There are some lesser discussed issues connected to the Rhodes statue campaign which occurred during the course of the recent protests at UCT. Shortly after the statue was removed, I visited the campus. Behind the empty pedestal on the first landing of Jameson Stairs is the War Cenotaph to UCT students and staff who fell in 1914-18 and 1939-45; upon which someone had scrawled across in paint: “Fuck Rhodes”.
This vandalism stood along with the remnants of torn-off posters while the memorial itself was filthy, no doubt from always being sat on. I complained via the UCT Alumni Office and the memorial was cleaned up and appropriately, quickly too.
But I wonder and still do, where exactly these Rhodes Must Fall student supporters are ideologically, and more importantly, how convincing are they as “victims”? They speak of “hurt” being black students on a “colonial campus” – every day I drive past dozens of black men standing on the side of Rosmead Avenue, Kenilworth, Cape Town, hoping someone will pick them up for a day’s building or gardening job. They are distant from my daily reality, but then what do they have in common with Chumani Maxwele, the UCT black student in the pink hard hat who threw faeces at a statue?
That was his priority – not the day’s food money. That kind of lazy and infantile indulgence of making a political point through being obnoxiously inappropriate would be lost on the man by the road. And no doubt he would have been just as disgusted as I was.
But to illustrate the intellectual slovenliness that marked the Rhodes protests, which matched the disgusting condition of the UCT Cenotaph; during this year we have just gone past the 70th Anniversary of World War Two’s finale and are currently within the centenary of the First World War Centenary.
Is it possible that UCT was the only university within the Commonwealth, USA, Russia, Ukraine or any other 1939-45 and 1914-18 belligerents, where a War Memorial was so desecrated? What level of acute ignorance, vulgarity, racial antipathy and sloth would one need to plumb, to deface a memorial to such historic sacrifice? What kind of value could there be here from these “hurt” students that “needs to be heard”?
More disturbing was that during the actual removal of the statue and the earlier invasion of the UCT Council meeting, black students of the same grouping screamed: “One Settler. One Bullet”; this was revealed in the Vice-Chancellor’s 10 April online letter to the university community. Let us not forget that here in the Cape Town southern suburbs, 22 years ago, this was also the slogan of the Pan Africanist Congress’s armed killers who fired assault rifles and threw grenades at the pre-dominantly white Kenilworth, St James Church congregation, located just a few kilometres from UCT; the casualties were 11 dead and 58 wounded.
Currently in the news are the equally unforgivable racial murders at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. This recent vile act of racially motivated murder of a church congregation also allows us to reflect back with some sobriety to the St James Church atrocity – certainly a “One Settler One Bullet moment”.
Are these calls for racial murder screamed by certain black UCT students, just attention-grabbing antics or passable indiscretions to be smiled at as the impetuosity of youth? Or do they actually reveal acute racial hate at the root of the Rhodes statue protests?
If Maxwele and his friends represent the best of contemporary black student intellect and promise, then I think Steve Biko and others liked him completely wasted their time in striving and ultimately dying to rescue the dignity of black South Africans during in a time of real black hardship. What we have seen at UCT is not some kind of black South African student “Knights of the Round Table at Camelot”; but an indulged, sloppy, destructive, unaccountable and ideologically sick coterie of young people, masquerading about feeling “pains” they have never actually experienced.
They manifest an over-bearing and loud self-esteem, utterly insensitive to other cultural groupings or opinions; along with a combatant racial consciousness that resembles more of a rag-tag Hitler Youth.
I reiterate, the black man on Rosmead avenue with sneer at them with contempt – and rightly so too.
Dr Rodney Warwick
UCT Alumnus 1985-89; 1998-2003; 2005-2009.