The protesters, however, weren’t interested in polite conversation about procedure. “As far as we’re concerned, this meeting was illegitimate until we arrived,” one of the female protesters called out, pointing her finger around the table. “Where are the black women?” (Nineteen of 30 council members are male, and council membership is predominantly white or coloured.)* When Ndungane adjourned the meeting, a throng of protesters blocked him and other council members from leaving the room.
At that point, others mounted the tables, took off their shoes, and thumped them around the stricken-looking council members, periodically cocking their fingers and letting loose with more imaginary machine-gun fire. In decades of reporting on social movements around the world, I hadn’t seen anything quite like it: Just at the point when authorities were prepared to give in, they were peppered with insults—as if a long-suppressed need for catharsis trumped everything else. Eventually, Ramabina Mahapa, president of the Student Representative Council, negotiated a compromise. The protesters withdrew. And a vote was taken to cart the Rhodes statue away the very next day.
* * *
Back on campus one week later, I made my way past the rugby fields where black students were once prohibited from playing alongside whites and toward Jameson Plaza, which is dominated by a massive hall set off in colonial columns and named for Rhodes’s most notorious sidekick, Leander Starr Jameson.
Off to the side of the plaza, I met up with one of the organizers of the protests, a stocky, voluble black student named Lwazi Samoya. Raised in a township outside the city of Port Elizabeth by a single mother, he’d attended an elite boys’ high school before being admitted to one of the most prestigious institutions in the country. Despite these achievements, Samoya felt uneasy on campus. He thought of friends back home who couldn’t afford college and was painfully aware of the costs paid, by his own family, for the freedom he was enjoying. He venerated an uncle who was murdered by the police long before he was born and admired thinkers like Black Consciousness icon Steve Biko and former guerrilla leader Chris Hani, both slain anti-Apartheid icons.
Like others activists I interviewed, he’d been raised in the new democracy but felt deeply alienated by its social, cultural, and economic constraints. As an example, he cited artwork around the university that portrayed blacks in the nude—poverty-stricken and degraded—and butted up against depictions of whites looking triumphant and magisterial. “Not a single piece of art on this campus portrays a black person with dignity,” he insisted.
Now that the Rhodes statue had been banished, he and his fellow activists felt it was time to push even harder. (Last week, Mahapa, the student-body president, called on the governing council to audit other statues and artwork on campus that students found offensive and to attend to bigger questions like who belonged on campus, who should be teaching there, and what the curriculum itself should look like.)