There has been a strange apathy – if not smugness – among some of our white friends over the setbacks that have beleaguered #RhodesMustFallOxford.
Many of them want black South Africans to make political decisions as though Eurocentric white supremacy weren’t a global issue with local and worldwide consequences. But those white people won’t back the fight against the symbols of white supremacy. They correctly identify “bad leaders” as obstacles to a better South Africa, but they do not realise the role they themselves play in empowering those bad leaders.
Some of them have complained that there are issues more important than statues to discuss. This misses the question of who gets to set or disparage the agenda of students who have identified white supremacy as a decisive variable in the way things are (and as being partially behind the problems they would have prioritised). How is it not another instance of white people “knowing better”? And do they really want to come across as “knowing better” when they’re a voting minority in South Africa? Knowing better will not help them or anyone else at the polls.
So this betrays an unwillingness to understand the matrix of structural issues that precipitate the unemployment, crime and economic instability they would have solved first.
Many of them have decried the “hypocrisy” of Rhodes scholars taking money donated by a man they despise. But to the extent that Rhodes took unjustly from their ancestors, it’s the student’s money.
Either Rhodes really was a terrible man and the descendants of his crimes ought to be recompensed (as the descendants of the beneficiaries of his crimes ought to try some self-examination), or there is nothing wrong with the condescending tone with which some white people have described these students as “ungrateful” as though the scholarships are a gift when they’re the scratch-surface, the mere start, of real justice.
As I said before, it was the money-greased 1994 compromise that’s kept South Africa’s white minority relatively better-off than everyone else though many of them piously rage against the corruption that’s built into the status quo without equally hating the unequal status quo. We want to talk about hypocrisy? Hello, Pot: this is Kettle.
Others have at other times said consistency would require the removal of Shaka Zulu’s statues. As long as white supremacy is the felt reality of black South Africans, Shaka Zulu remains relevant to many black people as one of their answers to nonstop messaging that blacks are inferior. Dismantle white supremacy, and black people will have less to lose in denouncing Shaka Zulu and his violence. But there is no ongoing tradition of black supremacy to dismantle so Rhodes must go into a museum before Zulu does. Here or abroad, Rhodes remains a bigger political liability for white South Africans than Shaka Zulu does for black people.
It’s also important to distinguish between symbols of white cultural pride, and symbols of white dominance. Rhodes represents the quantitative decimation of portions of the human race before he does its qualitative enhancement because all it takes is one crime to ruin an otherwise brilliant track record. You can’t argue otherwise and say all lives matter in the same breath; too many black lives fall by the wayside for the stance to be sustained.
Many have argued that if the Oxford Rhodes statue is put away, then many other statues across London have to also be put away. Isn’t this a tacit admission that the global north has an unrepentant tradition of celebrating and emulating the kind of people, men who could only build what they built by destroying the rest of the world (or saving it when doing so coincided with their own priorities as in Winston Churchill’s case?)
The argument that they’re not being praised, merely acknowledged for their impact on history, barely works at a cerebral level. The end result of this dissonance is the normalisation of abnormal legacies. That, in turn, keeps the black body as endangered around the world as it was when Europe was carving Africa up for its natural and human resources like a Christmas turkey.
The argument that South African students have no business telling the British what to do shows of a poor understanding of Eurocentrism’s ongoing impact on financial and governance decisions made in our backyard. The global north is often seen as imposing its will on its southern counterpart. This is neo-colonialism, a hindrance in Southern Africa’s development insofar as elements in our governments and voting populations are willing to cut off their noses to spite white people’s face. Do white people living here really want to hand them the knife that they may do so?
The irony is, unless our white friends have secret stashes of even more money – the making of which was indirectly facilitated by colonialism – they won’t even afford to emigrate to the Britain whose atrocities they’re defending. So white South Africans are generally committing political suicide with the same fervour they see black people as exhibiting.
And I wish they’d stop saying the students are free to study somewhere else because that argument can be turned around to say that white people are free to live somewhere other than South Africa. If South Africa can accommodate white people, then it’s only fair that white homelands can accommodate black students. If white people don’t have to beg for human dignity in South Africa, it’s only fair that black students shouldn’t have to beg for it in Europe.
White people can tacitly endorse symbols of white supremacy here and abroad. Or they can hope things will improve in South Africa. But they shouldn’t hope for both because they have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting both.
There were plenty of white people who stood for real justice in the past, here and abroad. Why aren’t they today’s white heroes? Because the “tradition” that valorises and venerates takers and supremacists in London is the unquestioned cultural milieu of many white people here and around the world. So everything has changed but nothing has changed.
There are many levels at which reconciliation has happened.
But we must be admit that there are other strata – real, important ones – at which the rainbow nation lie is exactly and intolerably that: a toxic pile of maggot-infested dog shit, which intellectual integrity cannot euphemize for any reason.
Siya Khumalo blogs about religion, politics and sex; he has also written a book (#TheUnveiledFacesProject coming soon).
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