Shout­ing un­til there’s change

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It is just be­fore mid­night when I fi­nally meet a Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) stu­dent leader, Atha­bile Nonx­uba. He is at a friend’s res­i­dence near cam­pus, dressed in flops, grey track pants and a black T-shirt. He is ex­hausted from a week of or­gan­is­ing an ac­com­mo­da­tion protest that has be­come known as #Shackville – the nerve cen­tre of this week’s ac­tion was the shack erected on cam­pus. He is an­gry when we meet. Nonx­uba was one of 16 stu­dents in­ter­dicted by the univer­sity this week af­ter RMF erected a shack and burnt works of art hang­ing from build­ings of the univer­sity.

Nonx­uba is a pas­sion­ate 23-year-old pub­lic pol­icy and ad­min­is­tra­tion stu­dent and was among the first group of stu­dents that de­faced a statue of Ce­cil John Rhodes at the cam­pus, thus spark­ing the #RhodesMust­Fall move­ment a year ago.

He chose the Univer­sity of Cape Town (UCT) be­cause it of­fered the best fi­nan­cial aid pack­age of the two cam­puses that vied for him. Nonx­uba, who lived in the Cape Town sub­urb of Delft but hails from the East­ern Cape, is a Pan-African­ist through fam­ily his­tory and his own be­liefs. His un­cle stud­ied civil en­gi­neer­ing at UCT in the 1970s and tells his nephew that their ef­forts to take down the statue would not work. The younger Nonx­uba was de­ter­mined to prove the el­der wrong. As we speak, he vows that it will not be busi­ness as usual at UCT un­til the univer­sity com­mits to “a clear de­coloni­sa­tion pro­ject”. This in­cludes de­mands like bet­ter psy­cho­log­i­cal ser­vices; clear time­lines and frame­works for cur­ricu­lum; and staff changes. Asked to ex­plain why art was burnt, Nonx­uba said it was im­por­tant for black stu­dents to see them­selves rep­re­sented at UCT in art and cul­ture. “Too many things have been done for us with­out us and we are say­ing no more. The end goal is free so­cial­ist education and a de­colonised in­sti­tu­tion,” he said on Fri­day. City Press spoke to 20 stu­dents at the cam­pus who re­ported that the Na­tional Stu­dent Fi­nan­cial Aid Scheme (Nsfas) was work­ing. They were poor stu­dents who had ac­com­mo­da­tion. Our ef­forts to find stu­dents who were home­less were not suc­cess­ful – stu­dent lead­ers said those sleep­ing rough were scared to be fea­tured.

Nonx­uba said he had lived alone in a shack while at­tend­ing high school for a year. The shack burnt down and he lost ev­ery­thing. “I re­mem­ber the prin­ci­pal had to buy me grey pants for school be­cause I had noth­ing. I nearly died in that fire.”

De­spite the bleak re­al­ity in town­ships, Nonx­uba said #Shackville was some­thing black stu­dents could re­late to at UCT; some­thing of their own that re­flected their lives at an in­sti­tu­tion that did not re­flect their re­al­i­ties.

In his ver­sion of events of Tues­day evening, he said that he was phys­i­cally as­saulted re­peat­edly, and pep­per-sprayed by “uniden­ti­fied men” ob­vi­ously au­tho­rised by the univer­sity.

“I was dragged down stairs and beaten up. At some point, I was run­ning blind be­cause of the pep­per spray.”

UCT vice-chan­cel­lor Max Price told City Press that to his knowl­edge no as­saults had taken place and that pri­vate se­cu­rity mem­bers – which the univer­sity had had to bring on to cam­pus for the safety of stu­dents – were wear­ing GoPro cam­eras to doc­u­ment ev­ery­thing.

The stu­dent leader said the univer­sity ought to give them frame­works and time­lines for ac­tion re­gard­ing a range of de­mands.

Nonx­uba was one of the ini­tial five stu­dents who flung fae­ces at the Rhodes statue last year.

He said they had de­vel­oped a phi­los­o­phy of “fal­lism” – “an oath of al­le­giance that ev­ery­thing to do with the op­pres­sion and con­quest of black peo­ple by white power must fall and be de­stroyed”.

He said some black stu­dents were ex­cluded from the univer­sity this year. They were ex­pected to go home, wait for an­other year or work at a lo­cal su­per­mar­ket. The move­ment wanted those stu­dents to be bought back.

“That is what it will take for us to stop protest­ing, which is a con­sti­tu­tional right. But as long as we con­tinue to suf­fo­cate un­der a white sys­tem, we will con­tinue to shout.”

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