It is just before midnight when I finally meet a Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) student leader, Athabile Nonxuba. He is at a friend’s residence near campus, dressed in flops, grey track pants and a black T-shirt. He is exhausted from a week of organising an accommodation protest that has become known as #Shackville – the nerve centre of this week’s action was the shack erected on campus.
He is angry when we meet. Nonxuba was one of 16 students interdicted by the university this week after RMF erected a shack and burnt works of art hanging from buildings of the university.
Nonxuba is a passionate 23-year-old public policy and administration student and was among the first group of students that defaced a statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the campus, thus sparking the #RhodesMustFall movement a year ago.
He chose the University of Cape Town (UCT) because it offered the best financial aid package of the two campuses that vied for him. Nonxuba, who lived in the Cape Town suburb of Delft but hails from the Eastern Cape, is a Pan-Africanist through family history and his own beliefs. His uncle studied civil engineering at UCT in the 1970s and tells his nephew that their efforts to take down the statue would not work. The younger Nonxuba was determined to prove the elder wrong.
As we speak, he vows that it will not be business as usual at UCT until the university commits to “a clear decolonisation project”. This includes demands like better psychological services; clear timelines and frameworks for curriculum; and staff changes. Asked to explain why art was burnt, Nonxuba said it was important for black students to see themselves represented at UCT in art and culture. “Too many things have been done for us without us and we are saying no more. The end goal is free socialist education and a decolonised institution,” he said on Friday.
City Press spoke to 20 students at the campus who reported that the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas) was working. They were poor students who had accommodation. Our efforts to find students who were homeless were not successful – student leaders said those sleeping rough were scared to be featured.
Nonxuba said he had lived alone in a shack while attending high school for a year. The shack burnt down and he lost everything. “I remember the principal had to buy me grey pants for school because I had nothing. I nearly died in that fire.”
Despite the bleak reality in townships, Nonxuba said #Shackville was something black students could relate to at UCT; something of their own that reflected their lives at an institution that did not reflect their realities.
In his version of events of Tuesday evening, he said that he was physically assaulted repeatedly, and pepper-sprayed by “unidentified men” obviously authorised by the university.
“I was dragged down stairs and beaten up. At some point, I was running blind because of the pepper spray.”
UCT vice-chancellor Max Price told City Press that to his knowledge no assaults had taken place and that private security members – which the university had had to bring on to campus for the safety of students – were wearing GoPro cameras to document everything.
The student leader said the university ought to give them frameworks and timelines for action regarding a range of demands.
Nonxuba was one of the initial five students who flung faeces at the Rhodes statue last year.
He said they had developed a philosophy of “fallism” – “an oath of allegiance that everything to do with the oppression and conquest of black people by white power must fall and be destroyed”.
He said some black students were excluded from the university this year. They were expected to go home, wait for another year or work at a local supermarket. The movement wanted those students to be bought back.
“That is what it will take for us to stop protesting, which is a constitutional right. But as long as we continue to suffocate under a white system, we will continue to shout.”