I was cooking some corn in the kitchen when Tumi, my roommate, told me that Patience, her friend and a student at University of Cape Town, was going to crash at our place for a few days until she got her housing sorting out. Upon further questioning, I learned what had happened to Patience and the other students that arrived this year. It makes more sense when put in context, so let me start by explaining the Rhodes Must Fall movement, as told by your foolish but faithful white American narrator.
When RMF first started in March 2015, the students were protesting to take down the statue of Cecil Rhodes, as part of a wider movement to “decolonize” education. This group of student protesters came to represent the voices of black students that were marginalized in a university system that makes it substantively more difficult for them to register for classes, understand lectures in Afrikaans* and yes, get granted housing.
It turns out that someone at the university had made a huge oopsie and overbooked the rooms for the semester, leaving several students in standing with a suitcase and nowhere to go. Nowhere but Transit, that is. Transit, as I gleaned from the whites of Patiences’ eyes, is a massive room with rows and rows of beds, where students who don’t have accommodations can stay until their real housing is sorted out, a system which could take months. At first, protests were held in the lawn of the Vice Chancellor’s house, asking that international students or white students that have the means to relocate to non-university housing do so for the sake of homeless students.
According to a recent article, the group claims the university marginalises black South African students when allocating residences, while accommodating white international students. The university responded by saying “less than 2% of beds are given to semester abroad students.”
The reasons behind this overbooking of housing varies with who you ask. On one hand, UCT has a policy which states that if students cannot afford to pay their fees for the previous semester, then they are prohibited from registering for another semester of classes. For many students, this means that if they can’t afford a student loan (and they aren’t doled out often here), they face the risk of not affording schooling from one semester to the next. This was the fire that fueled Rhodes Must Fall’s second phase, Fees Must Fall, which was a series of protests that lasted throughout the past year. Knowing that some students face the risk of unexpectedly dropping out, the university overbooked the rooms to fill up spots that actually never opened up. However, due to the Fees Must Fall protests last semester, many students requested they defer their exams to this semester, and the housing that they got in order to take their exams took the place of students who were actually meant to live in those rooms. Some say this explanation is an attempt to blame student protesters.
Whatever the case, it is impossible not to recognize that we, as Americans, are involved in the problem. When applying to UCT, I requested that I live in a dorm with South African roommates simply because I wanted an immersive experience, and I am lucky enough to have that opportunity. Unfortunately, I did not realize when I was selecting this super fun option back at home that it would be at the expense of a first year student, one that may have flown all the way from Limpopo to come to school, who is now told to pack his or her bags for an indefinite, miserable sleepover in the back of what I imagine looks like a Costco warehouse.
The next day, a shack was erected on campus, with the word “SHACKVILLE” emblazoned across the wall. That night, a group of protesters stoned one of the Jammies (buses) that shuttle students back and forth to school. They also set one on fire, and its charred remains stared at me spookily for a few days as I boarded other Jammies at the bus stop, feeling oddly guilty. There were, of course, conversations about damage to property and violent protesting, but I think it was a telling demonstration of how frustrated students feel. If you’re setting an entire bus on fire, maybe it’s more important to look past the value of the bus and listen to the value of the pained human voices trying to be heard.
I’m in a compromised position by being dually unqualified to speak accurately of the political and racial issues here at UCT as a white American here for a quick semester, and of the issues of rising tuition back at USC. From my humble observations, though, UCT seems to be more open to hearing student’s grievances. In one of my classes, a girl spoke up that it was unfair that our two class representatives were men. A few weeks later, there was a heated discussion where students were upset that professional attire was to be graded during our final presentations. In both cases, my professor stopped class entirely and allowed the rest of the class period to be an open forum for students to disagree with her policies and vote to change them. In both cases, the students won their case, and class returned as normal. On a more campus wide basis, it’s a little more complicated. In the end, UCT did find housing for the displaced students, although it’s unclear where this housing came from. And the Rhodes statue I mentioned before did come down in less than a month, but the institutional discrimination left in its wake still continues to persist.
USC aims to make institutional changes from the start, by speaking at meetings with administrative officials and trying to elect a student trustee representative. Meanwhile, RMF students maintain the culture of bottom-up calls to action. Despite these comparisons, there is actually no right way to compare the frustrations felt from students on these two sides of the world. And it’s unclear what the outcomes will be, but I’m interested to see how it plays out with these different approaches.
*Across South Africa, some lectures are still taught in Afrikaans, the language spoken by the architects of apartheid. Few students here speak English as their first language, and the expectation to learn Afrikaans as well in order to be able to follow along in lectures puts added academic pressure on black students. This is one of many legacies of apartheid that RMF hopes to dismantle.