Rhodes statue protest is more about alienation

The University of Cape Town has been beset by student protests and sit-ins calling for the removal of the statue of the university’s once benefactor and former governor of the Cape Colony, Cecil John Rhodes.

The Rhodes statue and other vestiges of colonialism must go, universities in South Africa must be transformed and Africanised, the students argue. Contagion has since set in and there are calls for the removal of the King George statue at Howard College and the renaming of Rhodes University.

The university administrations have relented and the statues will be removed. Liberal-minded academics and struggle veterans have given full endorsement to the protesters, the former not wishing to appear untransformed and the latter thirsting for the revolution that they were denied in the 1990s when the ANC and its icon, Nelson Mandela, opted for reconciliation instead. Well, I do not agree.

I have no white guilt to assuage and not enough brown guilt to sympathise with the protests. To be honest, I am something of an anglophile; I have to be, given that I spent years longing to study at Oxford and Cambridge and eventually succeeded.

And why not? Nothing will change the fact that my maternal grandmother’s father came with the indentured labourers from India to South Africa to work on the sugar plantations. He was treated better because he spoke English and was educated. British colonialism was brutal, it changed the destiny of my ancestors and their descendants, but its history is my history and its language is my mother tongue.

I love English literature (I have no other) and ache to visit Hardy’s Wessex, Lawrence’s Nottingham and Du Maurier’s Cornwall. Such is the love-hate relationship between the colonised and the coloniser. Although, those who have different roots or life trajectories and may not be first-language English speakers may see the situation very differently, with greater disconnection from the colonial past.


Social science tells us that youth is a liminal phase and that youth will always challenge the establishment: Anti-Vietnam flower children, Soweto 1976, Tiananmen and the Arab Spring.

But this protest is not really about a statue that has been on the Cape Town campus for more than 100 years or the well-known history of land grabs and discrimination by a British imperialist. It is about the sense of alienation that non-white students still feel about South Africa’s premier universities and the legacy of white dominance in the country’s academic space. I feel that I have spent enough time at South African universities as a student and a lecturer to credibly make this claim.

In my undergraduate days at the University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits, the non-white students were seen but not heard. I was one of the first non-white students to attend a prize-giving ceremony at Wits. My achievement was mentioned during my brief two minutes of fame as I walked across the stage for my bachelor’s graduation and I fondly remember the two old white professors who put on my hood, congratulating me in excited whispers.

Many years later, in 2013, I spent a year at the University of Johannesburg, working as a researcher somewhere between the lecturer and senior lecturer salary scale and became painfully aware that not much had changed.

It was apparent that the students shared my opinion when Muzi Kuzwayo gave a talk to the students which I attended. Muzi was the first black African advertising guru in South Africa and in the 1990s his book, Marketing through Mud and Dust, challenged many of the stereotypes that white marketeers had of black consumers.

I was expecting that same dynamic Muzi from the ‘90s, but I had forgotten how much time had elapsed. Muzi had aged; he was approaching retirement and was nostalgic. He started off telling us about his life story – his birth in Sophiatown, the forced removal to Soweto, the tumultuous years at the Turfloop university campus when the then minister of education FW de Klerk sent the army in to quell the anti-apartheid student uprising and the savage beatings with the sjambok inflicted by soldiers on students.

He told the students they were very fortunate to be spared the troubles of his generation and therefore they should reach for the stars and let nothing hold them back. But they were not so inspired; they shook their heads and insisted that apartheid was still encumbering them.

Racism, inequality and other hangovers from the apartheid era are still manifest in many spheres of South African life. The glass is not full, but it is not empty either. There has been progress and many more opportunities for those lucky enough to attend university. Do students in South Africa of all hues recognise how privileged they are relative to their less educated fellow youth?

Perhaps it is difficult to feel advantaged when you feel like an outsider. And focusing on the symbols of the colonial past will only reinforce a sense of victimhood rather than liberation. Thus the removal of the statues will feel like a victory for a short while, but it will not address the roots of the grievances.


Is Africanisation the answer? How do we Africanise South African universities? Is it enough to remove the statues and rename the buildings? Or do we go deeper: Change the curriculum; radically enforce affirmative action policies and replace the lecturers from minority groups with Africans, even if they are not the best qualified persons for the job?

Will I be told I am too brown to lecture at an Africanised university, despite my Oxbridge qualifications? Africanisation is desirable, we are told, and yet the brightest seek education abroad. We cherish the local and aspire to the global.

This sentiment can be heard in the pride with which the local musician being interviewed on a popular television show says “I am based in New York now”. It can be seen in the rapt attention on the faces of Wits students when some respectable-looking academic tells them their university is internationally recognised.

No-one bothers to ask by whom or since when. The vision of the municipality of Johannesburg is to be a world-class African city. Even Africanisation requires moderation because we do not want to Africanise so much that we alienate, and we will have to engage with the global knowledge economy. It is a tough balance to achieve.

True nation building requires more than symbolic gestures. Hard work is essential. The idea of a national youth service programme which enables young people to build skills while working for the betterment of local communities provides a vehicle for them to participate in the creation of a more inclusive society.

Thus far the programme has been implemented on a limited scale and focused on the less educated youth with few options rather than university students because the latter were not needy enough.

The students at Cape Town and other universities could take their own initiative and consider contributing to the society that they envisage by volunteering en masse to assist learners in the many underprivileged schools in South Africa. Such a contribution may foster a sense of inclusion as well as an awareness of their relative privilege; after all, mahala (meaning free of charge) is an African concept.

Zenobia Ismail is a Gates Cambridge Scholar, doing a PhD in politics and international studies at the University of Cambridge, UK. She was formerly a manager of Afrobarometer which conducts surveys across Sub-Saharan Africa.

* Author’s disclaimer: Muzi Kuzwayo is now a staff member at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business. This article does not represent his personal views on the issue of the Rhodes statue – rather I am drawing on my interpretation of a talk he gave at the University of Johannesburg in 2013.