Whose heritage are we preserving?

23 March 2015 | Story by Newsroom
Students protesting at the transformation seminar scheduled for Monday 16 March 2015.
Students protesting at the transformation seminar scheduled for Monday 16 March 2015.

At a transformation seminar planned for Monday 16 March 2015, focused on symbolism, heritage and signage, SRC President Ramabina Mahapa gave the following address before leading a student walk-out.

Thina sizwe, thina sizwe esinsundu, (We the nation, we the brown nation)
Sikhalela izwe lethu (We cry for our land)
Elathathwa ngabamhlophe (That was taken by the white people)
Mabayeke kumhlaba wethu. (May they leave our land alone)
Abantwana be-Afrika (The children of Africa)
Bakhalela i-Afrika (They cry for Africa)

Greetings to the whites and the non-whites; this were the words of a Ghanaian student who was addressing us while sitting by the Jameson stairs. She saw the frowns on our faces after her utterance and promptly said that that was how she felt when she first arrived to UCT. She felt that UCT did not speak to her and thus she couldn't identify with the institution.

UCT's institutional culture and symbolism is centred on a white, westernised, middle class and heterosexual male experience. Culture, according to Professor Clifford Geertz, is the "historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life".

Instead of true integration, black students are being absorbed into the white hegemonic culture of the institution. Thus denying the contributions of their cultural capital in shaping the university ethos. In the words of Stephen Bantu Biko; "At the heart of true integration is the provision for each man, each to rise and attain the envisioned self. Each group must be able to attain its style of existence without encroaching on or being thwarted by another." Black people reject the notion of just being mere appendages to a white society.

As the Students' Representative Council of 2015, through true representation, we seek to drive a stronger transformation agenda by influencing and reshaping social consciousness and institutional culture to promote equity, inclusivity, sustainability and academic excellence.

Our vision is "Striving for a sustainable and progressively transformative Afrocentric university."

Whose heritage are we preserving?

What about the Khoi and the San? Who former President Thabo Mbeki described as "desolate souls [who] haunt the great expanses of the beautiful Cape – they who fell victim to the most merciless genocide our native land has ever seen, they who were the first to lose their lives in the struggle to defend our freedom and dependence and they who, as a people, perished in the result."

Who created the symbolism, for whom and for what?

For too long the narrative at this university has silenced the voices of black students and black history. This university continues to celebrate, in its institutional symbolism, figures in South African history, who are undisputedly white supremacists.

Who are the keepers of our memories?

"A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots." Marcus Garvey

Sons and daughters of Africa, who are the keepers of our memories and the guardians of our souls?

Will our children ever hear of the great black men and women who contributed to UCT's development? Will they know of Archie Mafeje (who was a political activist and professor of anthropology and sociology of development), AC Jordan (who was a novelist, literary historian and intellectual pioneer of African studies in South Africa), Hamilton Naki (a laboratory assistant to Christiaan Barnard), Harold Cressy (who graduated in 1910 with a Bachelor of Arts degree at the South African College, now known as UCT), Richard Rive (who graduated with a BA degree and was an outstanding writer), Professor Mahmood Mamdani and Fikile Charles Bam (who studied law at UCT in the 1960s). All these have done incredibly in their respective fields, yet they and many more have received either no recognition or insignificant [recognition] from UCT.

Transforming the signage and symbolism of the institution will enhance and enlarge the meaning of social change. Our intent is to enhance social cohesion in the transforming of learning and living spaces by employing symbolic markers of change. Signage and symbolism has a powerful impact, they have been employed by nationalists in mobilising and maintaining a national identity. It is not the particular moments but the everyday displaying of the flag that reminds people who they are and that mobilises a people at times when it is needed.

In our continued conciliation and transformation efforts, we should fashion a new song that shall take the formal procession at UCT's graduation ceremonies to their seats, instead of the current practice of singing a Latin song that has no relevance and which no students and staff identify with and find pride in. UCT along with other universities exists within a changing society – this implies that [we] should not remain rigid in [our] traditions.

Institutions are not carved in stone and innovation occurs by instituting new practices and meanings.

In this trying time, I am reminded of the words of former President Thabo Mbeki: "Gloom and despondency have never defeated adversity. Trying times need courage and resilience. Our strength as a people is not tested during the best of times. As we said before, we should never become despondent because the weather is bad nor should we turn triumphalist because the sun shines."

Frantz Fanon said, "When we revolt, it's not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe"

The winds of change are blowing within UCT. All that needs to be done from our side has set sail. Our institution should cease saying, "We have done much for transformation". Undeniably, it is our very own black brothers and sisters who we advocated to occupy these positions of leadership, thinking that they will change the system and raise issues of transformation from within, but I stand before you today in the midst of disappointment.

We have reached an impasse with the university leadership and are fatigued at asking for meaningful transformation. We have begged, growled, and pleaded with management. NO MORE!! This university cannot continue with its business as normal. It in that spirit I cannot participate in this discussion.


Photo by Michael Hammond

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