‘Decolonisation Dilemmas: Challenges for University Leadership’ with Dr. Max Price


Written by Sacha Dekeyser

June 21, 2019

On 26 May, we were delighted to host a special lecture with Max Price, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town (UCT) between 2008 – 2018. In his lecture, Max Price explored how university leadership could react to and learn from crises. During his tenure, the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ student protests took place, which concerned the location of a statue of Cecil Rhodes on the campus and its symbolism.

‘Decolonisation’ in the UCT context

Until the 1980s, UCT was segregated, meaning that it did not accept any black students. Price explained that this was reflected in the University’s imagery and artwork, which predominantly honoured white men. As a result, black students at UCT felt that their own culture and language were not valued. Consequently, they had to ‘assimilate’ into the UCT’s culture.

The removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes

The ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ protests started on 9 March 2015 when some students urged the University to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a British businessman, mining magnate and politician in southern Africa who served as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896. They argued that the statue represented colonial oppression. What’s more, they felt that its presence was an insult to black students whose ancestors had suffered from Cecil Rhodes’ policies and legislation. From this, the hashtag #RhodesMustFall was born.

Max Price was immediately sympathetic to this cause. In addition, UCT authorities agreed with the students’ demands. However, the issue was the removal process itself. While students called for immediate removal, UCT authorities stressed that the crucial point was to defend university as a space where rational decisions resulting from discussion could be made, and not from populist pressure. Consequently, the Council committed to hear views from all constituencies in order to make an informed decision. Therefore, they arranged a special council meeting, which was one month after the protests. By the end of the debate, the decision to remove the statue prevailed.

Nonetheless, no parties have urged the potential destruction of the statue or its removal from public spaces altogether. The argument was entirely on the statue’s location and the symbolism of that location. Many groups felt that having a grand statue of an individual who was so closely connected with imperial oppression in South Africa at the UCT demonstrated that Rhodes was synonymous with the university. As such, removing the statue from its central location at UCT was an important symbolic gesture, a decisive rupture with the past. The Council strove to make the University more inclusive by involving everyone in the removal of the statue.

The aftermath

Since the end of 2017, the situation at UCT has stabilised. According to Max Price, “this was a rupture that had to come sometime.” He added that it was necessary and worthwhile, and the institution would be in a much stronger place.

Moreover, the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement triggered re-examination of names, symbols and legacies in universities across the world. It has inspired challenges to other heritage institutions, names and systems, as well as greater awareness of structural oppression.

Challenges for university leadership

Price noted that the difficulties with this situation came from managing a range of conflicting interests and values over a short timescale. Ideally, the situation would have needed lengthy consultations and wide deliberation.

During times of turmoil, the challenges for university leaders are to ensure that the institution survives, as well as hearing and understanding the underlying causes of the protests. They should also seek ways to respond constructively while balancing the interests of a large number of stakeholders. Ultimately, leaders need to make decisions that will strengthen their institutions in the long-term.

You can listen to the recording of the lecture here