlements and townships. We grew up in these conditions, we have lived with shit for the most part of our lives, we are shit and shit is us. Shit is such a defining feature of our being and existence, so why do people want to separate us from our lived daily realities? Even White people themselves think that our competence lies in cleaning up after them. Our parents have worked in the “kitchens”, that is, as domestic workers for most of their lives. They have cleaned the shit of White people without any complaints. It was therefore hilarious to hear some of the comments about how it is our Black parents that will have to clean the poo which was used to give Rhodes a shower on the 9th of March 2015. Such comments just show the ignorance and arrogance of Whiteness.
The 9th March 2015 political protest had been brewing from these experiences and observations. The protest was a direct confrontation with White power and arrogance. In order to confront White power, we had to rid ourselves of this so called shame of who we are and our experiences that shape our being and existence. The showering of the Rhodes statue with excrement also served to re-introduce our Black realities to the White world. It was therefore shocking to hear criticism from Professor Jonathan Jansen about how the use of shit for political protests undermines the integrity of protesters and their cause. I do not remember the Professor asking and seeking clarification about the nature of the poo protest. I remain unsure as to what integrity the Professor was referring to. I suppose the Professor is not fully aware of the plight of Black people in South Africa. As an intellectual, I would expect the Professor to dig deep into the reasons why human faeces was chosen as the medium with which to stage a protest. Like many other Professors who display a deeply ingrained assimilation to Whiteness and have a deep-seated need to be accepted by the White world, Professor Jansen rushed to share his thoughts with the world.Professor Jansen was contacted by email on 1 July and offered a right of reply to the criticism expressed in this article, which he declined.
Professor Jansen not only undermined my intelligence as a university student, he also sought to insult me in the process. I am glad that his comments came at a time when I had studied the relationship of our Professors with the White world, their fears and trepidation towards the brutality and exclusion of Whiteness. Therefore, I quickly diagnosed his sentiments around the protest and the #RMF movement. I argue that it is statements such as those made by Professor Jansen that undermine the integrity of Black protesters fighting to be seen and heard. Professor Jansen has been at the receiving end of the exclusionary tendencies of White institutions. He seems to want to police Black people just like he has been policed his whole life by White people. He seems to want to box protests and to dictate to protesters what works, what does not work and what will advance their cause. But we cannot be dictated to by Professors who have worked for Whiteness and assimilated to Whiteness so much so that they seem to forget that the majority of Black people in South Africa live in abject squalor.
For many years, academics at UCT have tried to uphold their “integrity” by organizing seminars on transformation and racism at UCT. I have personally attended so many of these seminars and I was always left frustrated by how the University seems to have turned a blind eye to the issues raised during these seminars. It became clear to me that Whiteness was not willing to listen and was not easily shaken by honest and open dialogue. In fact, such dialogue desensitized them to the struggles of Black students and academics in the institution. These seminars failed to yield any positive results. I suppose academics continued to rely on them as a way to air their experiences and plead with Whiteness to understand and acknowledge their plight in the fear that resorting to other means that might be deemed as barbaric and lacking academic “integrity”.
One would expect that after the incident of throwing human faeces on the statue of Rhodes, which received international coverage, academics in the institution would use their writing to lead the dialogue on the racism at UCT. It is saddening that to see how Black academics have failed to advance our cause as Black people. Black academics have failed to highlight the struggles of Black people, to influence the discourse and truly unpack the lived realities of Black people on the ground. We continue to be shocked by articles written by White academics, for example, the recent articles by UCT and Stellenbosch academics which caused an uproar. It seems to me that Black professors are largely reactionaries, they fail to study Black issues, to reflect on these issues and to unpack the structural factors that continue to suppress us.
Part of our fight during #RhodesMustFall was for universities to hire Black academics. We believed that there is a lack of Black representation in the University and this leads to a poor understanding of Black students’ experiences. Our hope or rather, my hope, was for Black academics to be respected, visible and to use their visibility to fight for the cause of Black people in the University. Not only did academics, both Black and White create a meaningless discourse around the 9th March 2015 event, they continue to turn a blind eye to the so-called “politics of poo”. Academics have not immersed themselves in unpacking the spillage of human faeces on the streets of Black communities in a multi-billion-rand city like Cape Town. They do not necessarily care about the lived conditions of Black people, the same conditions that many of them have experienced first-hand, hence the phrasing “the politics of poo” instead of clearly identifying and naming the myriad of factors that Black people are confronted with on a daily basis.
As things stand now, the University has been slow in realizing its transformation goals. Under the pressure of students, the University was quick to establish task teams to look into transformation challenges. The curriculum and the names of buildings in the university were identified as some of the factors that hindered true transformation and inclusion of Black students and academics. At the time, that is in 2015/16, it appeared as if the University was working tirelessly to transform the institutional culture at UCT, yet six years down the line, the curriculum and teaching approach in the University remain the same and the majority of buildings continue to bear White/colonial names. The question then becomes, is the University willing to transform? Who or what are the factors that seem to be delaying the University’s steps toward fundamental transformation?
UCT has had three Black vice-chancellors, each of them serving a minimum 8-years each as heads of the University, yet the University is more White than ever. Does this mean these individuals do not care about transformation or are the other factors at play? It is a well-known phenomenon that change is scary, the fear of the unknown. It is also a well-known phenomenon that change is slow. However, that which is happening at UCT, that is, the University’s resistance to transformation, is beyond these phenomena. Again, one would think that Black academics would be at the forefront of trying to pinpoint factors that hinder transformation in the University, yet that is not the case. It is well known that academia is extremely competitive, I suppose Black academics are more invested in advancing their careers as opposed to transforming the University.
At the end of the day, UCT remains White, the culture of the university as well as the teaching approach remains Western.
The question then becomes, how much social impact has the politics of poo had on the University’s structures? The answer is simple, little to none.
The actual act of throwing poo at the statue of Rhodes is not something that is talked about in academia, in fact the politics of poo never really saw the day light in University dialogues. Many were quick to condemn the act and immediately after that it was buried. Today we talk about #RMF, we talk about institutional racism in Universities, we talk about lack of transformation, without delving deep into the act of throwing shit itself and what that act means for our struggle as Black people. It seems academics have no interest in talking about human faeces as a tool to alert the world of our struggles and bring back our dignity.
It would be unfair not to mention that there are indeed academic writings that talk about #RMF. Yet, it is interesting that such pieces of work mention the catalytic act that birthed #RMF in passing. The act of throwing kak at the statue of Rhodes seems to be an event that many would like to sweep under the rug. How do we interpret the erasure of the poo act in mainstream academia? Why would academics be so eager to erase such a powerful act from history? The answer to this question remains unclear to me to this day.
|Professor Jansen was contacted by email on 1 July and offered a right of reply to the criticism expressed in this article, which he declined.