Two years ago, the #Shackville protests shook the University of Cape Town. At the start of the academic year, on 15 February 2016, students erected a shack on campus to protest against a lack of housing for black students. Private security and the police were deployed to the campus to demolish the shack and disperse protesting students. Some activists were suspended. Others were excluded. Activist Lindiwe Dhlamini became the only one of five students whose suspension was lifted. She could graduate in May 2017 but refused to be capped by the Vice-Chancellor, Max Price. By AYANDA CHARLIE and LEILA DOUGAN for CHRONICLE.
This feature forms part of a series on young, talented South African women re-imagining spaces around them.
The moment they call her up at the graduation ceremony, the audience goes wild. Students scream, shout her name and stand to acknowledge a ‘fallist’ student activist, who had become something of a legend at the University of Cape Town. In a video of her graduation she is seen with a large smile, holding a placard as she strides up the stairs to where the Vice Chancellor of the university sits, ready to cap her.
“To go and bow in front of a cis-het man who had gone out of his way to make sure that my life is a mess [and] that black people don’t flourish at this university, and then [having] to go and bow in front of that man and thank [him]. Thank him for what?” says Dhlamini.
Max Price can be seen in Dhlamini’s graduation video, sitting and smiling awkwardly, signalling to her that she needs to kneel before him in order to be capped. Dhlamini refuses and the VC is eventually forced to rise from his seat in order to cap her. It’s quite a moment. And the short history behind her decision is entangled in her academic career as an activist and the student protests which have seen young South Africans pushing for change at formerly white institutions of higher learning.
Dhlamini enrolled at the University of Cape Town In 2012, at the age of 28, a full decade after matriculating. She is not a born free. Having never known education outside the townships of Gauteng, she was born lesbian, poor and black, only to be accepted at a 184-year-old academic institution founded by a white man for white men.
“I was scared. I was nervous. I was worried. Am I smart enough to actually go to UCT?” she says, recalling her first day on campus. “One of the biggest challenges about [being at university] was sitting in a lecture hall with students who were 10 years younger than me. You know that feeling of Wow, I’m so old, I can’t do this.”
Dhlamini was born in the mid-1980s, a time when schools and classrooms were still heavily segregated under apartheid law. The UCT lecture halls was the first time she shared an academic space with her white peers. Her story is not unique. Being taught by white professors and struggling with the language barrier was just one of the many challenges she would face while reading towards her degree.
Dhlamini was born in Soweto. Her mother left the country when she was six, leaving her to be raised by her father and paternal family. In grade three, she moved to Orange Farm and was to complete her schooling there. After matriculating, unable to attend university due to financial constraints, she volunteered at an internet-café where she learned computer literacy. Soon after, she embarked on what would be a nine-year journey into the working world.
“I worked dead-end jobs starting with Pick ’n Pay for about two-and-a-half years, and then I became a masseuse, a make-up artist, a nail technician, and then I worked in retail. I did some volunteering with some LGBTI NGOs around Pretoria. And then from there I worked as a PA. And that’s when I felt like, okay I’m done with all of this. One way or the other, I have to go to school. And that’s when I applied [to UCT],” she says.
When Lindiwe finally arrived at UCT, finally settling on her degree in gender studies and sociology, she felt alienated from what she describes as the cis-gendered, white, heterosexually-normative culture of the institution.
“I came to UCT and it was just different. And everything about that space just was not right. It was like you’re forced to assimilate for you to feel like you’re a part of that community… I felt like I didn’t have a voice at UCT, my voice didn’t matter, I was another statistic, a black child,” she says. This feeling would intensify.
When the statue of Cecil John Rhodes fell in 2015 it was a triumph for the ‘fallist’ movement and a landmark moment in post-apartheid South Africa, particularly for the youth. Dhlamini was swept up in a #RhodesMustFall movement that gave black students a voice. For many who had studied at UCT, this statue represented a history of oppression, the continuation of psychological violence in a ‘higher’, unequal society.
This student movement saw the occupation of the university’s administrative building, Bremner House, in which Dhlamini and her peers found refuge. In this building, brought together by what they recognized as black pain, Lindiwe and her peers could now collectively name those nameless feelings of alienation, and fight for change.
The movement committed itself to the struggle for a decolonised African university culture and curriculum that is grounded on African values. In February 2016, however, students were faced with yet another challenge: accommodation. The Rhodes Must Fall movement took to upper campus with a corrugated iron shack and settled between the university’s premier residences – Fuller and Smuts Hall. This demonstration was designed to bring attention to the housing challenges that many black students were facing at UCT.
“When I saw that truck [with the corrugated iron] my heart was just pumping and I wanted to be in that moment and I was just picking up zincs and helping [to build the shack]. It felt so good to disrupt whiteness. It felt so good to just barricade that area and own that land for those couple of hours. To sit in that space and be like, I own this. This is my space. You have no right to pass here,” she says, recalling the day the #shackville protests began.
While disadvantaged students, who had come from distant parts of the country, were accepted to study at UCT, many were not provided with accommodation. “We knew that there were some residences with some empty rooms but there were students, black students, who didn’t have a place to stay. All of these students are coming out of Cape Town,” she says.
“You have to occupy for the statue to come down, you have to occupy or put a shack on campus for people to get residence…we need to fuck shit up for the university to just listen to us, we can’t just be civil with each other,” she says.
On 16 February, 2016, the Shackville protesters burned historic paintings housed by the university. Later that evening, police arrived at the site and asked them to leave. When the students refused, violence erupted as the police attempted to remove them physically. Dhlamini fled the scene and avoided arrest. But when she arrived at her place of residence, she received emailed notice of her suspension. She was interdicted on the charge of threatening the maintenance and good order of the university.
“It was just a silencing tactic, they were just trying to shut me up,” she says.
Her suspension was lifted after 15 days, along with her interdict. The cases of her fellow accused, Alexandria Hotz, Masixole Mlandu, Chumani Maxwele, Slovo Magida and Zola Shokanel, otherwise known as the ‘Shackville five’ had a very different outcome. In April 2017, the Constitutional Court upheld a prior ruling by the Supreme Court of Appeal against the five students, which outlined that actions by the students were “harmful and unlawful” to the university.
The university has admitted that there is limited capacity in their residences. Media Liaison and Social Media, Elijah Moholola, says the university has a bed capacity of 6,800 for the 2018 academic year, and the institution is able to accommodate 60% of applicants with an academic offer. For the other 40%, the UCT Student Housing department “assists students to secure off-campus accommodation that is suitable at affordable pricing”.
Following the #shackville protests, student activists demanded a TRC to deal with the traumatic events — and since then, the Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission (IRTC) has been established. The commission is headed by UCT council chair, Sipho Pityana, and includes feminist academic, Dr Yvette Abrahams, senior psychology lecturer, Dr Malose Langa, former minister of science and technology, Mosibudi Mangena, Executive Director of the Foundation for Human Rights, Yasmin Sooka, and former Constitutional Court justice Zak Yacoob.
In a letter by Pityana to the UCT community last month, he said that the committee had been mandated to look specifically at the #shackville protests of February 2016 and make recommendations on institutional culture, decolonisation and transformation among other matters that “the university community has raised over the years,” in the “spirit of restorative justice” between staff and students.
Acting Vice-Chancellor, Professor Francis Petersen says that the #shackville protests raised “important issues” and that the “lived realities of many of our students are a struggle against deep-seated poverty and inequality in society.”
The story of Dhlamini’s time at the University of Cape Town reads true to many black students over the years, and the narrative has become more widely acknowledged since the birth of the #FeesMustFall movement in 2015. The story continues to unravel as the Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission undertakes its mandate, and as university management and students across the country grapple with the recent announcement by President Jacob Zuma that university education will now be free for underprivileged students.
The violence and heavy-handedness of the authorities has long been an area of concern, and Dhlamini says the very real trauma of dealing with stun grenades, rubber bullets and arrests took a toll on her mental health. While reeling from the emotional strain of the violent protests that led her to a state of depression and anxiety, she began to dedicate her time to the Injabulo anti-bullying project.
She had founded the organisation in her second year at UCT, after the attempted suicide of her nephew, as a result of homophobia and bullying in his school. “That taught me that I have to focus my energy on young people, because I can’t tell adults what to do, but you can teach the young ones how to treat LGBTI people,” she said.
While taking a break from her post-graduate studies, Lindiwe is dedicating more time to develop Injabulo Project, writing, and collaborating with other LGBTI activists. She was also recently in New York City as a part of an ensemble working with LGBTIQ activist and artist, Zanele Muholi.
“If we still have kids who can’t go to school, if we still have women who are not free, if we still have black lesbian women who get threatened to be raped and killed…I won’t stop now saying fees must fall, I will not stop saying ‘end worker exploitation’ or ‘end outsourcing.’ I will not stop now because I don’t want this only for myself, I want it for other people too,” she says.
The moment on stage with Vice-Chancellor Max Price is turning into a distant memory, but it remains a metaphor. In Dhlamini’s mind, the fight for liberation and education for all is far from over. DM
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