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The University of Cape Town's battle to address a racist legacy

 The statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes before his removal at the University of Cape Town, 2015. "data-src =" 01321- 3 / d41586-021-01321-3_19139214.jpg "/>
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class= A statue of Cecil John Rhodes was removed from the University of Cape Town campus in 2015. Credit: Rodger Bosch / AFP / Getty

In 2015, a giant crane lifted a 900 kilogram bronze statue of the imperialist Cecil John Rhodes from its pedestal at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa. Rhodes, a 19th century diamond magnate and representative of the white supremacist colonial government of southern Africa, had bequeathed the land where the university now stands. The removal of his statue occurred two decades after South Africa's first democratic elections and the end of apartheid.

When the crane did its work, the image of Rhodes in front of the UCT main hall stank, both figuratively and literally. . A month earlier, a student had dumped a bucket of human excrement on the statue, lighting the fuse for what would become known globally as the Rhodes Must Fall movement (see "Of Protest and Potential"). Since the fall of the statue, UCT has hosted conversations on how to ensure that the institution, one of the largest in Africa, embraces inclusion at its core.

This includes challenging their traditions, which critics say are rooted in colonial times. values ​​and minimize African knowledge and experiences. These discussions have been difficult for both the academic system and those fighting the status quo. Despite efforts to increase the number of black researchers on campus, 40% of academic staff members are white South Africans, compared to 9% of the general South African population. Black South Africans represent more than 80% of the country's population.

Nature asked four UCT students and staff members to reflect on developments since 2015. Their experiences are relevant to institutions around the world as they grapple with the #BlackLivesMatter and #ShutDownSTEM protests by racial inequalities in society and the colonial foundations of many universities.

Our interviewees refer to four key events since the statue's fall: the 2018 suicide of Bongani Mayosi, dean of health sciences at UCT; a 2019 report on UCT's institutional culture (see; the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic; and a devastating fire last month that swept through the university's African studies reading room and some of South Africa's most treasured stories.

Of protest and potential

Here is a brief timeline of major events at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa since the Rhodes Must Fall movement began in 2015.

March-May 2015

Activist and student Chumani Maxwele throws a bucket of human feces on the bronze statue of 19th century British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes at UCT. This triggers a series of protests culminating in the removal of the statue on April 9. The protests then expand to complaints about the curriculum, tuition fees and housing for financially disadvantaged students. On May 26, Vice Chancellor Max Price reaches an agreement with protesting students who had occupied a building on campus, whereby the students promise to leave the building and the UCT will not take disciplinary action against the leaders.

October 2015

Protests resurface on university campuses in South Africa. A hashtag that became popular earlier this year, #Feesmustfall, is trending again on Twitter. At UCT, the police use stun grenades to disperse students


 South African students protest in front of Parliament in 2015, Cape Town. "Data-src =" 01321-3_19156720.jpg "/>
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class= South African students protest in front of the parliament building on October 21, 2015 in Cape Town. Credit: Nardus Engelbrecht / Gallo Images / Getty

February-March 2016

The protests return to the UCT, this time against the lack of housing for black students.

November 6, 2016

UCT reaches an agreement with protesting students and grants clemency to protesters. It also establishes a commission to investigate the February 2016 protests and make recommendations on how to transform the institutional culture and address racial and gender inequalities


March 20, 201 9

The commission publishes its recommendations. The university issues a statement that reads: "We have reluctantly concluded that racism exists at UCT, that it goes beyond attitudes and beliefs and is aided and abetted by poor management systems that administratively result in racially motivated discrimination. ".

Jun 23, 2020

UCT publishes its first "Transformation Benchmarking Report", which will help the university track its progress on its transformation goals. The report will be published annually.

An investigation into Mayosi's death found that protests over an increase in college fees in 2016 had put immense pressure on him as a black academic leader; students first saw him as an ally, then attacked him when he supported the university.

And the 2019 report found that racism exists at UCT and that university management systems contribute to the problem. Critics called the report biased, while others said it gave voice to the feelings of non-belonging that many black South Africans have long experienced in college.

A UCT spokesperson told Nature that the mixed reception of the report was not "surprising", given the controversial nature of the events the report investigated. “After all, UCT is a microcosm of a country where, after many years of facing this scourge, [racism] remains a serious social challenge. UCT remains steadfast in our determination to defeat him, working together as a community, "the spokesperson said, adding that many of the report's recommendations were consistent with initiatives already underway at the university.

 Hlumani Ndlovu in his laboratory at the University of Cape Town. "Data-src =" -3_19139220.jpg "/>
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class= Hlumani Ndlovu calls for more role models for beginning black scientists.

HLUMANI NDLOVU: "The culture of whiteness remains uncompromising"

When Rhodes fell, I was a postdoctoral fellow at the UCT faculty of health sciences. I learned a lot in the weeks leading up to the fall of the statue. I was impressed by the solidarity shown by the students. I was also impressed by the intersectionality of their struggle, which involved not only race, but also gender-based violence and other things that we have not addressed as a country.

Mayosi's death, and the university's investigation into it, underscored the burden placed on black staff members. They have to excel academically while also acting as a conduit between the institution and its African American students and staff, and then on top of that, driving the transformation agenda. That is a huge burden for someone who might feel excluded from the university's power systems from the start.

The fall of the statue of Rhodes was symbolic, not only for UCT but for our nation and the rest of the world. It symbolized that the UCT structure, with white as the norm, needed to fall, a structure that had taken hold since UCT was established as a university for whites. It was a great psychological victory for black students and other underserved groups on campus.

But the question now is, has the system gone down? My opinion is that there has been a desire to transform, but that there have also been people who fight against that transformation. The culture of whiteness remains uncompromising.

This slow pace of change affects us, as young black scholars. If we don't see black teachers, we have no one to look up to and say they are role models. And role models are important – they can help you and open doors for you. That's not exclusive to young black scientists, but I do think the need is most acute for us as black researchers in their early careers. You cannot become what you cannot see.

I do not think that we, as a university community, have adequately dealt with Mayosi's death. Someone who was a brilliant academic and a great advocate for transformation, a role model, took his own life while running the most complex faculty at the university. That will surely have a psychological impact on our desire as black scholars to become leaders.

Hlumani Ndlovu is an immunologist and senior lecturer in the integrative biomedical sciences department at UCT.


 Paballo Chauke with umqhele (Zulu warrior's diadem), in the Computational Biology offices of UCT Health Sciences. "Data-src =" -01321-3 / d41586-021-01321-3_19139218.jpg "/>
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class= PhD student Paballo Chauke is considering leaving the academy after receiving his degree due to the systemic barriers he has faced. Credit: Paballo Chauke

PABALLO CHAUKE: "My black body still needs to be accepted"

I was in the crowd when the statue of Rhodes was brought down. It was a defining moment. My main memory is a feeling of surprise; I never thought racism would be tackled at UCT. When I came to university in 2010, the feeling among black South Africans was that you either assimilated into the culture of whiteness or you perished.

I had recently graduated from my degree in environmental geography, making ends meet. teaching and working as a research assistant. I come from a poor background; my mother was a domestic worker. When I came to UCT, it was the first time I had come face to face with whiteness. Almost all of my teachers were white. That told me I didn't belong.

After the fall of Rhodes, I went to the University of Oxford, UK, to do my Masters in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management. I was one of only four black people out of 600 students at my university. When I returned to UCT in 2017 for my PhD program, some things had changed, but many remained the same. "Transformation" groups had been formed to correct the university's racial and gender balance, but many of them were led by white women. That bothered me.

Looking back, I realize that I experienced a lot of racism as a student. Much of it was hidden, not open. Since the fall of Rhodes, the UCT has hired more black people and the current vice chancellor is black. But it's like a cappuccino: on top you have a white foam, with some chocolate flakes scattered on top; the bottom is where the dark brown is. There are still many things to change.

After my PhD, I don't think I want to be an academic. There are so many barriers to jump. My black body still needs to be accepted by white academics. It's not just about whiteness: I'm queer, I'm poor, I support various members of my family, I need to earn a salary. There is more job security in other careers. Of course, there is the feeling of 'If I don't change it, who will?', But self-care is important and I'm exhausted.

Still, I don't think UCT should be thought of as a place that cannot belong to blacks. When the fire broke out, some people on Twitter celebrated that the colonial symbols had been burned. That made me feel so sore and angry. UCT may have its challenges, but it is also a home for African American scholarships.

Paballo Chauke is a PhD student in geographic environmental sciences at UCT and a training coordinator for H3ABioNet, a pan-African bioinformatics network for the Human Heritage and Health in Africa Consortium (H3Africa).

 Shannon Morreira and colleagues at Hum EDU in 2017, before Covid-19. "Data-src =" -021-01321-3_19139222.jpg "/>
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class= UCT professor Shannon Morreira says her unit is putting more emphasis on the skills students bring, such as language. Credit: Shannon Morreira

SHANNON MORREIRA: "Changes are happening, but slowly"

When Rhodes fell, I was already a professor in the humanities education and development unit at UCT. The unit runs an extended degree program for people from historically disadvantaged groups in South Africa whose grades would generally be too low to allow them to enter. They receive additional academic support and need four years to complete their university degrees instead of the usual three.

Most of the students in the program were black, and I knew some were unhappy. So many of the conversations that came up at UCT about representation and redress after the Rhodes protest were the same as we had with students previously. I was not surprised when protests erupted. What did surprise me was the extent to which grievances were dealt with throughout the university.

As a white staff member teaching predominantly black students, more than ever before in my life, I couldn't escape my whiteness. That experience was valuable and valid, but extremely challenging.

Since then, my unit has changed the way it does things. There is now a feeling that the unit should focus more on making sure what is taught and how it fits the students' experiences, rather than expecting them to "catch up" with the standard UCT learning model. .

We are also putting more emphasis on the skills that students bring to the table. South Africa has 17 official languages ​​and many students arrive with these enormous language resources. We use those resources and allow students to write in languages ​​other than English. We are also changing the content to include more perspectives of the global south in the required reading.

So things are happening. When I started teaching at UCT, research was considered much more important than education. Now, that has partially changed, and teaching and learning are also seen as important. Course designers are thinking more about their target audience than before the fall of Rhodes. As a staff member, I can easily see those changes. But they happen very slowly in the three or four years of a student's college career, and that can be frustrating for them.

Shannon Morreira is an anthropologist and professor of education-development in the humanities at UCT. Unit.

 Merlyn Nomusa Nkomo, master's student and raptor biologist. "Data-src =" .jpg "/>
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class= Merlyn Nkomo says the pandemic helped her find her voice. Credit: Linda Nordling

MERLYN NKOMO: "I feel calmer because I said my part"

When Rhodes fell, I was in the second year of my undergraduate degree in Zimbabwe. Growing up, I had always loved the outdoors and biology. But there are no postgraduate degrees to study conservation in my country, and neither in ornithology, which is my passion. That is why I applied for the master's program in conservation at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at UCT.

I chose UCT because I want to work on conservation projects that interact with African communities. I was hopeful that the university would offer a space that would recognize African languages ​​and cultures. But when I got here, I felt like I might as well have gone to the UK to study. Many of the conservation solutions we discussed in the course, such as going vegetarian or vegan to mitigate climate change, are not practical in many African contexts.

My parents don't have a lot of money. My Mandela Rhodes scholarship was my salvation, because it covers all my costs. I arrived in Cape Town a little over a year ago, just before the pandemic broke out. I was one of only two black people in my class. Then the pandemic lockdown came like a punch to the face. I was already in this space where I didn't feel like I belonged, and suddenly I felt even more isolated.

Still, the pandemic has given me time to think and write, which I might not have had if I had been concerned about the interpersonal aspect of the course. I wrote an article in which I argue that the shortage of black people who study and practice conservation in Africa is the Achilles heel of the field, and that this has to change ([19459013

I 'have engaged with groups that are working to make UCT more inclusive, not only from a racial perspective, but also for people with disabilities. We also want to make the research carried out at the institute more visible. It is about transforming the space. We are in this old colonial style building with photographs of old white natural history collectors on the walls.

I feel more comfortable at UCT than when I arrived, but I don't think it's because the space has changed, or that I've become more adept at navigating it. Rather, I think I feel calmer because I raised my voice and said my piece. People cannot ignore how I feel like a child from a country colonized among them.

Six years after the fall of Rhodes, I think people are more aware and reflective about inclusion. I find that some white people feel like they have to defend the status quo. But no one alive today is to blame for the system that is in place or is guilty of creating it, so no one should have to defend it. We are on the same side; the world will function better if it becomes less polarized.

Merlyn Nkomo is a Mandela Rhodes fellow from Zimbabwe and a PhD student in conservation biology at UCT.

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