How Rhodes Must Fall amplified calls to decolonize

It was a movement that reverberated on campuses from Cape Town to Oxford. Musawenkosi Cabe speaks to activists who were part of the high-profile push to decolonize universities and challenge white supremacy across South Africa.

The bronze statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes is removed in Cape Town on 9 April 2015 as protesters film the event.  DESMOND BOWLES/FLICKR
The bronze statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes is removed in Cape Town on 9 April 2015 as Rhodes Must Fall protesters film the event. DESMOND BOWLES/FLICKR

In 2015, the Rhodes Must Fall student movement erupted in South Africa. After a month of intense organizing and struggle on campus, it resulted, on 9 April 2015, in the removal of a statue of British colonist Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

But the movement was about more than this. Students across the country agitated for the decolonization of the university and the decommodification of education. Those conversations about white supremacy and the enduring legacy of colonialism continue today.

The struggle also spread to Britain, where young students forced a conversation on the country’s role in the violent process of colonization. A similar movement formed at the University of Oxford, which also has a statue of Rhodes.

Pooh protests

RMF’s roots lie in 2004, when protests erupted from within impoverished communities around South Africa.

Often called the ‘rebellion of the poor’ and characterised by road blockades and burning tyres, these protests continued in the years until they took on a new dimension in 2011. Ayanda Kota, then leader of Unemployed People's Movement – a group that campaigns for solutions for South Africa’s high unemployment rate based in Makhanda, a town in the country’s south-east formerly known as Grahamstown – threw a bucket of human faeces into the foyer of the city hall at the culmination of a march on the municipality. That bucket had been brought from the nearby township where people still lacked modern sanitation facilities.

From then on, ‘pooh protests’ became a common feat of South Africa’s political life, particularly in Cape Town. They demanded basic services such as water, decent housing and access to sanitation.

On 9 March 2015, the pooh protest came to South Africa’s most elite university, the University of Cape Town, and student Chumani Maxwele threw human excrement at the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, an arch-imperialist and white supremacist.

Rhodes Must Fall gave young people a language to describe what they were going through

The faeces were taken from Khayelitsha, a poor working-class township of Cape Town, in a bid to expose the inequalities in the city and the colonial legacies and white supremacy embodied by people like Rhodes. Maxwele's method of protest also connected politics on campus to the politics of impoverished people off campus.

‘That act of throwing faeces at the likeness of Rhodes, was also a statement about the kind of violence that Rhodes symbolizes,’ explains historian Zikhona Valela, who was a student activist at Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape at the time. ‘It was an unveiling of who these people really were at the core – downright evil individuals who visited a lot of destruction upon the people that look like us, the people that look like Chumani.’

Racial conquest

Cecil John Rhodes was a notorious British imperialist and white supremacist who served as prime minister of the Cape Colony, which covered parts of today’s South Africa, from 1890 until 1896 and repeatedly referred to Africa’s native population as ‘barbaric,’ exploited Black people as cheap labour, and extracted wealth from their land for the British empire and himself through the British South African Company.

Rhodes’ 1894 law of racial conquest, the Glen Grey Act, restricted ownership of property by Africans and laid the foundation for the infamous legislation that would follow. The 1913 Natives Land Act, for example, was one of the most draconian laws passed by the Union of South Africa, the British dominion formed by British and Dutch settlers after the Anglo-Boer War in 1910. It marked the official foreclosure of African people’s land, consolidated the property rights to all the land that had been stolen by European settlers since 1652, and confined Africans to just 13 per cent of the land.

Over a century later, land and wealth remain firmly in the hands of a few in South Africa – mostly among the white population. The World Bank ranks the country as the most unequal in the world.

The bronze statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes is removed in Cape Town on 9 April 2015 as Rhodes Must Fall protesters film the event. DESMOND BOWLES/FLICKR
The statue of Cecil Rhodes still standing on the building of Oriel College overlooking the High Street in Oxford, UK. Michael Day/Flickr

Political voice

Alax Hotz, who was an RMF activist, says that universities are a microcosm of society. For Hotz, the inequalities that impacted society also affected students.

She explains that the movement was premised on three pillars; Pan-Africanism, Black consciousness and Black radical feminism. The demand was not just about removing the statue of Rhodes, but was a challenge to the wider colonial legacy, patriarchy and racialized and gendered forms of capitalism.

For Hotz, it was also important that universities based in Africa took African academics and African knowledge systems seriously. She says that the struggle to decolonize South African universities helped her and many others find their political voice. ‘[The RMF movement was] a very important moment for my own political awakening, and for many other young people, and people in the country who had become disillusioned with the acceptance of the status quo,’ says Hotz.

It was normal to have a situation where a Black student was attacked in the streets...It was normal to be told as a Black student that you did not belong in the university

‘One of the beautiful successes of the [RMF] movement is that it gave young people a language to describe what they were going through,’ explains RMF activist Masixole Mlandu. ‘At some point, we had no grammar of articulating what was happening to us. Why do we feel we don't belong in a place where we are supposed to be belonging?’

‘Our university had the name Rhodes,’ explains Valela, the historian. 'What does it mean to find yourself in this historical moment in a landmark that bears this person’s name? Students were thinking: What does the decolonization conversation mean for such a university?’

Beyond Cape Town

During the 2015 protests at UTC, students occupied and held debates on race and decolonization at an administration building at UCT they renamed ‘Azania’, a term that has been used historically by some groups to refer to the southern African region.

Sikhulekile Duma and other students from the University of Stellenbosch who had joined the RMF movement in solidarity were greatly inspired by the debates. Duma says RMF gave them the courage to push for transformation in their university, which was very conservative. ‘It was normal to have a situation where a Black student was attacked in the streets, ’ says Duma. ‘It was normal for a Black student to be called the ‘K-word’*. It was normal to be told as a Black student that you did not belong in the university. Language [Afrikaans] was used as a tool of exclusion in the residences and classrooms.’

As a result, students formed Open Stellenbosch, a movement with a life of its own meant to tackle issues of racialized violence.

It was not a coincidence that another movement called FeesMustFall emerged at the University of Witwatersrand calling for free decolonized education and the insourcing of workers such as cleaners.

‘Without RMF and the general decolonization movement, I don’t think you would have had FeesMustFall later in the year,’  Duma says. 

Questions of solidarity

The student movements for decolonized free education peaked between 2015 and 2016. In this period, students achieved some victories, such as the in-sourcing of workers, free education for impoverished students and making decolonization dominate mainstream debates.

Despite the successes, a combination of state repression and university suspensions meant that while RMF protests continue today, they have declined over the years. Mlandu, Hotz, Valela, and Duma all admit the movement had limitations – among all, its failure to transcend being a ‘typical student movement’. It did not connect to the rebellion of the poor, and they argue that RSF failed to entrench itself in community struggles in South Africa and beyond to defend its gains and continue the decolonial struggle beyond the classroom.

Given that its demands were beyond campus politics, Mlandu says that if RMF had connected with working-class Black people, it could have pushed the ruling party to confront inequality and the unresolved land question.

Valela says that the movement did not engage the question of how ‘the gains [will] continue to stay as gains beyond one class’ of students. For Valela, the question of solidarity between former student activists and current students is more pertinent now. She says organizing in South African universities has become extremely difficult after the universities’ clampdown hardened. (For example, the University of Witwatersrand deployed security and police to stop a protest earlier this year. And in 2021, police killed a bystander, Mthokozisi Ntumba, during an attempt to crack down on a student protest at the same university, while several others were injured.)

Despite this criticism, the impact of the RMF movement continues to reverberate. Mlandu says that the idea that things cannot change was upended by the movement: it reminded people that collective action was possible through solidarity between students, academics and workers.

Frantz Fanon and other thinkers that took decolonization seriously, ‘left us with a charge, we must think through new concepts for decolonization in contemporary times,’ says Valela.

For example, Valela says there is much to learn from the RMF queer collective from UCT, who in the 2015 protests demonstrated the significance of including feminist and LGBTQI+ thought and rights, something Valela says the decolonial movement needs to take seriously, ‘because this generation is thinking seriously about liberation for all’.  

*The K-word is an offensive racial slur used to denigrate Black people in South Africa.

This project was funded by the European Journalism Centre through the Solutions Journalism Accelerator. This fund is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.