Albie Sachs says that when he grew up he didn’t exactly see Cecil John Rhodes as Mr Nice Guy. But when he was at the University of Cape Town the ethos was to be friendly to him. Although bothered by the presence of Rhodes, Sachs says they had bigger battles to fight at the time. There was academic integration but social segregation on campus. Obviously that all has now changed.The way a place makes you feel has a profound effect on how you experience it. If you walk around a campus that has symbols that remind you of the architects of your pain and make you feel uncomfortable, then understandably you will not feel at home or welcome there. As a rational person, you will challenge issues that deal with the context which you live in. That is what the students of UCT did.
Some students didn’t understand this. But as Sachs reminds: “The intangible is very powerful to people who can feel it, but invisible to those who can’t.”
So what is the solution to creating a campus that makes all students feel welcome? According to Sachs, we must transform and not destroy or remove statues. “We should have artwork that will confront the reality of Rhodes.”
As an example, he mentioned Willem Boshoff who proposed covering the mural of Jan Van Riebeeck in South Africa House in London with glass panels and inscribing them with the names of the slaves and Khoisan people displaced by Van Riebeeck. When people look at the mural, they are forced to confront Van Riebeeck and the destruction he wreaked.
Herein lies the problem: we can create artwork that confronts the reality of Rhodes, but if people continue being blind to the intangibles as Sachs calls them then we are not really doing anything. Transformation is not just about changing names and removing statues; it’s about education and making sure that conditions which make others feel like outsiders are dealt with.
Only then will we have academic institutions that are home for everyone.