Kerushun Pillay
Kerushun Pillay

#RhodesSoWhite and the disappointing lack of unity

On Tuesday, this post appeared concerning race on the Rhodes University SRC Facebook page:

RhodesUni

The post was presumably inspired by the recent issues surrounding UCT and the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, as well as the calls to change the name of Rhodes University.

The post gathered hundreds of comments of those either militantly in favour or fiercely against. While the frankness of the post may startle some, one cannot deny the significance of its plea.

Have a problem with the post? Well, you might. Chances are if you don’t then you’re probably in full support of it: the reaction to the post exhibited a very clear polarisation of opinions, showing the extent to which young people in South Africa — even when housed under the same roof — are divided. Addressing uncomfortable issues like race invariably instigates prickly arguments, rather than acting as a forum for constructive discussion with the ultimate goal of finding some measure of common understanding.

Maybe you — regardless of your race — deny the existence of white privilege as a very real and pernicious entity that dictates material distribution, race relations, and racial perceptions because you have limited knowledge and an unwillingness to apply genuine inquiry. Maybe you’re simply defensive and of the belief that such things are accusatory or that it aims to push people apart. And if you’re reading this article purely to find out my position on the matter then you’re part of the problem; discussions on race aren’t about the pathetic need to be seen as the one who is right or moral.

Those that comment with the tedious “we all suffer, not only blacks”, or “why don’t we fight for all people”, or anything that begins with “it’s 20 years into democracy” also completely miss the point. Progress can never be made by adopting a lousy and ineffectual sugary-sweet everything-is-as-it-should-be mentality.

What’s alarming about the reaction to the post is the noticeable refusal from those that were offended by it to simply listen to what was being said. Rather than provoking defensiveness of a misguided sense of self, the post implores one to question the underpinnings behind the relations between people of the university and, by extension, South Africa as a whole.

Rhodes University cannot prove its so-called diversity by having a student body that is so clearly split into groups of people who are steadfastly clinging on to their identities, becoming defensive and violent once their interpretation of the world around them is challenged.

What the conflict really shows is that young people lack the bravery and willingness to understand and engage with phenomena such as white privilege, lived experiences of black people, and the simple notion that, while it is indeed two decades since apartheid ended, people of colour have barely got themselves up off their backs.

This entire issue shows that the Rhodes University name change should be the last thing on everyone’s mind; addressing the worrying lack of unity and common ground among youth must be the priority. A name change is, ultimately, cosmetic: there are root issues that need immediate and thorough investigation. A consciousness overhaul is desperately needed if we are to make any progress in moving forward. It is up to the youth to doubt, question, and evaluate everything, putting aside the awful jibes and hostility.

One hopes the post can serve as a springboard for a robust discussion where petty prejudices and beliefs are set aside, where ignorance can be replaced with enlightenment, and where young people can unite towards a shared goal via and reasoned debate. For me, however, that is not what I think will happen. Each group will fight to be right, no one will be willing to listen to alternate viewpoints, fingers will be pointed, there will be those who ignore it completely, and this will be forgotten about this time next week.

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