Clenched fists raised above their heads, the cast of the play, The Fall, occupy the black, naked stage bathed in light. Their lips are sealed with masking tape; their eyes filled with recalcitrance. Art imitating life, imitating art. Seven University of Cape Town (UCT) graduates relive their experiences as members of the #RhodesMustFall (RMF) movement weaving together powerful narratives of student activists who used Cecil John Rhodes’ statue as a symbolic focal point in their demand for a decolonized education. What The Fall conveys unequivocally, is that the RMF movement had an important pedagogical dimension; it was a moment of learning.
While we tend to associate learning that is often procured at significant cost from a university with innovation and creativity, pedagogical practices have largely remained anachronistic within these ivory towers. Most university classrooms look the same: someone with knowledge stands in front of the class, while students sit in rows of chairs absorbing this knowledge through osmosis. The most creative professors get, is to rearrange the chairs into a circle.
For those of us privileged enough to have purchased a formal education, we recognize the limits of this kind of learning. The corporatization of universities compels professors to spend most of their time publishing papers in peer reviewed journals that only five and a half people will read. There is little incentive to teach; let alone be a good teacher. But here’s the kicker: as recipients of this kind of education who know that sitting in a crowded lecture theatre is largely a waste of time (and money), we continue to believe and invest in this traditional system of learning. Worse still, we dismiss any other form of education that fails to imitate the antiquated classroom model.
While watching The Fall, I learnt more about patriarchy and decolonial thinking than I did during several years of law school. And for those who think that law schools should not engage with questions of patriarchy or decolonial thinking in the first instance, your struggle for wokeness may take a little longer. But for those who recognize that learning can take place in eclectic spaces, I would like to push this idea a little further. Acts of disruption, such as when shit was thrown onto the Rhodes statue by student protestors at UCT, buildings were occupied and art was burnt, constituted moments of learning.
While you may not agree entirely with the disruptive tactics employed by the students, their actions compelled us to think critically about symbols and their meaning; symbols we may have otherwise accepted as incongruous vestiges of our colonial past (and present). And is that not essentially what education is about: teaching us to think critically, to question and challenge?
Adopting the conceptual framework of public pedagogy, the Fallist movement can be reimagined as interlocking moments of knowledge creation that simultaneously challenge the academy’s epistemic deference to Euro-American knowledge. Fallists serve as pedagogues who draw on scholars such as Frantz Fanon, activists like Steve Biko, and concepts such as intersectionality, to weave together a decolonial framework that attempts to make sense of black pain and white violence. Fallism is therefore not only about the destruction of old symbols, but it is also predicated on the creation of new knowledge and ideas that enable the humanization of black bodies.
As darkness slowly envelops the intimate theatre pierced by the defiant glow of a few mobile phones, the audience comprised primarily of young black and white South Africans rise enthusiastically to applaud the sold out performance. The young black woman sitting next to me responds to the student activists’ call for a decolonized education by snapping her fingers approvingly. It’s the final day of The Fall’s second run at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town, not too far from where the Rhodes statue was eventually removed. The cast emerges from back stage after the show to warm embraces and requests for selfies from audience members.
The Fallists are not uncritical of their movement; they recognize the internal struggles of queer people and women who fought to have their voices heard within RMF. These frictions are symptomatic of unresolved agitations deeply embedded in the genetic constitution of South Africa and its peoples. The rise of Fallism as an epistemological orientation, not only in South Africa, but also on campuses across the world, demands that we rethink our understanding of what constitutes knowledge and how this knowledge is transmitted. It compels us to center black pain and offers spaces for new ways of learning and being.
As Fallism rises, so must we.