Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Another privileged white guy commenting on Rhodes statue.

I know, another white guy talking about Rhodes, just what we all really needed. However, there are a few small culture points, and a blog by the Cliffster that I though worth commenting on, so here I go.

Uncle Gareth Cliff’s blog on this Rhodes statue business points out that “It is a hollow victory to defeat those already dead”. Of course, if the fight is only with the dead then why write a blog? He made it with the living the moment he commented.

My own view is that UCT student Chumani Maxwele is winning a cultural battle, and he’s winning because he played smart. Transforming an entire university in one fell swoop is such a huge task that taking it on at once in totality effectively drowns your objective. The powers that be will be able to throw a million grinding excuses, and the arguments will take so long to carry through that eventually the media, and the mobilized public will lose interest, concentration and understanding.

What Chumani did was attack the symbolic heart of the university, or to be more precise, he endowed a statue with this status, and then proceeded to do the completely unreasonable. He threw poo at it. Throwing poo breaks all the rules. It defines his arguments as outside of common good taste and acceptable debate. Simplistic understandings will see this purely as populist grandstanding, which it is, but to do so ignores the actual cultural power structures at play. That’s why it creates so much upset, and in turn media attention. That is exactly how you create pressure for change.

UCT has been faced with pressure for change for years now. In fact it’s part of the mechanisms of UCT’s power structure that people loudly protest about lack of change, then some white liberals who always seem to be in charge wring their hands, and then nothing changes. The trouble with subscribing to normal strategies in this is that they all almost always get subsumed by the Foucaultian logic of the situation: “yes, we all agree, change should happen faster, sad face, sad face”. The domain of Truth remains unscathed, or changing with glacial slowness. At least that's how it looks from the outside.

Chester Missing interviewed Chumani for this week’s LNN, expecting to tease him about throwing poo, as he had done with Ses’Khona’s Loyiso Nkohla in the past. Chumani’s devastatingly direct answer showed the genius, intended or unintended, behind the poo. He said it is a reminder of the truth, the bucket, portaloo and unsafe public toilets the poorest students and Cape Townians face, that their wealthier, and often whiter fellows do not. This symbol, thrown against the statuesque symbol of white liberal apathy re inequality, and inherited wealth (in social capital and actual) brings one to the simple brutal truth of unequal experiences of education in the Western Cape. If you grew up at the feet of this statue, you are very unlikely to have faced what Chumani was referencing, which he well knows.

Of course, the cynics will argue that the statue doesn’t represent anything and that the students are just looking for attention. The thing is that maybe the statue didn't represent anything until a few weeks ago (I think it did), but it definitely does now. That's why this is clever.

This is why Gareth Cliff’s blog post so ‘monumentally’ misses the point. I have had my run ins with Gareth in the past, so I would rather be less of an insult-troll now, and I like the guy, chronic cultural obliviousness notwithstanding. The problem with cultural obliviousness is that it perpetuates privilege, and eventually racism.

Gareth argues, as many white types seem to be doing, that if we start tearing down symbols then we should tear down the new statue of King Shaka as well. While Shaka was his own kind of bastard this argument is ridiculous.

To put it simply, if Shaka had colonized Europe and we were debating taking his statue down in Leicester Square, while his descendents still earned on average 6 times the native British people, and their children were being educated in the language of the conquerors, then we can start comparing. To pretend otherwise is effectively historical denial.

Gareth also argues that many of American historical cultural icons and first presidents were slave owners. Yes, David Chappelle has a whole routine about his discomfort with that. We are, and I know this will come as a surprise to some, living in Africa. Why should Africans accept the cultural icons of their colonizers? And why should us colonizers expect them to? Cecil John Rhodes entire concept was about forcing his culture on people. He would quite happily have pulled down a statue of Shaka, if such statues had been Zulu culture at the time. Europeans did all they could to separate Africans from their culture, so let’s get off our high horses. In Rhodes’ case literally.

Another dominant discourse, as seen in newspaper letters columns from disgruntled UCT alumni, snootily says that these students should be studying and not moaning about statues. Yup, that’s what you say when it’s your guy’s statue that’s there. How that isn’t obvious is utterly beyond me.
Of course, if we were the ones whose lives had been disadvantage by this we would be screaming blue murder. If AfriForum and Steve H are even remotely a measure of how white people behave when they feel slightly oppressed, can you imagine how we would have treated a statue of people who gave us passbooks, a Land Act and Umlungustans?

Another silly example people give is that of the UK being scattered with statues of William the Conqueror, and they’re not tearing them down. Before I slam my head into a wall, can we just agree that modern Britain is not at all, even slightly like South Africa? The 5 million or so white descendents of William the Conqueror and henchman don’t still own most of that country’s wealth, like we do here. The conquered are not still living in their millions in shacks on sand dunes on the edge of the city. Really man. How stupid can people get?

(Yes, I know the statue isn’t changing that, but if even transforming a statue is resisted, how long will wealth take?)

Another issue is the idea that taking away the statue will take away history. That’s just plain offensive. Poor South Africans don’t have to be reminded of Rhodes’ legacy. They feel it every time they catch trains, taxis and buses to homes miles from where they work, to live on land that was taken from them by people like or directly connected to the guy in the statue. Only a privileged twat would think they need a lump of metal to remind them of Rhodes’ legacy. Besides, put the statue in a museum. Problem solved. As far as I am concerned the statue itself doesn't remind us of history, it hides it.

Finally, yes, we know there are bigger issues than this. Yes, we know removing the statue does very little in real terms. The point is that a cultural shift needs to happen and it needs to start somewhere. Let it be here. Of course some would argue that this statue thing subverts real change. What change? Apparently 4% of full professors in SA are black South Africans. Even that frikking statue is resisting transformation.

Many white people time and time again seem to overlook the impact of language, social and cultural skills in education, because in cultural terms higher education in South Africa is calibrated towards our comfort. Imagine all universities were first language isiXhosa or SiPedi? I am not saying we are to blame for all education screw-ups in the last 21 years (let’s not even start on before that), just that it would really help if we stopped being dicks about it. Yes, I know, not all white people are.

Gareth also suggests that this is a sort of getting even, revenge type thing a la Stalin, Saddam, etc. That’s plain cultural ignorance. The extreme poo-throwing lengths, as far as I am concerned, were that of a group of Black student/s drawing a line in the sand re cultural arrogance and saying ‘up to here and no further’. Nobody is talking about getting even with Rhodes. That would be ridiculous. Chumani and friends are trying to send a message to the people running the Establishment NOW. Agree with his acts or not we need to see them as a well thought out strategic attack. Sometimes being reasonable and being controllable are dangerously aligned.

I think they should take the statue down and then debate what to do with that space, because the great thing about being on the couch is that when we debate who should be on the couch you have already won.

In conclusion, this is not “like a child putting a plaster on his wound”, as Gareth calls it. It’s about a cultural battle, where people are fighting to change 350 years of enforced cultural assimilation, where Other languages, norms, traditions and icons were treated as less than next to consciously and strategically planned Western cultural domination. To be honest, with the bullshit we pulled in this country maybe the only credible thing white South Africans can do when black South Africans provoke for cultural changes such as this statue is say: “can we organize the removal crane?”

The missing part of the conversation, or at least one that needs more exploration is complexity in Black voices regarding the conversation on symbolism and change at SA universities. Chumani and friends can’t at all claim to speak for all Black students, and it would be wrong to assume that he does.

That's what this white guy thinks.