Shelter after our people’s rainstorm: A post-Rhodes response to Thami Mazwai
- Phindile Kunene
- 16 Apr 2015 12:17 (South Africa)
In the introductory passages of his book on the history of Biafra, Chinua Achebe invokes the popular Igbo proverb that says: “A man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body” . He goes on to argue that the rain that beat Africa began with a series of historic events in our past – chief among which were the so-called discovery of Africa by European voyagers, the transatlantic slave trade and the 1885 Berlin Conference, which partitioned the continent and created new and arbitrary boundaries whose lasting impact is felt to this day.
In the past few weeks, the country has been embroiled in a heated debate about the place that colonial representations should occupy in our public spaces and the role of memory and history in our society. The unfolding events surrounding the removal of arch imperialist Cecil John Rhodes’ statue have cast the famous Igbo proverb firmly into the spotlight.
One of the people to weigh in on this debate is former activist and renowned public intellectual Thami Mazwai. Mazwai posits that the current student generation is involved in an egotistical search for relevance; a claim, he argues, evidenced by the targeting of colonial statues and representations in the country’s universities. For Mazwai, latter-day student struggles are divorced from the “real” and “pressing” issues confronting our society – poverty, unemployment and inequality.
Wittingly or unwittingly, Mazwai paints a canvas of a “lost generation” of young people who are battling to define their role and place in a new society. This imagery has startling similarities to the conceptualisation of black youth in the years between the termination of the armed struggle, the beginning of negotiations and the official demise of the Apartheid regime.  Like the collection of works that diagnosed the “youth problem” in the late 80’s and early 90’s, Mazwai prescribes pretty much the same cure – an intervention from the older generation to “assist” and lead the misguided students down the correct path and save them from their hedonistic urges.
While it is not the intention of this article to provide a history lesson about Southern Africa’s own experience with the proverbial rain to which Achebe draws our attention, it is important to respond to some of the arguments tabled by Mazwai in relation to the removal of colonial representations.
In his article, Mazwai falls into the trap of erecting a false dichotomy between the act of challenging symbolic representations of white power and victory over black people through statues and monuments and the enduring structural manifestations of colonial rule.
His analysis privileges economic factors as “direct consequences” of colonialism. According to the approach, the current generation of young people should expend their energies on fighting rising levels of poverty, disempowering joblessness and inequality as opposed to waging a “crusade” against dead men of a bygone era.
Although it is hard to argue with the notion that the economy underlies the major battles in our society, this submission is not without caveats. In his neat, linear and one-dimensional framework of protest and resistance, Mazwai shows a great impatience with history and politics! He reduces the colonial project to an exercise of gunpowder and crude force without acknowledging the various ways in which it fashioned the psyche of the colonised.
As the UCT, Rhodes and Wits students’ cries have demonstrated, the Chinese wall between the symbolic and the structural is difficult to sustain, even in the comforts of previously white universities. The remaking of the psychology of the colonised, psychological liberation or the decolonisation of the mind are recurring themes in some of the most radical literature that has inspired our course of struggle. Fanon, Biko, Cabral, Césaire, wa Thiong'o and many others address this question in various ways and in intricate detail. Mazwai’s Chinese wall between challenging symbols of colonialism and the structural or economic remnants of this system can only be maintained if we jettison this rich intellectual work.
In this regard, the revolt against colonial symbols could be seen as part of the process to weave together the dismembered parts of the black body, assaulted and subjected to humiliation for centuries. He is blind to the possibility that in womb of the struggle against colonial representations, the clenched African fist and the empty stomach could find their completeness.
The second limitation in Mazwai’s piece lies in what he does not say more than what he says. By using the history of youth struggles in South Africa as a basis to delegitimise the students’ stance against colonial representations, Mazwai unintentionally resurrects the inter-generational tensions that defined relations between the black youths on the one hand and parents and teachers on the other. At different points in our resistance, generational disputes frequently arose regarding the modus operandi and tactics of the struggle. For instance, the confrontational approach to state power, the joining of armed struggle, opting for exile and internally leading the people’s war through consumer and class boycotts favoured by the youth in the post 1976 era often occasioned misgivings from adult members of society and parents.
Young people - who resorted to militant and radical approach to struggle - were given a raft of negative ascriptions - inexperienced and naïve with an utter disdain for authority. Elsewhere, scholars have shown how these tensions gave rise to adult-led vigilante groups aimed at reining in the “uncontrollable youth.”  This is not to suggest that we are destined for similar reactions or that this is a hegemonic view amongst adults, but Mazwai’s piece certainly underlines the importance of generation as a prism through which to understand social struggles in different points of our history.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy about Mazwai’s article is that he invokes Frantz Fanon’s famous call for revolutionaries to learn, appreciate and act on their generational tasks without recognising that it is from the same maxim that the youth in our universities draw inspiration. The most evident and immediate result of this struggle is that it has pierced through the thin veil of transformation in historically white and “liberal” universities. It has brought to the fore the lived experience of black people in these spaces and institutional racism that is meted out through admission policies, an untransformed curriculum, exclusion of black staff in the higher echelons of academia, academic and financial exclusions.
By throwing excrement on the statue of a man whose misdeeds can only be described as diabolical, the students were communicating the message that transformation, or rather black liberation, can no longer be negotiated in fancy boardrooms or limited to the opinion pages of the popular press – it is no longer the subject of elite pacts.
The student protests have laid bare the “soft” and “hidden” legacy of colonialism and catapulted this into the national discourse. These actions have challenged the layman’s perspective that black oppression began in 1948 with the inception of formal Apartheid. Today a young person is more likely to pause and interrogate the writing on the statues of (white) men and women decorating the sidewalks of our cities and towns rather than simply walking past them in oblivion. The campaign has induced an unparalleled sense of curiosity among the youth about our history – as sordid and unpalatable as it may be. It is difficult to think of a contribution more worthy!
Moreover, these actions are also reconnecting the umbilical cord that links South Africa’s trajectory of struggle with the rest of the African continent – forcing us to draw more intricate links to the decolonisation struggle here and elsewhere. But more importantly, it has reignited a debate about the importance of psychological liberation as a terrain of struggle – a debate that was relegated to the back burner in the democratic dispensation. It dovetails a conversation about a “second independence”.
This is the revolutionary mission discovered by the generation of students in our universities. Whether this struggle deserves a place in the annals of epoch-making developments in our history is open to debate and will largely depend on what obtains post the removal of this statue.
To return to the Igbo dictum invoked by Achebe in his work on Biafra, colonial representations are a painful daily reminder of the rain that began to pour heavily down the spines of black people since the beginning of the colonial project. By calling for the removal colonial statues and representations, the students have shown nothing short of heroism and an unflinching commitment to dry this country from the rain and storms of the past, to place us on a better platform from which to advance meaningful and thoroughgoing transformation. DM
Phindile Kunene is a former leader of SASCO, the YCLSA in Gauteng and a member of the ANC and ANCYL in Gauteng.
 Achebe, B, There was a Country - A Personal History of Biafra, Penguin: New York, 2012.
 Mazwai, A, “Students who fail to think first are a danger”, Business Day, 08 April 2015.
 For a discussion on this see Seekings, J, “The ‘Lost Generation’: South Africa’s ‘Youth Problem’ in the Early - 1990s”, Transformation, Volume 29, 1995.
 For a sample of this work see: Marks, M, Young Warriors: Youth Politics and Violence in South Africa, Wits University Press: Johannesburg, 2001; Carter, C, Comrades and Community: Politics and Construction of Hegemony in Alexandra Township,1984 - 1987. PhD Thesis, University of Oxford, 1991 and Moloi, T, Black Politics in Kroonstad: Political Mobilisation, Protests, Local Government, and Generational Struggles, 1976 - 1995, PhD Thesis, Wits University, 2012