South African students must take movement to society for real progress

Cheering students surround the decades old bronze statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes, as it is removed from the campus of Cape Town University. (Schalk van Zuydam / Associated Press)
Cheering students surround the decades old bronze statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes, as it is removed from the campus of Cape Town University. (Schalk van Zuydam / Associated Press)

On April 9, a larger-than-life bronze statue of Cecil John Rhodes was removed from its perch at the University of Cape Town. Before the statue was hoisted into a truck and taken away, the black university students who had successfully demanded its removal washed it, symbolically, with the blood of their ancestors. “Rhodes Must Fall!” became their rallying cry. Since then, the radical opposition party Economic Freedom Fighters has mounted an ad-hoc campaign defacing other memorials across South Africa.

The British-born Rhodes, who died in 1902, is the father of the modern South African state and its most identifiable symbol of colonial depredation. As an industrialist, he pioneered the diamond and gold industry; as a politician, he codified the system of racial domination that would become known as apartheid. This was the man who said of the British that “we are the first race in the world” and who wrote that if there were a God, “he would like me … to paint as much of the map of Africa British Red as possible.”

South Africa's negotiated settlement between blacks and whites, led by Nelson Mandela, meant that Rhodes and many other colonial- and apartheid-era figures could remain on their plinths. Twenty years later, it is indeed time for this society to reconsider their presence on the South African landscape. But this needs to be done in a way that grapples with South Africa's present problems, too.

In a Sunday newspaper article a few weeks ago, the black UCT scholar Xolela Mangcu wrote that Rhodes' likeness on campus — and the racial insensitivity it symbolized and the anger it provoked — was a sign that peace in South Africa might not last: “My biggest fear is that black people will not take the racist abuse any longer, and we will find ourselves in the racial civil war we averted in 1994.”

This is dramatically overstated. If there is any systemic communal violence to fear in South Africa at the moment, it is that of some black South Africans against Africans from other parts of the continent. In the last several days, at least four people have been killed and many foreign-owned shops looted and burned in a wave of xenophobia against foreign Africans who are perceived to be taking jobs and economic opportunities away from locals.

Some argue that even this xenophobic phenomenon can be ascribed to the fact that liberation has not borne the fruits expected. Certainly it is true that disaffection and unemployment are rampant, that the current political leadership is increasingly inefficient and corrupt, that the inequality gap is growing, that criminal violence is endemic. In this context, the project of reconciliation, which saved South Africa from civil war two decades ago, may seem debased: at best passé and at worst a noble failure.

For a white South African of my generation, who grew up under apartheid and experienced the liberation of the post-apartheid era by helping vote the African National Congress into power, this is devastating.

Writing alongside Mangcu in another Sunday article, the former freedom fighter and Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs suggested, “Instead of extinguishing Rhodes, we should keep him alive on the campus and force him, even if posthumously, to witness surroundings that tell him and the world that he is now living in a constitutional democracy.”

It is a noble sentiment. For that equation to work, however, the constitutional democracy itself needs to work far better than it does at present. And South Africa's best hope in this regard is a robust civil society, led precisely by those university students — South Africa's future leaders — who toppled Rhodes at UCT.

The student movement that has coalesced around this campaign is the first, really, since the end of apartheid two decades ago. “Rhodes Must Fall!” is a peg on which black university students are hanging their grievances with the slow pace of transformation at one of South Africa's most illustrious academic institutions.

Although the student body is now more than 50% black, there are still precious few black faculty members, and the students claim the campus is still unacceptably Eurocentric. The university was founded through a bequest from Rhodes, but he would not have wanted them here — and, they say, they do not yet feel welcome.

Their demand is not just to sit at the table of victory, but to share ownership of it too. This is understandable and legitimate. But if their movement is going to be a force for progress in South Africa, they need — like anti-apartheid student activists such as Steve Biko before them — to turn their energy outward as well, at the society whence they come. There was a stirring example of this last week, when students from Durban, the east coast port city that saw the worst of the xenophobic violence, led a peace march through the city.

Given that South Africa is a constitutional democracy, the students' greatest power is as an electorate. South Africa's third democratically elected president, Jacob Zuma, has been disastrous, mired in corruption allegations and more concerned with protecting himself and his vast family than ruling the country. He too must fall, peacefully and democratically. While he is still alive.

Mark Gevisser's most recent book is Lost and Found in Johannesburg.

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