“[I] just went through [Rhodes Must Fall] page’s comments section taking screenshots of all the filth that’s crawled out from the recesses of our country since #Shackville,” posted a Mohammed I follow on Facebook. “I’m angry, indignant and surprised my eyes aren’t bleeding.”
As argued before, the apartheid government’s preferential treatment of white people at black people’s expense is no basis for violating white people’s right to basic dignity. Likewise, black students’ decision to burn universities is no justification for the racist dehumanisation of black people that has followed.
Racist comments strengthen the students’ argument that structural racism has obstructed their access to education. When the sanctity of art and property is put ahead of black students’ fundamental humanity by spectators, it indicates those bystanders take it for granted that the destroyed property was representative of a world meant to exclude blacks. Humanity on probation with its recognition on condition points to a problem that could very well justify the destruction of property. It is not by accident that the Constitution puts the human right to dignity before its provision for the protection of private and public property. If #Shackville has achieved anything, it’s proving the exclusivity of learning spaces by pushing observers to reveal how many considerations compete with their recognition of black people’s humanness.
So these uprisings are more scandalous in their lateness than in their inevitability. South Africa has two households, unalike in dignity: #Shackville and #Nkandla. These have been inevitable since 1994 left unchallenged the disparity between #Sandhurst and #Alexandra, #Clifton and #MitchellsPlain, #BantryBay and #Langa, #Westcliff and #Diepkloof, #Bishopscourt and #Gugulethu, #Dunkeld and #Soweto, #Fresnaye and #CapeFlats, #Constantia and #Khayelitsha, #CampsBay and #Manenberg or #Ballito and #KwaMashu. The list goes on.
In response to this inequality, many say, “Use your vote” but that’s truth stretched to serve a myth. Our first mistake with the ANC was leaving it to the Powers-That-Be to solve the inequality. Funders don’t bankroll a party’s election campaign until it’s agreed to enough compromises that its plan to resolve inequality ends up smelling like a pontifical sanction of the status quo. The ANC didn’t get corrupt in 2009 but in 1991. Government corruption and white privilege are unacceptable, but the preservation of the one was built into the possibility of the other. So Nkandla and Shackville would have no existence apart from the preservation of white privilege.
If we know nothing else about white privilege, we must grasp that to a lot of black people the value of white people’s opinions – be they political, economic or behavioural – is directly proportional to how much they lost as a group in 1994.
As long as white people retain what they gained during apartheid, those black people see no basis for viewing or talking about them as anything but oppressors: in this untrusting paradigm, nice white people are simply the “good cop” gently policing how black people recuperate from the damage caused by the “bad cop” that was the apartheid government. But gentle or not, policing is policing.
Writing on the Black Lives Matter movement, “Lily-White Mama” observed that oppressed black people’s “relying on us moderate whites to help address things on our white timeline doesn’t appear to work. Most white folks haven’t done a thing to fix those institutions aside from tsk tsk that they are terribly unjust.
“As a white moderate, you have a great privilege they want you to recognise: you get to choose when and where you want to address racism. This is something no person of color can ever do.”
Many white people will claim that they weren’t born when apartheid was happening. That they never asked to be privileged. But a lot of the protesters weren’t born when apartheid was happening and they never asked to be disadvantaged either. “If you’ve ever wondered how you would’ve acted during the Civil Rights Era, now’s your chance to find out,” says Mama.
Many have spoken about the need to pick “constructive” methods for expressing outrage. I submit we live in a world where lawful, orderly and polite solutions work for the privileged by deliberately excluding the marginalised and then finds the justification for their exclusion in their “barbaric” expression of their outrage at their ongoing systemic suppression. The late-night news show one end-result after another (the cameras are not there to see any other stage of its development) until privileged viewers come to believe that “they” only know how to destroy and protest. They do not realise that the oppressed have run the gamut from constructive to destructive solutions only to see the world nodding in sad agreement yet going about business as usual.
“Business as usual” won’t work anymore. While it’s true the ANC-led government has been drumming up the race issue for political purposes, it does not follow that racial concerns aren’t real, definitively relevant or were not going to come to the fore at this point anyway. Sisonke Msimang wrote that #RhodesMustFall (RMF) “decided to erect a shack to disrupt the complacency that says shacks must stay in their place.
“It was jarring; incongruous amidst the pristine and manicured elitism of UC. It looked malignant; a growth where tidiness normally masks exclusion.
“The university of course, has institutional and structural weight on its side. It has far more ‘respectable’ power than the students. It has the logic of the status quo in its corner and so it is easy to see it as ‘rational’ in the face of irrational and angry students.”
Or as theblackwendy said on Instagram, “This country has been burning for years, but the flames have never been this close to privilege.”
What if destruction is the oppressed atoning for the sin of those who never questioned inequality enough to challenge it? Expiation is done through blood or fire. When the oppressed destroy, they reject the idea that they should be “grateful” for what they do have because that’s really the short end of the stick, and if they accept it they likewise accept that others get the better end whether they deserve it or not. Yesterday I tweeted, #Shackville will get domestics thinking, “But each painting in the mansion I clean is worth more than the mjondolo I live in.” One of my well-intentioned friends replied that the “answer is yes in terms of financial value, but the mjondolo is priceless in terms of putting a roof over the heads of millions…”
But if that were the case, then the most advantaged and privileged beneficiaries of apartheid should have put that thought ahead of the need to own overvalued pieces of art. After all, it’s not as though South Africa’s wealth was built without a single drop of black sweat. They would have marched and protested against systems that produces such inequality. Why didn’t they?
Another friend pointed out that if the domestic in my tweet burns the artwork, she’ll be out of a job. But black people already know that if they physically confront what apartheid left them, they’ll be the criminals while those who benefited from apartheid wouldn’t be criminalised because “Mandela forgave.”
Expecting black students to find “constructive” solutions to racism makes it their responsibility. Setting property alight is their way of saying that just as we haven’t had the time to fix that injustice nicely and constructively, they don’t have the time to do so either. Society may expect the victims of, say, systemic sexism to live with it. But these students will not accept the inverted imposition accompanying our “normal.” They’d rather turn whole world upside-down.
Sarah Godsell explains how this normal’s “violence destroys lives in a more systematic, brutal way than physical violence”:
“Preventing students from accessing education for financial reasons is not considered violent. But protest in the course of which there is any damage to property – intentional or otherwise – where there is any kind of physical altercation from the protesters – aggravated or otherwise – is considered violent.
“Service delivery protests are considered violent. Executive pay is not considered violent. Strikes are considered violent. Corporate fraud is not.”
She’s saying “violence” is the word we use not when an injustice is perpetrated, but when its victims push back in any way that threatens a world that works for us.
“I reject the idea that non-violent protest needs to be held up as an impossible spotless ideal of how things should be argued in South Africa.”
There is a time and place for everything, including, sometimes, those things for which we haven’t made a time or place in 22 years. Anyone has the right to criticise any aspect of this process. But if he throws stones while living in a glass house, he does so at his own peril.
Siya Khumalo blogs about religion, politics and sex; he has also written a book (#TheUnveiledFacesProject coming soon).
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