An inconvenient truth

13 April 2015

Glenda Wildschut
Transformation Services Office

"History is shaped by the storytellers, and their narratives become the dominant and entrenched discourse for generations, and written into historical record often as uncontested truths.

"There can be no debate about what the real story is of Cecil John Rhodes's impact on this country, and indeed on the continent of Africa. In recent weeks, more of this story – buried for so long, or conveniently ignored as an inconvenient truth – has been articulated in various public platforms and in the opinion pieces of most media. But for the recent student–led focus on the relevance and symbolism of Rhodes, embodied by his dominant statue in pride of place, in all probability much of this history would have remained buried under the cloak of a more amenable interpretation of Rhodes' 'contribution' to the university.

"The issue of the statue has come to be a symbol of the many untransformed terrains at our university. Frequent accounts of the alienation people feel have been told between the four walls of the transformation office. The stories have been told with anger, hurt and disappointment, but not without the passion for change and a desire for UCT to be the best in all aspects of its existence.

"Once again UCT has been thrust into a crucible moment in which it is forced to confront the awfulness of the past; and we cannot miss an opportunity to engage all its constituents on the vexing question of how we deal with that past, and the consequences it plays out in our present. That this issue has become a national debate should spur us on to focus our collective energies to begin to shape a new narrative for UCT.

"As director of the Transformation Services Office (TSO), I am of the view that the statue must be removed, but not without the university community taking the opportunity for a deep and introspective dialogue, for an all–inclusive conversation about our past and the kind of future we envisage for the university. The ultimate aim of the process is to create a new narrative, to vision a future and to deliberate together on how to co–create it. We can shape the way in which we want to be through this moment.

"A way to achieve this is constructive engagement which involves genuinely being open to the possibility of hearing the 'other' and engaging with others around difficult issues. It's about having those difficult conversations in an open and transparent way.

"Our challenge here at UCT is to examine our history. To thoroughly question what place the symbols of colonialism, oppression and apartheid have in our current reality and how the legacies of our past will impact the future. After removing these symbols, what then? How will we ensure that the present consequences of our past will not be repeated in the future?

"In examining our current challenges, we need to ensure the spaces for dialogue are kept open. So like Prof Pumla Gobodo– Madikizela, in an article in the Sunday Times, I am uncomfortable with seeing the mouths of some of our students strapped. Perhaps I miss the meaning of this. If we're saying we're not going to speak, what are we saying about constructive engagement?

"As Deputy Vice–Chancellor Professor Crain Soudien would say: the university is a marketplace of ideas. It's about keeping in mind that the role of the university is to always engage in a knowledge project.

"We certainly, and particularly from the TSO's side, are thinking very hard about how we can create those small spaces for conversation, where people feel that their opinions are honoured; they feel that they are able to speak. In creating these safe spaces, we will go a long way towards impacting positively on our institutional climate.

"We've got a long way to go; we have to work incredibly hard on shifting mindsets and changing racial and other stereotypes."

Monday Monthly Read more stories from the April 2015 edition.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.

Monday Monthly

Volume 34 Edition 03

13 Apr 2015

Download PDF

Previous Editions