Can coconuts be trusted with the revolution?
Kgotsi Chikane explores the role elite kids play in a poor students' protest, in his analysis of the #MustFall movements and the politics behind a wave of anger unleashed by a younger, dissatisfied generation
25 November 2018 - 00:00
Considering how his life is enveloped in academia, it is astonishing to discover that Rekgotsofetse ("Kgotsi to the tongue-tied") Chikane was initially rejected by all four universities he applied to after matric.
"I was a horrible student in high school," he says cheerfully, but later admits: "Not getting into university was one of the lowest moments I've had."
A year later, however, he was accepted to the University of Cape Town on the extended academic programme. A few years after that he scored brilliant marks in his honours degree in social sciences.
He was offered a postgraduate place at the London School of Economics, his dream institution, but opted instead for Oxford University, from which he graduated last year with a master of public policy degree. He is now completing his thesis for a masters of management from Wits.
In the five months between his leaving Oxford and starting work as a strategist at a Joburg tech company in May, Chikane wrote a book about the politics behind the various #MustFall movements.
Rather than an expected emotional read about the protests - which saw him being arrested on a charge of treason, which was later dropped, while a student at UCT in 2015 - his book, Breaking a Rainbow, Building a Nation, is dense, intense and meticulous. It is clearly the output of considerable thought over time.
Chikane was a Mandela Rhodes Scholar - a scholarship open to citizens of African countries for postgraduate study at SA institutions - during #RhodesMustFall. "An interesting dynamic," he says.
The book is billed by the publishers as a retelling of what happened among the students at #RhodesMustFall, leading to the nationwide #FeesMustFall. The blurb reads: "Chikane looks at student politics now and how they are different from 1976, specifically the fact that the protests were being led by so-called coconuts, who are part of the black elite. It poses the provocative question: can coconuts be trusted with the revolution?"
The term "coconut" - dark outside, white inside - used to be an insult, an accusation of betrayal of one's race and culture; now it is embraced by some as a positive attribute.
In 2012, Chikane was Cape Town branch chair of the South African Students Congress. He says being part of the organisation meant having to prove his worth, not his blackness: "So they would look at you and say: 'Yeah, he's a coconut, but he's a damn good coconut who's really helping us out in many ways.'
"Coconuts are extremely important in the type of society that we live in now because they become movers and shakers in spaces that most other individuals don't have access to, whether it's through political connections, through business connections, through being able to speak in a way where someone won't judge you by the way you speak English . It provides them that access to start influencing negotiations, for instance, because people feel more comfortable with a coconut than with someone who is not a coconut, if I had to put it as bluntly as that. So that, in my mind, is good. You can play a role."
Prolonging the word "fascinating" and raising his pitch dramatically, Chikane says: "It was the most faaascinating thing when I found out how many people from my background were leading protests across the country."
He is disarmingly honest, both in the book and in person.
Chikane, 27, comes from struggle aristocracy. He is the youngest son of Reverend Frank Chikane, former director-general in the presidency and former secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches. His mother Kagiso is a former academic turned CEO. He grew up in the poshest part of Soweto - Diepkloof Extension Phase 3, which he describes as "the 'burbs of Soweto" - and attended a private school from grade 00. After school, he travelled to the US.
"I had the privilege of taking a gap year," he says. "My mom had no idea what a gap year was, absolutely none. I had to explain to her what I was doing. I went to the States and worked at a special-needs camp in New Hampshire. It was a life-changing experience. Then I backpacked all the way to Miami, Florida. About five months altogether. I had the time of my life."
He is still enjoying the benefits of his privilege. He spent Thanksgiving in the US this month, visiting his American girlfriend, a civil engineer he met when she was doing a semester's study abroad at UCT during the pivotal #FeesMustFall protests three years ago. As he puts it in his book: "I am part of the political elite in SA currently caught up in a game of snakes and ladders. Ladders that lead to prosperity and snakes that lead to despair. We are an elite group of young people who, unlike others, have had the opportunity to embrace the concept of being born free, yet have rejected it."
Does he see himself as a future leader? Despite the Mandela Rhodes scholarships being "for those who dream of being leaders", and the Oxford MPP, which he says teaches people "to become advisers to ministers and presidents", the question embarrasses him slightly. "If my party [the ANC] allows me to," he says, adding: "The ANC doesn't like vocal critics so much." Still thoughtful, he says: "I have never been asked that. I wouldn't be so presumptuous. People would be like, 'Oh, Kgotsi, you should run for president,' but anyone who says that clearly does not know the internal dynamics of the ANC because that is an impossibility."
Then he turns on the charm. "If I were to be something in the future, it would be someone whose thoughts carry weight in society," he says. "If I could lead in that way I'd be perfectly content with life."..