From the VC's Desk: Rhodes statue protests and transformation

18 March 2015 | Story by Newsroom

18 March 2015

Dear students and colleagues

I arrived back at the University of Cape Town on Monday from the African Higher Education Summit in Senegal. Since my return I have been engaged in extensive consultation with senior colleagues and with the Chair and the Vice-Chair of Council – although I was unsuccessful in seeking meetings with the Student Representative Council (SRC). I would now like to share the following proposals with the campus community.

As part of our plans for addressing various transformation issues in 2015, we have initiated a process to review statues, building names and other symbols that affect the institutional climate of UCT, and how these affect the sense of inclusiveness or alienation felt by staff and students. This was announced at the Baxter Theatre transformation discussions in October last year, with explicit reference to the Rhodes statue. Indeed, it also appears in the Council-approved Executive Objectives for 2015. Such university wide discussion seems not to have taken place during previous years on the campus, and certainly not in governance structures such as Council, Senate, the Institutional Forum, nor as far as I know, the SRC.

The first public seminar on Heritage, Signage and Symbolism, planned jointly with the SRC about a month ago, was to take place on Monday, 16 March. Other discussions and public fora were planned for the year and it was expected that we would bring to Council some concrete proposals by the end of the year.

Accelerating the decision process over the statue

Last week's student protests have resulted in a massive outpouring of anger and frustration – much about the issue of the statue, much more about experiences of institutional racism, aggravated by students' perceptions that they are not being heard, or that their demands are not achieving the response they seek. There are also similar frustrations experienced by a number of our members of staff. There have also been many voices critical of both the mode of the student protest, and the view that the statue should be removed. Given this recent escalation of debate and protest, I think it appropriate to replace our original programme with a more accelerated process to facilitate a more rapid decision about the statue.

Only the University Council can take the decision to move the Rhodes statue (and then it would have to seek approval from Heritage Western Cape). I am therefore requesting the Chair of Council to call a special meeting of Council to discuss the transformation issues and plans, but in particular the question of the Rhodes statue.

I believe that there is a significant view that the statue should be moved. However, as suggested above, there has never been any formal consultation or organised discussion on this matter, and it would not be appropriate for the UCT Executive, or Council, to make such a recommendation without undertaking such a discussion.

Therefore we propose the following (where information such as time or venue is missing, it will be confirmed later on the UCT website):

University Assembly (all staff and students) Wednesday 25 March 6pm to 8pm Jameson Hall
Senate Friday Friday 27 March
Meeting of/with pay-class 1 to 5 staff To be confirmed (TBC)
Special meeting of Convocation Week of 7-10 April (TBC)
Extended PASS forum (Professional and Administrative Support Staff) Thursday 9 April
Academic Heads of Department Workshop Tuesday 14 April
Special Council Meeting Wednesday 15 April

From Monday, 23 March, until Tuesday, 7 April, there will an open Vula site where staff and students will be invited to express their views on the statue and on broader issues of what they think they and others can do to advance transformation more generally. Alumni and members of the public will also be able to voice their opinions via email.

This is an intensive programme over four weeks, especially considering that there is a mid-term 10-day break from 28 March to 6 April. But we think it is necessary, both to do justice to this important debate on which there are strongly held views, and to recognise the urgency and passion of the protests.

We – that is, UCT's senior management – have put this proposed programme together in haste. The SRC has to date declined to have any meetings with us, during which we could co-plan the programme. Their condition for meeting is that we agree to remove the statue and to provide a deadline for this action. This we cannot do, for two reasons. First, it is a Council decision. Second, we do not feel there has been an opportunity for all views to be considered. We hope that our acknowledgment of the import of the issue, and our commitment to a short and definite timetable for making a decision, will persuade the SRC to join the discussions and co-convene many of the fora.

I expect that in the debates and discussions that ensue, I will be asked, by internal constituencies and by the media, to say what I think about the statue. I feel I owe it to the university community to express that view to you first. The Council has previously discussed the problem that it is nearly impossible for a vice-chancellor to express personal views that will not be seen as the institution's official position. However, I think it is a little different in this case. Unlike some other issues, this is an internal debate about the university itself, rather than a position of the university about some external matter. I believe I do need to indicate my position as a participant in the debates, rather than being silent; and since the debates are being structured and it is publicly stated that this will be a Council decision to be taken on April 15, I trust it will be clear that these are my personal views and not those of the institution.

I have previously stated that the Rhodes statue is indeed a symbol of UCT's colonial past. Many have noted that as it currently stands, the statue of Rhodes is unmediated by any critical commentary or historical contextualisation. There is nothing to suggest to any passer-by how the university situates itself in relation to Rhodes' actions and their impact. At the very least, we need to engage with that.

One option is to leave the statue as it is, but to place a plaque on its base that acknowledges the many injustices of colonial conquest enacted under Rhodes' watch. This might be accompanied by another artwork to be located alongside Rhodes, to "speak back" by way of alternative values and convictions. However, it is, in my view, the particular location and setting of the Rhodes statue that is the problem and it cannot be addressed by contextualising the statue or installing alternative icons. It is because the brooding presence of Cecil John Rhodes is located in pride of place, at the focal point of the campus, that it acquires the connotations of founder, hero, patron, role model, and embodiment of UCT's heritage. I do not think the statue should be destroyed or hidden away. I just think it should not be there – it should be moved. This will not compromise our ability to record and debate the role Rhodes played in the city's and continent's history. And it will not change our acknowledgement that UCT acquired its site from the Rhodes estate, and the positive contribution that it has made to our institution and its students.

I look forward to the university community debating this and taking action.

Yours sincerely

Dr Max Price

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