The current protests by UCT students against the statue of Rhodes are a distraction that, contrary to the intentions of most, serves to perpetuate the colonial legacy it is supposedly challenging.
Rhodes, bizarrely described by SABC’s Radio FM as an ‘explorer’, was indeed an entirely unapologetic racist. But his legacy is much more than that. In the 1980s, at the height of the uprising against Apartheid, the mass movements directly involved in the struggle all agreed that Apartheid was a form of racial capitalism. Rhodes’ legacy is not only that he was a leading foreign capitalist who made a fortune out of the discovery of gold and diamonds. His real legacy is the use of his deep-seated racism to justify the bloody creation of the African working class, which he did by using the law to force African peasant farmers off the land and down the mines. Rhodes’ racism rationalised his denial of the humanity of people subject to his colonial domination. This allowed him to go to church with a clear conscience notwithstanding his destruction of African traditional life, of his devastation of African families and of the sufferings of the workers he forced down the mines at starvation wages and with very little, if any, thought to the health & safety of the workers who, for him, weren’t people worthy of human consideration.
This legacy is all too alive and well in South Africa in 2015, despite 21 years of post-Apartheid-South Africa. Rhodes’ offspring are to be found in what has long been called the Mineral Energy Complex (MEC). It continues to dominate the political-economy of South Africa. It continues to rely on migrant labour and low wages for its still enormous profits. The student who threw the poo at Rhodes’ statue came dressed as a mine worker. Marikana is a reminder to all of us that the problem is not Rhodes’ dead legacy but the awful power of his very much alive mining descendants.
By focusing exclusively on the colonial insult symbolised by Rhodes’ statue, the MEC is left untouched. Shouting for the removal of other ‘white colonial’ names – like in ‘Jameson’ Hall – makes its very easy for the University authorities to agree. It is easy for them to do so for it serves as a distraction; focusing on our formal colonial past obscures the inconvenient truth of UCT’s heavy reliance on the MEC for its current funding, a reliance reflected in so many of the corporate names that now festoon supposed ‘academic’ buildings.
Indeed, the entire corporate takeover of all universities, not just UCT, is the living legacy of Rhodes. This ought to be a prime focus of students who describe themselves as radical.
Instead, they divide themselves on so-called ‘racial’ lines and, as a final mocking irony, do so using the ‘races’ Rhodes did so much to institutionalise, as part of his divide-and-rule legacy.
The supposedly ‘black students’ demanding the removal of the offending statue bring warmth to the coffins containing the heroes of the Apartheid pantheon, beginning with Dr Hendrik Verwoerd. These Apartheid architects argued that the four ‘races’ of Apartheid South Africa reflected a natural order in which each ‘race’ had to live separate from the others because of their natural differences and in-born wishes.
‘Coloureds’ & ‘Indians’ are not black, according to the students who accuse UCT of still being predominately ‘white’. And ‘white’ students are not welcome at some of the student gatherings because they are ‘white’ even though they fully support the ‘black’ campaign to remove Rhodes from UCT. Rhodes, too, would greatly enjoy this spectacle of how students allow the ‘races’ he helped manufacture to divide themselves, even while campaigning against his ‘colonial’ legacy of dispossession and subjugation.
Colour-coding access to scarce resources is the main hallmark of the new, post-Apartheid, non-racial South Africa. This colour-coded access to wealth and/or promotion is, of course, enormously important to those who benefit, many of whom are not without legitimate grievances. But for everyone else – the vast majority of South Africans – it makes not a jot of difference, for as long as the class structure of South African capitalism remains untouched. Creating black billionaires and millionaires through BEE further entrenches this class structure. Similarly, making university staff all black is plainly important to the people concerned but, in itself, does nothing to promote the interests of everyone else that’s left behind in the inequality that makes our country a world-beater.
So far – with all too few exceptions in some universities – there’s precious little to show that black staff are any more disposed to promoting the radical societal changes required by workers – who still suffer the legacy of Rhodes’ cheap labour policies and practices – the unemployed and the other battalions of the increasingly restless poor and disadvantaged.
These required societal changes need also to address modern colonialism that, while less explicitly, still exercise dominant influence over South Africa via, for instance, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation and … rating agencies.
Frantz Fanon is now taught in a number of universities, regardless of the colour of the lecturer. If the statue protestors are anything to go by, however, it seems that Fanon is either taught badly or selectively. Fanon’s withering critique of what he called the ‘brutality of thought and mistrust of subtlety’ – that is, anti-colonial thought that mirrors rather than transcends what it opposes – is precisely my concern about the conservatism of the current Rhodes protests.
Fanon’s entire chapter, ‘The Pitfalls of National Consciousness’, in his celebrated, The Wretched of the Earth, published in 1961 in the wake of the supposed decolonisation of Africa, is a must read for our student activists. As a taste, consider:
The national consciousness [of the leaders of post-colonial Africa], instead of being the all-embracing crystallization of the innermost hopes of the whole people, instead of being the immediate and most obvious result of the mobilization of the people, will be in any case only an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been. The faults that we find in it are quite sufficient explanation of the facility with which…the nation is passed over for the race… These are the cracks in the edifice which show the process of retrogression that is so harmful and prejudicial to national effort and national unity. We shall see that such retrograde steps with all the weaknesses and serious dangers that they entail are the historical result of the incapacity of the national middle class [the new political leaders] to rationalize popular action, that is to say their incapacity to see into the reasons for that action…
‘Popular action’ in South Africa, in the form of the never ending ‘service delivery’ protests, is becoming increasingly angry and violent. The mass protests against a statue show that students, too, are becoming increasingly angry at the failure of the new South Africa to meet even their privileged needs. A proper unity between the fortunate few who get to university and the seething mass our class structure guarantees to be left permanently behind is what Fanon demands. This unity would, indeed, be radical. DM
Support DAILY MAVERICK & get FREE UBER vouchers every month
An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money, though not nearly as much as its absence can cost global community. No country can live and prosper without truth - that's why it matters.
Every Daily Maverick article and every Scorpio exposé is proof of our dedication to this unshakeable mission. Investing in our news media is by far the most effective investment into South Africa's future.
You can support Independent and Investigative journalism by joining Maverick Insider. If you contribute R150 or more per month you will receive R100 back in UBER vouchers. EVERY MONTH until October 2019.
So, if you'd like to help and do something meaningful for yourself and your country, then sign up to become a Maverick Insider. Together we can Defend Truth.
When sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings half your brain remains alert.