Breaking a Rainbow, building a Nation: The politics behind #MustFall movements

By Rekgotsofetse Chikane 17 October 2018

Rekgotsofetse Chikane gives a first-hand account of what happened before the #FeesMustFall protests and what led to the events of October 2015 at various university campuses and nationally. Chikane looks at student politics now and how they differ from 1976, specifically the fact that the protests were being led by so-called coconuts, who are seen as part of the black elite. The book poses the provocative question: Can ‘coconuts’ be trusted with the revolution? In this extract, Chapter 6, Chikane explains: Why #RhodesMustFall had to die.

There is something of a Christ-like feel to #RhodesMustFall. Born from a sense of unjust prosecution, the movement went on to preach a message of love that was predicated on the notion of self-love. It might sound odd for me to say this, but #RhodesMustFall borrowed heavily from biblical motifs. The question it asked of all its followers was: how can you love others if you do not know how to love yourself? This was the message that spread across the country and inspired many of the student movements that followed #RMF.

Many of these movements could be seen as disciples of sorts, although each with their own unique characteristics and personalities.

For instance, #TransformWits could be seen as the John the Baptist — the biblical figure who heralded the coming of Jesus and baptised him — of the #MustFall movements. Formed the year before #RhodesMustFall, it formulated a Transformation Memorandum that proposed the need to revisit past debates about the role and responsibilities of university academics to interrogate South Africa’s post-1994 academy. It spent much of its time preaching its gospel to all who wanted to hear its message.

At Stellenbosch University, #OpenStellenbosch became a more reluctant disciple of #RMF. It sought to mobilise similarly but would not close its doors to white students (which #RMF would eventually do).

#BlackStudentsMovement at the University Currently Known as Rhodes became the ideological anchor for the majority of the #MustFall movements, providing them with some of their most fervent authors. #MustFall politics spread across the country: there was #ReformPukke at North-West University, #SteynMustFall at the University of the Free State, #AfrikaansMustFall and #TuksUprising at the University of Pretoria, and even a #RhodesMustFallOxford, which found its home at the heart of empire, Oxford University. All espoused similar beliefs to those of #RhodesMustFall.

Yet, like any martyr, there is a fine line between being seen as a hero or as a villain. #RMF often struggled to tread this line and at times chose to be the villain in society’s eyes. With Fanon, Biko and Sobukwe in tow, they always considered their actions to be just. There was a logic to the madness and a level of madness that informed the logic.

The establishment of a military wing, for example, was intended to provide an avenue for the expression of ideological violence without the need to bring such actions to the determination of a plenary. In the same vein, the creation of an arts and drama wing of the movement was meant to enable the idea of ideological disruption using music, art installations and live performances; it introduced the notion of “actor-visits”.

Most remember #RhodesMustFall for either its villainous side — the burning of paintings on UCT’s campus and the bombing of the vice- chancellor’s office — or its more heroic element — the renaming of Bremner Building to Azania House and the triumphant removal of Rhodes’s statue. The coin was the same. Hero and villain were just displayed on different sides and people’s opinion of the movement often seamlessly switched between them.

#RMF was the villain in many people’s eyes because, in agitating for change by increasing racial divisions on campus, it was the physical and symbolic antithesis of the narrative of the rainbow nation. Opponents of the movement saw it as an unorganised, unwieldy group of university students causing disruption for the sake of disruption with the purpose of creating a myopic utopia: Azania.

Yet the creation of Azania was an act breaking a rainbow, building a nation of heroism for many students and became embedded in the minds of the many young South Africans who yearn for a change from the rainbowism adage that continues to dominate our public sphere.

The story of #RhodesMustFall is difficult to tell because of the emotions it elicits among its detractors and its defenders. I am not here to decipher the intricacies of the movement or reveal its dark inner secrets. But I do want to tell you why #RMF had to die. It had to die so that young people, both in South Africa and abroad, would no longer live for themselves but for the message that #RMF espoused: to build a nation, we must break the rainbow.

#RMF became a space where black students at UCT could learn how to love and re-love themselves as black people within a white society.

A standard retort to this thought usually follows in the form of this question: “What is a white society?” Some see this as an easy question to answer, while others, and I include myself here, acknowledge that it is incredibly complex.

My simple understanding of it, within the context of the alliance that coconuts and 1652s have with each other, is that a white society privileges certain forms of living above others. This form of thinking doesn’t take on a racial profile, but it has a racial bias.

As a personal admirer of Du Bois, I prefer his understanding of the dominance of whiteness within a society. As he explains it, whiteness provided a level of compensation towards white people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by ensuring that the value of whiteness was dependent on the devaluation of the black existence/experience.

As a result, the benefits of being white were not only monetary. They included other areas of societal living such as culture, religion and social relations. When conceptualised within this framework and including the belief that the apartheid system didn’t simply end at the end of 1994, but was designed to legalise this form of discrimination, then one begins to build a better understanding of what a white society looks like.

You do not need to look deeply into UCT to understand how prevalent whiteness was (and remains). To see yourself outside of this dynamic was difficult. How to see yourself within the university without the filter of the 1652 was a difficult task.

Those who became adept at this skill became the disciples of #RhodesMustFall, which was tasked with the goal of spreading its word to all who would listen. Its purpose was to create a world that would love black people as they would love themselves. But if black people don’t know how to love themselves, how do they expect others to love them? It was this conundrum, or rather this paradox, that gave rise to #RMF. The movement came from an urgent need to make sense of a society built on contradiction.

#RMF created a new site of struggle for the expression of a post-1994 conception of society. As noted in earlier chapters, previous struggles had found expression within the confines of political emancipation, with economic emancipation relegated to a long-term project dictated by 1652s.

#RMF was not primarily concerned with material emancipation; it allowed for the realisation that the strongest countering force to economic emancipation being attained was within the incorporeal — that which does not consist of matter. Finding importance within the symbolic was not a matter of happenstance or the expression of intellectual naivety. It was the realisation that one cannot mobilise a society to fight something one does not have the language to describe.

Without #RhodesMustFall, you could never imagine #FeesMustFall. Its focus on the incorporeal at UCT, in the beginning, allowed #RMF to highlight the musical score of the institution and force it to change, not through external pressure but internally, through the university’s own realisation of its faults. The process required exposing the university’s social institutions as morally and ethically contradictory.

To UCT’s credit, the process of removing the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from its position of prominence at the base of Jameson Steps, the hallmark image of the university, had already started in 2014. Speaking at an event at the Baxter Theatre regarding transformation, Max Price announced that he didn’t believe the statue of Rhodes — and in particular its location — was still appropriate.

What Price was alluding to was that the statue lacked a sense of historical context, but more importantly, that where it was situated on campus further elevated its status and exaggerated its skewed historicity. Commissioned during the early 1930s by the Rhodes National South African Memorial Committee and sculpted by Marion Walgate, the statue was unveiled on 7 March 1934 by George Villiers, the Governor-General of the Union of South Africa. The statue showed Rhodes serenely seated at the base of Jameson Steps, embodying the fulcrum that held not only the symmetric architecture of the university but its institutional culture too. Njabulo Ndebele explained it thus:

To appreciate the bold magnificence of this symmetry, you have to imagine a centre line which begins some two to three hundred metres down the hill below Solomon’s framed foreground, at a spot known as the Japonica Walk. The line cuts upward through the white structure known as Summer House, “built about 1760 by the Dutch” and “reconstructed by Herbert Baker in 1894”. A point of architectural serenity amid the din of the M3 highway traffic just above it, the Summer House stands at the upper edge of the Middle Campus.

The line then hops over the highway to the lawn of the rugby fields, the lowest point of the wide-angle picture frame’s foreground. Standing at the edge of these green lawns, the Summer House behind you, you can see clearly the line of symmetry cutting through Rhodes’s statue, giving it a place of honour you may never have imagined. Rhodes is placed firmly at the centre of the space between the third and fourth pillars of Jameson Hall. It is a marvel!

The line then ascends to Jameson Hall, to cut perfectly into two halves the pediment, a perfect, flat, isosceles triangle resting on the entablature just above the pillars. It cuts through the pediment’s vertex angle, lining its tip with the flagpole at the centre of the Hall’s summit. Then, finally, it leaps like a laser beam across the fynbos and the end of Newlands Forest, to head straight for the forehead tip of Devil’s Peak.

But from where he sits in a panelled armchair about one hundred metres in front of Jameson Hall, Rhodes has his back to the splendour behind him. It is with a great sense of himself that he seems to feel the presence of everything behind him without having to validate it with his eyes. It is there, on his land.

Leaning on his right hand, his right elbow on his right thigh, Rhodes contemplates the wide vista in front of him, below him, facing east. He takes it all in, in a leisurely if thoughtful pose. His left hand, hanging casually over the left armrest and side panel of his chair, holds a scroll loosely. The manner of his clutch is in his gaze. He seems to have suspended reading momentarily to ponder. He will get back to it, when he needs to.

One can only wonder what Walgate intended to show Rhodes contemplating. I believe that the engraving of an imperialist poem about Cape Town by Rudyard Kipling would have captured Rhodes’s thoughts perfectly:

I dream my dream
by rock and heath and
pine of Empire to the
northward ay, one land
from Lion’s Head to Line.
– Rudyard Kipling

If we had simply allowed UCT to remove the statue on their own terms — a process which without our intervention would have taken years — the change would have happened within the context of the score of the university. It would have been a change made under the guise of transformation. A change that would deny the institution the opportunity to reimagine itself and those who walk through its halls. A change that would limit the way students and academics understand what transformation truly means by limiting it to the removal of a statue — a statue that meant so much more when it was unveiled than the bronze it was made from.

If we had just wanted the statue of Rhodes gone, we would have removed it ourselves. This was a debate that often came up during #RhodesMustFall’s first occupation. A debate, I should note, that did not begin with #RMF.

One of the earliest recordings of protests regarding Rhodes’s statue was during the 1950s, when Afrikaans nationalist students, angered by the symbolic reminder of Rhodes, who to them was the aggressor during the Second Anglo-Boer War and had placed thousands of Afrikaners in concentration camps, pushed for its removal.

The debate continued for the next 60 years, with recorded protests throughout that time. In 2014 the statue was vandalised with the words “Remember Marikana” graffitied on its pedestal by a group dubbed the Tokoloshes, who claimed responsibility in a statement that read: “In honour of all black UCT students whose land was stolen from their ancestors and whose natural resources were privatised by one Cecil John Rhodes.”

The Tokoloshes reminded us that colonialism and the massacre at Marikana were not only interconnected but part of a long history of dispossession, exploitation and murder of blacks (and especially poor blacks).

During the student occupation of Bremner (at that stage it had not taken on the moniker Azania House) I remember receiving an urgent call one night to return and attend an ongoing plenary session. The plenary had resolved to remove the statue of Rhodes ourselves and had begun a discussion about the logistics of the operation.

Some proclaimed that we should bring a hammer and jackhammer while others were in the process of organising a bulldozer. The room was filled with a sense of hyperbole, which is often the result of the group-think that manifests when one succumbs to the cabin fever of an occupation. It was why I avoided remaining in Bremner for more than two days at a time.

Through a co-ordinated effort of a few, we were able to dispel the notion by reminding all those in attendance that if we were to remove the statue ourselves we would be labelled anarchists and our long-term plans would be put in immediate jeopardy. More important, we would be confirming that #RhodesMustFall was only about a statue. #RMF was much more than that.

This was very clear in the movement’s mission statement. The statue of Rhodes, it said, was the “perfect embodiment of black alienation and disempowerment at the hands of UCT’s institutional culture and was the natural starting point of this movement. The removal of the statue will not be the end of this movement, but rather the beginning of the decolonisation of the university.”

To force the university to remove the statue of Rhodes of their own accord, but under our terms would indicate not only to us but to society at large that we could change the score of an institution — decolonise it — without having to follow the logic of it.

The logic of UCT before this moment often unconsciously followed the argument that excluded black people without realising it was doing so — “an othering prior to acknowledgement”10 — and why #RhodesMustFall had to ensure that the institution remained incognisant of the lives of black people on campus. It was a logic whose first proclamation when faced with the threat of #RMF, was “But it’s only a statue”.

#RhodesMustFall didn’t want UCT as an institution to understand the plight of black students on campus but to change its score to become cognisant of black people on campus. To make the invisible visible. To give language to the feeling of exclusion. But, as is the case with any messianic figure, #RMF’s martyrdom necessitated that it made itself the threat to the wellbeing of others, not in a physical or violent sense, but by threatening the privileges enjoyed by 1652s on campus. Yet, ironically so, its persecution by those who wanted #RMF to fail only gave rise to the eventual dismantling of what they sought to preserve in their society.

#RhodesMustFall imparted a message that called for universal moral equality between people that was reliant on the creation, by all of society, of a moral equivalence of the worst-off within our society, blacks, and those who benefited from their impoverishment. In a similar vein to John Rawls’s determination of “justice as fairness, #RMF believed that inequality could only be just if it provided the greatest benefit to the worst off.

At least, that was what it used to be. #RhodesMustFall fell into the dilemma of knowing what it could achieve, but understanding that it would fall short of what it ought achieve. This was why #RMF had to die. Its life was far from meaningless, but its death was necessary.

Before the movement died to liberate the minds of others and illuminated how the score of UCT was not only endemic to the institution but society at large, it became a villain. Infighting, disorganisation and competing egos all played a part in tarnishing its image. The burning of portraits at the beginning of 2016 at the time of the #ShackvilleProtests — which I will talk about in more detail in a later chapter — and the subsequent petrol bombing of student buses and the vice-chancellor’s office led many people to look at #RMF as a group of anarchists incapable of engaging in debate or discussion.

Even our most fervent supporters began to believe that #RMF could only rely on violence as a form of communication. It was an unfortunate turn of events, inspired by a moment of rage and anguish. But before and after the #ShackvilleProtests #RMF underwent many trials and much tribulation, requiring both individual and collective introspection.

We made mistakes, they made mistakes and I made mistakes. But we learned from them and sharpened our responses as a result. However, regardless of our efforts, South Africa loves martyrs.

We love to heap praise on individuals as icons of change. Mandela, Biko, Sisulu, Hani. The names roll off the tongue. But ideas seem to fall on deaf ears. #RhodesMustFall had to die because we needed its ideas to live beyond its existence and not die with the individuals who were there to create and maintain it. #RMF died in a similar fashion to Christ: Its death was violent and it split opinion among the masses.

For some, it became an idea that would be passed on to others through the emergence of Fallism and to others it was the justified end to a group of criminals.

I am not a disciple of #RhodesMustFall, but I would like to tell its story. I do this not for personal fame, but so future generations can understand the roots of why this movement eventually fell under its own hubris. DM

Rekgotsofetse Chikane has found his passion in the field of youth development and politics since 2009. He is a University of Oxford graduate with a Masters in Public Policy. Chikane was involved first-hand in the #RhodesMustFall movement, including his arrest in Cape Town. His perspective is informed by his personal experience as events unfolded, and his subsequent insights in terms of what happened and what needs to be done in South Africa.


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