Incoming UCT Vice-Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng says universities should have had a conversation about historic symbols on campuses long before the Rhodes Must Fall movement in 2015.
"Somehow, institutions never had those kinds of conversations," she told News24 in a sit-down interview on Monday.
The Rhodes Must Fall movement was sparked in 2015 when students threw faeces and urine on the base of the Cecil John Rhodes statue at UCT during a protest against "white imperialism". Following a series of protests, the statue was eventually removed.
Phakeng said she believed that it was not only black students who had felt uncomfortable by the presence of the statue on campus. Others too, including Afrikaans people, were also uncomfortable about its presence, she said.
She added that black pain continued to be felt by students who did not even have firsthand experience of apartheid.
"Young, white people also have issues that they have to deal with," she said.
Phakeng said, while she disagreed with students in terms of their approach when raising concerns, she "understood their struggles".
'We reached a level of anger and desperation'
Under outgoing Max Price's leadership, the university has seen, over the last few years, many protests over issues including student housing, financial exclusions and outsourcing.
Some students disrupted university activities and damaged public property, leading the university to go to court to secure urgent interdicts.
Clashes with private security and police, sometimes resulting in students being arrested, led to increased frustration and antagonism.
Phakeng said she wanted to create a university culture where young people felt their issues were being heard, so they didn't reach the levels of anger and desperation that had resulted in various protests over the years.
"Sometimes I sit and say: What would you do if you have an issue to raise, you want to talk to people about it and nobody is willing to listen? How far would it push you? What would it push you to? Should we maybe perhaps not also critique ourselves on how we generally responded?"
Phakeng, who takes over from Price in July, said what happened at a certain level of anger was not always controllable.
"I think we got to that stage because things the students are raising are not new. They have been raised over and over again," she said.
"I think we reached a level of anger and desperation. It is painful because the costs are high. The costs mean that students themselves might lose what they are here for."
'It's a critical point'
Phakeng said it was the responsibility of all academics to understand, engage with, and solve these issues.
"I would like us to have a different environment that allows for engagement, an environment that allows us to be challenged, without us wanting to hold onto the past simply because the past was a little more comfortable."
She added that, just as Capetonians were having to imagine a new relationship with water, universities too would need to look at new ways of doing things.
"The thing about the past... is that you think, 'Why change it? It's been working', when we can see it is not sustainable. It worked, but it is not sustainable.
"It's quite a delicate position to be in, because things can either become better or fall apart completely. It's a critical point."
Phakeng believes she has the stamina and skills, as well as a capable team, to get things done.
"I understand it is going to be a mammoth task. It is going to be difficult because not everyone might be willing to walk the journey."
She is adamant that UCT will stand out if it becomes "unapologetically African" and continues pursuing questions that are of local relevance, while continuing with its rigorous way of doing its scholarship.
"I like saying that UCT is the best university in Africa. We have got to keep that, but more than that, we have got to work at being the best for Africa."