In two years, Cape Town has experienced two rather rude awakenings in the form of “poo protests” in normally sanitised areas meant to represent the best of the Western Cape’s development. The first protest, organised by the disenfranchised Ses’khona People’s Rights Movement, was meant to highlight the deplorable conditions of toilets in informal settlements and townships across Cape Town. It was a clash of two different and highly unequal worlds as the stench and rot that many have to encounter daily was brought into the Cape Town Airport and Legislature in 2013 — an infringement of the cordon sanitaire that is often inaccessible in townships.
The second protest took place more recently at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and featured several students throwing excrement at the long-standing statue of Rhodes on Upper Campus. The exact details of those involved remain murky, but what is clear is that the protest was organised against “white arrogance” and the ways in which black students are treated at institutions of higher learning. At face value, it might seem that the only thing these protests have in common is the use of human excrement to highlight a grievance, and this may be true. In some ways, the UCT protests are a direct deviation from the initial protests organised by Ses’khona. Being at the university already places one in the ranks of educated elite. Many of those who make it onto the stage to accept their certificates are more likely to find employment than their counterparts with no formal post-high school education. A good number of students are recruited fresh from graduation by numerous South African corporates. Membership in this university elite is complicated, for many black students the reality of township life or being the first generation in university is ever-present. So too are the barriers seen and unseen that make timely graduation unlikely.
But being at an institution like UCT also comes with its own complex participation in Rhodes’ colonial legacy — as students benefit from the view from the mountain over the rest of Cape Town, access to flushing toilets, wi-fi and leading academic thinkers, a reality that is perceivable but inaccessible for South Africa’s majority.
But the class inequality created through increased economic and educational participation of formerly disadvantaged groups is representative of a positive trend. It points to further economic integration not possible during apartheid, and provides unimaginable benefits for the handful of students that make it through our universities. But it is also true that the harsh inequalities South Africa is witnessing are as much systematic as they are symptomatic.
It is no secret that compromises were made at the onset of our new political dispensation, many of which were less than desirable. This has also included the naming, upholding and celebration of historical figures — but often with exclusion of other historical narratives pertinent to the formation of identity among young non-white South Africans. Growing up in small mining towns in the North West, I was taught South African history from the arrival of Jan van Riebeek, and conquests of the Voortrekkers. Any knowledge I acquired of Steve Biko, Archie Mafeje or Albert Luthuli was through my own reading while the brutality of apartheid was inferred rather than directly addressed in my schooling curriculum. I can only imagine for some of my white counterparts that the formal curricula and narrative meant that discussions of white privilege and the structural consequences of apartheid were severely limited. Every year we continued to visit the Danie Theron monument outside of Fochville, without consideration of the Hector Pieterson Memorial, or the Apartheid Museum.
This lack of direct discussion on contentious markers of history bears direct consequence on how we envision our society going forward. Is there truly space for all narratives? For those calling Rhodes a part of their culture and negating the intention behind the UCT protests, a more serious question remains: What part of Rhodes and his legacy informs this association and what elements of that culture have you chosen to uphold and enforce? Because no one culture is better than the next, it is crucial that this choice be made with consideration of the great cost to human life and dignity that accompanied Rhodes’ conquests — some of which have consequences for today. It is important that we recognise all heroes of our tumultuous history in areas shared by all races, not simply in the townships where many of these commemorations currently stand.
Whatever our opinions of the poo-protest methods, the perceptions are important for engaging the debate about our history and the role protagonists of the past play in our common, complicated identity as South Africans. Perhaps if we better understand where others have come from, we can better address the symptoms of an economic and political system that thrives on great inequality.
Image – Danie van der Merwe/flickr