An apartheid hangover
The Black Student Movement at Rhodes University started out in solidarity with the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, the radical student protest at the University of Cape Town that agitated for the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes.
At Rhodes, the group gave City Press access to one of its members under condition of anonymity, saying they feared victimisation of their members from management after a tense standoff between the two groups.
The member is a postgraduate student from an East London township. He enrolled at the institution so he could save on travel expenses, but was also attracted by its reputation of academic excellence. Although he has no regrets about enrolling at the university, he says he has found the institution to be problematic from his first day.
“Things got off to a bad start during orientation week, where the lived experience of black students was that of being totally isolated.
“You find yourself in an environment of whiteness, where white students who went to private or former Model C schools feel totally comfortable with the activities. You immediately become aware of how different your background is.
“So, coming from a lowly family and a public school, I felt alienated from the beginning. In residence, I cannot express myself in my home language at house meetings. If I try to express myself in isiXhosa, I get the sense that it symbolises some sort of a lack of intellectual capability to the house committee and other students.”
The Black Student Movement has had a dramatic few days, starting with its occupation of an administrative building on Wednesday last week.
It called for another plan for students who can’t afford to go home for the short holiday period. On Friday, they tried to interrupt a senate meeting, but the venue was changed five minutes before it was scheduled to begin.
The group then marched to a new location, where members of the police dog unit were called in, allegedly by the university.
Over the weekend and the days that followed, the group also disrupted the Highway Africa conference hosted annually by the university.
“When we speak about institutional culture, we are not only referring to the name of the institution, although it is important because of the symbolic violence of that person [Rhodes].”
The group refers to the institution in all its communications and meetings as “this university currently known as Rhodes”. The group says it wants to be heard. “We are speaking, but we are not heard. Our struggles are trivialised. The institution is still struggling from an apartheid hangover.
“In 1976, they tried to delegitimise the struggle of students and that is what we are seeing again,” said the student.
The resurgence of student activism has brought with it – or perhaps because of it – a new wave of black consciousness that has been present in similar movements at some of the top academic institutions throughout South Africa.
FALLEN UCT’s Rhodes