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The more things change, the more they stay the same: The curious case of black women and queer life at UCT

By Zethu Matebeni

The last few months have stimulated long overdue conversations and action in higher education institutions in South Africa. Rhodes Must Fall, over and over again. The concrete structure may be gone from the steps of the UCT upper campus, but its shadow remains — blocking the same path that leads to possible liberation. It is not yet uhuru. The promise of freedom is not for tomorrow. The wait is charged with the hard work of decolonisation. Often misrecognised as the new buzz word next to transformation, its content is often not so easily embraced.

A few recent student-led events have caught UCT by surprise, unprepared. The Rhodes Must Fall movement continues to keep the university on its toes. And religious views against same-sex marriage, lesbian and gay people by a student leader caused a prickly stir. Transgender, lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer students challenged the homophobic sentiments that aimed at silencing them. Exposing their pained bodies to senior management, these students, under the UCT Queer Revolution banner were comforted by a liberal response that ensured them that once they marry and join the academic elite, their partners at the institution would access full benefits. Their student leader was re-instated, by university management, and reshuffled to take care of student health, safety and environment. It is not ironic. Institutions are microcosms of our society. Those who cause injury and perpetrate violence or hurt are not excused from leadership positions. Many women can attest to this.


Countless women will tell you of the everyday pain they carry as they walk around campus, dodging men’s sexual advances, or even attempts to take over their bodies without consent. Routinely, they are reminded that certain spaces do not belong to women; that their bodies, or body parts, do not belong to them; and that the university campus is a hetero-patriarchal male space. Its aggressive masculinity colludes with its suffocating whiteness. For many women, speaking out is not an option. It is a must, even when their voices are shaking. Women’s deafening screams bounce off well-trained residence “ambassadors” who pride and brand themselves as “Marquadians”, Tugwell, Baxter and Kopano. Escaping what everyone loosely terms “rape culture” becomes sheer luck. Rape, as culture, is made so palatable that it is even stripped off its gruesome harm and violence. Wounded bodies move around campus watching over their backs, minimising their risks to injury, and attending classes with their male perpetrators.

The call to decolonise the university is long overdue. Committing to the project will require an unlearning of old ways. Simple things become complicated and demand new conversations. Many people never think twice about the act of going to the bathroom for example. This normalisation was made visible by the presence of the pota-pota when its contents were sprayed on the statue that should never return to the campus. For the first time, many people at UCT, even though they are in Cape Town, had to engage with the politics of shit. It was not an easy conversation. Englishness has taught us that bathroom matters are private. For many in South Africa, that not-so-private-space is deeply political. The toilet can be a violent space and an unpleasant experience. Cape Town’s highways and townships line up with this exhibition of black people’s humiliation. Bringing this to UCT opened up a possible conversation about the harsh realities and conditions that face many of the university’s students and staff.

Recently, a few people noticed that the toilet signs in most buildings on upper campus were replaced with notes saying “gender neutral bathroom”. Cisgender men and cisgender women conditioned to follow signs for male and female respectively to enter the bathroom rarely think about going to the toilet. Entering this marked privileged space is a taken-for-granted act. This is not the case for transgender and gender non-conforming people. Often, many are forced to suppress their bodily functions and only go to the bathroom in the comfort of their homes. Otherwise, the bathroom routine is an everyday endurance of being kicked out because they do not look like “real women” or “real men”; or that they are a “threat” to cisgender women if they are both transmen and transwomen. Transmen dare enter the male bathroom. Without the body parts that exhibit maleness, peeing gets politicised. Only one gender-neutral toilet hidden in the basement of one building serves the needs of the entire transgender and gender non-conforming community in all the university’s six campuses. The #TheTransCollective at UCT has opened the space to engage with the politics of inclusion of all marginalised groups. These conversations are part and parcel of rethinking inclusive signage and diversifying access for everyone. We can no longer accept a replacement of old signs with the same ones, only looking new.

Only time will tell if decolonising the university can tackle also the tough everyday realities faced by groups whose voices can no longer be muted.

Dr Zethu Matebeni is a senior researcher at the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA), UCT and writes in a personal-political capacity.


  • Black Academic Caucus (BAC) is a platform that advocates for inclusive and diverse academic institutions that also prioritise black academics and their knowledge. Committed to transformation and decolonisation of UCT primarily, and influencing the higher education landscape in South Africa, BAC will advocate for curriculum and research scholarship that is linked to social justice and the experiences of black people. This blog hopes to establish a community of black scholars, engage academics, students and citizens and debate on issues affecting transformation and decolonisation of higher education in South Africa.


  1. riffak riffak 11 September 2015

    It is heartwrending to see UCT, yet again, a focal point of brainless subculture. If this is what is going around, then I do not want to be treated by a doctor who graduates here. Nor live in a house designed by an architect from UCT. Both will not have the academic professionality. What a sh’t story to have to deal whith . . .

  2. Pierre Aycard Pierre Aycard 11 September 2015

    This is certainly one of the best papers I’ve read on those issues, and it is very accurate. Yet, the shere extend of the issues that are presented here demonstrate that although these problems must be addressed in and by universities, they cannot be reduced to a status of University issues. These are wide social issues, that necessitate a much larger and deeper change of discourse and attitudes than will be obtained if the many simplistic voices and shortcuts we’ve heard so far are not replaced by knowledgeable voices.

    And on this matter, Zethu, I’ve also read (short) writings from you, in the Guardian for instance, where you drew too much on the anti-White perspective, strongly refusing arguments in the debate, about transformation being also slowed down by justifiable structures, rather than by colonised or racist attitudes and systems. And both aspects are inseparably true, to whoever wants to be part of this debate. The descriptions you give today demonstrate that all minds need transformation, including most of those who ask for it with anger. And the fact that everybody must do their part in transformation, so that everybody benefits, has not been on the agenda so far…

  3. david7 david7 11 September 2015

    To fail to see the EFF influence in the RMF – Radical Marxist Front/Rhodes Must Fall – campaign is to make “useful idiots” of Feminist and LGBT movements.

  4. Mark Linderoth Mark Linderoth 12 September 2015

    Thanks for the article – some food for thought. But now :) Peeing gets politicised? Colour gets politicised, learning gets politicised, language gets politicised, thoughts get politicised. Who am I (a white male) but a political object to you?

  5. Goober99 Goober99 12 September 2015

    I am very much for the fair, respectful treatment of people of all genders and sexual orientations. Its terrible to think of the loneliness and pain experienced by those who are not part of the mainstream. However it would be helpful to start toning down the rhetoric of colonization and oppression that sways the conversation from being one of practical, useful engagement to one of histrionic victimhood. There are many great things about European culture and many advantages that have emerged from the introduction of European culture to Africa. There are many great things that men have done for societies and the fact that evolutionary past cast men in the role of aggressor, provider, protector is a peculiarity of history – not the fault of men themselves. Societies evolve. I’m happy that our global society is evolving towards greater tolerance for difference and equal rights. But to endlessly talk about the past as if it were a nightmare that one, as a crusader of justice is setting right – is self important, deluded and driven by an impulse that little differs from that which leads white men to feel self righteous in discriminating against people of alternative orientations or justified in asserting dominance over women. I would suggest practicing the tolerance and perspective that one expects from others.

  6. Rory Short Rory Short 12 September 2015

    What this article is talking about is human problems. Giving them labels like colonialism, etc, etc, which attribute the problems to some particular group or other is not helpful and actually gets in the way of improving the situation.

  7. Heraklit Heraklit 12 September 2015

    Zethu! I got no idea what you are talking about. Seriously.
    Are you arguing in favour of gay and transgender rights?
    Can you explain to me what these have to do with a call for decolonisation?
    Is supporting gay and transgender rights a component of a decolonisation effort, in your mind?
    How different are these rights being honoured at UCT from other places in South Africa?
    Are you planning on decolonising Uganda from its anti-gay and anti-trans-gender laws?

  8. Molotov Molotov 13 September 2015

    Please can the doctor define exactly what “decolonising the university” means. In concrete terms and concrete steps, not in the abstract theoretical.

  9. Kameomaua Kameomaua 14 September 2015

    So, this is interesting: The Vaal University of Technology was founded as the Vaal Triangle College for Advanced Technical Education in 1966 and became the Vaal University of Technology in 2004. ‘Colonialisation’ cannot have played much of a role in the creation of this institution. Yet the students are protesting that they live in fear as they are raped and murdered in their very own residence rooms. They want security beefed up. Rape, murder and corrective gang rape of lesbians is NOT part of the ‘White’ or European colonial culture, one may conclude.
    That some students carry the heavy burden of physical and emotional abuse is absolutely deplorable and saddening, but these things do not happen at UCT. How do I know this? Nyanga has just been declared the murder capital of South Africa – again. I myself am in constant contact with people of all age groups who run the daily gauntlet of muggings, rape and murder on their way from home to work or campus.

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