Answers to alumni FAQs re: Rhodes statue

22 June 2015 | Story by Newsroom
Photo by Roger Sedres.
Photo by Roger Sedres.

Do you still have questions about UCT's decision-making process in the run-up to the removal of the Rhodes statue, and its response to recent protest action on campus? In this letter to UCT's alumni, Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price looks to address some of the main questions and concerns that have been articulated by former students.

Dear Alumni

We invited you to share your views with us on the recent developments at UCT, particularly in relation to the removal of the Rhodes statue and the challenges of transformation more generally that the university is facing.

We have been overwhelmed by your responses. More than a 1 000 of you sent your comments to the email address we created for this purpose. Most of your responses were considered, thoughtful and constructive. While several hundred of you agreed with the way UCT's leadership team was dealing with the statue issue and many thought its removal was long overdue, many of you were indeed harshly critical, others deeply offended and some of you very angry with your alma mater.

The uniform message which came through is that you wanted to better understand what was happening at the university, why the university was taking the decisions it was, and what this meant for the future.

I wish that I was in a position to answer each and every one of your letters individually.

Unfortunately pressure of time does not make this possible. But rest assured that I have read your emails, take very seriously the issues that you have raised, and that I am deeply appreciative of how much you care about the future of your alma mater.

I have tried my best to respond to the most critical issues that you raised. I hope it goes some way towards reassuring you that UCT remains as committed as ever to preserving an environment of free speech and rational debate, and that through the way we have handled the protests UCT has emerged stronger, more inclusive, and that there is no reason for concern that any of the events of the last three months compromise our commitment to academic excellence and our global standing.

My response may repeat some of the issues covered by communication from our Development and Alumni Department. I apologise for this, but I wanted to write directly to you and sincerely hope that you will take the time to read my update below, lengthy as it might be. For this, I also apologise in advance but I felt that as you made the effort to write to us, you deserved a comprehensive response.

The questions asked and criticisms levelled may be clustered into the following:

  • What were the reasons for the removal of the statue? In particular, what were the arguments that were found to be so compelling as to win the backing of almost the whole of the Senate and Council?
  • Many are concerned that removing statues amounts to rewriting history and that this is just the beginning of a process that will end with the wholesale destruction of the heritage of the past.
  • Did UCT management not just capitulate to student populist pressure?
  • Why is UCT tolerating the unacceptable modalities of protest, such as the occupation of part of the Bremner Building, and especially the throwing of excrement on the statue. Many were especially critical of the decision of the university not to take disciplinary action against the perpetrator of this 'deplorable deed'.

What were the main compelling arguments in favour of removing the statue?

The first element of the argument is an analysis of what Cecil John Rhodes did and, more importantly, what he represented. I do not think it necessary to elaborate Rhodes' very problematic values and deeds here. This has been widely covered, not only by historians in many fulsome texts, but reviewed recently through this debate in numerous articles which I cannot summarise here. It is clear to me, and was to most participants in the debates, especially in Senate, that very few think that Rhodes' virtues outweigh his vices. Some have defended him, saying he should not be judged by today's values. Yet even in his time (see Guardian Obituary 1902), he was considered by some as racist, maverick, almost beyond the law, responsible for brutal atrocities (eg see Olive Schreiner letters) and directly responsible for the removal of the franchise and land from black inhabitants of Southern Africa, and the massacre of thousands.

The second element of the argument, however, is that in spite of this, statues of villains of the past should be protected but that context is critical. To emphasise this point, there has been no call from anyone engaged in the UCT debate for the statue of Rhodes in the Company's Garden to be removed. And there has never been an argument that the Rhodes statue at UCT should be destroyed, only that it should be moved. The argument has been entirely about the location of the statue on the UCT campus, and the symbolism of that location.

The statue of Rhodes was, to all intents and purposes, the only statue of its kind on the campus – an imposing, grand statue of an individual, signifying veneration and the extolment of his values and achievements. The location in pride of place on Jammie steps, at the focal point of the magnificently balanced built landscape of the upper campus, communicated that Rhodes was emblematic of UCT, thus signalling much more about UCT than it did about Rhodes. It presented him as a founder and hero. He was neither – even if he did donate the land upon which the university was built, for which we are of course extremely grateful. He was born a quarter of a century after UCT was founded, and died a quarter of a century before UCT moved onto the land that he bequeathed – not to UCT but for a future national university.

So, thirdly, the proposal to remove the statue from its current location was certainly not an attempt to airbrush Rhodes out of UCT's history. For one, historical memory does not simply depend on, or require retaining, statues of old without relocation or recontextualisation. In India, Delhi's Coronation Park, once the Raj's ceremonial parade ground, has become a resting place for the statues of the colonial overlords of yesteryear that were removed from their public places of honour post-independence. Thus Rhodes' statue will be moved, perhaps to a museum or another public space where it will be equally visible and available for educational purposes. The challenge we face is finding more appropriate ways of recognising Rhodes role in history and acknowledging the gift of the land to the university – particularly amongst new generations of students – without conveying the sentiment that we shared Rhodes' values or that we were glorifying him as the 'founder' of UCT. One suggestion is that the plinth that remains at UCT may well be contextualised with the story of the statue that was once upon it, and the explanation of how and why it was removed in April 2015 – a much more effective and interesting account of history than that offered by the statue in the past.

Fourthly, the university community heard from black students and staff how they felt personally affronted by what the university was implicitly saying to them through the in-your-face aggrandisement of the arch-imperialist. Cecil John Rhodes was a dedicated ideologist of British racial supremacy and an important progenitor of apartheid. Moreover, he symbolises 350 years of colonial oppression. Removing Rhodes' statue from its central location at UCT was an important symbolic gesture of a decisive rupture with the past in terms of transformation, because it signals that as a community we recognise how divisive its presence had become and we are demonstrating a significant commitment to creating a university where everyone feels welcome and included.

Were we pushed into removing the statue against our will?

In October 2014, long before the protest began in March 2015, I, on behalf of the leadership of UCT, had put the review of statues, symbols and signage on the agenda as part of the bigger debate on transformation. In particular, the growing community of black students and staff were being confronted daily with symbols and signs of an apartheid or pre-apartheid colonial history which they regarded as oppressive and divisive, and certainly not to be extolled. Indeed, for some years already, UCT management and Council had been renaming buildings and spaces to reflect the different histories of the various diverse communities that make up our student population in order to make UCT a more inclusive institution. To list a small sample, this process had yielded the Cissie Gool Plaza, the Hoerikwaggo Building, the AC Jordan Building, the Dullah Omar Residence, and Madiba Circle. Our plan for 2015 was to review the controversial, yet apparently untouchable symbols and names and subject them to critical debate. These explicitly included the Rhodes statue and Jameson Hall.

There can be no denying that the student protests took us by surprise with the timing of their eruption, their passion and breadth of support. This overtook the pace of our original plans. But given that our own views on the Rhodes statue were actually aligned with the calls of the protest movement, there seemed to be no point in creating a conflict where there was none. There was, however, a conflict about process, with the students arguing that the statue should come down simply because they felt offended by it, and it should come down on the basis that we should all be committed to creating a more inclusive, non-offensive campus environment. In the view of black students, we (management, most whites) could not be expected to understand their pain in this regard, so we simply had to accept it; there was nothing further to discuss. For my executive, the crucial issue was to defend the idea of a university as a space where ideas and debate matter; where decisions are made rationally, not as a result of populist pressure; and where proper governance processes were adhered to. This meant that the decision had to be taken by the University Council, informed by the arguments presented by different key constituencies – including the students, the Senate, the professional and support staff, alumni and convocation, and even the public. I am pleased to confirm that this is exactly what we did. We called a special Council meeting to be held within one month and we committed to conducting debates and soliciting views from all these constituencies within that period to inform Council's decision. We did not capitulate to pressure – either on the substance of the issues (with which we already agreed) or on the process. The remarkable vindication of the commitment to reasoned argument was that in many fora, including Senate, Convocation and Council, it was clear at the start of each debate that views were much divided. In fact, in some cases, I expected the majority to be opposed to the removal of the statue. Yet by the end of the debates, the arguments in favour of removal, not least those presented by the student representatives, prevailed, and there was almost unanimity in support of removal.

The modes of protest

The concern that has being expressed by the majority of you has been with the modalities of protest.

I'm sure many of you, as students, were involved in protests which became defining moments in your lives. It is no different for the present generation of students, even though the issues may be different. Even the occupation of the university administration building is not only a well-recognised mode of protest at UCT but has occurred at several leading universities around the world just this month (Edinburgh, Manchester, Amsterdam, LSE). But it is important to emphasise that the UCT protests were peaceful, mostly well disciplined, provided structured learning activities for participating students and staff, and most importantly, did not in any way disrupt lectures or other educational activities. No damage was done to the building. The functioning of the university was not interrupted. This is partly a testimony to considered and mature student leadership. But it is also a consequence of the university management having accommodated the protests and avoided escalating tensions by either rushing to punish students, or calling in police to remove them.

Having said this, there were several episodes during the month-long protest where students crossed the boundaries of what we, at UCT, would consider acceptable modes of protest. Throwing poo on the statue was one. During the occupation of Bremner, which by agreement was confined to public spaces, a few offices of individuals were invaded and occupied, which the affected staff found hostile and intimidating. And the incursion into the Council meeting that was debating the removal of the statue was completely unacceptable.

Why did the university not discipline students?

This is the criticism most often and most harshly levelled against the university leadership: why no action was taken against the student who threw the poo at the statue and why an amnesty was granted to those who crossed the line during the protests, including occupying buildings at the university and disrupting a Council meeting.

The guiding principle for the university leadership is that our actions should be informed by goals we wish to achieve and the long-term interests of the institution. Sometimes this may lead us to adopt a restorative justice approach as opposed to instituting punitive disciplinary action. The consequences of punitive action may be future deterrence, but it is likely also to induce the accused to defend their behaviour and to reject the legitimacy of the university authority and of our codes of practice. The outcomes are likely to damage if not destroy the careers of bright, passionate young people, many of whom will become leaders in the future. Is that the outcome we, as teachers, would want? We believe an alternative approach can achieve much more for them and for the institution. If instead we turn this into an opportunity for dialogue and engagement, with the aim of mediating an agreement about acceptable boundaries of protest, we may achieve the education for citizenship and future leadership that we need to offer our students. And in regard to the bigger picture of moving forward, we have the possibility of breaking the impasse that had developed between protesting students and university management and open the means for those students to participate in the processes that lie ahead in addressing transformation. Also, as UCT, we have an opportunity to demonstrate how we South Africans can learn to overcome the conflicts of the past through mediation and understanding rather than through perpetuating the cycle of accusation and counter-accusation.

This certainly does not mean that we will not enforce boundaries for what we consider acceptable forms of behaviour. And there are forms of behaviour that the university management will certainly punish when we think it the best course of action. This is clearly evidenced by the suspension of a student for allegedly intimidating and abusing a member of staff and by the pending disciplinary cases of a number of students who continued to occupy a different university building after the amnesty period had lapsed. It also manifests in the warning to the solo poo-thrower that we would prosecute him if it happened again, with the previous incident being regarded as an aggravating factor.

What's next

The statue is in safe keeping while Heritage Western Cape decides where it should go. But we all recognise that the statue was not the only issue. It is symbolic of deeper experiences of alienation by some black students and staff in what feels to them like a white, colonial or European institution. I will write to you in another letter on this and what the implications are for our transformation project. We are determined to address these issues with renewed energy and focus.

In conclusion

Many of you may feel that our standing as an institution of academic excellence and the challenges of transformation are in tension. I can reassure you that they are not. If anything, they complement each other. We cannot have one without the other if we are to navigate a secure future for all of us. No one, black or white, is arguing that promotion criteria should be different for different members of faculty. On the contrary, we all agree that we need to redouble our development efforts to accelerate the careers of black staff in acknowledgement of the barriers on their advancement that our 21 years of democracy have not yet eradicated. My interactions with black staff and students suggest that they are as enormously proud of being at UCT and of UCT's standing as a global player as anyone else. They know this is why they will have the pick of the jobs locally and internationally. They do not want to compromise this but instead build on the successes achieved.

Transformation will increase social cohesion in the institution. It will increase the diversity of perspectives and experiences that gives us a unique advantage in the landscape of global research universities and makes us a partner of choice. Being inclusive makes us a desired destination for the best students and faculty members of diverse constituencies and nationalities – not just our traditional feeder communities. This inevitably increases the pool of talent that we draw on. We will continue to achieve transformation with excellence, as much as we achieve excellence through transformation. Our hope is that you will continue to remain as involved, supportive and engaged as your responses to us have once again clearly demonstrated.

With sincere regards,

Dr Max Price

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