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UCT Rhodes: Breaking the shackles

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OPINION by Andriques Che Petersen – The classic, and overused, cliché goes: ‘Where there’s smoke, there’s fire’ and at this very moment in time we find ourselves occupying, the University of Cape Town, where there is a cloud of smog pointing towards a bevy of flames pulsating underground.

And when I say underground, I refer to the deep seated psychological trauma that we, black South African youths, born before and after the end of Apartheid, deal with on a daily basis. The face and cause of that trauma is called white privilege. We’ve all heard it before and we’ve all dealt with it, whether we realized it or not, whether we benefitted from it, or came under its boot. White privilege is everywhere. And to anyone who asks why I applaud UCT students for being so unmoved and steadfast in their want, no need, for that statue of Cecil John Rhodes to be removed, you need only offer those two words as reason and reply: White. Privilege.

It’s a concept we can discuss for days on end, and would likely be met with replies, from some paler folk, as being a racist term. Some might say it’s erroneous to pace the weight of nearly four hundred years of wrongs on the shoulders of the twenty somethings stepping out into the world who happen to be white. Others would reply that we are ‘all the same’, they ‘don’t see colour’ and everyone is afforded the same opportunities based on merit, not colour anymore.

I say nope. This weekend I spent a great deal of time, replying to friends, and online acquaintances, talking about the Rhodes statue, hearing different views. The lived experience of black youth in South Africa is so dire that I could only come to one conclusion: if you’re white, you still benefit from Apartheid, our colonial past and the general idea that white is right. To qualify, I’m not saying all white people are racist, and I do not expect anyone to feel guilty for the colour of their skin, nor feel the need to defend themselves. But I do believe that now is the time for us to talk.

And talking is what is happening, with a little bit of action on the side. This week has seen me shrug off all the assumptions I had on UCT’s student population; now, and I hope it is not just the large group that has formed around the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, these students are showing me what’s missing. We have become too complacent and ignorant on issues of race and privilege, and when we do tackle those issues we become too quick to shouting battles and emotional outbursts.

Last week I attended a dialogue presented by the university’s SRC, white, black, everyone was there, and although some came up to give opinions that were not popular, no one was given the boot. These campaigners are smart enough to not play into the expectations and stereotypes bandied around of black youth being rowdy, disruptive and unable to tackle issues without it devolving into chaos. Sure, this whole thing started when poo was thrown on the statue, but do we not all wish we could have been the one to do that? To desecrate the symbols that represent your situation?

These students are living the revolutionary dream, and before my words go into praising them too much, I believe that among the chaos there must be a space for dialogue with the one you are fighting. It is all fine to bring the issue to the attention of other students, students who you can win over but a bit of strategy must be held in hand. The university is slow to transform, so is Stellenbosch, so is CPUT; there is no need to bow to management’s suggestions, but, there is a need to talk.

And as I suggested to a friend in reply to a question on whether this is short sighted, and what next after this, my view is there doesn’t have to be anything after this. For these students, being able to take part in the removal of that statue will alleviate some of the unseen trauma black youth inherited from our parents.

There doesn’t need to be a sequel; the spectacle and the energy spent during this time will aid in these students moving on. And that is all that needs to happen. We cannot forget without breaking these unseen chains realized as physical symbols. VOC

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