Oxford falls to the Fallists

Andrew Donaldson on the UCT turd hurled around the world


THE University of Cape Town remains a pioneering institution, and it is not surprising that developments there have a profound affect on the course of events in academia the world over. Where Moscow on the Hill leads, others gamely follow. And so it is with Oxford, where UCT serial student Chumani Maxwele’s tossed turds have finally landed, resulting in the announcement by the governing body at Oriel College that its members “wished” to remove the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from its premises.

There is, though, some way to go before that happens. A wide-ranging commission of inquiry into the issue has been announced by the governing body, which would report its findings next year. “No decision on the future of the statue has been made,” the body said in a statement, “and there are no plans to begin the formal process to remove the statue before the commission is concluded.”

The Fallists have vowed to continue with their protest until the statue is toppled. Maxwele, meanwhile, appears confused by events. “That statement is not clear to me,” he told The Times. “They are not clear on whether they want to the statue to be gone. If they were clear, they would tell us when they want the statue to go.”

This lack of clarity serves as a trenchant reminder of the inherent privilege in higher education. But time may be running out for the hegemonists. Another populist UCT initiative, the October 2016 Movement to Recolonise Science, has also established a foothold at Oxford and the Newtonists are running scared — and with, uh, good reason: the Fallists seek to resurrect long-suppressed pre-colonial knowledge by dismissing the validity of ideas on the grounds of the race, gender, age, education and geographical origin and historical provenance of their promoters. 

The challenge is clear. Dismantling the racist academic-military-ghetto-industrial complex and replacing it with a post-colonial paradigm or “new knowledge” that will out-compete the present entrenched system is not going to be easy. 

But help is at hand. This week, Oxford University vice-chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson, announced that those students who were traumatised by the video of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer may ask for special dispensation if they feel they were unable to do their best in their final exams and assessments. Richardson has appealed to staff “to reach out to any black students who may be experiencing difficulty at this time”.

Critics like Joanna Williams, author of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge (Palgrave Macmillan), suggest that, while no-one who watched Floyd plead for his life was left unmoved, Richardson’s “trauma dispensation” raises some awkward questions. 

How many extra marks is an upsetting experience worth? How is this measured? Is it a sign of bigotry or wokefulness to reach out to black students because less is expected of them? How do black students feel about being more leniently marked than white students? Is this special treatment fair and just reward for laying bare their pain to assuage the guilt of white academics?

It’s quite probable that UCT’s Black Academic Caucus, full of vim and vigour following their valiant role in the Nicoli Natrass affair, have the answers to these and many other queries. The caucus is a remarkable bunch.

In addition to their roles as educators, they have taken it upon themselves to meet epistemic violence head-on when and wherever needs be, railing away at the rational and reasoned, and rubbishing the dispassionate use of logic and the scientific method. It is an arduous and often thankless business, but one day they will prove that the laws of gravity are a colonial construct.

Fun and games

Sport is back, which is reason enough to stay indoors. Super Rugby has resumed, albeit as a greatly reduced, New Zealand-only tournament. But it’s rugby and what’s more, the Kiwi teams even get to play before spectators. No such luck elsewhere. 

Cricket South Africa, meanwhile, is to launch an experimental form of the game next Saturday in which three teams of eight players compete with one another in the same match in an empty Centurion stadium. It’s a televised fund-raiser to provide relief for those in cricket who have been affected by the pandemic, so I don’t want to be too unkind about it. In Europe, football has resumed. In Germany, some clubs have placed cardboard cut-outs of fans in the bleachers for the benefit of television viewers. What fan wants to see their club turning out at a deserted venue? 

In another exciting development, a “canned crowd” soundtrack now enhances the UK footie viewing experience. Depending on the ebb and flow of the game, TV broadcasters can lay on the boos, cheers and whistles at the flick of a switch. This is an innovation, I feel, that could be used by the ANC to pep up their increasingly dull political rallies and may fool viewers into believing that ruling party supporters actually admire Carl Niehaus’s dancing moves.

The Youth Day celebrations this year were a case in point. With large gatherings banned due to the Covid-19 pandemic, South Africans were forced to commemorate the 1976 Soweto riots virtually in worthy online webinars rather than traipsing off to a stadium for a happy meal. 

But there’s no reason that dreary televised speeches should not be considerably enlivened by artificial cheering. The president, whoever she may be, promises a better future for all, a flunky pulls the “Viva!” lever and, presto, there is deafening applause. At the very least, this novelty may just distract loyal cadres from their smartphones for a few minutes.

Think of how the health minister, Dr Zweli Mkhize, would have benefitted from such an innovation on Tuesday when he called on the country to fight Covid-19 the way it had defeated apartheid. “Today,” he told a media briefing, “as a nation, as humanity, we face an unseen enemy — an enemy that knows no race, no religion, no border, no government, no king, no peasant. It only knows human and how to get from one to the next one … Like the youth of 1976, it takes consciousness, discipline, co-operation and courage to turn the tide against this invisible enemy.”

With a soundtrack of excited yelling and a massed chorus of ululating women, all cynicism would be swept aside. Viewers at home would probably even believe him. But then he was speaking at the launch of something imaginatively called the Multi-Sectoral Ministerial Advisory Committee on Social Behavioural Change and you knew at once that, like the interminably ongoing national democratic revolution, there is no end in sight with the doctrinaire groupthink. 

The virus is not quivering in its boots. It is pitted against dullards and has little to fear. In fact, it has already succeeded in breaking the back of the ruling party’s resistance to borrowing from the International Monetary Fund. The pandemic has forced the government to negotiate a $4.2-billion loan from the Washington-based agency. Cyril Ramaphosa’s opponents in the ANC and, indeed, many of his allies, believe this may just the oil slick upon which the country skids into submission to capital and loses its sovereignty.

Is it bad news? Perhaps. But some classics scholars think otherwise. Approaching the IMF, they suggest, could well amount to cutting the Gordhan knot.

Streaming on social media

The Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) has reopened on the sly. Sort of. Officially, all pubs and bars in the UK remain closed in terms of lockdown regulations. But the Lamb, like many establishments, now serves take-away booze from a hatch. Regulars can then gather in the car park for a sociable drink providing, of course, the weather is good and social distancing practices are strictly observed.

Entering the pub itself is still not permitted. This means that our local’s facilities are out of bounds. As any beer drinker knows, this results in a pressing need after a few pints. And so it is that we have some insight into the difficulties experienced by Andrew Banks last weekend. A 28-year-old Tottenham Hotspur supporter, Banks had travelled from Essex to London along with his far-right chums to “defend statues” against Black Lives Matter protestors and there found himself caught short.

This is not unusual. The English are notoriously snoep when it comes to public lavatories and visitors to the capital have to hunt high and low to find them. I usually direct tourists to the National Portrait Gallery as their loos are the best in the capital and some of the pictures aren’t bad either. But under lockdown, such places are shut and those desperate to relieve themselves must find an uninhabited bush in the nearest park.

Banks, however, chose to relieve himself alongside the Westminster memorial to PC Keith Palmer, the unarmed police officer who was fatally wounded when he tackled knifeman Khalid Masood outside the Houses of Parliament in March 2017. Images of Banks, captured mid-stream, circulated on social media prompting a huge outcry, so much so that, following a confrontation with his father, he handed himself over to the police. David Banks later told reporters that his son was “a stupid plonker”.

Justice was swift. On Monday, Banks pleaded guilty in the Westminster Magistrate’s Court to charges of “outraging public decency” and was jailed for 14 days. The court heard that, despite wanting to “protect statues”, Banks did not know which statues. In mitigation, he said that he had drunk 16 pints of beer during Friday night into Saturday morning and had not slept before going to London. His lawyer added that his client had mental health issues. All in all, a sad business, and I can’t help feeling that if right-wingers wish to be taken seriously, they must up their game considerably. 

Rubbing sticks

One statue that was adequately protected last weekend was that of the boy scouts founder, Lord Baden-Powell, in Dorset. According to reports here, a bunch of men in khaki shorts and silly hats sat around the plinth, wielding woggles, lest it be toppled by those outraged by its association with a shameful colonial past.

The columnist Rod Liddle, writing in The Sunday Times, has suggested that all allegations about Baden-Powell are true: he was a fan of Mussolini’s, he had fascist tendencies and, as a British Army officer, was “probably a little, um, vigorous in quelling uprisings” in distant corners of the empire. “I’m sure he was a white supremacist. In the UK in 1910, who wasn’t? Back then, white supremacy was not seen as an odious conceit, but as a bland statement of fact.”

Baden-Powell, Liddle adds, started the scouts partly out of concerns that young boys would masturbate themselves into imbecility, and wrote of the practice: “The boy after a time becomes weak and nervous and shy, he gets headaches and probably also palpitations of the heart, and if he carries it on too far, he very often goes out of his mind and becomes an idiot.”

Quite how sporting quasi-military outfits, marching about in troop formation and learning to light fires helps with this terrible problem remains a mystery. In a local context, it would appear that, in these personal matters, the uniforms have not been of much benefit to the Economic Freedom Fighters. The urge to play soldiers is overpowering, and these people need to keep their hands out their pockets and where we can see them.