The Sunday Tribune carried four articles on April 12, 2015 analysing the Rhodes Must Fall debate in the context of transformation in general. Thank goodness for Shose Kessi’s brilliant analysis that saved those pages from being completely out of touch with activist sentiment on the ground.
I want to unpack the complexities that each writer left unattended. If you missed it, in chorus all four men appeal to three threads of flawed reasoning: that protest aimed at colonial statues is emotional vandalism; that focusing on statues doesn’t address “real transformation” and that current activism damages nation-building. Their arguments offer very little nuanced analysis of what is possibly the most significant youth-driven revolution in our post-1994 history. As such, I simply cannot let their opinions go unchallenged.
While I respect Professor Devenish’s role in helping draft our interim 1993 Constitution, his points have three rocky premises. He argues that the EFF is advocating “violent confrontation and racial polarisation” and for “genuine transformation” what is required “more than anything [is] strong, inspired political leadership”.
The first error is a limited definition of violence. Using Frantz Fanon’s more inclusive definition, postcolonial violence is processes that violate people’s physical, social, or psychological integrity. Therefore, the continued display of colonial statues, as oppressive symbols, is a form of violence against black people. It is flawed to believe that the EFF is inciting violence in an otherwise peaceful society, because society is only peaceful from the perspective of the privileged. The psychological violence and anarchy being committed against the black psyche on a daily basis is clearly evident in concrete forms such as poverty, homelessness, poor sanitation, environmental health risks, economic desperation, and landlessness. Compounding these are persistent racist attitudes violently permeating everyday life in subtle ways that pathologise the experience of black life in a white world. This continued oppression is, as a rule, psychologically violent. Therefore, peace is a privileged illusion.
The second error believes race relations are fairly stable. Concern that the EFF is doing harm to “sound race relations” is an overly optimistic assessment of the current state of racial strife. Race relations are deeply troubled and strained. However, due to a culture of internalised inferiority, black rage has been quietly festering under a thinly veiled culture of black docility.
The third error believes the government ought to be the catalyst for change. Policies and political will is necessary but not sufficient. Deflecting the catalysts for change away from an already mobilised mass of citizens, towards a lacklustre government, doesn’t make sense, unless of course the pace of change is destabilising middle-class privilege too quickly.
Pather’s three flawed premises are that emotions cloud judgment, decolonising our public spaces is not a priority, and that there is an agreed upon rule on who counts as a revolutionary.
Pather hopes that “sanity will soon prevail” because this has “escalated to an emotive and potentially divisive issue” and hopes for “cool heads and frank talk”. It is an old patriarchal misconception that emotion and reason do not go together. Describing the principled outrage of activists as “brouhaha” is discursively disingenuous. This is more than a small ruckus. Over three centuries of pent up anger and oppression is being expressed. Appealing for cool heads is like asking for an umbrella during a volcanic eruption.
Pather lists “more critical, compelling issues that will make a difference”. I find it condescending that a young group of people who have taken ownership of a particular issue that affects their wellbeing is told that their struggle is not important. Young black people have had enough of complying with a system that is paying lip service to decolonisation. University students’ sphere of influence, right now, is the institution in which they study. Isn’t it unfair to demand of them to take on all of society’s problems? If every activist body took on just one specific issue, and focused on achieving specific goals, surely society as whole, with Pather’s laundry list of problems, will eventually transform? By whose definition is decolonisation of higher education a “soft, elitist option”? Even using Pather’s opinion that “real revolution is about building a nation”, the process of Africanising a country in Africa seems pretty consistent with nation-building to me.
Professor McCraken narrates a useful history lesson and reminds us that we’re not the only country that has had to puzzle over colonial statues. However, his three flawed arguments are that history must be confronted in a detached manner, time will heal and that we must forgive and forget.
Like Pather, McCracken appeals for a removal of emotion in how we remember our traumatic history. Surely, historical narratives are emotionally infused and any attempt to detach from these emotions is not only unhealthy, it is to render this history incomplete.
It is equally confusing to suggest that time will temper the anti-statue zeal. Rhodes has been gazing over Cape Town for 80 years. Time is not healing. Time cannot heal in the absence of authentic, emotional, liberatory engagement with the complex historical and present-day violence experienced by black people. Healing cannot occur in the context of continued subjugation. This is like denying a sick patient an opportunity to tell their story or receive treatment; instead, offering them a superficial “just hang in there, everything will get better”. It won’t and it hasn’t. That is why statues are falling.
The odd ending to his column by quoting King George V is obviously an endorsement of the quote to “forgive and forget”. The limitations of this kind of reconciliatory discourse have been extensively critiqued, because the onus to “stretch out the hand of forbearance” always lies with black people. Black people are constantly asked to forgive, to forget, to move on, to work harder, to endure, to be patient, to reconcile, to stay calm, to pretend. No more and no longer can transformation mean an ambiguous and strange non-event that seems more and more like an awkward integration into a pre-defined white world.
Let’s be honest here. Anything publically written in a newspaper by a national minister is one third spin-doctoring, one third obfuscation, and one third vague assurance.
Although Mthethwa rightly promotes an active citizenry robustly building an inclusive society, and does acknowledge the deep discontent due to sluggish cultural change, his three flawed lines of reason are that our Constitution provides a clear blueprint for action, that we need to dialogue more and that protest action can be dismissed as lawless vandalism.
The Constitution is pretty vague. What does “united in diversity” really mean and what does it practically translate into when we have concrete issues like whether or not to remove a statue?
Appeals for dialogue are passé. People are tired of talking about change. They are making change happen. Talk — when it stalls and philosophises issues — can be disempowering to those whose oppressive lived experiences cannot always be verbalised eloquently or clearly. Yes, important conversations need to be had, they can happen in parallel with pragmatic change, in the way the Azania House reflections have been happening at UCT, where students occupied the administration building and spent the days and nights reciting poetry, singing, discussing, debating, and growing as organic public intellectuals.
There is also danger in merely dismissing protest action as illegal vandalism. Although some people will spray-paint statues to gain political points or to jump on the bandwagon, a discourse of vandalism in the context of Fanonian violence needs to be problematised.
Embrace change, don’t fear it
I strongly endorse UCT social psychologist Shose Kessi’s contention that transformation needs to be called decolonisation. “The transformation discourse serves to sanitise, normalise or conceal oppressive practices,” says Kessi.
Change is happening. Don’t find yourself on the wrong side of history.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Sunday Tribune, 07 June, 2015, p18