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activism

The Year South African Students United Against Colonialism

Before Charlottesville, another group of young activists gathered together and started a global conversation by demanding the removal of a controversial statue.

by Katherine Gillespie
17 August 2018, 12:12am

Image via the Arts Centre

This article is supported by The Arts Centre Melbourne who are currently showing The Fall, a play about a student revolution at the University of Cape Town rocked South Africa and made waves around the world.

Two years before the proposed removal of a Robert E. Lee statue incited a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, protests against a different bronze figure were dividing public opinion while uniting a generation of South African students. Taking place at the University of Cape Town in 2015 and organised entirely by young people in classrooms and on social media, the #RhodesMustFall movement rallied against a sculpture of Cecil Rhodes—the nineteenth century British politician whose imperialist policies laid the foundation for apartheid. A passionate month of protest worked: following a vote, Rhodes was removed, and a wider conversation about decolonised tertiary education finally moved from the lecture halls into the open.

The sometimes-violent occupations and protests that led up to and followed the statue’s ousting come to life in The Fall, a play written and performed by former University of Cape Town students who were there on the front lines back in 2015. For those writers and cast members, the memories of protesting against the statue are still fresh. And the more symbolic meanings of the movement are still relevant.

“It was just this huge statue of him sitting down and looking out over these impoverished areas of the town, with this look on his face,” recalls The Fall actor Ameera Conrad, who took part in the protests during her final year of study and co-wrote the play . “It was a very obvious reminder that the university was created by Rhodes and the queen as a way for white Englishmen to get a so-called good English education.”

By 2015, students had been debating the statue’s relevance for decades, and enough was enough. In a now-famous move, political activist Chumani Maxwele hurled a container of faeces at Rhodes and gained national media attention. From there, students occupied campus buildings, marched outside of university administration offices, and held peaceful assemblies and debates. While the statue’s eventual removal was seen as a victory, protests for black student rights continued.

“Taking part in those protests was such an eye-opening experience,” explains Conrad’s fellow cast member Tankiso Mamabolo, who plays a black campus feminist in The Fall. “On campus I’d experienced the classism, and how black students and black staff were treated differently, but the first thing I learnt [attending meetings during the movement] was how to put a vocabulary to what I was feeling. Because sometimes I’d feel something and not know how to talk about it––I’d just know something was off.”

Often for the first time, she explains, both black and white students were coming together to talk openly about South Africa’s black student experience. They discussed issues like accessibility (whereas white students typically lived in expensive areas close to campus, students of colour were often commuting from regional townships), curriculum (“very Eurocentric and Western,” Mamabolo explains), and the general lack of respect shown to black academics and students compared to white.

“We got a lot of black academics to come in to talk, and that was one of my favourite parts of the movement,” says Mamabolo. “We learned so much about ourselves that we didn’t know. And what we learned help us create change. There was a sense of inferiority that black students were feeling at the university, but I found during the movement and afterwards there was a confidence that black students found to speak out about those issues.”

Of course, it wasn’t always easy. Conrad found herself demoralised when attending a protest at parliament demanding that university fees be lowered in order to expand access to tertiary education. “We were met with water cannons and police,” she explains. “That was when we realised that the government was not going to be on our side the entire time. That was a real pivotal moment for me.”

But what the Rhodes Must Fall movement proved was that students can create change. The Fall’s actors and writers found the experience of creating art out of a difficult time in their student lives cathartic, but they hope the audience gets something out of it too: a sense that young people around the world are able to make a difference, especially when it comes to challenging white supremacy, and decolonising institutions like university campuses. Maybe even interrogating all those Captain Cook statues Australia has been erecting lately.

“If you look at what’s happening around the world, whether in Charlottesville or in Australia, you see these are global conversations,” Conrad explains. “Why do these men get such praise? Sometimes, more often than not, praise for being murderers of great numbers of native people in any particular country. These are also conversations about patriarchy, about racism, about gender, and class. They aren’t just South African issues, and we’re really hopeful that young people can come together and make the world we all want to live in, where we all feel visible and equal.”

Mamabolo agrees. “Even though the statue hasn’t quite symbolically fallen yet, it was removed, and that gave us a feeling of power. We felt that when we organised and all came together to speak up, things could be done. It opened up a door for students to know that if they want to live a certain way, they can.”

This article is supported by The Arts Centre Melbourne. You can find out more about The Fall and buy tickets here.