The Steyn on the University of the Free State
By Tammy Fray
Various student movements across the country since 2015 have sought to highlight the ways in which university campuses have remained untransformed in democratic South Africa, particularly with respect to spaces, statues, names and symbols and this discourse has exploded this year at the UFS. In this analysis piece Tammy Fray, UFS SRC member, weighs in on the continuous discussions around Steyn and transformation.
The statue of Afrikaner patriarch, hero and former President of the Orange Free State, Martinus Steyn, occupies a place of immense prominence on the UFS Bloemfontein campus. His statue stands directly in front of the Main Building. It is mounted on a tall pillar that allows it to sit from a celebratory position- appearing almost as though he is surveying over a domain that at one point in our history, was his to rule and lord over.
As the hub of Afrikaner nationalism in the early 1900s, the Free State played a crucial role as the birth place for the values, ideals and aspirations of an Afrikaner culture that sought to achieve powerful supremacy through systemic racism. This is a part of our history, we cannot forget. Though President MT Steyn was not alive during the rule of the National Party, his belief in the supremacy of the white Afrikaner can be argued to have contributed to the system of apartheid implemented a few decades after his passing. From this context, we see that the statue in all its grandeur and prestige, is not reflective of democratic South Africa we are attempting to build. Steyn and his ilk, are individuals who believed in white supremacy, the eternal reign of the Afrikaner and ultimately, the inferiority of black South Africans.
Two years of protesting met with increasingly intensified violence has manifested into mounting unrest among black students who are impatient with the ways in which university management and stakeholders are treating transformation and inclusion of black students as secondary to all else.
A cursory glance of South African history will reveal that opportunities for progression, advancement and recognition of humanity has long been denied to black South Africans and a vital extension of this denial has been the domain of tertiary institutions. Universities, much like churches and other state apparatuses, have always been used by ruling oppressive states as a means to perpetuate ideologies and beliefs that justify their governance. Naturally, this means that the very temporality of the university space in South Africa is constructed in a way that emphasizes the exclusion and dehumanization of black South Africans. The university in South Africa is not a black space and has not been tangibly designed to aid black success and prosperity. In light of this, black student activists called for the removal of the statue – as a commitment from the university to prioritize the transformation of the institutional space as well as to allow for the inclusion and recognition of black students on a campus that still remains hostile to their presence, despite being over twenty years into democracy.
At a dialogue hosted during May by the Faculty of Humanities, a panel of seven stakeholders at the institution were invited to present their views on the statues removal. For the most part, the view points seemed divided along racial lines and I felt increasingly frustrated at the ways in which debates between black and white South Africans is often fruitless and exhausting simply because transformation does not seem to have the same definitions for black and white South Africans respectively. There is a gap. A misunderstanding that seems to have aided the comfortable existence of white privilege. In her book, Reflecting Rogue, Pumla Gqola explains that the collective definition that we have assumed for the sake of placating white privilege, is one that has a narrowly defined focus that negates the need for accountability, justice and retribution completely. Our corrosive definition of transformation has never demanded of white south Africans to interact with and acknowledge the privilege they have enjoyed for hundreds of years, particularly the privilege that was central to the belief of white Afrikaner supremacy.
A fixation on a racialized debate has meant that very little strategic work has been emphasised and thus there appears to be no plan about where to go once the statue has been removed. This, is mainly because as a movement we have had to and are still spending too much time educating and placating white privilege. We need to bare in mind, as change agents and stewards of a greater South Africa, that the fight here is not about the statue but about the potential for transformation contained within the statue. The statue is merely the entry point into a broader set of demands that must include decolonisation and intersectionality.
As the youth, we have been able to note the contradictions between what the rainbow nation espouses and our lived realities and we need to use these sites of contradiction as points of insight and wisdom. Contradictions should be what we use to provide us the truth about the university space. If we aim to provide a space that is free and accepting of all, but is still not attuned to the needs and desires of womxn, gender fluid and members of the LGBTIQA+ community then we are not using the removal of the Steyn statue to its maximum potential. The removal of the statue needs to be a point at which all intersections of oppression meet and are interrogated so that a collective strategy for their dismantling can be developed and implemented. Decolonisation and intersectionality must also allow for us to interrogate the ways in which our education system is failing our country. There is far too much focus on preparing us as students to become good workers and employees via Eurocentric curriculum, but not on training us to adapt mindsets, perspectives and values that are geared towards contributing to and shaping the future of the country.
There are talks and dialogues around the statue on the campus. The debate, however, appears to have deadlocked between two polarized views; keeping it and not keeping it. UFS stakeholders are now however looking towards management to take a decision and time is steadily running out as resentment between the racialized binary views grows.
Steyn, must come down in order for us as an institution and a people to move forward, and white privilege cannot be allowed to derail this mission. We can no longer move transformation along at a pace that is dictated by white privilege.