Yesterday, after a week of protesting at the University of Cape Town, anti-Rhodes statue activists placed swastikas and photographs of Adolf Hitler on buildings at the university. They claimed (after the fact, it must be noted) that these posters were put up to conscientise students to the offence that the statue of Rhodes represents.
One Black Monday student activist called the condemnation of this strange exercise in conscientisation an example of “Jewish uproar”. Black Monday has even stated that the fact that the university swiftly responded to this use of fascism as motif clearly indicated white privilege, for the Black Monday protests were only acknowledged a week after they started.
This statement represents the clearest picture of how a movement which aims to achieve potentially good outcomes, such as the inclusion of black students and an end to racism at university campuses, can also represent a politics of ignorance and division.
I agree with the protest in principle. But I do not agree with an unfettered approach to this activism, one which is ahistorical, offensive and apparently oblivious to oppression other than that experienced by the activists themselves.
It is offensive to presume that anger over the placement of swastikas at a university is unwarranted and should be seen in context. This smacks of the argument deployed by some apologists who have said that the Rhodes statue is just a product of its time and context, and should not be seen as anything more. This argument seeks to neutralise that which is offensive, and end the debate. Too many people have tried to shrug off the concerns of black students by employing this strategy.
The response from supporters of Black Monday has indicated a willingness to appropriate the same tactics used against their aims.
It is of course grossly hypocritical to build a movement calling for introspection, while simultaneously refusing to participate in that introspection when mistakes are made by activists. Black Monday doesn’t see this as a misstep or mistake, and wishes to continue engaging in this protest strategy.
Black Monday’s claim that the university is only responding to their placement of fascist symbols as a result of institutional racism further represents a politics of ignorance. Let’s not pretend that sympathy to Jews is on the agenda in the almost fervently Christian spaces we occupy in South Africa, or that most whites would instinctively care more about anti-Semitism than racism. Such an argument is ahistorical and assumes an insidious commonality between white apologists and Jews — Jews who, incidentally, have been persecuted by white racists for centuries.
Many people are hungry for a movement that promotes the recognition and appreciation of black lives; you need only spend a few minutes online to see this. And perhaps that’s why so few people have said anything about the activism of these students, their problematic ahistoricism or the way in which they are more than happy to co-opt the strategies employed by race denialists and apologists.
When students at the North West University were being forced to accede to a stifling and problematic culture of sameness, exclusion and Nazi-like traditions — we spoke out. Now, the silence is almost deafening, as Black Monday ambles forward with its now problematic activism.
Black Monday concluded their press release with the iconic “Black lives matter!” And yes, they do! But surely we can expect these activists to employ better strategies, to challenge the status quo without devaluing that important rallying cry with a politics of ignorance and division?