Rhodes Must Fall: Beware, Azania's new statues

Christopher Rodrigues writes that while Rhodes has been mothballed the debate over what Rhodes Must Fall envisages has just begun.

Dali Tambo's struggle theme park self-proclaimed ""the show business of history"" will soon be an expensive blot on the landscape. But about such present-day bronzes the ""Rhodes Must Fall"" (RMF) students have had, so far, little to say.

Irrespective of the misgivings that some might harbour regarding Tambo's R600 million - R700 million boon most, one suspects, will have no fundamental objection to graven images for alongside their considerable animus there's an equal part waiting to consecrate a new Azanian canon. Designating the Bremner building Azania House encapsulates as such their intention of a new patria. As Andile Mngxitama, a black consciousness fellow-traveller, tweeted: ""Soon we shall be calling for South Africa Must Fall ...""

Read against the grain then, RMF is not iconoclasm but the desire for a mythos every bit as monolithic as that which they hope to supplant. Standing only in need of their institutional Sir Herbert Baker, or Rudyard Kipling, our vanguard represents its unconscious opposite. The flies are different but the excreta the same: hegemony and racial nationalism.

Consider the movement's demands (Long gone is the Freedom Charter's cosmopolitanism: ""All the cultural treasures of humankind shall be open to all, by free exchange of books, ideas and contact with other lands""): Replace the names of dead white males with either African appellations or ""black historical figures""; relegate so-called western curricula and reify ""African discourses"". In sum: ""Our (incommensurable) pain (race being understood as a ""proxy for disadvantage, prioritising black students"") should be the only factor taken into consideration ..."" (Note too that, according to RMF, South Africa's Constitution is ""fundamentally racist"" because it doesn't indemnify blacks from the charge of racism, which is the responsibility of whites who alone have (evil) agency, while the former only have their structural victimisation.)

Essentialism not only flattens the complexities of historical judgement, its grasp on the future is thinner still. Perhaps the climate-beleaguered historians of tomorrow, say, will be puzzled at how South African students, living in a climate-change hotspot failed, despite being at a tipping point, to develop an environmental movement of any significance. A several degree warmer planet will give rise to different historical narratives with, from our perspective, unusual antecedents and verdicts. If we are to condemn previous centuries by todays standards then at, very least, we ought to try anticipate what lies ahead.

If pain made us kind and injustice wise then ever since the Stone Age our species would have, long ago, become enlightened. Misfortune though isn't some higher order midwife. Georg Hegel maybe considered the originator of the idea that the oppressed have an advantage in understanding power but he also cautioned that: ""Only when the dusk starts to fall does the owl of Minerva spread its wings and fly."" History in the main, for there are few daytime owls, is understood in hindsight.

To return then not just to UCT's Moloch but through him all the Ozymandians with ""wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command"":

Deconstructing, jamming, or remixing Rhodes would not only have been inventive, it would've served as a rebuke to the follies of the past and, more importantly, similar such projects now and in the future. In other words, it's a lost opportunity for some first-rate dialectic that - without the farce of a flip side nationalism - would have critically embodied the tragic in an original reconstruction. (Not that RMF could countenance the independence of art for they go so far as to specify the racial type of artist acceptable in their utopia.)

As for the philistinism meted out to Fernando Pessoa and the Horse Memorial, it's a corrective to the notion that the downtrodden bathe the world in clarity. Our copycat ""Red Guards"" are as wide of the mark as the former Daily Sunjournalist who proposed hosting a ""big black braai"" at a memorial marking the deaths of forty-two (white) children who died in a bus accident. His motivation had been to ""celebrate the death of whiteness"". To his credit, Zama Khumalo, later acknowledged his ""racism"" and apologised.

It remains to be seen whether those students who chanted ""one settler one bullet"" while interrupting a university council meeting will ever consent do the same. The refusal of dialogue and debate as inherently ""reflecting the disturbing normalisation of colonisation and white supremacy"" doesn't bode well. Nor does the description of black critics as ""Uncle Toms"" by the SRC President, Ramabina Mahapa.

The danger with identity politics is that it rushes headlong towards barricades of belonging and non-belonging. (Mahapa, for instance, sounding like any number of bigots, rallied against ""assimilation"" comparing it to an ""ulcer"".) When identity is one and the same as self-protection (from the open sore of non-being no less), arguments and debates are trampled underfoot. It's all-or-nothing. Everyone-is-out-to-get-us. Everything foreign gets under our skin.

Nationalism routinely appeals to such emotions and one of its tropes is trauma. ""Our pain should be the only factor"" could well be a routine stanza from some blood-curdling anthem.

But while it appears to trump thinking (We think is disputable; we feel undeniable) the meaning of pain alters with the times: once considered something to be endured and tragically inescapable, pain nowadays is represented as a disability that must be progressively eradicated. Pain, too, is discursive and ought, therefore, to be subject to the back and forth of rational discussion.

The point isn't that empathy isn't desirable, or that we shouldn't transform our unequal society, but that in speaking about subalterns (low status) and ""participation ... on our terms"", as RMF's manifesto does, we ought to recall Palestinian scholar Edward Said's maxim: ""Never solidarity before criticism"".

Christopher Rodrigues (@klaaskatkop) received an MFA from UCT.

A version of this article first appeared on Thought Leader.