Dear colleagues, students and alumni,
I write to update you on the Rhodes Statue and the prevailing situation in the Bremner Building. Please read this urgently.
Following the protest action at Bremner Building on 20th March in support of removing the Rhodes statue, the SRC and other students and staff occupied parts of the Bremner Building. This occupation was with the prior written agreement of UCT management. Although the terms of agreement were breached, the protest remained generally peaceful and dignified, with numerous educational activities taking place in the Mafeje Room at all hours of the day and night. The persistence of the students to live and sleep in Bremner for nearly three weeks, in large numbers, is testimony to their commitment.
Despite this severely disrupting the work of UCT administration, including, from time-to-time, behavior that had the effect of harassing staff and evicting some from their offices, and disrupting meetings, management has up to now not acted on the student occupation. We have moved staff to work in other buildings and some have worked from home. We have tolerated this disruption to allow the process of consultation and decision on the removal of the Rhodes statue to run its course without the diversion of attention and escalation of conflict that would have occurred if we had brought the South African Police Services into the Bremner building - which would have been the only way that we could remove the occupiers. (We can, of course, and will, take disciplinary action against those who have behaved in an intimidating way.)
Our task has been to defend the idea of a university as a space of debate and not to allow the future of the statue to be determined prior to the conclusion of that discussion. We believe that this deliberative process to engage UCT stakeholders on the issue of the Rhodes statue and on wider issues of transformation at UCT was successful. Having started with a campus and convocation that was thoroughly divided on the issue, and probably a majority against removing the statue, the sufficient consensus that we eventually achieved – across the many race, class, generational, and professional divides – is a vindication of the process and of the university as a space for rational discussion.
The deliberative process of consultation over a three week period culminated in a special meeting of the University Council on 8 April. Council noted that (a) the location of the statue of Rhodes at a focal point of the Upper Campus may be seen to imply an institutional valorisation of Rhodes and his values, a valorisation that is inconsistent with the values of the Council and of the University; (b) it had a responsibility for ensuring an institutional climate that is inclusive for all its members; and (c) the statue of Rhodes was an obstacle to achieving this inclusivity.
Council took further note of the extent of support of staff, of student bodies, of alumni and Convocation, of the Institutional Forum, and the recommendation of the Senate, and resolved unanimously, as an expression of Council's renewed commitment to the project of transformation at UCT, to (a) apply to Heritage Western Cape for the permanent removal of the statue and (b) authorise the administration to arrange for the temporary removal of the statue for safe keeping.In terms of the above Council resolution, the Rhodes Statue was removed from the upper campus on 9 April. In recognising the seminal role of the student protests in surfacing and accelerating the Rhodes statue debate, we felt it was appropriate to allow the Student Representative Council, the students, and particularly the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, to manage and own the ceremony. Whilst there were thousands of students and staff witnessing and celebrating the statue's removal, we condemn the behaviour of a handful of students who broke through a cordon and vandalised the statue as it was being taken away. We will investigate charges against them.
The SRC had always indicated that it would end the occupation of the Bremner building following the removal of the statue. They have honoured this commitment. However, the student-staff groupings that occupied Bremner have now splintered and there remain a group under the banner of 'Rhodes Must Fall' that have declared that they will not vacate Bremner, that "transformation is the maintenance and perpetuation of oppression ...", that "our only regret is that we did not take the statue down ourselves. Going forward we will no longer compromise. Management is our enemy." They also state, "let it be known that Azania House is ours and we will not leave." Amongst other non-UCT issues they raise, they state that "the Constitution (is) a document which violently preserves the status quo".
This group also crossed a line of acceptable protest, ignoring the SRC's pleas, when they stormed into the Council meeting on Wednesday evening and forced the Council to interrupt its meeting for about an hour. Council only agreed to continue after the majority of students withdrew leaving about 15 who agreed to remain quiet observers. This continuation was only possible, and was adopted by the Council, because all debate had already been concluded and the meeting only had to vote by secret ballot on one amendment and on the substantial resolution itself. This behavior was completely unacceptable, challenged the authority of Council, could have risked preventing Council from completing its business, and will result in prosecutions of the students involved.
I am also aware of the incidents of chants of "one settler one bullet" as was heard at both the Council meeting on 8 April and at the occasion of the removal of the statue on 9 April. I wish to express my dismay that this has happened, condemn all acts of intimidation and reckless utterances as they have no place in our democracy and are in serious conflict with the values of the University. They create a hostile environment for many members of the campus community. We are investigating referring these cases to the Human Rights Commission.
On the other side, we have been disgusted by the volume and vitriol of racist comments made primarily in the on-line social media, but also some graffiti on the boards assembled for people to write comments on. We are investigating every one of them. Most are under pseudonyms and cannot be traced. Where there are names, we have not been able to link any such postings to any UCT students or staff. But if we can, we will be determined in prosecuting the authors.
We had understood that the removal of the statue would have seen the student occupiers of the Bremner Building end their occupation. As is clear from the above, the group that now claims the 'Rhodes Must Fall' label continues to occupy the building. In this context, today we issued a notice to those UCT students and others who continue to occupy the building, requiring them to have vacated the building by 14h00, and to desist from any action that obstructs the rendering of administrative services by the Administration. We have informed students that failure to comply with the requirement that they end their occupation of the building will be unlawful, will be a contravention of the rules of conduct and will have disciplinary consequences. We also informed the occupiers that should they not comply, we will have no choice but to approach the high court for an order compelling them to do so. We remain open to mediation and stand ready to engage with the occupier group should they accept our invitation regarding mediation.
I want to emphasize that our firm action against this group will not in any way diminish our renewed focus on the transformation issues that clearly challenge us. We will firstly create a forum where students, staff and the university leadership co-determine the agenda for action. Secondly, we have committed to concluding the review of symbols and names by the end of this year. Thirdly, we have created a space for black academic staff, in particular those who affiliating themselves with 'Transform UCT', to engage with academic heads of departments to develop a programme within each academic department that addresses the issues of staff transformation. We already have a Curriculum Review Task Team which will be expanded to include students and other interested staff, to intensify the programme of curriculum review. There will be much more to follow – we must not lose the energy and widespread commitment of this moment to proffer change.
I again wish to thank colleagues for their understanding and the helpful comments and advice we have received. I wish to especially thank the staff in the Bremner Building for their patience, as they have been most directly affected by the occupation.
Dr Max Price
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