A revolution deferred for 21 years is finally brewing in South Africa. It started when students at the University of Cape Town erupted in a call that “Rhodes must fall”. Within days their call echoed across the provincial border at Rhodes University.
Gareth Cliff calls Rhodes the “most successful imperialist agent” of Victorian Britain. An artist once caricatured his towering figure saddled across the African continent—a symbol of his exploits. He built an empire on the bloody backs of black folk. In Rhodesia, his private country, he “owned” both the land and its people. How is his name still plastered on our public institutions?
“It is a hollow victory to defeat those already dead. Rhodes doesn’t care,” wrote Cliff. Cliff and the many others who invoke “history” and Rhodes’ “unquestionable legacy” are missing the point. It would be silly to think that removing the statue would solve South Africa’s entire race problem. Yet it is the perfect place to start.
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand observed that the more things change, the more they remain the same. This has been the case in South Africa for 21 years. Institutionalised oppression of blacks has been repealed but our society has maintained the mould. Our democracy inherited the Apartheid base and superstructure. It supports economic inequities and perpetuates Apartheid-style brutalities against the blacks and other previously oppressed groups.
The rainbow nation still has “whites only” areas like Kleinfontein (Pretoria) and Orania (Northern Cape). Blacks entering Worcester, a suburb in the Western Cape, must carry a “green card”. These are just the towns we know about.
Blacks and queer bodies are under a constant threat of violence and humiliation. You don’t need to look hard to find a story of black brutalisation: a domestic worker is assaulted for “looking like a prostitute”; a gang of white youths force cleaners to eat faeces and drink urine or they randomly beat a cleaner to a pulp; an employer forces a security guard to have sex with a dog; or a primary school pupil is raped with a broom on camera.
Blacks must negotiate recognition and inclusion, which generally entails shedding their black identity and assimilating whiteness on white terms. I remember as an undergraduate law student mispronouncing the word “management” during a class discussion. The lecturer asked me to repeat the word, and the class erupted in laughter. I was mortified and I swore never to speak in class again. Ironically, that same lecturer had consistently mispronounced my name and surname.
The lecturer was dabbling in a sort of privilege known only to a minority of South Africans. Peggy McIntosh called it “white privilege,” an “invisible, weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, code books, visas, clothes, tools and blank cheques”.
An overwhelming majority of blacks is excluded by entrenched economic biases. The exclusion manifests in black-white interpersonal relationships. Howard College, my alma mater, has a “black cafeteria” and a “white cafeteria”. One is a hotbox with hard benches; it serves roast chicken, fried chips and Coca Cola. The other has manicured trees and gazebos; it serves pasta, toasted sandwiches, salad and cappuccinos.
If you read anything above to mean that whites are oppressing blacks, you would be justified in thinking so. South Africa exhibits elements of both white supremacy, defined by Shannon Sullivan as “conscious deliberate forms of white domination”, and white privilege, defined as “a constellation of psychical and somatic habits formed through transaction with a racist world”.
The Rhodes uprising is, therefore, important for two reasons. First, it attacks a symbol of conscious white domination while also forcing whites to confront unconscious habits (white privilege). Cecil Rhodes is a symbol of both white domination and white privilege. He consciously oppressed and brutalised blacks. Moreover, liberal whites like Gareth Cliff who defend his memory are engaged in a less conscious act of domination, which is to discount or rationalise black suffering and brutalisation.
Second, the uprising is led by “born frees”. It is based not only on historical memory, but also on lived experience. Most younger generations of blacks go through what Nietzsche called “ressentiment”– perceiving themselves as part of the problem; accepting that they need to assimilate and thus pulling themselves up by the bootstraps. However, many soon realise that their status as “insiders/outsiders” is permanent. They realise the need to deconstruct the system.
Before leaving South Africa, I had lunch with a young black woman in Johannesburg. She obtained her law degree summa cum laude and, as senior associate at a Big Five law firm, she is churning superhuman billable hours. Yet she was asking for advice on securing scholarships. Her (white) male counterparts with wealth and the connections to get clients are outcompeting her. Her boss is kind; so are her colleagues, but the system is spewing her out.
Sullivan writes that “Racism is not located solely in the individual person; it has a long history of perpetuating itself through political, economic, national, global, educational, and other institutions that are much larger than any individual.” Rhodes’ fall is symbolic of the deconstruction of those institutions. Rhodes’ fall is a continuation of a ‘values revolution’ that we placed on hold in 1994. DM
"Don't tell me the sky's the limit when there are footprints on the moon." ~ Paul Brandt