Students at the #RhodesMustFall protest at UCT. File Picture: David Ritchie ANA
Students at the #RhodesMustFall protest at UCT. File Picture: David Ritchie ANA

What a shame about synthetic grass over #RhodesMustFall’s grave

By Opinion Time of article published Apr 8, 2021

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Siphokuhle Mathe

THE University of Cape Town has recently announced it will be launching a scholarship in the name of #RhodesMustFall and the inaugural lecture that accompanies the launch is set to be on Friday, April 9, for public viewing through Microsoft Teams.

While every effort is worth celebrating when it comes to making education accessible, this disingenuous development as part of UCT’s liberal public branding leaves more than a sour taste in the mouth: it buries a painful history of struggle, erases those who paid with their bodies and mental health and invites the right-coloured reverend to preach atop the grave of the movement through Emeritus Professor Ndebele.

When university students at master’s and doctoral level submit their research proposals, they are often held at the mercy of an Ethics Board whose purpose, broadly, is to ensure that human subjects are not harmed in the pursuit of knowledge creation. Part of this is about acquiring consent for “others” to be engaged and for them to know the purpose of the engagement.

It seems unconscionable that the university can forego its own ethical standards in its consideration of the issues of consent, fairness and justice where this scholarship is concerned.

The questions that the university would have needed to intimate and entertain are innumerable but are well encapsulated by three main questions.

The first is: what is the ethical outlook in introducing a #RhodesMustFall scholarship without an extensive consultative process with the activists of the movement?

The second question would be: what about the scholarship embraces notions of restorative justice for those affected by the university’s exclusive and violent norms?

The last question would be: how are the knowledges produced by a #RhodesMustFall scholarship recipient(s) going to contribute towards undoing epistemic violence that the university continues to commit when valorising particular forms of knowledge as opposed to others?

In many ways, these questions are about juxtaposing the university’s desperate desire to rebrand and the substantive values by which it does so.

The nefarious elements of neoliberalism that allow an institution such as UCT to align all its projects with the political rhetoric of the day are far-reaching. For example, when the university decided to subject Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Loretta Feris to a push-out strategy by sending her on a paid “sabbatical”, this stood at variance with the value of representation and protecting women from masculinised norms of victimisation and silence.

The same could be said about the spat between the former University Ombud, Zethu Makamandela, and the sitting Vice-Chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng.

While the merits of each case vary, there is a message about which lives and tenures deserve protecting by the elements of a third force, if so exists.

Yet, UCT is only a microcosm and site where this moral crisis exists. It is comparable to the SABC celebrating the stunning work of Noxolo Grootboom and her value for the isiXhosa broadcasting archive. Against the narrative about a person who enjoyed security of tenure for 37 years, 600 other staff members were being sacked on the same day of Grootboom’s retirement. What are the ethics of such a well-meaning celebration which feeds a fantastic public relations strategy for the broadcaster in the wake of injustice?

The pillars of #RhodesMustFall have always been Black Radical Feminism and Black Consciousness through a decolonial praxis. Yet, if UCT had attuned itself to the essence of its activist constituency, the university would have introspected on the nature of white liberalism that continues to permeate through all its “transformative” symbols.

Stephen Bantu Biko once opined that white liberals think of themselves as the “divinely appointed pace-setters of progress”. Preying on the decolonial rhetoric of the day, the university continues to co-opt brutalised bodies in its PR plight. How different is this from historical revisionism and white-washing project of Cecil John Rhodes’ legacy through the existence of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation when many black people died at the instruction and vicarious hands of Cecil John Rhodes?

While there have been many deserving recipients of the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship and Rhodes Trust’s related scholarships, the ease with which history is glossed over in redress matters tells us all we need to know about the proverbial “old guard”.

During the events of #RhodesMustFall, one of the popular slogans on the UCT campus was “nothing about us without us”. At a time when queer and transgendered people were being erased and overshadowed by nostalgic apartheid patriarchal aesthetics, fighting back at the erasure was common cause, often causing tensions among activists themselves.

It is preposterous that the university has foregone its institutional memory in the endeavour to launch this scholarship. It is metaphorical, too, of what they did in removing the statue of Rhodes and taking it to a safe house in the form of some heritage space that has never been named or openly problematised.

While the university has adjusted well in providing under-served students with data and laptops during the lockdown, the university has also not considered the implications of having a long lecture that imagines the future possibilities of a post-fallist world. Can the entire class of Fallists afford data to be on Microsoft teams to listen to the lecture? I shudder to think that possible in a shrinking economy.

Even on this basic question about democratising access to the internet, the marginalisation of #RhodesMustFall activists is far-reaching for something that is supposedly being created in honour of the historical moment(s). A consultative process would have given rise to this question of privilege. But this speaks to institutional capture of a special type, particularly as there has been no communication as to who will fund this scholarship.

Perhaps the university knows that #RhodesMustFall activists would have been opposed to the bureaucratisation and institutionalisation of their efforts when they continue to imagine a life that is not beholden to charity-type contemplations of redress.

The #RhodesMustFall movement has produced many stunning scholars and thinkers at the university. The question is why none of these thinkers have been invited to deliver the inaugural lecture or a series of lectures. It is clear that the involvement of the chairperson of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation is not only about white liberal politics but has to do, too, with brand equity.

Professor Ndebele is an eminent scholar and author and none of his provocations on Friday will destabilise the capital or coffers of the scholarship. The formalism and paternalism is perfect and so too is the Englishness that makes UCT salivate at the thought of being Africa’s Oxford or Cambridge or Harvard. The ill-discipline of being too much or too angry would not work for the project of looking “civilised” for our onlooking former colonisers.

Why is the much-adored Professor “deputy Mother” Phakeng silent when the presentation she delivered as part of the interview for the position canvassed institutional transformation? Thina sixole kanjani (how can we have peace?) when she is presiding over such unethical processes. Will the ends of having a RMF scholarship ever justify the unethical means of disregarding members of the movement?

For an institution of higher learning, it seems UCT is not the best of learners neither is it willing to do the shadow work on its imperialist capitalist neoliberalism character. As Beyoncé Knowles-Carter once put it, “It’s the soul that needs a surgery”.

Rigorous fundraising, alone, is not the best ritual to cleanse the past and bring about restorative justice. Creating what Gayatri Spivak describes as “critical intimacy” with affected parties as a commitment to atoning for a violent past (and ‒ dare I say ‒ present) is UCT’s most missed opportunity.

The former #RhodesMustFall activists are far too fatigued, too traumatised and too brutalised to keep pleading to be “seen”.

* Siphokuhle Mathe was part of the #RhodesMustFall movement in 2015. He has written and published on the movement in Vanguard Magazine and in a book titled Writing What I Like edited by Yolisa Qunta.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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