Above: Wilcocks building. Photo: Francois Lombaard.
In an academic paper titled #FeesMustFall and Decolonising the Curriculum: Stellenbosch University students’ and lecturers’ reactions, Constandius et al stated, in their introduction, that: “Racism is not divorced from the structures of historically entrenched power; it is about dispossession and involves many areas, including land ownership and public space.”
This is, perhaps, a summarised justification for the ongoing redress programme initiated by Stellenbosch University (SU). In its visual redress policy, the university acknowledges the effects of imagery and names on buildings, statues and art on students and staff, particularly those linked to oppressive historical figures. Hence, the aim of the policy is to guide the institution in removing problematic names and imagery on its campuses, and introduce new, transformative artwork, names and collections to the space in order to achieve SU’s Vision 2040 goals.
The most discussed proposal of renaming is the R.W Wilcocks building. Wilcocks, who was a eugenicist and supervisor of Verwoerd’s thesis work, has a building named after him in a central position campus. Hence, the decision to rename the building is a welcomed one in terms of progression, transformation and as the university’s redress policy states, it is “to set things right”. There has been a discussion as to who the building should be renamed after, and I am of the strong view that it should be renamed the Lilian Ngoyi Building.
In an obituary written for Ngoyi when she passed away in 1980, Ma Ngoyi was described as a phenomenal woman whose “life of dedication and unpretentiousness, selflessness and devotion to the cause of freedom is a shining example to the women of the whole world”. Ngoyi showcased exceptional leadership skills and rose quickly in the ANC Women’s League ranks which was where she mobilised women, alongside Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa and Sophie Williams, to march to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956. It is still one of the largest marches recorded in South African history.
Ngoyi had to overcome much adversity and still pursued justice despite the state and institutional suppression that she faced. She experienced patriarchal and racial barriers from birth until she died, with her final days being stuck at home since she was banned by the apartheid government for being a “communist”. However, her struggles are not only what define her. It is her achievements and actions which we should pay tribute to when renaming the Wilcocks building after her.
Not only was she a prominent participant in the ANC liberation movement, but she was a brilliant public speaker. She spoke at conferences and congresses in Europe, the Soviet Union and China. On her return to South Africa, she began the mobilisation process of uniting black women against the oppressive apartheid regime. Revered for her resilience, courage and determination, it was Ngoyi herself who knocked on the door of the apartheid prime minister’s door to hand over thousands of petitions against the racist, sexist, oppressive pass laws.
It is thus no surprise that the Fallist, transformative and progressive movements of #FeesMustFall (FMF) and Open Stellenbosch renamed Wilcocks the “Lilian Ngoyi Building” at the peak of their protests for free, decolonised education. The student activists were continuing the bold, liberation legacy of Lilian Ngoyi. In a letter to the Daily Maverick in 2015, Open Stellenbosch addressed the violently oppressive spaces at Stellenbosch University and the dominant white Afrikaans culture which excluded everyone else who were not white and Afrikaans. This decision to rename buildings such as Wilcocks is to play a role in “righting these wrongs” and furthermore, resolve issues that transformation activists have been calling for.
In #FeesMustFall, coloured and black women were at the forefront of tackling injustices and openly renamed university buildings that were named after oppressive, problematic historical figures. It was that moment when the “Lilian Ngoyi building” was decided on for RW Wilcocks. Media outlets even compared women Fallists to “young Lilian Ngoyis” across the country. Both the actions of Fallist women and Ma Ngoyi are that of fortitude, and they all had the aim of seeking systemic, structural and societal change for an empowering and inclusive space for all.
Whilst this redress is crucial and much needed, one cannot deny that there are still major problems with regards to cases of discrimination, hate speech and harmful content at the university. A week ago, a bachelor of science second year group chat was exposed for allegedly creating and sharing jokes/memes about “child molestation, GBV, racism, transphobia and sexism”. These acts do need to be tackled as there is a clear indication of problematic mindsets at the institution. However, it does not mean that redress should be ignored.
Although there have also been calls to rename the building after Die Vlakte, this may be doing an injustice. As recognised by the university, Die Vlakte was an area that extended from the Arts and Social Sciences building on Ryneveld Street to Merriman Street, Bird Street and Banhoek Road, which consisted of a community of predominantly coloured people who were forcefully removed by the apartheid government under the Group Areas Act. I believe that it would be best suited to name the Arts and Social Sciences building “Die Vlakte-gebou” as it would be a reclaiming of the space following the past injustices.
Visual redress has already begun at Stellenbosch University which indicates that the institution is finally taking the 2015/2016 calls of FMF activists seriously. In terms of achieving transformation and inclusivity, renaming Wilcocks to the Lilian Ngoyi building will do it justice, not only in recognising a prominent historical South African figure of freedom, but also in acknowledging the brave acts of FMF activists who fought fearlessly for the empowerment of financially and racially marginalised people.
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