Thu Oct 27 22:42:00 SAST 2016

Rhodes anger has shattered the myth that race doesn't matter

XOLELA MANGCU | 21 March, 2015 21:00
A protester covered the statue of Cecil John Rhodes with black plastic.

A spectre is haunting the University of Cape Town. The spectre of "dissent". This spectre has not appeared out of thin air. It is a natural and inevitable consequence of the system it is haunting.

What is more, the system has been so ossified politically that there is practically no way for such nonconformity to be implemented within its official structures.

This is a paraphrase of the opening line of former Czech writer and politician Václav Havel's famous essay, "The Power of the Powerless".

I was reminded of Havel's essay by a historic student rally on transformation at UCT last week. I had not seen such a magnificent sight in the three years I have been at the university, and some people say in decades. So why has the conflict erupted only now?

There has been simmering anger among black students and staff about the lack of racial transformation at the university. The motto of the students is "We can't breathe", referring to the suffocating whiteness of the institution.

There are parallels between their actions and an example of dissent that Havel describes in his essay. He writes about a manager of a fruit and vegetable shop who wakes up every day to put up a banner that reads: "Workers of the World, Unite".

This is a daily ritual to show loyalty to the authorities.

However, one fine morning he decides not to put up the flag. He is tired of the pretence that all is well in his country. Everyone follows suit and the next thing a "velvet revolution" erupts to change the face of Europe.

For decades, the staff and students of UCT have been walking past the statue of Cecil John Rhodes.

The lone voices who called for its removal were met with the mild-mannered contempt that is so characteristic of liberal culture.

And then one fine morning, a group of black students said: "Enough is enough!"

They were not going to venerate this monster any longer.

As prime minister of the Cape Colony, Rhodes laid the template for apartheid through his policies on the native reserves, pass laws, and the removal of black people from the voters roll. He said he would build a university on his estate on the empty "stomachs of niggers".

Anticipating Hendrik Verwoerd by a few decades, he said educated blacks, "are excellent as long as the supply is limited. But the country is overstocked with them. These people will not go to work."

Now his liberal defenders tell us to be grateful for his largesse. The trouble with this liberal morality is that it requires looking away from evil - so as to better enjoy its fruits.

Columbia University's Ira Katznelson once described this liberalism as "insensitive to the suffering of others".

Rhodes's violence was also in his words: "I will lay down my own policy on the native question. Either you have to treat them as citizens or to call them a subject race. I have made up my mind that we have to treat the natives where they are in a state of barbarism, in a different way to ourselves. We are to be lords over them."

The student actions have shattered the myth that race does not matter at UCT.

The black middle-class students who have dominated governance structures say they were treated with contempt when the university rammed down their throats its decision to do away with race in admissions policy.

As one of the students put it, "this is a leftover from the admissions debate".

Black middle-class students now realise that they are not above the indignities of racism, including the presence of Rhodes's statue in their midst. This is what African-American journalist Ellis Cose calls black middle-class rage in action.

Unlike the first generation of black middle-class students, this generation is less enamoured with what Cornel West, a US academic and philosopher, calls "the felicities of bourgeois existence". They are comfortable in their skins - pun intended. They are building solidarity with black students from poor communities where struggles for social justice are on the boil.

Alongside them, white students are struggling for a new identity separate from that bequeathed to UCT by Rhodes. Among them will emerge the next Rick Turner.

Seeing that our learned newspaper articles about admissions, staff and curriculum transformation are met with the same liberal, mild-mannered rebuffs, the students have taken matters into their own hands, as Steve Biko and his colleagues did in 1968.

Now they are asking questions about the makeup of the university council, senate, promotions committees and other decision-making structures.

If any change takes place at UCT, it will be for their actions. We should never forget that. They have led where many adults have feared to tread.

Mangcu is associate professor of sociology at UCT


Read more in the Sunday Times: Why I'm not surprised UCT 'born frees' want Rhodes to go


If you have an opinion you would like to share on this article, please send us an e-mail to the Times LIVE iLIVE team. In the mean time, click here to view the Times LIVE iLIVE section.