‘Rhodes must fall!’ shouted angry black students at the University of Cape Town. The problem is — and it is the profoundest problem of race relations — they were also demonstrating by their every action and desire that they want Rhodes to rise even higher.
Last month a black 30-year-old student, Chumani Maxwele, in a great blaze of publicity, threw ‘human excrement’ over the statue of Cecil John Rhodes on the steps to the university’s upper campus. It was followed by similar acts and protests across South Africa against symbols of white imperialism and colonialism. At UCT itself, black students stormed into a council meeting chanting, ‘One settler, one bullet!’ As would be expected, the authorities gave way, and on 9 April, after 81 years, the statue was removed before a cheering crowd of black students.
But what were they cheering for? There have been interminable speeches and articles from black students and academics telling of their pain and humiliation before white colonial outrages and insisting on ‘transformation’ of higher education to a more African way. What do they mean? They say their university is too ‘Eurocentric’. How do they want to make it more Afrocentric?
I heard a lot of anger but not one single proposal about ‘transforming’ UCT except to remove the Rhodes statue and employ more black academics. Nothing was suggested about a more African curriculum or more African modes of learning. Quite the opposite: there was an important silence about making any real changes at all.
Rhodes was a 19th-century European with similar views to those of Karl Marx (a German contemporary). Both believed that black Africans were primitives and that the British empire did a good job in raising ‘barbarian countries’ (to use Marx’s words in his Communist Manifesto) to a higher stage of history. Rhodes wanted to improve all the people of the world, including Africans, by imposing upon them the superior civilisation of Britain. At UCT, with 19th-century origins, this was done with a vengeance.
I spent a total of 14 years there, studying and teaching, and every day I walked past the statue of Rhodes. I never noticed it. A month ago I couldn’t have told you where it was. Yet during the recent uproar, I have been told that black students arriving at the university were immediately confronted and humiliated by the statue. I doubt it.
I can tell you what they would be confronted by though: on first arrival at UCT, I was confronted by huge playing fields for the imperial sports of rugby, soccer and cricket, the British sports that Rhodes championed in his scholarships. In my studies in science and engineering, I was confronted by the British works of Newton, Hooke, Dalton, Boyle, Faraday, Watt, Stephenson and Maxwell. I saw 500 years of Eurocentric science and engineering before me every day of my studies. Most important of all — by far the most important of all — I noticed that all the teaching, all the exams and all the textbooks were in the colonialist, imperialist, Eurocentric language of English, the language of Rhodes the racist. Yet none of the protesting students seems to want to change any of this substance of Rhodes’s legacy; on the contrary, they support it as keenly as he did.
When the Afrikaners won the peace after the Boer War and took power in South Africa, they set up schools and universities in Afrikaans and — of crucial importance — their leaders sent their own children to them. When the Africans came to power in 1994, they did no such thing for their own languages. African leaders send their own children to schools and universities taught in English, with as many white teachers as possible. They are horrified at the prospect of their children being taught in an African language. They are complying with the legacy of Cecil John Rhodes.
The protesting black students seemed to say: ‘We love the legacy of Cecil John Rhodes. We prefer his colonial language to our own languages. We prefer his sports to our sports. We prefer his European culture to our African culture. And now we are going to throw some shit on his statue.’
The university’s Student Representative Council says: ‘What we aim to do is to conscientise students not only in terms of race but also gender, sexuality, disability and other invisible ways in which heteronormative oppression functions every day within this institution.’
The irony here is that throughout Africa is the strong belief that homosexuality is a European perversion. Only degraded European capitalist society tolerates homosexuality. True Africans reject it.
While these angry young blacks were attacking the statues of dead white men, calling him a racist, other angry young blacks were attacking living black African immigrants. In both Johannesburg and Durban, ‘death mobs’ of black youths have been rampaging through the communities where black immigrants live, whipped up into a frenzy by the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini. Zwelithini made a speech saying immigrants should ‘take their bags and go’ and, ‘we must deal with our own lice’. So the obedient mob began to assault and murder their African brothers from the north, destroying their homes and shops. One black man was burnt to death, another battered to death with a monkey wrench in the street. Thousands have had to flee.
Time and again, black South Africans, worked up into a xenophobic frenzy, have slaughtered black African immigrants, while railing against white European immigrants. It’s a horrifying and also confusing state of affairs. They admire European culture but despise Rhodes; they claim a pan-African heritage, but attack and kill not white immigrants but fellow blacks. Both the rich young South African students at UCT and the poor mob simultaneously adore and resent everything European and feel a perplexed doubt about everything African.
Some years ago, in front of the TV cameras, an angry black ANC protestor raised his fist into the air and shouted: ‘We shall forget but we shall never forgive!’ This strange expression of confused rage seemed to sum it all up.