As I write, students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) are occupying an administration building demanding the removal of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, who keeps watch over Cape Town’s leafy, liberal, and largely white, southern suburbs from the university’s upper campus. Earlier the same week, undergraduate students at the University of Toronto, my own place of employment and study, staged a mass walkout to support their teaching assistants, then in the third week of their strike. By the end of this month over 30,000 students in Quebec could be on strike against the provincial government’s austerity program. Aside from the heady enthusiasm of campus politics, is there any variable that unites these seemingly disparate campus struggles and what can they learn from one another?
Scrolling through pictures on the Facebook group Rhodes Must Fall, it is apparent that the occupation’s aim is not limited to the removal of a statue that glorifies a colonial tyrant responsible for untold suffering inflicted on black bodies in pits and shafts throughout Southern Africa. Students holding placards that read ‘Black Staff at UCT Matter’ are also calling attention to the low wages of cleaners and maintenance staff on campus. For some time, unions have called attention to the university’s outsourcing of campus services to private companies and labour brokers and the harassment and discrimination many workers face from middle managers. By speaking directly to the enduring symbols of racial domination on campus they have not only exposed the epistemological whiteness of the curriculum but the ways in which the university exploits cheap and racialized labour.
This matters immensely because it exposes the fact that universities are increasingly staffed by legions of low-paid, contract and precarious workers who keep the university running on an everyday basis. It exposes a hidden world of work that keeps the university operational, from the cleaning of student residences to the preparation of food for thousands each day. At UCT it just so happens that the bulk of this work is done by black people, many of them women. As a general rule, universities work to position themselves within a hierarchy that obscures these forms of labour. Even when universities advertise themselves as benevolent employers, the beneficiaries are almost always tenured faculty and the legions of deans and managers that seem to multiply year after year, not those photocopiers and gardeners who keep the academic factory running. Students at UCT have achieved this by speaking to issues of institutional and entrenched racism at Africa’s leading university, and in doing so they have addressed issues of both race and class within the university system.
In calling for the statue to be removed then, activists are not only addressing the hidden divisions of labour that sustain academia on the backs of black bodies, they are critiquing the raced, classed an gendered dimensions that shape access to education in South African society. Challenging whiteness at UCT is not to suggest that individual students are to blame for the absence of transformation, but to point out that millions of black people in this country find themselves in a position where even gazing upon the statue of Rhodes is a remote possibility. It is to point out that economic inequality remains heavily racialized and gendered, and in order to transform our universities there needs to be a greater recognition of the structural violence that black people continue to endure as they send their children off to dilapidated schools in far flung rural areas with few employment opportunities once they finish.
When we situate this particular struggle within the political economy of this deeply unequal nation it’s quite clear that a struggle against symbols of colonialism is a struggle against the perpetuation of colonial forms of domination in the present. In the South African case this involves both material forms of racial inequality inscribed into the nature of the post-apartheid economy—ongoing urban divisions along racial lines is but one example as are contemporary forms of labour migrancy. The other is, of course, the ideological tenets of white supremacy, which deny and undermine the intelligence of black people and position enlightenment virtues, particularly within the academy, as the pinnacle to which those on the continent should aspire to. To claim that removing a statue fails to address the structural problems at the heart of South Africa’s universities is to miss the ways in which inequality is produced by both economic forces and ideologies of domination that remain deeply etched into South Africa’s socio-economic fabric.
And herein lies the immense value of Rhodes Must Fall for student struggles the world over: It is through tackling issues of racism on university campuses that one exposes the structural conditions that shape access to public education and, indeed, the nature of that education itself. In this regard, students at UCT are in the lead. While students in Toronto have struck for improved funding for student workers, more work needs to be done to expose how access to post-secondary education at some of the world’s leading institutions is shaped by histories of economic inequality in which racial domination played a prominent role. Such an approach can also, crucially, call attention to the racialized and gendered labour within the academic factory.
There is a long history of student occupations setting off a chain reaction of social protest. Throughout history students have acted as catalysts of struggle, as they often feel the impacts of economic and political change most acutely. In South African history, they have also been the ones willing to take the risks required to advance emancipatory struggles. In North American and Europe student uprisings have challenged the principles of economic austerity and neoliberal rationalism that values fiscal restraint ahead of human development. In South Africa, Rhodes Must Fall, and the expansion of these protests to other universities including Rhodes University itself, signals a changing tide. Those post-1994 ‘born-frees’ are simply not content with the gains made by their parents, and rightly so. Removing one statue and putting up another hardly seems to be their point, and no doubt they have read their Fanon. If the last twenty years of South African politics have taught us anything it is that glorification before transformation only sows the seeds of bitter resentment. Students around the world are looking to a future that, in many ways, seems rather bleak. They are coming to realize that it is in their power to change it, and, as Biko wrote “to bestow upon South Africa [and the world] the greatest gift possible —a more human face.”