RW Johnson says at a time of national crisis too many intellectuals are peddling racial diversions
Readers of Business Day were treated this week to an article by Adekeye Adebajo attacking Rhodes University because it “still stubbornly bears the name of its benefactor”. Adebajo, who rather coyly conceals the fact that he benefited from Rhodes' benefaction as a Rhodes Scholar (as did I), then gives a hardly recognizable picture of Rhodes University. It is, apparently, a racist and backward institution where even the “Nigerians, Kenyan, Zimbabwean and Basotho academics (who) were teaching at Rhodes by the 2000s...appeared to continue the Eurocentric traditions of the past, which equated academic “standards” with whiteness.”
It is hard to know why the word “standards” requires inverted commas – every decent university in the world is preoccupied with standards – and this is certainly nothing to do with “whiteness” (whatever that is). Chinese universities are probably the most obsessed by standards and the basic assumption of the system is that the highest academic achievers must rule the country. Clearly, this ruthless meritocracy works. The Chinese mean exactly the same thing by “standards” as do Oxford or Harvard. And look at the world university rankings: the rising stars are almost all from the Chinese diaspora – China, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong. No hang-ups about “whiteness” there. Countries which question what standards are never make it into the rankings at all.
What is entirely missing from Adebajo's account is the simple fact that Rhodes University was something of a miracle: a distinguished and rigorous academy in the middle of the rural Eastern Cape. Segregation was imposed by law but Rhodes, in common with all the English-speaking universities, protested against it and both its students and faculty were always predominantly on the anti-apartheid side. It was no mean achievement to build a university of such calibre in that environment. The fact that Rhodes still bears the name of its benefactor is of purely superficial significance. What matters is just that Rhodes, along with half a dozen other South African universities, were all in the top ten in Africa in 1994. They were a not inconsiderable part of the ANC's inheritance.
As is the case with almost everything else, that inheritance has not been maintained. Stellenbosch is probably the only university in South Africa whose standards have not fallen since 1994. And this is really the point. Visitors to St Paul's Cathedral in London, the surpassing achievement of Sir Christopher Wren, will find his epitaph directly under the dome: “Si monumentum requiris circumspice”, which is to say, “If you would seek my monument, look around you”. In the same way, if you want to gauge South Africa in 2020, don't bother about “whiteness” or “Eurocentrism” or “systemic racism” or “toxic masculinity”. These are all mere abstractions. Look around you.
If you do look around you see a country in its thirteenth year of power cuts. How could that happen? Year after year we were assured the problem was in hand, that there was this or that new CEO, a new board, that it was all coming right. This turned out to be all lies. Many of the wonderful new CEOs and board members turned out to be incompetents or crooks. Or both. It turns out that in fact there was continual political interference, instructions to keep the lights on at all costs and to hell with maintenance – as childish as that.
Huge amounts of money were stolen, overpriced BEE coal contracts bled the company dry, many skilled engineers and managers were replaced by people without skills, lots of surplus workers were put on the payroll and there was “no consequence” management, meaning that you could get away with anything. It was a festival of corruption and incompetence and it was allowed to go on year after year. It has been a huge South African carnival and it says a good deal about the state of the country.
Eskom had been one of the best run utilities in the world, producing the cheapest electricity and with large surplus capacity. That was the inheritance and the ANC trashed it. But the same was done with the civil service. It was also done with the water industry with the result that there are now water-shortages country wide and Port Elizabeth – one of the country's great metropoles – is now on the verge of dying of thirst. Equally fundamental, the railways have all but collapsed. Rolling stock, cables and rails are being looted so badly that pretty soon we may not have a railway at all.
Ramaphosa chanced one ride on a train and was so shaken by the experience that he has not ventured there again. The railways were a great nineteenth century achievement and they have been trashed. But so have the airlines – SAA and SA Express – a great twentieth century achievement.
The list goes on. At least two thirds of the country's municipalities are effectively bust. Many small towns are dying as a result. The Land Bank has gone bust – again. The Post Office can't pay salaries or pension fund contributions. The same is true of Denel. The SABC is on its knees and probably bankrupt. The police have been trashed and so has the judiciary. Sanral reports that there is a great big hole where the money from e-tolls should have been and that the result may well be a failure to maintain the national highways.
The Eastern Cape, heartland of the ANC, is dying: its hospitals and schools don't work, there is not enough water or electricity, corruption rules everywhere. No wonder huge numbers of the province's residents are fleeing to the Western Cape where they are often the driving force behind land invasions. If you want to talk about Rhodes University the real story is the death of Grahamstown (Makhanda). It was a beautiful little town but it is close to ruin. Again, look around you. The only thing that keeps the country going is the private sector.
What is the significance of all this? Think of Julius Nyerere, at Zimbabwe's independence, telling Mugabe that “You have a jewel here. Don't spoil it.” The fact is that the liberation movements of Africa's developed South, of Zimbabwe and South Africa, have brought a tide of ruin upon their countries. Other Africans could only envy them their inheritance. There is less to envy now.
This actually has a world historical significance. As it sinks in – in black America, in black Britain, in Africa, to black people everywhere – that the whole Mandela experiment has failed, that the liberation movements have comprehensively failed to sustain developed economies, that such governments have been an utter disaster for their black populations – there will be a huge anger, disappointment and depression. So much was riding on the success of these countries and their failure will let down black people everywhere. No amount of excuses about “the apartheid inheritance” will do. The really big, sad truth is that the ANC has let the whole black world down.
As future generations look at this disaster, one question they will ask is “But what were African intellectuals saying while all this ruin went on? Did they not speak up? Did they not see what was happening?” They will be incredulous when they are told that actually many black intellectuals were more concerned about such trivia as whether Rhodes University had changed its name, with attacking statues of Rhodes, or with getting angry about the wording of shampoo advertisements (however badly put). You can imagine the incredulity: statues? shampoo? re-naming? advertisements? While the country burned? What on earth was wrong with them?
This last is a good question. Part of the problem, of course, is that already many black people find it almost unbearably painful to face up to what a disaster majority rule under the ANC has turned out to be. It takes considerable intellectual courage for a black person to look at that full in the face – and there is great political pressure on him or her not to do this, to look away or to scour the landscape for other scapegoats (e.g. “whiteness”). But in the end, of course, the sheer weight of reality will break through. Already, in focus groups we did before the last election, we found Africans spontaneously suggesting that it would be good to have white rule again, at least for a while.
The sad thing is that the wrong conclusions will then be drawn: that “Africans can't govern”, the phrase that so haunted Mbeki. That there is something intrinsically wrong, that democracy in Africa is hopeless. Already there is no shortage of whites drawing entirely racist conclusions of this kind. Yet look next door at Botswana, at Mauritius, at Rwanda or even at Ethiopia. All these countries have recently achieved enormous progress. One can't help feeling that one reason why the ANC won't want Ethiopian Airways to take over SAA is precisely the symbolism of South Africa falling behind what was a backward country not long ago.
One can't help but feel that there is also a cultural problem. The long period of struggle against white rule left a culture in which Africans were always perceived as righteous, as suffering and as victims - not as masters of their fate. This led not only to a huge sense of entitlement but to a sort of victim psychosis, to a refusal to take responsibility and always a frantic search to blame others for anything that went wrong.
This in turn led to a culture of boycotts and sit-ins, of protest and defiance, of always claiming victimhood even when staging aggressive strikes or occupations. It was always, as in Laurel and Hardy, “look what you've made me do now”.
This whole posture is quite antithetical to any notion of calmly sitting down and asking “Why, then, did the ANC fail so badly? Why have poverty and inequality increased so much under ANC rule? How come the ANC campaigned for “Jobs, jobs, jobs” but then saw unemployment quadruple? Why was Bantu Education then better than township education now? Why were black hospitals better then?” And so on. But these are the real questions.
One problem is that this culture of evasion and victimhood, of rhetorical assertion, of entitlement and blaming – is wonderfully attractive. It has often seen people with few resources win their point and even attract the halo of martyrdom and heroism. But, rather like Gandhi's passive resistance, it depends utterly on there being an audience with liberal instincts and qualms. It would get nowhere in China where tanks roll over dissidents, where trade unions are illegal and where attempts to strike are heavily punished.
An interesting part of South African life is the ease with which foreigners adapt to these norms. A good example was recently seen in Cape Town with the prolonged refugee protest in Greenmarket Square and their occupation of the Central Methodist Church which the Rev. Alan Storey most unwisely offered to them as a sanctuary. The classic liberal audience was in attendance, not only in the shape of well-meaning churchmen and the usual crazy NGOs but in a city council which initially offered to re-settle them.
But all such offers were furiously rejected: the refugees (many of whom actually had homes in Cape Town and were not, as they claimed, homeless) insisted that they were the victims of South African xenophobia, that they did not want to stay in South Africa nor return to their home country (in most cases they came from the DRC): what they wanted was to be flown to a third country. Air tickets to Canada, in other words.
This long-running drama ended in great damage and loss to the Methodist church, an assault on Archbishop Thabo Makgoba and other religious leaders, considerable economic damage to the stallholders of Greenmarket Square, violent conflict within the refugee group (which split into two) and, ultimately, the arrest of both the refugee leaders. One was accused of making death threats to a Human Rights Commissioner while the other was accused of a variety of misdemeanours including assault and robbery. In short, a good time was had by all.
What was fascinating, however, was the wholesale adoption of South African struggle tactics. Aggressively occupy other people's property – while insisting that you are victims – and make sky-high demands, then hang in hard, using violence to “defend” oneself while simultaneously accepting charity from NGOs mad enough to give it.
The extraordinary thing is that back home in the DRC none of these “refugees” (mainly just illegal immigrants without official refugee status) would have dreamt of using any of these tactics. Anyone who behaved like that in Kinshasa – even now that Mobutu has gone – would very quickly find themselves beaten up, jailed or facing something indescribably worse, for there is no liberal audience there, no crazy NGOs and not even many soft-touch divines.
That is, these self-described refugees, having studied the South African situation and seen what worked here, had adopted classic struggle tactics. They got it pretty much right though the air-tickets to Canada was a naive touch. The locals would have opted for something more realistic like a bag of cash and a humble apology from the divines and the Cape Town city council, with the settlement celebrated by a special forgiveness service in St George's Cathedral.
Something rather similar has clearly happened to Adekeye Adebajo, for his article on Rhodes University follows the classic South African pattern of hunting for racism, always looking back to apartheid and obsession with pure symbolism. Yet Professor Adebajo is a Nigerian and this is not Nigerian behaviour at all. On my visits to Lagos or Abuja I have always found Nigerians refreshingly direct, down to earth and concerned very much with practicalities, not with symbolism.
The Nigerian intellectuals I met laughed at the notion that anyone could blame British colonialism for Nigeria's ills today and often expressed some admiration for the way Britain had governed Nigeria. Many Nigerians seemed to regard black South Africans as almost mad in their obsession with race, which is not a subject that bothers most Nigerians.
In other words, the influence is the wrong way round. Instead of learning our bad habits we need people like Professor Adebajo to be more Nigerian. The wonderful thing about discussions with Nigerians, I found, was that they were already so completely decolonised in their minds that they never imagined there was any further need for decolonisation. They knew who they were and were wholly unbothered by “whiteness”. South Africans, on the other hand, are still not at all decolonised. They are still completely gripped by the symbols of colonialism, still battling away against the memory of a man who died in 1902, still concerned that things are named after him. Most Nigerians I know would simply laugh at this.