Why #SteynMustFall at UFS

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By Martin Kozák - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Kickstarted in 2015, various student movements across the country have sought to highlight the ways in which university campuses have remained untransformed in democratic South Africa, particularly with respect to spaces, statues, names and symbols and this discourse has exploded at the UFS this year.

The statue of Afrikaner patriarch, hero and former President of the Orange Free State, Martinus Steyn, occupies a place of immense prominence on the UFS Bloemfontein campus. His statue stands directly in front of the Main Building, and is mounted on a tall pillar, appearing almost as though he is surveying a domain that at one point in our history was his to rule and lord over. As the hub of Afrikaner nationalism in the early 1900s, the Free State played a crucial role as the birth place for the values, ideals and aspirations of an Afrikaner culture that sought to achieve powerful supremacy through systemic racism. This is a part of our history, that although we have collectively acknowledged it as heresy and inhumane, we cannot forget.

Though president MT Steyn himself was not alive during the rule of the National Party, his belief in the supremacy of the white Afrikaner can be argued to have contributed to the system of apartheid implemented a few decades after his passing. From this context, we see that the statue in all its grandeur and prestige, is not reflective of the democratic South Africa we are attempting to build. Steyn and his ilk are individuals who believed in white supremacy, the eternal reign of the Afrikaner and ultimately, the inferiority of black South Africans. Two years of protesting met with increasingly intensified violence from the private security company at the end of 2017, has manifested into mounting unrest amongst black students who are impatient with the ways in which university management and stakeholders are treating transformation and inclusion of black students as secondary to all else.

A cursory glance at South African history will reveal that opportunities for progression, advancement and recognition of humanity has long been denied to black South Africans and a vital extension of this denial has been the domain of tertiary institutions. Universities, much like churches and other state institutions, have always been used by ruling classes/oppressive states as a means to perpetuate ideologies and beliefs that justify their governance and indoctrinate those they govern over. Education and indoctrination through the formal schooling system was a critical component of the apartheid regime as it is only through education that minds and perspectives can be shaped. Naturally this means that the very temporality of the space is constructed in a way that emphasizes the ideologies and beliefs espoused within the space. Knowing this, it is foolhardy and naïve to think that we can open the doors of learning to black South Africans and leave it at that, knowing full well that the space has been engineered to promote their exclusion and dehumanization.

The university in South Africa is not a Black space and has not been tangibly designed to aid Black success and prosperity. In light of this, black student activists from various constituencies in the space, called for the removal of the statue – as a commitment from the university to prioritize the transformation of the institutional space as well as to allow  the inclusion and recognition of Black students on a campus that still remains hostile to their presence, despite over twenty years of democracy. The call for the statue’s removal was officially issued to the vice-rector, Professor Francis Petersen, during a boycotted State-of-the Campus address held in early March. Since then national media, political groups, academic staff and various activists have expressed divergent views about the statues removal.

At a dialogue hosted during May by the Faculty of Humanities, a panel of seven stakeholders at the institution were invited to present their views. For the most part, the view points seemed divided along racial lines. Arguments presented by the black panellists echoed and complimented each other with the resounding argument being that the values and ideals that the statue inculcates, no longer has a place both in the institutional space and in democratic South Africa. The speakers agreed that central to the statue of Steyn is the belief in the superiority of white Afrikaner rule and dominion and it is that very value that stands in stark contrast to the Constitution of post-apartheid South Africa.

The white speakers, evidently Afrikaners themselves, presented different approaches to justify having the statue on campus. One speaker spoke about the fiscal investment that is injected into the university through its historical ties with affluent Afrikaner families and that removing the statue would isolate these investors. Another speaker made a poor attempt to prove that Steyn as an individual believed in the value of inclusion and so built Oranje Meisies Skool to allow woman to be educated as well. Naturally the speaker failed to note that this inclusion did not extend towards black woman or men.

Listening to these views, I felt increasingly frustrated at the ways in which debate between Black and White South Africans is often fruitless and exhausting simply because transformation does not seem to have the same definitions for both groups. There is a gap- a misunderstanding that seems to have aided the comfortable existence of white privilege despite the carnivalesque rhetoric reserved for describing post-apartheid South Africa.

In her book Reflecting Rogue, Pumla Gqola unpacks the image used by the ANC in the run up to the 1994 elections. In the image there is a smiling grandfather-like Nelson Mandela surrounded by young children from all racial categories in South Africa, emblazoned with the words, “A better life for all”. Gqola’s analysis of the image leads her to the conclusion that the image was used as a way to placate white fear of “swaartgevaar”, an assurance by black South Africans that they would not seek justice for decades of oppression through bloodshed and civil war. Furthermore, the image contains faces of young children, conveying the idea that the injustices of the past can be muted out in the pursuit of a brighter tomorrow. Gqola’s chapter reinforces the realisation that the collective definition that we have assumed for the sake of placating white privilege, is one that has a narrowly defined focus that negates the need for accountability, justice and retribution completely. Our corrosive definition of Transformation has never demanded of white south Africans to interact with and acknowledge the privilege they have enjoyed for hundreds of years, particularly the privilege that was central to the belief of white Afrikaner supremacy.

Frankly, it is disappointing that we are even entertaining commentary that argues against the statue’s removal when transformation is clearly a process that must be led by the concerns of previously disadvantaged individuals, who have emphatically argued for its removal for a number of years now.

Recently the university hosted a dialogue on Land Reform, in which I was aggrieved to note a similar pattern of interaction forming between the white panellists and the black panellists. The chairperson of TAU, Mr Bennie Van Zyl, explicitly stated that if the country continues to embark on a process of LEWC as called for by previously disadvantaged South Africans then he will leave the country because; “he does not want to be a part of a country that fails.” The privileged sentiment of this statement is something that echoes the ways in which transformative dialogue has worked on this campus since I arrived. Black students cry for transformation that is based on justice, and white students retreat from the discomfort inflicted by this cry, unwilling to part with their privilege.

In her book Woman, Native, Other: Writing, Postcoloniality and Feminism, Trinh T. Minh-ha writes about a process called “navel-erasing”. Though Minh-ha’s work is specific to exploring feminist and gender studies, I use the concept of navel-gazing to think through transformation in relation to white privilege. The navel is often seen as the centre of our being and connects us to who were are, our roots, our heritage, our ancestry and as such guides our way of life through our links to the cultural and traditional groupings we are born into. Minh-ha believes that navel erasing is a process that involves forgetting without annihilating, using the context of ones history in order to envision a different kind of future and not be circumscribed by past methodology. This ultimately means that navel erasing requires individuals to understand the role of history and how that plays into the shaping of oneself but existing in a way that is not encumbered by that history.

I ask repeatedly of people I engage with about the issue of the statue and various issues that speak to it such as land reform; “what is it about afrikaner culture that makes Afrikaans people so unwilling to engage with parts of their heritage that still seeped in white privilege?” A privilege that is proving to be detrimental to any conversation about transformation. Afrikaner culture appears to have not evolved to a point that makes it malleable enough to adapt to what the call for transformation is asking of them simply because we as the South African collective have allowed white privilege to grow unfettered.

The discourse about the statue has taken a very polar approach, with arguments to its removal being at binary opposites continually and as a result, very few people have been able to progress into the realm of possibility that the statue’s removal poses. A fixation on a racialized debate has meant that very little strategic work has been emphasised and thus there appears to be little plan about which direction to progress into once the statue has been removed. As a movement, we have had to spend far to much time educating and combating white privilege and have been left with minimal time and personal resources with which to strategize about the next transformative step required after the statue is removed. We need to bare in mind, as change agents and stewards of a greater South Africa, that the fight here is not about the statue but about the potential for transformation contained within the statue. The statue is merely the entry point into a broader set of demands that must include decolonisation and intersectionality.

As the youth, we have been able to note the contradictions between what the rainbow nation espouses and our lived realities and we need to use these sites of contradiction as points of insight and wisdom. Contradictions should be what we use to provide us the truth about the university space. If we aim to provide a space that is free and accepting of all, but is still not attuned to the needs and desires of womxn, gender fluid and members of the LGBTIQA+ community then we are not using the removal of the Steyn statue to its maximum potential and are thus still operating with a narrow and subsequently shallow concept of transformation.

The removal of the statue needs to be a point at which all intersections of oppression meet and are interrogated so that a collective strategy for their dismantling can be developed and implemented. The UFS has continually proven that its leadership finds it difficult to operate outside of an androcentric, hypermasculine framework but with the statue’s removal, I believe that we can use this momentous occasion in history to transform our space, transform our conceptions of possibilities and to transform our style of leadership. If we do not allow the space to become intersectional then we lose the nuances and the rich insight that womxn, gender non-binary, differently abled, LGBTIQA+ and other marginalized bodies, bring to the space. We will not get far if we do not capitalize on this movement to its fullest.

Decolonisation must also allow us to interrogate the ways in which our education is failing our country. There is far too much focus on preparing us as students to become good workers and employees, but not on training us to adapt mindsets, perspectives and values that are geared towards contributing to and shaping the future of the country. We are sufficiently prepared for the world of work, but never imparted with qualities that seek to encourage us to rid our country of social oppression, economic marginalisation and racist exclusion. We are never encouraged to consider the social context in which we are educated and in which we work and live.

Steyn, must come down in order for us as an institution and a people to move forward, and white privilege cannot be allowed to derail this mission. We can no longer move transformation along at a pace that is dictated by white privilege.

By Tammy Fray