The recent announcement by the University of Cape Town (UCT) that the statue of Cecil John Rhodes would be taken down has, largely, been welcomed. Although I am opposed to this decision, I am alarmed by the attitude displayed by both sides during this debacle. I have swung between extremes depending on how offensive or persuasive the rhetoric has been. Regrettably, this episode is symptomatic of a deeper problem plaguing South Africa: we are losing our ability to be reasonable.
The vigour with which both sides asserted the inherent rightness of their position is mistaken. On questions of subjective judgment, there is no universal truth. Rather, each of us makes an assessment based on a combination of the information available, our personal experience/knowledge/bias, and the extent to which we may be persuaded.
The Rhodes debate was notably different — people formulated positions and refused to engage. That may be normal, but the ease with which scorn, judgment, and intolerance were defensively deployed in this debate only polarised it further. Intransigence begot more intransigence.
Not all debate, though, was worthy of engagement. There were — and are — some who used this to peddle their own vile prejudices. That can, and should, be ignored. But, the danger is when believers start to characterise all opposition, no matter how bona fide or considered, in this way. It is prospectively intellectually arrogant, to presume infallibility, and equally dangerously reductionist, when race generalisations are made.
This may be mistaken in that it unfairly imposes a double-burden on (black) students to coolly explain their victimisation while suffering under the weight of it. But, as recent events have shown, many (white) people are blinkered to the reality of history. And even though some forms of (violent) action may be cathartic to those who suffer, it tends to isolate the very (white) people who need to understand the full impact of their continued privilege.
This is demonstrated by the contrarian reaction of many (white) people to the protests, who simultaneously agree that Rhodes was a cad, represents a real challenge for activists. How do you prickle the consciousness of those who may be blind to the systemic privileges they enjoy without demonising them? It may be that these (white) people have (black) students’ tolerance as a bi-product of their continued privilege but it is essential that we do not isolate, nor persecute, them for it. That enters dangerous territory where “eye-for-an-eye” justice undermines the country’s fragile reconciliation project.
Many missed that nuance and so the opportunity to educate each other — not only intellectually, but experientially — has been squandered. It is not as simple as loudly repeating, mantra-like, that “this statue causes me pain”, or “let the past be the past”, or “I don’t care”. Guilting people into agreement and reducing their agency is almost as bad as being casually dismissive of people’s accumulated suffering or adopting a position of supreme indifference.
It is difficult to inspire compassion and understanding. It is easier to demand that the streets run red with blood. But history shows that taking action in a dogmatic way where rightness is presumed and all opposition is silenced creates an environment that ultimately destroys itself. UCT’s journey of transformation has only just started. But it is essential for all involved that they do not lose their humanity along the way.
As Isaiah Berlin said, in Russian Thinkers, ‘‘we must open men’s eyes, not tear them out’’.