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.