PRIDE: David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jnr in the 2014 historic drama 'Selma', about the US civil rights movement. King's crusade emphasised dignity at all times, for to protest without dignity is to bring shame to your cause
Image: IMDB
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Like the televised beheadings of Islamic State victims in Syria, the discharge of human excrement in prominent sites of the Cape is designed to capture maximum public attention.

In both cases we respond on cue, spewing our disgust at the barbaric methods of protest and dismissing the perpetrators as uncivilised misfits. But when a University of Cape Town student launches a bucket of human waste over a settled statue of Cecil John Rhodes within eyeshot of Jameson Hall, campus citizens need to do more than simply react; we need to think.

The unresolved question of symbolic justice simmers just below the surface of everyday busyness on several university campuses - The DF Malan Centre at Stellenbosch,JBM Hertzog men's residence at the University of the Free State, the Jameson Hall at UCT, and a whole university (Rhodes) trading under the name of the land-grabbing imperialist who famously said: "I would annexe the planets if I could."

The so-far timid responses of university managers and governors to these troubled monuments simply stoke the fires of discontent among black (and some white) youth, who find themselves physically accommodated but socially alienated on century-old campuses that were not originally established for them.

What the UCT protests have done is place the issue of symbolic reparation squarely on the agenda of university management and councils everywhere, and we must deal with it.

But there is an even deeper question underlying these protests and it is this: is there a dignity to citizen protests that should be upheld? Yes there is, and that is why I believe we should condemn the vileness of how we protest - for the consequences downstream are much more serious than the immediate spectacle of pouring human excrement over things we do not like might suggest.

Of course, there is the question of who cleans up the mess once the media cameras are turned off and the triumphal students return to their air-fresh accommodation on or off campus. It is black workers, perhaps even the parents of students. None of this humiliation matters to the students. They made their point and got their airtime. Who cares about the cleaners?

What happens, though, when pouring out buckets of human waste becomes a habit of protest in a democracy - as appears to be the case in Cape Town? What does that say about us as citizens and about protest as civic action?

This is where the US civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jnr made a sobering point to his army of non-violent protesters: "If you will protest courageously, and yet with dignity, the historians will have to pause and say, 'There lived a great people - a black people -who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilisation'."

To grasp this prophetic point, watch the movie Selma. The film encapsulates, if nothing else, that word "dignity", defined by my online dictionary as "conduct indicative of self-respect; elevation of character".

The very opposite, in other words, of what we witnessed as a student diminished himself, and the dignity of protest, when he poured human waste over the Rhodes statue.

I would fail in my duty as a teacher if I did not also point out the appalling lack of education, of informed opinion, that accompanied the protests. Most of the crowd of students assembled on the steps of Jameson Hall did not do history at school. Fewer can give you a fluent account of Rhodes the imperialist or his henchman Leander Starr Jameson and their unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the Boer government of the Transvaal.

I doubt there were serious seminars on the land Rhodes donated to UCT and what the legal, political and ethical dimensions of the challenge to his statue might involve. What I heard as the microphone was passed from one protester to the next was little more than populist sentiment intended to stoke a crowd rather than educational substance to feed a mind.

Rhodes, Malan and Hertzog are divisive campus figures who remind black students of their oppression then and their alienation now.

But university leaders make a strategic mistake to think these protests are simply about statues.

They are about a deeper transformation of universities - including the complexion of the professoriate - that remains largely unchanged. For bringing these matters to urgent public attention, we owe the UCT students a debt of gratitude.

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