Meqoqo: Hanging out with an RMF Leader

Chumani Maxwele, in the forefront of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, in conversation…

The Rhodes Must Fall movement is about transformation. This week as the inequality of South African society was in the forefront once more, we spend time with one of the leading lights among the RMF activists. Chumani Maxwele was suspended from UCT after alleged racial abuse and threats. But the Cape Town Supreme Court has ruled in his favour, forcing the university to lift Maxwele’s suspension.

Some student activists say he is the Biko of his generation. An inspiration to many who are fighting for real change in higher education institutions.

What I also know about my interviewee is that he feels it’s taboo to talk about himself. He’s reluctant to delve into his personal background, giving rise to some wild rumours.

As he enters the restaurant in Rondebosch, I make a bold pact with myself. I am not leaving this place until I know who exactly Chumani Maxwele is. The man who started the ball rolling (or the flack hitting the fan?) in the Rhodes Must Fall campaign.

Birth of an activist

In pursuit of greener pastures 30 year old Maxwele left his home in Kunene village in Mthatha for Cape Town when he was only 17 years. Life in the village for the young man who belongs to the Ndlovu tribe, was dominated by school, attending the Methodist church, chores and extra mural activities like Karate or Cricket. So far, so normal.

“Moving to the city with all the structures meant elevation for my activities. That there will be better education. I mean, I used to play Cricket and there was an imagination that there are bigger fields which are well taken care of in the city. These imaginations were based on the reality I saw on magazines such as Kick-Off magazine,” he says.

As a small town girl myself, I remember how I went crazy about a Kick-Off poster of Ronaldinho.

Maxwele says the activism bug bit him shortly after he moved to Cape Town and became a member of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) youth sector. He was one of the first people to establish a TAC branch in Delft, while he was still in high school.

“Coming from rural areas, I remember arriving in the township and feeling dislodged. You get all these different shocks about the state of black people, the state of young people, kids and you observe all these things.

“For me, at that time I was going to the library often, and then I could tell that there was something wrong about the township itself. I travelled quite a lot around townships like Khayelitsha, Nyanga, Langa and Gugulethu trying to understand what the issues were. At the time the problem was HIV/Aids and organisations like TAC, the ANC Youth League and SANCO were campaigning and I participated as an active member of the community.

“You find that in order for things to happen within communities one needs to get involved. If you see a problem, there is a structure which can solve the problem. Naturally, you want to do something and then you end up joining those structures.

“What attracted me was not necessarily something tangible. I identified a problem and gravitated towards a particular group of people who wanted to solve that problem,” he said.

During his high school days, Maxwele was part of a group that started theatre aimed at addressing societal challenges.

“Outside of school, you take those things to the community. There was this link between school activities and community activities. I was very active, participated in science projects, the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown… drama, arts and poetry. You end up doing stuff that is communal and stuff which benefits the public.

“At that time people were dying from HIV/Aids, they had no access to medication and for us that was a critical thing. People think this thing happened out of the blue. It didn’t. There was a point where people did not have AZT. A simple drug. For us, that was not an easy thing but we fought for it,” he said.

This revelation of participating in drama and poetry surprises me. I am taken back to drama sketches that used edutainment to educate communities on facts surrounding HIV/Aids and to break the stigma. I ask him what role he played. Did he play the ignorant uncle? Was he the MC? Or was he the co-ordinator of it all?

“I did almost all of those things. Essentially you are capable of doing them but at the same time you want to inspire others. Remember there are different sets of townships and different sets of cultures. One is either going to have a culture of standing on the streets mimicking others or one is going to adopt a culture of reading and taking on different responsibilities.

“The roles from me were almost simultaneous. For example when we hosted talk shows. I would be an anchor and then at the same time I would became a participant.

“When we came up with ideas for a drama, it sparked curiosity in people and I had to participate in order for others to take part in the play too. Talent then kicks in. Over time, when there are enough people participating , naturally I drew more to the side which I was more capable in which is mobilising. I find it very easy to do that with people around something,” he said.

His passion of wanting to serve and develop communities fuelled his inspiration to pursue a political science degree.

Then the Shit hit the Fan

To the world, he is the man who threw shit over Rhodes. Some hail him for the brave act and standing up to decades of oppression while some shun him as one of those responsible for removing Rhodes.

He describes himself as a caring and passionate person who loves life and exploring.

“I am a product of opportunities being given to someone and an individual who is driven by the realisation of human potential,” he adds.

Influences which have shaped and moulded his personality came from leaders like Steve Biko, Frantz Fanon, Chinua Achebe and other African writers.

“The resilience of community members also inspires me. That and their fortitude,” he said.

I ask Maxwele what he gets up to when he is not throwing poo at statues or plotting the downfall of decolonisation.

“I run. I run, go to swim and head to gym. Apart from that I read. Currently I am reading three books: Pedagogy of the oppressed by Paulo Freire, The Wretched of the earth by Frantz Fanon and Wounds of Passion by Bell Hooks,” he shared.

Given the opportunity to write a letter to the young 17 year old activist version of himself, Maxwele what would he say:

“Remember your motto: do it! Be active. Question everything. Now that I look back, the dots are connecting. Do everything and most importantly read. Read a lot. By virtue of reading you will realise that you need time for yourself. The more time you have on your own, the more you will be forced to reflect.

“Everything that is happening now connects to the first day I left home and headed to the Delft South library ”

Creating a discourse

Since March this year I’ve been hearing and seeing on social networks and online discussions various versions of ‘Somebody please call Chumani Maxwele.’ Whether the topic was e-tolls, taxes or Nkandla must fall. What is his reaction to such pleas?

“Within academia we have what we call discourse. We dropped something which almost resonates with everyone and everyone wanted to have a say about it. Like the discourse dropped by Karl Marx on capitalism and tools of analysis of what is now known as Marxism. Across the world people are still obsessed with his tools of analysis which he dropped so many years ago. I’ve observed in academia that that which you have dropped forces people to stop whatever it is that they were doing to focus on it and say something about it.

“My reaction to this is that it is a success of a discourse dropped. What has been interesting are the reactions of people – that they see different things,” he explained.

Would you call it Maxwelesim?, I tease.

He laughs and shakes his head.

“No. A lot of collective work went into that. There was pain and there was fear but for me, it has been an experience when professors and people who had been constantly ‘busy’ dropped what they were doing and paid attention.

“This discourse also gave birth to student structures such as RMF, Open Stellenbosch, Black Student Movement and Transform Wits”

A dream for new politics

I disagree with his seing the RMF as the ‘birth’ of a new movement. These student uprisings are not new occurrences in our history. Can they not be seen as a rebirth?

“They have, without doubt, heeded the message from Fanon by identifying the mission of our generation and are fulfilling it by carrying the baton from liberation fighters such as Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Martin Luther King and many more.”

As our conversation draws to an end, I question Maxwele on the dream. Will we get real decolonisation and transformation in our lifetime?

“Yes, we will. Not because of our single efforts but because the time has come. The route has been long and the inevitability of that which must happen has come.

“Rebirth…. [or] a continuation of the black resistance. It is actually both. Now, what I call the post apartheid South Africa, does not know a resistance that is driven by students who are supposed to be happy in the universities. Ones who are supposed to stay there and keep quiet and don’t tell about their experiences.

“This continuation makes it more of a critique and a more confrontational one. I constantly imagine the continuation of the black resistance at UCT as far back as 1945,” he said.

Maxwele, a branch member of the ANC community house in Salt River shares his dream of the new politics.

“I’m interested in this idea of new politics. New politics of critical thinking, serving the marginalised, honesty towards ourselves and those we serve. That we can. We have the potential to be managed and doing something not because of being employed.

“I call it new politics because it’s old politics of great political identities. I say new because we need to reimagine ourselves. What it means to be black, a woman, a man and looking at the egos in politics which are old. New politics say deal clearly with these egos that we are willing to learn from others, work for almost for nothing for a better cause and building a new society.

“These new politics speak beyond the badge of politics of PAC, ANC, EFF. As black people let us let go of that because essentially we are all working for black people. The number of political parties in South Africa show a mediocrity. New politics speak to that. Why have so many political parties if you are serving people? ”.