The sinister underbelly to the "Rhodes Must Fall!" campaign

Michael Cardo writes that the UCT Senate's pathetic capitulation to the mob was a betrayal of the university's founding values

"#Rhodesmustfall" is an assault on our universities

One of the lesser-noted aspects of the #Rhodesmustfall campaign is the complete and cowardly retreat of liberals in the face of majoritarian demands to remove the Randlord's statue.

Cecil Rhodes himself was no liberal. He was an imperialist jingo derided by nineteenth-century liberals like Olive Schreiner. She excoriated him and his "native policy" in Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland on the eve of the South African War.

Indeed, Rhodes has no place in the South African liberal tradition.  But, for better or worse, he is part of our collective history. He cannot be destroyed or erased from the historical record. Such erasure would in any event be a profoundly illiberal impulse.

In the circumstances, it is remarkable that UCT's senate - the academic guardians of a historically liberal institution - buckled so comprehensively in the face of student pressure to remove Rhodes's statue: by 181 votes to 1, to be precise.

This weak-kneed capitulation to majoritarianism betrayed the university's founding liberal values of tolerance, open-mindedness and respect for a plurality of views.

Of course, it could be argued, the senate was swayed by arguments so persuasive and unassailable that it had no choice but to heed the demand that #Rhodesmustfall.

Having read student leader Chumani Maxwele's interview with Chris Barron in the Sunday Times, I somehow doubt it. He told Barron, "I don't have to justify anything to a white male or a white institution. Nothing whatsoever".

The senate's recommendation to remove the statue from the campus (as opposed to juxtaposing it with another statue, or relocating it to a position of lesser prominence) represents a blanket suspension of its critical faculties. Senate's solution to the problem was destructive rather than creative. It was a wholesale surrender to bullying tactics.

In fact, it was akin to turkeys voting for Christmas.

For the dark underbelly of #Rhodesmustfall is that it is an illiberal movement, supported by progressive patsies, whose ringleaders and cheerleaders both inside and outside the academy despise liberals.

They are opposed to the idea and the institution of a liberal university.

Look at their Facebook page, listen to the so-called "debate" during which Barney Pityana was unceremoniously relieved of his chairmanship duties in a fit of illiberal intolerance, and read the material that they put out.

The genius of the #Rhodesmustfall campaign is that it has seized upon a real and legitimate issue - the fact that black South Africans are, as Aubrey Matshiqi once said, in the numerical majority but cultural minority at institutions - and grafted onto that an illiberal transformation agenda that is likely to be institutionally wholly destructive.  

The campaigners share something of the outlook and the zeal of Malegapuru Makgoba. He was the vice-chancellor who "transformed" the University of Natal from a liberal institution of excellence into a nationalist centre of parochialism and mediocrity.

The driving force behind the #Rhodesmustfall campaign is an amalgam of racial nationalists, leftists, self-styled social justice activists, and politically correct ideologues who view the world (and the humanities in particular) through the narrow prism of critical race theory, "whiteness studies" and "white privilege".

For them, the whole history of humankind can be reduced to the colonial encounter between "black" and "white", "us" and "them". This inevitably gives rise to a form of identity politics based on racial mobilization.

No wonder, then, that the most vocal defenders of the campaign have been the ANC, the EFF, the SACP, Equal Education, and the likes of Gillian Schutte writing in the Sunday Independent.

Schutte seems to think that she can "abolish whiteness" by wringing her hands repeatedly, and by boring her readers to death with self-righteous, jargon-laden prose of the very worst order.

She once wrote an essay entitled "The Politics of Shit and Why It Should Be Part of Public Protest", which tells you everything you need to know about her.

No matter. For this motley crew, the problems in higher education are all black and white. And "white liberals" are the cause of the problem. White liberals are the greatest legators and legatees of white privilege. Their unacknowledged privilege is, in turn, the biggest stumbling block to real "transformation" in higher education and society more broadly.

Some liberals are susceptible to this kind of argument, which is presumably why DASO-UCT felt compelled to "fully support" the removal of the statue in a press statement so mealy-mouthed and ingratiating that it could have been written by Gillian Schutte herself, replete with references to "white privilege".

The impulse is understandable. Liberals in South Africa have an imperfect history. They have been complicit in racism in the past and they are ill-served by pretending that racism does not exist in the present. And, of course, the two are related. 

Younger liberals, in particular, are frustrated with the kind of liberalism that clings to a fanciful, feel-good notion of "rainbow nationhood" or colour-blindness, and which serves to obscure more than it does enlighten the structural nature of many of our social problems.

In the circumstances, appeals to "white privilege" - identifying it, "checking" it, atoning for it -  carry some sway. The concept has a veneer of reasonableness, because there is a ring of truth to it.  

Apartheid was an elaborate system of racial preferment and privilege for whites. It would be ludicrous to think that once apartheid ended, even twenty years after it ended, that somehow whites did not continue to enjoy certain advantages over blacks in accessing opportunities, through networks and social capital and the like.

But that is no reason for liberals to be suckered into the "white privilege" school of thought. "White privilege" is a handy rhetorical device, employed by opponents of liberalism.

It serves to legitimate the ANC's hegemonic project of "transformation", which is really just a code-word for racial domination.

Moreover, the notion of "white privilege" is based on its own set of historical blind-spots and current denials.

Anyone watching the events of the past few weeks unfold at UCT would be forgiven for forgetting that the university played an important role as a liberal institution in opposing apartheid. Among other things, it manipulated the ministerial permit system to admit black students who were denied access to whites-only universities.

The "white privilege" brigade would also have us believe that UCT is "untransformed" because obstinate white liberals are blocking the path of their black colleagues into the professoriate.

Yet, as UCT has pointed out in the past, it takes more than 20 years from obtaining a PhD to becoming a professor. So the pool of black South African academics available for appointment to professorship in 2015 depends on the pool of black PhD graduates in 1995.

There are no-quick fix solutions to increasing that pool. The long-term solution is to improve the quality of the public education system that pumps the pool 20 years down the line.

That, of course, is the government's responsibility.

The purveyors of "white privilege" aren't very much interested in addressing that, or indeed some of the more difficult questions about the current government's role in failing to bring about the transformed society envisioned by the Constitution.

It's far easier to put the blame at the liberals' door.

Yet it would be a real pity if UCT's council, following the lead of its senate, were to abandon its liberal heritage, give into populist pressure, and duck and dive the hard questions, too.

Michael Cardo is a Democratic Alliance Member of Parliament and graduated with degrees in history from the Universities of Natal and Cambridge.

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