‘It was never just about the statue’

JOHN HARVEY

Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) has rubbished an article in influential international current affairs magazine, The Economist, as “one of the poorest forms of reporting that has been done” on the movement.

In a piece titled “Whiteness Burning”, from the print edition of February 20, the Economist suggested the accommodation shortage at UCT was at least “partly due” to the success of last year’s #FeesMustFall protests.

“Little seems left of the lofty aims that prompted students to take to the streets last October, when they garnered widespread support for their argument that high tuition fees put a university education out of reach for black students from poor families. The shortage of housing at UCT is partly due to the success of those protests: enrolment has increased thanks to lower fees and measures to reduce student debt. Also, some university rooms are still occupied by students whose exams were delayed by last year’s protests,” the article says.

The piece, which detailed the events of last week’s “Shackville” protests at UCT, including the burning of paintings, cars and Vice-Chancellor Max Price’s office, also mentions the removal of the Rhodes statue last year, saying: “The statue was removed, but students were still angry”.

However, RMF spokesman Simon Rakei told the Tatler the publication had never fully attempted to understand what decolonisation was and why RMF existed as a movement.

“It’s therefore regrettable – but not surprising – when its latest article on Rhodes Must Fall’s recent protest at UCT, begins with, ‘The statue was removed, but students were still angry.’ Maybe for what hopefully will be the last time, it is worth reiterating that it was never just about a statue,” Mr Rakei said.

“More than that, it is this very narrow understanding of why the movement exists, which makes people eager to frame protesters as barbaric senseless arsonists, leading to the instance of this article, which, quite frankly, is terrible, and is one of the poorest forms of reporting that has been done on Rhodes Must Fall, even by The Economist’s standards.”

He described The Economist was the bastion and steadfast defender of neoliberalism, intent on maintaining the narrative of South Africa being the exception to the tragic story of failed African states.

“(It) instead continues idolising Mandela, and is intent on maintaining the myth of the Rainbow Nation. Such a perspective seeks to create the narrative that anything which goes against the 1994 founding moment of South Africa is unreasonable, irrational and ungrateful for the many concessions already made.”

Mr Rakei reiterated RMF’s earlier statement that the movement was “dismayed, but not surprised” when the burning of private property evoked more public outrage and accusations of violence than the two suicides of black students, several instances of sexual assault and the displacement of hundreds of students from dignified accommodation, all of which had occurred on and around UCT campus in the past month.

Asked to respond to The Economist’s views about the housing shortage, UCT spokesperson Pat Lucas directed the Tatler to a letter written by the university’s deputy vice-chancellor Professor Francis Petersen, published in the national press this week.

In the letter, Professor Petersen writes: “This year, UCT’s student housing office faced a ‘perfect storm’. To begin with, an unusually high proportion of students accepted their housing offers for 2016. Secondly, a large number stayed in res through January to take their deferred exams, which were offered when the fees protest interfered with UCT operations during the exam period in November 2015.

“Thirdly, we received requests for assistance from a number of students who either had not been successful in applying for accommodation, or who had not applied for it at all, but who had no other living arrangements. And finally, RMF protesters occupied the student housing office for three days, making it impossible for staff to do their jobs.”