Our lives don’t matter
‘So when Chumani threw the s**t at the statue, black students were finally, like: ‘Yes, we share that pain and it’s time we unite as black students and say we have had enough.’”
Alex Hotz of the Rhodes Must Fall movement at the University of Cape Town describes the moment that set alight an unprecedented resurgence of radical student activism in South Africa.
Student Chumani Maxwele’s “poo protest” became the catalyst for a movement that spread to campuses countrywide.
City Press spoke to Hotz about the early days of the movement, the demands of her “comrades”, being black at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and what work still had to be done there.
“Things have been simmering at UCT for a long time. Racism has been experienced constantly through academic and financial exclusion. This idea of having to assimilate to belong has also been a long-standing issue,” said the Capetonian.
UCT was an unlikely ground zero for student activism, given its reputation of excellence and the entrenchment of a liberal culture. But it is the very notion of liberalism that Hotz said was the problem.
“Under this guise of white liberalism – where we preach ideals, academic freedom, freedom of speech, nonracialism, antiracism and antisexism – UCT appears to be a better place than somewhere like Stellenbosch, where incidents of racism are seemingly more obvious.
“But there is an indication in every response from management that they really don’t care about black students. Our lives don’t matter here,” said Hotz.
She believes the institution refuses to acknowledge its institutional racism and the colonial heritage it was built upon.
“It is that colonial heritage which permeates here. The university wants to preserve white supremacist culture. This institution sees transformation as menial changes in the status quo, but we want to smash the system, start afresh and build a society, a curriculum and an institution that we envisioned, which reflects our existence.”
Hotz pointed to a disparity in which black students and white students are held accountable by the university.
“White students go to clubs and beat up a working, black woman, or wee on a black taxi driver, but then come back to university and nothing happens to them. But when we fight to exist here, we get suspended and receive court interdicts.”
Undeterred by the mixed public responses, the group has kept up the fight for its cause.
There were a number of mass meetings after the poo protest. The decision to occupy UCT’s administrative headquarters – which the group renamed Azania House – on campus then followed.
Hotz said during the time of the occupation, students were intent on educating each other about themselves.
“We were learning and engaging in robust debates around politics and it was important for us to fuse black consciousness politics with Pan-Africanism and black feminism. Because we don’t just exist as black people, we have intersectionality on several levels.”
UNDETERRED Alex Hotz