Many More Symbols Must Fall

Universities must do a critical evaluation of their histories

Phiwe Mathe, the former president of the Student Representative Council at the University of the Free State (UFS) wades into the transformation debate and argues that tertiary institutions must dig deep in order to move forward.

In light of the recent events at UCT, it is important to reflect on the deeper issues of institutional racism, the role and meaning of divisive symbols from our country’s past and transformation of formerly white institutions.

All of us must therefore look beyond the seemingly simple matter of removing statues and draw attention away from views which seek to divert us from tackling the deeper issues.

I hope that the events at UCT will evolve in a manner that will give students and university managers/leaders across the country a chance to pronounce themselves on what needs to be done in respect of transformation in higher education. In this regard, I am certain that a definitive determination will be made.

What can we say about these events and how do they impact on our context at the University of the Free State.

There is no doubt that what we saw at UCT was a genuinely peaceful form of protest aimed at questioning how far the transformation of their institution has gone and calling for greater measures in achieving it. It is clear that the students exercised leadership in demonstrating their displeasure and unmasking some of what needs to be transformed. The form of protest clearly indicated the level of rage which I believe would not have been clearly conveyed in any polite way. But such a debate should not take priority at this current juncture.

Transformation has become managerialised and universities have somewhat abdicated the task of undertaking a critical evaluation of their history in relation to transformation and the culpability of intellectuals in reproducing and legitimising this has never been more evident. There has been a huge mismatch between discourse and action and it is high time the two are merged.

Important questions need to be asked on how statues, that celebrate controversial figures who presided over a racist state ideology which exploited, denigrated, dehumanised and brutally violated black South Africans, complement transformation and its cost to nation-building.

Other questions arise about the level of preparedness for change amongst staff of universities, given that one finds the same staff members who previously worked diligently to maintain the efficiency of a racialised academic project over decades. Students, staff and curriculum are key elements in transformation; none of these stakeholders should be alienated.

If the removal of symbols that celebrate and preserve key figures of our country’s greatest aberration isn’t seen as part of the transformation discourse then we’ll need clarification on the definition of transformation. Perhaps the transformation is being held back by the fact that institutions haven’t clarified their definition of transformation and therefore are unable to determine clear goals and paths of action towards those goals.

The stage is set – let’s respond honestly to this opportunity!

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