This past week, I got to see some of my friends graduate at UCKAR (University Currently Known as Rhodes). I have seen them at their worst. I have seen them hit the basement of rock bottom on numerous occasions. This week I saw them walk across the 1820 Settlers Monument stage to collect the degree that literally almost killed some of them. For each and every student sitting on that stage, the journey has been different. It has been smoother for some and more difficult for others. Graduation for me is a bittersweet moment.
It is a bitter moment because it is hard not to notice that the faces that surround me are the same faces that were with me during the two #FeesMustFall protests in 2015 and 2016 and RU Reference list rape culture protests. The same faces who were around me when the police were shooting recklessly at us, the same people I was pepper-sprayed with, the same people that spent hours in meetings with the management of the university, trying to convince them to side with the students.
Among those graduating are the students who were called hooligans, the students who “did not value their education” and who were accused of infringing on other people’s right to learn. We are the students who were villainised for protesting for free education for all. But not everyone made it to the graduation stage. Yolanda Dyantyi is absent, so is Noxolo Mfocwa. These are just two women who have been expelled from Rhodes because of their involvement in the fight for social justice on the University campus, the same social justice that the Vice Chancellor encourages in his graduation speech.
That is my problem with institutions of higher learning in our day. They love reflecting on the past, honouring people who have fought against oppressive institutions, laws and systems. They love teaching us about those who have made a difference by speaking against authority and systems that marginalise the marginalised. Yet in the same breath, they will crush anything that might resemble these actions on their campuses.
Institutions of higher learning will tell us “you are the future”, that we should stand up against injustice. But these same institutions will be the first to shut down voices of dissent. South African universities do their best to turn us into people who only care about the broader society superficially, to care just enough to have a march, to change your profile picture, to be a social media activist. To care enough to be seen as someone who cares, but not loud enough to rattle the cages of those in power, those who can push for real change. If they are the very ones who encourage robust debate, questioning what has been taken as the norm and lack of representation, then why do they fight attempts to change the status quo at every turn?
Inasmuch as I appreciate peace and happiness, it cannot be at the expense of some people. I was in shock as the audience and some graduates cheered for a known rapist as he was making his way across that stage. Rapists walk that stage and get cheered on while activists stay at home, expelled for 10 years. It has been proven once again that a man can always recover from rape accusations while women will carry the shame, and if she dares to name a rapist in public, she will be torn apart.
The university seems to have gone back to 2014, when all was, well and swept under the carpet. At graduation, nothing is said by both the students and university on #feesmustfall or the rape culture protests – their successes or failures. Nothing is said about the university’s progress with rape culture or the hard hand that was used to deal with students who protested for a better, more accommodating campus. If graduation is anything to go by, silence has once again returned to UCKAR.
My return to the Rhodes campus for my graduation was a reminder that so much more needs to be done in terms of transforming institutions of higher learning. One way to do that is to put more women of colour to be put in positions of power, not pseudo power but real power – that is if we want real change.
The problem with having men in power is that they tend to have fragile masculinities. They feel the need to protect patriarchy. A woman in power — somebody who is not scared of the big boys and has the qualities of the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela – would know how to dismantle the system. She would know how difficult it is to exist in it, especially as a black woman. DM