Cape Town - Tears, fears and a heated debate characterised the University of Cape Town Assembly on Wednesday night as the emotive issue of the Cecil John Rhodes statue took centre stage.
The Assembly, held a day after the UCT deans approved a proposal to remove the statue, saw students loudly proclaim their frustrations and regularly interrupt speeches by management.
“If you as white South Africans think that statue does not affect you, you better think twice, because this world is changing far faster than your consciousness,” a student shouted.
“Cecil took from you too. He took from you your Africanness, your humanity,” she said.
The students, university staff, and management gathered for what the university dubbed the “Transformation Assembly”, focusing on all things #RhodesMustFall.
The Assembly followed weeks of tension on campus after protester Chumani Maxwele allegedly threw human faeces on the statue.
A series of student-led protests followed, including the plastering of posters featuring Adolf Hitler and the Nazi swastika.
Ahead of Assembly proceedings, students donning black clothing, berets, and military boots a la Black Panthers, occupied the stairs to Jameson Hall, singing songs synonymous with South Africa’s liberation struggle.
“Amandla!” shouted Student Representative Council President Ramabina Mahapa before leading protesters into the hall.
Once inside, students taped their mouths shut, with statements such as, “k****r”, “Asijiki (We won’t go back)”, and “Black is beautiful” – in line with calls for a statue of Black Consciousness leader Steve Bantu Biko to replace that of Rhodes.
By the time university management arrived, the hall was packed to capacity.
“This is the best attendance I have seen in all my years here,” said Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price.
Before the Assembly started, UCT’s Convocation chairman, Barney Pityana, who was meant to co-chair the session, was asked to step down because of what students perceived to be his allegiance to those insisting the statue remains.
Pityana denied the allegations, but stepped down, making way for student activist Kgotsi Chikane.
Chikane called on Mahapa to state the SRC’s position.
“Do not bring up the argument that we must preserve history. When you decided on things, we were not here. We were not allowed here,” said Mahapa.
Referring to something his grandmother said, Mahapa told the crowd: “You cannot teach a man born blind about the colour red. He was not born with the experience of seeing. Our white brothers will not understand our lived experience.”
Price was next on the podium, telling the Assembly “the path that causes polarisation on the campus” would not be taken.
“Some of you might see management as the enemy but we see it as us fighting for the same thing. We are all of one view,” said Price.
Following the formal session, students and staff took to the microphone.
“In order to teach you, I, at 53 years of age, took a salary of R9 600,” said sociology lecturer Darlene Miller.
First-year student Bevan Willoughby followed, saying: “I have prejudice programmed deep in my core, but I can stop acting on it. I want to be part of a future where my white children can walk into this hall and see academic excellence of all colours, not just white.”
Another student, Amirah Kahn, read a poem, saying she could never move on, and that the time for “polite revolution with crumpets and tea” was over: “We built this country. We, slaves. Meneer, baas... Gee my ‘n kans om te huil. After hundreds of years, let me cry.”
And as the Assembly began, so too did it end - with struggle songs reverberating through Jameson Hall, with Price dancing alongside students.