Defend Truth


Finding a sense of place at UCT


Professor Loretta Feris is Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Transformation and Student Affairs at the University of Cape Town.

A sense of place is a social construct: The way different groups find value in a particular place is determined by a range of social, economic, political and cultural forces. This is true at UCT as in any other university.

Various studies have shown that place and inhabitants are intertwined: the spatial environment partially supports the emotional security and psychological wellness of its inhabitants. In this way, the spatial environment can add to the quality of life.

Universities have traditionally been defined by their relationship to places. They are often named after, and identified with, the town, city, province or region in which they are located, such as the University of Limpopo, University of Stellenbosch or the University of Cape Town.

They also have become important architectural patrons. The land on which they stand and the buildings they have created tell us a great deal about each university. Through their architecture and the names of their buildings, they have forged a very particular cultural identity that shapes the university and creates for students, staff, indeed for the public, a particular place that carries meaning.

At UCT we experience all three facets of a sense of place – the relational experience of place identity as expressed in the culture and heritage of UCT, place dependence in the sense that it is a place of work and study and, ultimately, place attachment.

Some scholars emphasise the social construction of a sense of place. Thomas Greider and Lorraine Garkovich make the point in Landscapes: The social construction of nature and the environment that: “Any physical place has the potential to embody multiple landscapes, each of which is grounded in the cultural definitions of those who encounter that place. Every river is more than one river. Every rock is more than just one rock.”

In essence, they suggest, a landscape is not about biophysical properties, it is about us. I agree that sense of place is, in fact, a social construct: the way different groups find value in a particular place is determined by a range of social, economic, political and cultural forces. This is true at UCT as in any other university.

Can one have a sense of space as well? Space speaks to emptiness, but if it is given meaning, it may create in us a sense of place. The challenge for universities (including UCT) is that what may be a place for some may be simply space for others. This explains why two alumni from the same generation can have such different memories of our respective alma maters.

In this context, the word “other” can be a verb: we tend to other people whom we perceive as different to ourselves; people with disabilities, queer people, poor people, black people, women. And when Greider and Garkovich remind us that sense of place is socially constructed, they force us to acknowledge that it is, in particular, those who are othered who may experience UCT as a space and not a place. If you are othered, you may, in fact, reside in the space of UCT – a place without meaning, that does not instil a sense of belonging.

As Deputy Vice-Chancellor responsible for transformation, the drive and commitment is to change the institutional culture of UCT. The UCT transformation plan, driven from the highest office of the Vice-Chancellor as well as many colleagues everywhere in UCT, has this change as its focus. That culture is not only impacted by our student and staff profile but also by how we interact, the relationships in classrooms, what we teach and how we teach. It is also about UCT’s physical space.

The Rhodes Must Fall Movement focused on the role of names and statues at UCT – and, later, at Oxford in England, at Yale in the US, and other universities around the world. Students started to question the extent to which universities, and especially universities that are deeply situated in a Western and colonial tradition, should continue to embrace and uphold names, symbols and imagery that speak to a time that is no more.

The students were not saying we should forget history; they were questioning the extent to which universities – which are, after all, places of critical thinking – so uncritically honour those whom history has shown to be dishonourable. After all, values change over time. Slavery, segregation, patriarchy were once acceptable societal norms that kept people in a perpetual state of “otherness”.

The call for the removal of the Cecil John Rhodes statue presented a moment when we as a university had to reflect on this matter. It was a call for decolonisation, but it was also a call to consider whom we honour and why. UCT is a different place than it was when Rhodes donated land to establish the university. So now we have to revisit UCT as a physical place and space.

In 2016, UCT renamed Jameson Memorial Hall to Memorial Hall, while we decided on a different permanent name. In December 2018 the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, announced that henceforth it would be Sarah Baartman Hall.

This decision followed a long process. The Naming of Buildings Committee considered the long list of suggested names, which it received after consulting with the campus community and other members of the public. It then consulted not only with the university community but also the Khoe leadership and community structures. This was an acknowledgement that UCT is part of the Cape Town community. These consultations, led by the Centre for African Studies under the auspices of the NoBC, set in place a long-term collaboration with a community that has never experienced UCT as a place of belonging, even though the campus sits at the foot of Table Mountain or Huriǂoaxa (Hoerikwaggo) the Khoe name, is a place of deep significance for the Khoe.

Baartman, a Khoe woman, was taken to London by British ship surgeon William Dunlop at the age of 20. Here he paraded her as a sexual freak before selling her to an animal trainer in France. Baartman died a year later, in 1815. Her body was dissected and a plaster cast of it was displayed in a museum from 1816 until 1986. Baartman’s remains were returned to South Africa in 2006 after a series of governmental interventions. She was buried in the Gamtoos Valley near Hankey‚ in the Eastern Cape‚ where she was born.

Renaming a building that stands on the original land of the Khoi, a building that has carried the patronage and cultural capital of colonialism, after an ordinary Khoi woman who became the subject of sexual and scientific fascination, creates a moment when we recognise the multifaceted struggles and resilience of South African women.

As UCT’s Vice-Chancellor correctly indicated, by placing Sarah Baartman’s name on the building that stands at the heart of knowledge production, we begin to reimagine the different contributions to knowledge. By honouring a Khoe woman we begin to create a sense of belonging at UCT not just for students, staff and alumni, but also for the broader Cape Flats community. DM


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