By Lebogang Montjane
The 21st century has been declared the information age and part of this phenomenon is the proliferation of social media, which impacts the zeitgeist.
Views shared on social media platforms can facilitate the connection of likeminded people intra- and transnationally. This trend is well illustrated by the student activism in universities in South Africa and the United States (US) last year, which I will discuss below. For those who adopt a historical prism for examining contemporary phenomena, it is not surprising that the battles over institutional symbols in these two countries should have similar contours, especially in an instantaneous, contemporary world. Even before
this period of immediate global influence, “…South Africans were inspired by the American civil rights and Black Power movements. African-Americans were inspired by South Africa’s
From valour to vilification
The progeny of those who participated in these seminal struggles for liberation are now university students, permitted to enrol at institutions that were previously closed to their forebears. Now that the demographics of South African and many American universities are becoming more inclusive and diverse, the previously applauded achievements of some individuals who endowed educational institutions – and were seen as embodying their highest aspirational, educational values – are now being called into question. Young people are questioning whether these historical figures and their actions can still be seen to be representative of (or even relevant to) a university whose transformed student population is now being educated there. More importantly, do such individuals’ broader humanistic achievements outweigh their contemporaneous instincts of oppressing or attempting to annihilate brownskinned people?
Pungent disapproval led to national call for change
Last year, a University of Cape Town student, Chumani Maxwele, threw faeces on a prominently placed statue of Cecil Rhodes on that university campus. Rhodes, who is now generally recognised as a father of racial segregation in southern Africa, and whose initial practices were the precursors to apartheid, is deemed by many students as an inappropriate symbol to take centre stage in an institution undergoing transformation in its student composition. This pungent gesture of disapproval spurred on students at other universities to call for changes that grapple with questions of whether they were meeting the demands of a democratic society, as promised in our Constitution. The #RhodesMustFall movement then progressed to Rhodes University – where the name of that university has been called into question. At Stellenbosch University, as part of the Open Stellenbosch movement, students compiled a video that chronicled institutional racism, racial attacks, linguistic discrimination and other micro aggressions experienced by black students at that institution.
In the US, the power of symbols came into tragic focus with the mindless murders on 17 June 2015, at a Charleston, South Carolina church.2 The fact that the accused murderer posted a racist manifesto and a picture of himself holding the Confederate battle flag reignited the long debate regarding whether the Confederate battle flag only represented historical pride for state rights in the American south, or whether it is a racist symbol that signifies those who fought for the retention of slavery. It would seem that this repugnant act served to galvanise not only those states but other civic bodies to reject a long-held stance that had firmly argued that the Confederate battle flag was an integral part of the heritage of the American south and should be retained. As Peter Salovey, president of Yale University, mulled in his presentation to the incoming 2019 freshman class, “…as the events in South Carolina shook the nation, many members of our own community could not avoid considering a matter that ties us… to similar questions of history, naming, symbols, and narratives”.3 Soon after the church massacre, South Carolina removed the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds, retail giant Walmart discontinued it from its merchandise catalogue, and other confederate symbols were displaced from their positions of honour (as was the case with the Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town). At the University of Texas in Austin, a statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, was removed from that campus. The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill renamed a building that had previously borne the name of a Ku Klux Klan leader.
Wilson no longer wanted
Not only is the name of Rhodes University now in contention, so too is the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey in the US. Like Rhodes, Wilson was a great statesman: after leading Princeton University, he went on to become president of the US. In that role, he was a founder of the League of Nations, which later earned him a Nobel Prize. However, similar to Rhodes, Wilson was a committed racist who, as the American president, instituted racial discriminatory employment practices in the federal government. Thus, some students are demanding that his name be removed from Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs, and from a residential college.
Clashes over Calhoun
The incident in South Carolina prompted thought and action at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Yale’s leadership was spurred to reconsider its own institutional tropes, such as Calhoun College, named after Yale graduate John C. Calhoun, a prominent public servant who was also a powerful defender of slavery. The Yale administration has commenced an institutional dialogue on whether this residential college should retain its name, when some of its present occupants are descendants of slaves. But as Yale College dean, Jonathan Holloway, appropriately states, the reassessment of present mores against past conventions is universal. He says, “These clashes between the history we inherit and the future we aspire to create are common at Yale as they are across the United States.”
It is hard to know the most appropriate response to this conundrum. Serious institutions of learning cannot be malleable to every new orthodoxy. However, difficult questions of the past have a propensity to endure, especially if they are not interrogated honestly. Can the good be accommodated with the unsavoury? After all, is that not the perennial state of the human condition?
As at Yale, Harvard University also grappled with the title of the heads of its residential houses – ‘Master’. At the end of last year, at Harvard University in Cambridge and Boston,
Massachusetts, the college dean, Rakesh Khurana, recognised the historical meaning of the title ‘Master’ when he said:
‘Master’ is rooted in the Latin term magister, a form of address for scholars and teachers that ties back to the medieval universities of Europe. But when we use it in the context of a university in the United States – a country with a history of slavery and of racial discrimination – that adds meaning and significance to the term that we can’t easily dismiss by focusing narrowly on its classical roots. There are many symbols and words in the English language that have morphed from their original meanings and usages. Some have
become associated with odious ideas or are used in a derogatory way.
Having considered the less desirable usage of the word, Harvard has elected to discontinue using the title. Harvard’s dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, Michael D
Smith, observed, “In our country [America], with our history, I can’t call someone in an oversight role ‘master’ without having images of human subjugation come to mind.”6 Of course, this change in title does not relate to an alum who has achieved a great deal in the world who happened to be flawed as all humans are. But what motivated this change was the college’s desire to be truly inclusive. That is the central consideration faced by modern institutions. Can you retain noxious symbols whilst being truly inclusive?
Similarly, after a referendum, Amherst College in Massachusetts has discarded its informal mascot, Lord Jeffery, which it had adopted for close to a century. Lord Jeffery Amherst, for whom the town of Amherst is named, had suggested in a war correspondence that smallpox-infested blankets be given to Native Americans. Having regard for its diverse student population and alumni body, at the beginning of this year, Amherst abandoned Jeffery as an unofficial mascot.
Even though all this restiveness has been occurring at higher education institutions, as an independent school sector, ISASA schools cannot ignore issues of great concern to present
students. As schools that should endeavour to educate our charges to become critical and intellectually engaged citizens, how are we contending with institutional traditions, narratives, customs and symbols as the demographics of our student and academic staff populations change?
I am of the conviction that by confronting uncomfortable institutional heritages in a deliberative manner, constructive and creative solutions can be found to bind places of learning to greater strength. Hopefully, unlike our colleagues at the tertiary level, we will not wait for national tragedies or student agitations to adopt practices and symbols that make all our students feel welcome and that they belong.
1. Marx, A. (1998) Making Race and Nation: A Comparison of the United States,
South Africa, and Brazil. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2. See, for example: http://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/charleston-south-carolinachurch-
3. See: http://yalecollege.yale.edu/open-conversation/launching-difficultconversation.
4. See: http://yalecollege.yale.edu/open-conversation/yales-narrative-and-yours.
5. See: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2015/12/qa-on-changing-housemaster-
Category: Autumn 2016