Middle class lifestyles have made pretence the order of the day. We don’t have to cope with foul smells, the blood of slaughtered animals or the sight of our own crap. And so in a comparatively short space of time in human history the bourgeoisie have begun to pretend that being civilised is synonymous with antiseptic surroundings.
So it takes great courage to fly in the face of all the la-di-da norms. To carry a bucket of excrement from the bowels of a squatter camp on the Cape Flats. To march up the hill where the rich folk huddle in the shade of the Table Mountain foothills. To dump the human waste in the lap of a man who once claimed he stood for everything that was ‘civilised’.
Chumani Maxwele is an astute young man. He knew exactly the weight of the payload he was carrying. He does not do things lightly. As a fourth year political science student at the University of Cape Town he reels off historical facts and context with ease. He recounts the problems Pallo Jordan’s father, the intellectual pioneer A C Jordan, had in the Sixties at UCT. The very institution he now seeks to change. He tells us about the challenges Professor Noel Chabani Manganyi faced during his career in more recent times.
“We acknowledge our parents’ achievements fighting against apartheid but we are saying now it is about time for us to reflect on our pain, our suffering collectively,” he says.
He tells his story with such vigour that it’s hard to find breathing spaces where we can slip in the questions. Then we make two mistakes. First we ask about his personal background. In the age-old tradition of the left he tells us this is not a story about any individual. He says he does not want to talk about himself.
Son of a Domestic Worker & Miner
But we persist and learn that his mother is a domestic worker and that his father died on the mines. Before the symbolic shit hit the colonial fan recently at the University of Cape Town, he attended a public talk. Lonmin sent a black executive to address the students on the Marikana massacre.
“The whole house was white. I was so upset. How can a black executive from Lonmin come and defend a white, London-based company. I made my views heard and guess what. The chairman was a very apologetic black academic. He threatened to call the security.
“Two weeks later I was in the library. A white student came to me and said, ‘Are you that kaffir who disturbed our talk’. I wanted to engage with him but the insult made me report it to UCT. It has taken them eight months and they have still not finalised the investigation. Every day we face two kinds of racism. Personal and institutional racism.”
Another mistake we made talking with Chumani Maxwele, was asking him about the root of the ‘anger’ of the students. He objected strongly to the choice of word.
“Anger equates to irrational and emotional in the white world. So when black people do something it is not seen as rational or intellectual. I would not describe it as anger but passion. We are very passionate.”
We Love UCT
And then a small surprise. He says he and his fellow students love UCT.
“This is our university. We love UCT because it provides education for our people. It brings a sense of hope to us as black students. It gives us an opportunity to interrogate the ills of society. That’s what we love about it. It gives us an opportunity to get young black intellectuals, young black critical thinkers together… to interrogate South Africa’s problems.”
He praises the efforts of the Vice Chancellor Dr Max Price whom he says “put the race debate at the centre of UCT”.
And now that he has put the crap we are trying to hide behind a middle-class façade of dignity firmly on the table, what next? Of course the statue has to go, names have to change – starting with Jameson Hall probably – and demands for real change have to be heard.
Chumani Maxwele mentions thinkers that have had a deep influence on him. African intellectual Amilcar Cabral, writer James “Go Tell It On the Mountain” Baldwin, Frantz “Black Skin White Masks” Fanon and others. But he says that South African as well as African universities should acknowledge the role parents like his played in our intellectual development.
“Many people like my parents contributed to my outlook but not in the European sense that you must have a certificate. We are still waiting for universities to give honorary degrees to our parents who know the history of our people. They can tell you the clan system and how a village evolved over time. But they did not go to Eurocentric schools and in South Africa today these people are not acknowledged as intellectuals. That is a problem.”
It is no accident that Maxwele chose Human Rights month as the time to infuse new life into the transformation debate. His actions and the subsequent student protests have unleashed a wave of debate, anger, support and soul searching. It has forced us all to confront the tardy nature of transformation and the darkness behind dealing with painful histories.
The students have forced many unpalatable truths out into the open.
Writing in the regularly Monday Bulletin this week Professor Jonathan Jansen, Rector and Vice Chancellor at the University of the Free State mentions the problematic historic figures whose names litter his and other campuses. He says:
“Rhodes, Malan and Hertzog are divisive campus figures who remind black students of their oppression then and their alienation now. But university leaders make a strategic mistake to think these protests are simply about statues. They are about a deeper transformation of universities – including the complexion of the professoriate – that remains largely unchanged. For bringing these matters to urgent public attention, we owe the UCT students a debt of gratitude.”
At The Journalist we will devote much space to honouring this debt over the next while.
Cape Town Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR) plans a public dialogue on Thursday 26 March at the Centre for the Book. The title… Debating the Legacy of Cecil Rhodes. It is chaired by Professor Chris Landsberg of the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI). The speaker is the author of The Cult of Rhodes: Remembering an Imperialist in Africa, Emeritus Professor Paul Maylam of Rhodes University’s Department of History and the discussant is Professor Adekeye Adebajo, Executive Director of the CCR.