By: Simbarashe Nyatsanza
I was not actively involved in the wave of student protests that rocked the country between May 2015 and November 2016. These were the Fallist protest movements triggered by the surreptitiously explicit culture of anti-blackness at the University of Cape Town (UCT), that found resonance with and captured the imagination of students across the country and beyond, and have basically led to the resurgence and promulgation of Black Consciousness Ideology in Universities and across the broader youth population. On the actual day that the Rhodes statue fell, I was crumpled up on an old couch somewhere watching the entire proceedings on TV.
My initial impression was an odd mixture of indifference and cynicism; coming from Zimbabwe , a country that bestows on one a vague understanding of the fundamentals of any kind change, protest action had gradually sedimented itself in the folds of my mind as an integral part of the culture and means of expression of the people whose country I had recently migrated into, nothing more than that. I thought the protests had nothing to do with me. Matter of fact, I was a little appalled by the things I was seeing. To me the protestors were a bunch of unprincipled and ungrateful hooligans who were undermining the value and prestige of studying at an institution like the UCT, and had unessentially created the need to cause chaos and disrupt the normal functioning of the institution. Little did I know that these events were part of an ongoing struggle. Although I had at my disposal information that would have given context to the things I was witnessing I didn’t bother to look into it. Instead I simply derived a position based on the facile understanding I had arrived at then.
It was until much later, after meeting individuals who had actually been actively involved in the planning and executing of the protests, that I began to understand exactly what everything was about, particularly with the regards to the symbolism behind the Rhodes statue and why it had to fall.
Cecil John Rhodes was a devoted British imperialist who deceptively amassed vast amounts of land in Southern Africa in the 19th century. One of his aims was to create a conglomeration of British colonies in the African continent that would stretch from the Cape to Cairo. He was an unapologetic racist who at one time made the remark that, “the native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise. We must adopt a system of despotism in our relations with the barbarians of South Africa. I prefer land to niggers”. During his lifetime Rhodes reflected an attitude that was the norm among his people, an attitude of superiority and all-importance which he, like most Britons of the 19th century, derived from the fact that he was Caucasian and came from Europe and therefore assumed upon himself the impetus to go into the uncharted lands of the free and bestow upon the natives ‘God’s gift of civilization’. Not only did he believe in and publicly claim the superiority and sanctity of the Caucasian race, he also thought that colonisation was eventually for the overall betterment of the human race and that Africans in particular had much to benefit from European imperialism.
Rhodes’ influence on the continent can still be felt to this day. He is known for the Rhodes Scholarship that was created through his will. Each year the Scholarship enables 83 students from across the world – notably from former British colonies like Hong Kong, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Kenya and several other Commonwealth countries – to study at Oxford University. Two former British colonies, Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia (Zambia and Zimbabwe respectively), bore his name during the colonial era. There is a Rhodes University in South Africa and a Rhodes Memorial as well. The land upon which the UCT stands today was ‘bequeathed’ to the University by Rhodes in the late 1890s during his tenure as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. The University later honoured Rhodes by unveiling in 1934 a bronze statue of a seated Rhodes overlooking the University rugby fields. His remains lie at Matopo Hills National Park, South of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.
Overtime, the statue served as a constant reminder of the legacy of imperialism and the dark truth of colonialism. It reeked of African slavery and was a continual reminder of the atrocities committed by the British Empire against native Africans in the name of civilisation. Everybody surreptitiously acknowledged it. The statue symbolised the general attitude the institution has towards people of colour; an attitude of disdain, erasure and in many cases outright racism. It stood for the unseen but heavily felt atmosphere prevalent at the university; one that bestows immediately on black Africans an awareness of their blackness and the ugly reality of institutionalized racism. It is this attitude that creates the need for non-white students to aspire to a certain form of whiteness in order to function with as little hindrance as possible. Black students learn quickly to create false realities for themselves, undergoing a systematic form of self-denial, appropriating ideologies and mannerisms that they highlight as deterministic in how they are perceived by the broader varsity community. By implication, the statue stood for the legitimation of the whitewashing of the human condition, that is the hidden culture that makes it apparent that the institution considers being ‘white’ as the default state of being and everything else a derivative of that set standard. This of course overtime pushed ‘non-whites’ into a constricted space of being and expression, influencing most of the things that shape their perception and worldview, starting with how we speak and how we dress, who we keep around us, or whom we chose to be seen with, all the way to career choices and spousal preferences (where applicable) later in life.
A shift of paradigm became necessary at UCT in order to dismantle the bigoted attitude that characterised the institution. The protests served as catalysts for that change and the ultimate fall of the statue grew to mean the beginning of this shift towards a more inclusive and transformative varsity environment.
A few months after the fall (and the general euphoria that came with the falling) of the statue I found myself as a kind of peripheral friend with students who had been ardent proponents of Fallism and Free Decolonised Education. My understanding of the circumstances leading to the inception of these concepts grew, and at the same time so did my awareness of the seemingly harmless air of despondency that seemed to characterise most of our engagements. The question of a way forward after the initial wave of protests seemed to bring about a keen sense of mental unease. There were frustrations that, out of anything else, arose out of an apparent lack of progression, out of a perceived stagnancy in the mobility of the movement itself and the causes for which it stood for. Cadres bemoaned the lack of seriousness and urgency with respect to the university’s approach to people’s lives, as well as an overall purpose for the general collective as the movement stumbled towards an unpleasant halt. Perhaps out of a sense of growing existential fatigue and intellectual angst, elements of self destruction started to be evident in the general conduct and way of being of the cadres; it appeared as if cadres opted towards slowly removing themselves from spaces that did not appreciate and give value to what they (the movement) stood for and yet at the same time could not summon the devotion required to resuscitate the dying movement. The abuse of alcohol, prescription drugs, cigarettes, illegal drugs and other self-mutilating partakings became ways through which people dealt with the inconsistencies of being constantly seen in positions of contrariety ,of being caught up in the middle of a perpetual struggle, and also as an escape from the harsh realities of life in an environment that seemed to present itself as against the very truth of their existence.
However this sense of existential displacement is not central to the overall achievements of the movement. There have been some tangible gains that have nationally been made as a direct result of the Fallist efforts. We have seen a general increase in political awareness especially among university students and the broader youthful population. There has been a noted youthful participation on the national scale post the Fallist season, as perfectly exemplified by the number of prospective members of parliament across significant political parties’ election candidate lists. Some of these potential MPs premised their careers through partaking in the organisation and execution of the protests, and can be said to be direct products of its inception. This is part of the legacy of Fallism, that it exposed the young population as a pool of potential leaders whose voices will command a lot of influence in the future.
The Fallist Movement also resulted in the announced of free education by the former President Jacob Zuma as well as the allocation of close to R1 Billion by the Department of Higher Education and Training for the clearance of the NSFAS historic debts. It remains to be see just how these funds will be distributed, but it goes undisputed that the impetus for these popular-sounding announcements was generated by the Fallists. As the movement trails across the fourth year since its inception, it is important to remember that in these and many other ways, it has played a huge role in redefining blackness and the power of persistence in this country. Long live the spirit of Fallism.