When the statue of President Jacob Zuma is eventually erected at the Union Buildings, carefully sited to avoid falling into the large shadow cast by that of Nelson Mandela, there will be joy and ululation throughout the land. For despite his manifest failings and a large bill still outstanding for home renovations, he is our third president of the democratic era.
One trusts there will by then be sufficient political maturity that those outraged at the absence of a statue of the second president of the democratic era, the now reviled Thabo Mbeki, will not smear JZ with faeces and demand that he be parked out of sight in a plywood hokkie.
Many of those scrambling to align their opinions with the somewhat inchoate aims of the students who demanded the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, have insisted, on behalf of the students, that it isn’t about a statue. It is about a lack of transformation at universities and larger South African society.
Their explanation goes something like this: after 20 years, black people are out of patience with recalcitrant whiteys who refuse to assuage black anger and share the goodies. This understandable impatience stretches the gamut of being delivered “white” education by white academics, to the fact that most wealth is still in white hands.
There is also a subtext that if this continues much longer, impatience will turn to rage. So for God’s sake, don’t thwart them in their demands, no matter how apparently irrational.
Transformation is undeniably difficult. Privilege is not readily relinquished and incremental change is just that — painfully incremental.
But there are some strategies that government could implement. It could embark on a programme of affirmative action, deploying its most fervent cadres to the commanding heights of the literally thousands of institutions that government controls or influences.
To deal with white heel-dragging in the private sector, mechanisms could be set up which would penalise businesses that do not sequentially transform their shareholdings, management, and staff. Simultaneously, government could build black business entities through preferential access to state contracts and tenders, mining licences, and low-cost capital for large industrial and manufacturing projects.
Oh, I forget. That is what government is already doing. And the reason it has been a slower process than we would like, has nothing to do with stubborn whites. The biggest reason for SA being only partially transformed is that there is a lack of skilled black people, directly attributable to the dismal failure of the basic education system.
There are many who would like to replicate President Robert Mugabe’s disastrous land seizures in Zimbabwe. They would do better to implement his real success, albeit now eroded, of providing good quality primary and high school education.
Botswana and Namibia, too, are managing to do so. In southern Africa it is only in SA that we indulge the serial incompetence of our basic education ministers, who dare not tackle the SA Democratic Teachers Union’s lack of commitment to teaching.
Two sound bites from the statue hysteria were particularly revealing. One was a black student conceding that the Zulu king, Shaka, was a more murderous and destructive imperialist than CJ, but explaining that this was okay “because he was an African”.
The other was a black student who spoke of being “traumatised” by Rhodes’ presence at the University of Cape Town. This justified the scat attack, the implication perhaps being that were he not to smear his faeces on some imperial granite, he might feel compelled to express his alienation and trauma in some less symbolic and perhaps more violent manner.
The threat of anger turning to violence is raised, too, by Dr Xolela Mangcu in City Press. Mangcu, an associate professor at UCT, quotes with approval US political scientist Robert Weissberg that “unadulterated tolerance is a dangerous illusion”, which Mangcu says “mocks the very idea of the antiracist society we fought so long and hard to attain”.
Weissberg is an odd choice to cite. Among other things, he believes that blacks and Hispanics are inherently less intelligent than whites and Asians. But let’s not digress.
Mangcu continues: “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 … the students of UCT are our best antidote to racist psychosis [of whites]. They are the miner’s canary foretelling us of the perils of racial war.”
Part of being at university is being outraged and outrageous. But another, more important aspect, is being able to cope with the “trauma” of realities that we had no choice in and do not like, as well as being tolerant of ideas and values different from our own.
That race war hyperbole being bandied about on campus is a sign that, much like the hopeless administrators of basic education, our academics are not succeeding at their most fundamental task: nurturing critical but tolerant graduates.
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