Race, Space and Symbol in South African Student Protests

By: Chris Webb, University of Toronto

Over the last year South African university campuses have been rocked by student protests. The nature and content of these struggles has been diverse, from opposition to rising tuition fees, to demands for the removal of colonial and apartheid-era statues, to labour rights for campus workers. Student protests are part of the historical grammar of dissent in South Africa, with the most notable example being the 1976 uprising by high school students in Soweto. Yet these student protests were different in a fundamental way. They were no longer directed at a racist minority regime, but at a party that led the liberation struggle and proclaimed a non-racial, non-sexist republic where opportunities would be available for all.

For millions of South Africans university education remains completely out of reach. South Africa has a near 40% unemployment rate and sky-high levels of inequality. While steps have been made to improve access, university education remains a privilege that few can afford. It is of little surprise then that the decision to increase fees by 10% unleashed a cascade of student protest under the banner of Fees Must Fall (FMF).

Much has been written about the absence of economic transformation in post-apartheid South Africa, but what is less frequently remarked upon is how space and landscape in South Africa remain remarkably untransformed.

Prior the the FMF protests students at the University of Cape Town demanded the removal of a statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes. Under the rapidly-viral hashtag #Rhodes Must Fall (RMF), students drew attention to the way in which symbols of white supremacy remain very much a part of public life in South Africa and how these are connected to material and discursive practices that exclude black South Africans.

The landscape of UCT is intimately bound up with Rhodes’ imperial vision of nature and society. Built atop a colonial farm once owned by the Dutch East India company, the university fulfilled various colonial fantasies regarding the mastery of nature and space. As Nicole Sarmiento has pointed out, Rhodes systematically removed local plant life from the mountain and repopulated it with stone pines to make it resemble an ancient Greek rural landscape. Today one can even make a pilgrimage to the Rhodes Memorial near the university. Designed by British colonial architect Edwin Lutyens, the campus was built in the neo-classical style apparently inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s designs for the University of Virginia. The landscape of the university is thus an outcome of imperial visions of erasure and creation, one in which certain histories and knowledges were produced while others hidden under stone and concrete.

The sightline from Rhodes’ plinth also reveals the degree to which colonial visions of segregation remain in place. Immediately below the university is the suburb of Rondebosch, still largely white and site of forced removals by the apartheid government in the 1970s. Beyond the railway tracks one can glimpse areas like Bonteheuwel and Athlone that coloured families were relocated to. Beyond these are those areas built for the city’s black population, neighbourhoods like Langa, one of the oldest townships in the country, built in accordance with the 1923 Urban Areas Act that controlled black migration into cities. As one looks towards the airport the sprawling township of Khayelitsha is visible, designed in the early 1980s as an area that would house the city’s entire black population. The township’s wide roads, security lights and few entry and exit points are legacies of the paranoid urban design under apartheid’s state of emergency.

These legacies of segregation and forced removals have etched sharp boundaries of race and class in Cape Town. As one can see from the dot maps below, based on 2011 census data, Cape Town remains a divided city along racial lines. While the end of apartheid brought about an end to restrictions on movement, cohabitation and property ownership little has been done to actually transform the space of South African cities. In addition, the push to make South African cities globally competitive has arguably made them more unequal. Cities have invested heavily in tourist infrastructure, luxury hotels, walled business parks and conference centres aimed at attracting foreign investment and tourists. Rather than transforming apartheid urbanism, these policies run the risk of reinforcing it. Soaring property values, for example, mean that the construction of low-cost housing will continue to be confined to the urban edge reinforcing apartheid spatiality. 

 Dot Map of Racial Distribution in Cape Town, based on 2011 Census Data. Source: http://www.uct.ac.za/images/uct.ac.za/emp/2014/vol33_08/CapeTownBIG.gif

Dot Map of Racial Distribution in Cape Town, based on 2011 Census Data. Source: http://www.uct.ac.za/images/uct.ac.za/emp/2014/vol33_08/CapeTownBIG.gif

These urban inequities were very much a part of the RMF movement. In its early days a student activist dumped human waste on the statue of Rhodes. The waste had been collected from portable toilets in Khayelitsha, a community which suffers from chronic sanitation problems. The waste, he told reporters, “represents the shame of black people. By throwing it here we are throwing our shame to whites’ affluence.”

The issue of symbols is thus not simply one of aesthetics, but how these symbols are understood, interpreted and engaged with in the present. The statue of Rhodes was a vivid reminder for black students of the pain and humiliation that their forebears experienced under apartheid and the endurance of this in the present.

But the debate around colonial symbols reveals a deeper crisis rooted in the nature of South Africa’s negotiated settlement that brought about the end of apartheid. Integral to this process was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which aimed at building a new collective political memory in which the traumas of apartheid were shared in a process of healing the nation. In the interests of building national unity the TRC offered amnesty for those who came forward and confessed their involvement in apartheid repression and racist violence. The mantra of the commission was reconciliation over retributive justice, and coexistence of victim and perpetrator in the interests of national reconstruction.

Under this logic black students should simply forgive Rhodes for his crimes in the interest of national healing and reconciliation.

South African students are challenging the limits of this thinking, and in doing so exposing many of the myths that have been constructed around the idea of a ‘new’ South Africa. Who, they ask has participated in this so-called healing and who continues to benefit from past crimes? Transforming, or better yet decolonizing, the landscape will require not only the interrogation of these symbols but a commitment to transforming the spatial and economic inequalities constructed around them.


Chris Webb is a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto and Visiting Researcher at the University of Cape Town.