Poet aims to heal social wounds

A future without Rhodes and “Rhodents”

A young Grahamstown writer and poet aims to use his creative work to heal deep social wounds and to bring about profound transformation. This week we speak to Thembani Ma’ay Onceya, who looks to a future without Rhodes or “Rhodents”.

Onceya agreed to take a break. He said he needed time away from his books and so we met at a coffee shop on campus. His lanky figure moved between empty tables before settling down in the centre of the courtyard, now filled with late afternoon sun.

He looked tired. In a quiet voice the poet said late-night studying had been taking a toll. He was often glued to his books until the early hours of the morning, after which his mind wouldn’t let him rest.

Onceya (27) is a writer and activist. Beyond his second year academic commitments studying Anthropology, English and Linguistics, he heads up a poetry group called Cycle of Knowledge, which holds weekly meetings at the university, and a small church hall in the nearby township, Joza. Protest poetry has threaded its way through his life as a young activist and he uses his pen to conscientise and heal.

“We are living in a very wounded society, so in my poetry I try to bring courage so that people can be able to move forward. Building a society where people can live in harmony. My poetry speaks about women’s rights, politics, love and happiness.”

Onceya was raised by his grandmother in Grahamstown and he started performing poetry at the age of 13. He says his political education started in high school, back in 2003.

“We had a group called The Black Army, which was a group of MCs and poets. We used to travel all around the township, Fingo and Joza, rapping, doing free style hip hop, with political lyrics. People would come out of their houses and watch, ‘who are these young people and what are they doing?’ he said laughing.

“We would go to the library every day and talk about books, reading political books and starting to look at people like Malcolm X, Steve Biko. So it’s those days that gave me a sense of political urgency.”

Onceya started acting in 2008, and began writing his own plays. In 2012 he produced his first piece of theatre, called The Wild Revolution. The following year he wrote and performed his second piece titled Programmed. During this time he also joined the Unemployed People’s Movement and the Right to Know Campaign while he was working as a citizen journalist for the local paper Grocott’s Mail.

Beyond his writing, Onceya’s more radical political outlook, and the push for tangible change in his community led to him being one of the founding members of the Black Student Movement (BSM) at “the institution currently known as Rhodes”.

“Early this year we discovered that we have a problem; some students cannot articulate themselves in lectures, some don’t have money to go back home during the holidays and that led to us coming together and forming BSM whereby both privileged and underprivileged students unite to tackle the problems they face and look into the matter of changing the institution’s name,” said Onceya.

BSM protests in Grahamstown image by Xolile Madinda

The BSM supports students who cannot afford to go home over the holiday period and have pushed to increase student transport around Grahamstown. With many living over 20km away, and the university providing limited transport around the city, a large percentage of students who live off campus are unable to access computer labs over weekends. Many have to either pay for a taxi out of their own pockets or walk for over an hour to campus to complete assignments.

These concerns are not new to the university and have led to tragedy on more than one occasion. In one incident, student Lelon Fufu, 23, was brutally murdered in 2012 while hitchhiking to Grahamstown for her graduation ceremony.
“You have an institution that has structural racism, where you can’t find a dean that is black. Where you have an SRC that is supposed to look after students’ needs, but plays to the bureaucratic structures of the university,” said Onceya.

“The SRC is supposed to represent the student body, but those who are silenced, how are they communicating their frustrations in that environment? It’s the legacy of the institution, which was built on the legacy of colonialism and so black students are still not welcome at this university.”

The movement recently held a march calling for the ‘decolonization of our institutions’.

“We had a protest where we demanded the processes of consultation in terms of the name change should be revealed to everyone, and we must know the time frame of when this process will start. We were also talking about the criminalization of black bodies, #blacklivesmatter trying to challenge the institutution on how it reacts to particular students.

“The institution responds to black students harshly. But if you’re a white student you’re taken through certain processes,” said Onceya. “There was a case of racism where a student said to another student ‘you can kiss my white privilege ass’. And that case was not taken that seriously because it’s still going through the process of investigation. Now how do you deal with those kinds of situations, when there is inequality in the ways the institution deals with different students?”

Thembani marches in Grahamstown image by Yanga Gingxana

Through the BSM, students have found a voice to express their frustrations of everyday experiences of covert racism. They speak out against the homogenisation of students as ‘Rhodents’ with ‘purple blood’. “Why are we celebrating the brutalization of an entire population? Why do we claim to be proud Rhodents, when we know that Rhodes exploited, massacred and took the land of the people?”

It has not been an easy journey, BSM members have been intimidated by fellow students, with threats ranging from physical to sexual violence. Despite the threats, they are continuing their fight, calling for the name of the institution to be changed.

The Rhodes University Council recently announced their approval of a two-stage process of talks, where changing the name of the institution will be at the forefront of the discussion. The university announced that a task team will be appointed, with the mandate of engaging the community and student body, to look at the possibility of a name change.

“It is intended that the task team be composed of members of impeccable credentials so that the outcome of the process can be beyond reproach” said Vuyo Kahla, Rhodes Council Chairperson.

“Council accepted the advice and further suggested that the task team not only investigate the matter of the future of the name of our university but situate the matter in the broader context of transformation at Rhodes University,” said Kahla.

Onceya seems optimistic yet skeptical, with the university employing “democracy and bureaucracy to protect its colonial legacy.”

BSM protests in Grahamstown a few weeks ago image by Xolile Madinda

“The name change does not need a debate. They’re holding back the process of the name change because you have a nation that is living under the syndrome of colonialism. That society won’t have a problem with the name ’Rhodes’ even though it’s offensive and represents the colonial legacy of white supremacy,” he said. “How do we name ourselves after a criminal? They claimed that it’s a brand and we need to secure its reputation. But what kind of reputation are we protecting and celebrating as ‘Rhodents’?”

With his study break coming to an end, Onceya started heading back to his residence. For now his energy is on his upcoming exams, but there’s a lot of work ahead for the young activist and born poet.

Images courtesy of aroundhiphop.co.za