The fall of Rhodes, or the fall of UCT?

Rodney Warwick writes on the controversy over the placement of the campus donor's statue

At the University of California, Irvine, a controversy has recently raged over an attempt at banning the American national flag on campus; a fracas prompted by elements within the student government council. Their rationale being that the absence of "Old Glory" will assist the multi-cultural student body in "embracing ethnic diversity" and that somehow, American patriotism epitomised by reverence of the flag is perceived as "white" therefore alienating to Hispanic and black Americans.

It hardly comes as a surprise that across the nation Americans have expressed their anger at what they perceive as muddle-headed student idealism that is both unpatriotic and an insult to an iconic American national symbol, besides being just plain wrong in its suppositions. The flag banning supporters on the campus include numerous white students apparently labouring under guilt at their "white privilege".

The latter has long been transmitted to many American students, formally and informally by university staff making careers out of a bogus and highly divisive academic discipline called "Whiteness studies". A fuller critique of this supposed intellectually valid pursuit must be left for another article; but we are reading more about it in local South African newspaper opinion columns; and some comments thereon are made below.  

The flag controversy at the University of California, Irvine are a storm in a tea cup compared to events developing at UCT regarding the upper campus statue of Cecil John Rhodes and the precipitating incident where excrement was thrown at it by UCT student Chumani Maxwele. Unlike the United State's Stars and Stripes, Rhodes is certainly not any national symbol in 2015 South Africa.

The white English South African community, many of whose British forebears arrived in southern Africa before, during or just after Rhodes's lifetime, in the heyday of the Victorian and Edwardian British Empire, feel no passionate claim to Rhodes as "theirs" - and neither should they. Nevertheless Rhodes is inextricably part of South Africa's colonial heritage, but any loyalty to him by once "British South Africans" faded away decades ago.

However, a balanced knowledge of South African history will demonstrate that like colonialism, Rhodes in his time was both a creator and oppressor; as much a British jingo as he was a remarkable entrepreneur. Besides mining and politics where his legacy is fraught with controversy, Rhodes's most positive and obvious contribution was in tertiary education; Rhodes University bears his name but also many roads, a school or two and a small Eastern Cape town. Besides several other memorials to Rhodes, UCT has a statue and details are well known concerning the land Rhodes's bequeathed to UCT and his financial estate sponsoring the Rhodes Scholarships.

Regardless of how we might choose to view Rhodes today, the excrement hurling incident also creates an important occasion for some direct talking regarding those who initiated the Rhodes statue removal/destruction idea, and who are keeping this matter in the news with continued vulgarity, shocking intolerance, and intimidation. In my opinion as a UCT alumnus there are some blunt alternate arguments that need to be heard, not just by Maxwele and his supporters, but also by those indifferent to the discussion that has been violently forced onto the university.

Some weeks ago, the Cape Argus published an article written by regular contributor, Rhodes University academic Richard Pithouse, who is clearly a disciple of "Whiteness studies" of which the core component is "white privilege". Pithouse introduced some of the associated jargon of "Whiteness studies"; strange concepts such as "transnational white solidarity" and "global whiteness" to which apparently, according to Pithouse, white South Africans are instinctively drawn, because of a "narcissistic fantasy that their presence in this society, in Africa, constitutes a unique and precious gift."

A few years ago (2011) one of Pithouse's Rhodes colleagues, one Samantha Vice, made minor headlines by announcing that she as a white felt intense "shame and regret for the past" and for the fact that her "whiteness" still "benefits her". Vice went as far as suggesting that South African whites should withdraw from any political involvement and live in "humility and silence".

Perhaps nowhere more than in South African universities like UCT and Rhodes, whose origins lie in the colonial-era of our past, are some academics inclined to feel that being profoundly guilty about their white skin also equals their being virtuous, to an extent that morally elevates them above other white South Africans, who seemingly lack this supposedly deep morally-inspired intellectual insight.

In fact expressing these sentiments of shame as often as possible, in all conceivable forms and forums, is paradoxically a way of "feeling good about themselves"; perhaps of atonement and catharsis. But it is also the duty of these "guilt-laden" to teach these woes to impressionable young people just out of school.   

The local media have in my opinion, during past months, given extraordinary space highlighting one or two comparatively very isolated incidents where white UCT students had allegedly behaved in vulgar, illegal and racially offensive ways. While some correspondents in letters and sms columns have questioned the newspapers' motives therefore, these "count on the fingers of one hand" number of incidents have been effectively transmitted into publicised student discourses on "racism"; regardless of their usefulness as any credible yardstick suggesting such alleged acts are representative of young white South African racial attitudes.

Even the 2015 Sax Appeal, UCT's RAG's tongue in cheek publication, sold annually to raise money for the charity-purposed Shawco, had a theme attacking "white racism", with cartoon caricatures of supposed archetypal white male racists and articles on student clubs considered "too white", frequented by white students who speak "with a potato in their mouths".

From my experiences and observations, I believe I can state categorically that with perhaps the most rare exceptions, today's white UCT students can in no way whatsoever, be considered "race-proud" or "white race-conscious" in any haughty, arrogant way and certainly not overtly racially discriminatory in their actions and opinions.

Although one could argue (and precisely with other cultural groupings too) that most young white South Africans' sense of national identity is rather shallow; for the majority it is not much deeper than some identification with the South African flag and anthem; admiration and respect for Nelson Mandela (but certainly not his political party) and great enthusiasm for Springbok rugby and Protea cricket. But they also evince a rejection of Apartheid, support of the SA Constitution and for many, a deep desire, often practised, to contribute to the development of South Africa; a positive attribute that persists despite it being criminally squandered and spoilt by the ANC/SACP government with its racial nationalism. And in any event, how would we easily define "national identity in 2015 South Africa?

The black radical UCT student grouping and its white apologists have, whether they are aware of it or not, tapped into "Whiteness studies", bolstering their uncompromising and emphatically intolerant black nationalist perspective; particularly regarding historical interpretations of how modern South African developed.

A bonus is that their positions, in my opinion, are enthusiastically disseminated via the local media, plus of course, with a little bit of assistance from the Western Cape ANC - see below. UCT is apparently a place of "institutionalised racism", encompassing everything from its history, signage, memorialisation, the predominant "race" of the academic staffs, the university's new student admittance policies; the list is an inexhaustible litany of grievances all bracketed as racism. After the statue's removal will be the next bucket of faeces, and the next.

In the wake of Maxwele's stunt, conveniently covered by an on the spot press photographer, this exasperating discourse around "white privilege" is currently permeating through media and university discussions. Effectively it is aimed at entrenching permanent race consciousness in everyone; eternal victimhood for blacks and eternal guilt for whites.

Unfortunately the radical black UCT students involved, foolishly believe they can elude their own self-perpetuated sense of"victimhood" by initimidatingly demanding statues be destroyed and names changed. It is an immature and destructive attitude which argurs ill for UCT's future, not least the university's asperation to foster and advance amongst its students, a culture of harmonius non-racialism and tolerance.

A lengthy article appeared in the Weekend Argus last Saturday (14 March) written by one Rebecca Hodes, a post- doctoral student whose sympathies lie squarely with those hostile to the statue's continued presence. It should however come as no surprise, as was revealed by Hodes, that local ANC representatives had been invited to a student meeting held last Thursday (12 March) on Jameson stairs.

She quoted one "leading member of the ANC in the Western Cape" making the following appalling statement to the gathering: "The ANC national government has been tiptoeing around UCT. This cannot be handled with kids gloves". This is useful detail for it intimates where the "anti-statue" campaign may have its origins, but certainly its supporters. It is a clear warning of the obvious to UCT's administrators and Council members (of course not those within these entities who already endorse the black radicals campaign) that the ANC/SACP are not and never have been enthusiastic supporters of academic freedom.

And this being the case, Dr Max Price and his colleagues should not ever anticipate respect for UCT's liberal, scholastic, or historical traditions from those students who politically align themselves with organisations like the ANC, SACP, EFF or PAC. The "transformation" these students rage about has very little to do with the qualities UCT's website proudly promotes: "Academic excellence" and "producing graduates who are not only well-educated, but also mindful of the responsibilities of democratic citizenship". What these students want is what the black radical students did in my day as a UCT undergraduate during the late 1980s: A socialistic, third world "People's University" which is also re-stamped as a black nationalist institution where race is the most important variable in determining everything, from memorials, staffing, students admitted and the curriculum.

They seek a fundamentally different UCT to the present one in terms of the university's philosophical ethos which has with difficulty, endured for nearly a century, but certainly limping from the 1980s onwards: It's commitment to academic freedom, tolerance, non-racialism and the broad principles and values of democratic liberalism.

During my time as a student during the mid and late -1980s, I do not in that period, when the country was in a state of low-level civil war, recall any significant student, staff or public protests regarding the statue, and certainly nothing which received the recent splash coverage of the local print media. During 1998 - 2009, I was engaged in post-graduate study and regularly present on the campus. During this period I recall no campaigns of note against the statue either. I have over the years done a fair bit of historical research on a number of Cape Town topics related to the 1960s and 70s, including the shockingly violent 1972 attack by the police on UCT students at St George's Cathedral in Cape Town. Nothing has emerged in my research work informing me of Rhodes's statue being the subject of any prior marked UCT protest.

During the centenary of Rhodes's 5 July birthday in 1953 there was some significant acknowledgement thereof by the government of the then Frederation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland; whether UCT of the time did likewise (or Rhodes University) I have still to research, but if there was, I am certain it would have been muted.

In Professor Howard Phillips's book dealing with UCT from 1918-48, there are unsurprisingly several references to Rhodes, but not relating to Rhodes's UCT statue, let alone any information concerning dissent against it, either in 1934 when it was unveiled or thereafter. The statue was funded from monies remaining after the completion of Rhodes Memorial on Devil's Peak.

Indeed completely absent from the debate on campus and the press has been anything regarding the history of the statue. It was not even originally sited as at present on the base of Jameson stairs and was therefore never conceived of being at the architectural centre of the upper campus. It was moved from its original position near the UCT Summer House, a site which was not central to the campus; this shift probably occurring in the early 1960s during the construction/broadening of the freeway below the rugby fields. The intended centre-piece of UCT was and remains the War Memorial Cenotaph, commemorating UCT students who gave their lives during the First World War, and later re-dedicated also to those UCT fallen of the Second World War.

In arguing against the statue's removal, it is clearly futile pursuing the articulation of any position rationalising the statue's legitimacy in terms of Rhodes's historic achievements: The historic land donation regarding where UCT is sited; Rhode's education endowments; the central role of Rhodes as an entrepreneur deeply connected to the economic modernisation of South Africa during the Mineral Revolution; Rhodes's prominent (and controversial) role as a politician in the Cape before the 1910 Union. But for better or worse, it is reality that Rhodes is a thoroughly embedded part of UCT's history which his campus statue supposedly acknowledges and past which generations of students have walked.

It is not that the above arguments lack any validity in still justifying the statue's presence. Nevertheless these are wasted words because the anti-statue students grouping are unwilling to hear any alternate historical perspective to their emotion-charged victim and resistance version. It is therefore out of bounds to suggest any historical interpretation that incorporates a dialectical discussion revealing the nuances of how this country developed; that Western and more specifically British colonisation in the long view arguably brought more light than darkness. And certainly not least regarding the history of education in South Africa - for example, it is long acknowledged by even ANC apologist historians, that British missionary education played a significant role in shaping the first black leaders post the nineteenth century land wars, men who later challenged racial discrimination through the South African Native National Congress and other such organisations.

It would invoke howls of rage to suggest that alongside black subjugation and defeat in the land wars of Rhodes's day and in prior decades, there also arrived mostly British administrators, scientists, educationists, engineers and entrepreneurs with learning and skills that traditional African society had none of. And that it was these men who laid the foundations which ensured the superb state infrastructure and economy (by modern African standards) which the ANC and its alliance partners achieved political control of during 1994; the latter through realistic and rational negotiation with white South Africa, not the originally sought for but now mythical violent revolution.

Last week's events at UCT demonstrated to all who would see that any discussion suggesting historical events can also be viewed in an alternate context, would be screamed down by the "anti-statue grouping". Behind this fury is a simplistic, virulent and bigoted student-version of 21st century African nationalism that would be completely impossible to engage in a blunt but rational debate where evidence and logic are the tools.

Unfortunately rather than standing a little back as an historian should, Hodes joined the black students in their public hysteria over historical emotions we should have long pushed beyond. She obligingly parroted one instructive example: "To render history more immediate, one speaker (during the Thursday student meeting on Jameson Stairs) reminded the crowd that the land we are standing on had been donated by Rhodes, in a contract ‘drawn in blood'....'His name must be blotted from the history books'." And this poorly reasoned, ignorant tirade is coming from young people born after 1994, who have obtained entrance a university that prides itself at being top of the tree on the South African academic landscape.

Such rhetoric demonstrates with ease that "anti-statue groupings" understandings and certainly regarding its core black student component are the polar opposite of engaging in any enlightened and rational academic debate, the understanding and method of which we assume UCT is trying to teach. Rather it displays a violent intolerance besides a strategy, as Hodes meekly acknowledged; with one of Thursday's speakers against statue's demolition, correctly charging that the "statue debate" was actually a "ploy in intimidation", being perpetrated by (my deduction) UCT's radical black students and staff (and I must assume) their white fellow travellers from the same groupings.

The Afrikaans daily Die Burger reported on the contents of a pamphlet circulated amongst students during Thursday's meeting. It included the following (translated here from Afrikaans): "The removal of the statue would the first stage of purification from its evil spirit". Now of course we cannot but recall that Van Riebeeck's "spirit" was also subjected to such a traditional "cleansing process" during the ANC celebrations at the Cape Town Stadium during early January.

The pamphlet continued: "Let's make UCT a true university of Africa....Independent Zimbabwe had by 1980 already removed the statues of Rhodes from the streets of Harare and Bulawayo. Why does UCT - the so-called best university in Africa - still retain a statue of this man in 2015?" As Zimbabwe since 1980 is synonymous with the Mugabe's tyranny and its sufferings amongst both black and white citizens, it leaves little to the imagination to conjecture the extremes, however crudely expressed, regarding the political visions of UCT's black student radicals.

They believe UCT's whole identity and existence must serve their and only their political aspirations. Although the university is dependent upon donors, not least amongst its alumni; the radical UCT black student constituency have no interest in this grouping's views or whether potential donors are alienated.

Particularly revealing was an arrogant set of responses by Maxwele in an interview recorded within the Sunday Times of 15 March. Maxwele justified his act by saying: "We had 200 years of dialogue with the white world" and before that comment, he responded three times to Chris Barron's questions that he "did not expect a white male to understand" or that he did not need to justify himself to a white male or "white institution".

In the Cape Times of 13 March, UCT student Rekgotsofetse Chikane, appealed perfidiously in an open letter to the UCT Council Chairperson, Archbishop Ndungane: "Why must it be that a student at UCT is pushed to the point of having to throw faecal matter over the statue of Rhodes in order to have a conversation about transformation at UCT"? I would like to believe that as a senior Anglican clergyman, Ndungane would not buy such a deceitful explanation.

The concept of "white privilege" is clearly contestable, particularly from any democratic liberal perspective and it is a historic reality that classical liberalism has been closely bound with UCT's heritage and history, and that to this day, this political philosophical creed retains an influence amongst alumni, past and present staff and many current students, certainly not all of these white.

A UCT that bit by bit is intimidated into jettisoning its heritage and identity will ultimately also squander its credibility, not least its precious academic standing. The destruction of the statue; renaming of Jameson Hall, fast-tracking of inadequately qualified or inexperienced academics based on race, no matter how deftly handled, will be viewed by influential friends and potential friends of the university as the leadership's capitulation to intimidation and irrationality.

But there will be no stop to demands to suit black nationalism; to alter the university's physical heritage, staffing and curriculum. The intensity of black victimhood and its self-hate pathology is terminal in its need for regular euphoric, narcotic-type "hits" of seeing its demands being realised - like the excitement anticipating the fall of Rhodes's statue. For going on and on about "white privilege" is just too abstract and unsatisfying - action must happen. The South Africans of Rhodes's ‘race' or those descended of Van Riebeeck's Dutch colonists and the French Huguenots must be seen to be subordinated, humiliated, grovel, pay penance and perhaps like as Samantha Vice implores them to, live "in humility and silence".

During the 1980s, the "left" at UCT, black and white, concentrated on preaching about class struggle and with bated breath hoped vainly for a Cuban-style revolution. Their successors have now shifted towards a bizarre revisionism of endorsing a "morally-acceptable racism" though the terminology and concepts of "Whiteness studies" with its pernicious, insidious and ultimately destructive concept of "white privilege".

Any white student or staff member challenging this is doomed to be cursed as a white racist. Like Maxwele says; he does not need to justify himself to a white male and I guess white females too. Hence a recent press photo showing an elderly white female lecturer holding a placard stating "improve your argument" being surrounded by jeering, mocking black students. UCT and Rhodes University have some difficult times ahead.   

Dr Rodney Warwick PhD MA BA(Hons) UCT 1985-89; 1998-2009

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter