THE University of Cape Town in South Africa, perched on the bottom of the world, is a well-known and highly respected institution in both that country and the world at large.
On March 9 last year, a black student named Chumani Maxwele, studying on a scholarship at the elite school, did something bizarre. Maxwele lives in a Khayelitsha, a black township in Cape Town so crammed with people that most of its plastic and cardboard shacks are barely large enough for a person to stand. There is no sanitation; people defecate in plastic boxes that are left on the kerb. On that March morning, Maxwele took one of these plastic boxes. When he reached the university, he took the box and hurled its contents at a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a famous British colonialist.
To understand why the statue was chosen and the now worldwide implications of Maxwele’s protest (the statue has since been removed), it is important to know who Cecil Rhodes was.
The movement in South Africa represents the recognition that knowledge can and must be decolonised instead of being rejected altogether.
Author Amit Chaudhuri, writing in the The Guardian on the Rhodes Must Fall movement at Oxford University, quoted Rhodes’ will, which called for “the establishment, promotion and development of a Secret Society, the true aim and object whereof shall be for the extension of British rule throughout the world, the perfecting of a system of emigration from the United Kingdom, and of colonisation by British subjects of all lands where the means of livelihood are attainable by energy, labour and enterprise, and especially the occupation by British settlers of the entire Continent of Africa, the Holy Land, the Valley of the Euphrates, the Islands of Cyprus and Candia, the whole of South America, the Islands of the Pacific not heretofore possessed by Great Britain, the whole of the Malay Archipelago, the seaboard of China and Japan...”
Rhodes stood for British domination of the world, and the fact that his legacy includes bequests to universities around the world has now posed the question to students of whether those colonialist and imperialist values have really been rejected in this post-colonial age.
In South Africa, this question boiled up because while the end of apartheid in the country has opened up many opportunities for the previously segregated black populations, their capacity to avail themselves of these remains limited. For students like Maxwele who make it to places like the University of Cape Town, gratitude and conformity is expected. The sanitation-less hovels in townships where they come from are not a concern for most of those milling about the beautiful campus of the University of Cape Town.
At Oxford University in the UK, the Rhodes Must Fall movement is also seeking the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes. It is not the only likeness of the man there; a large portrait stares down at students in the Oriel College building.
The argument here is just as crucial: if colonialist values are no longer enshrined in education why must students, including those from formerly colonised countries, continue to tolerate the honouring of men who played such a crucial part in their own history of subjugation?
If Rhodes’ vision of British domination of others no longer holds, then why should he be venerated and celebrated on campus? Does the continued presence of Cecil Rhodes on campus suggest a continuing, if less explicit, allegiance to the dominance of whiteness and Britishness?
These are complicated questions, but particularly pertinent in the Pakistani context (where students also vie for Rhodes scholarships). In Pakistan’s universities, the decolonisation project, the sort of taking apart and critiquing of historical bequests of colonialism, has been largely subsumed in the constrictions of secular versus religious knowledge.
So while South African and non-white British students are attacking the colonising legacy and exploring ways via which knowledge and education can be decolonised and be respectful of the heritage and identity of colonised groups, Pakistani student activism is stalled on the counterproductive premise of whether any knowledge brought over by colonising endeavours is worth learning at all.
It is a significant handicap; students like those protesting in Cape Town or at Oxford seem to understand that knowledge itself must not be discarded in the quest to rid it of its oppressive and discriminatory origins. The removal of statues and pictures and such are symbolic moves that seek to reclaim educational space so that it comes to represent the truth of colonisation and how white privilege still dominates the global narrative.
In its worst iterations, colonialism’s imprint on knowledge in Pakistan has been connected to the horror of militant destruction, the destruction of schools, the bombings of universities attached to the confusion over the embrace or rejection of knowledge that bore tainted origins.
The means used by students in South Africa, whose victory over the oppressions of apartheid is recent in the scale of world history, are provocative, but ultimately far more productive. At their core, they represent the recognition of the premise that knowledge can and must be decolonised instead of being rejected altogether.
Their position is a bit different from the generation that fought against apartheid; for them, inclusion in institutions, the very ability to partake in knowledge, was enough. This dynamic, too, is reflected in the Pakistani story, where early liberal reformers simply sought to embrace the forms of knowledge that the British brought with them.
The new recipe for fighting knowledge wars, so inextricably tied as they are to the issues of militancy, can be seen in these nascent movements seeking to decolonise knowledge in other formerly colonised portions of the world. In their strategies, Pakistani students and scholars can find productive avenues via which knowledge can be transformed, made more egalitarian and representative, instead of being rejected altogether for the constrictions of ignorance and isolation.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, March 23rd, 2016