"Rhodes Must fall!": Symptom of a failing state?

Mike Berger asks whether we are willing to challenge the notion of "transformation" framed entirely in racial terms

In "Rhodes and the rage of the Black Middle Class" (News 24, 31 March) Max du Preez displays the condition of "undue understanding" whereby staged displays of student "rage" demands our earnest and sympathetic attention according to this admirable journalist. I see it differently in this case: moral indignation is a standard strategy for endowing political and personal ambition with the aura of legitimacy.       

The premise that the possession of a melanin-deficient skin renders one a racist by default was used throughout this campaign as a crude bludgeon to extract tangible concessions and a posture of appeasement. Should one point out the unpalatable truth that in the absence of the colonial expansion into Southern Africa the likelihood is extremely high that the region would still be populated by warring tribes, but sans roads, sans medical care, sans internet and cell phones, sans universities, sans democracy - in fact sans everything that the same young students regard as the very foundation of the good life - one is immediately moved from the default to the proven racist category.

But that is indeed the plain historical reality. However, another and equally important fact is that colonialism simply introduced a fresh layer of toxic complexity to the pre-existing stew. To the San hunter-gatherers, Khoi semi-nomadic pastoralists and a contentious tribal mix of Bantu pastoralists, colonialism brought various European, Asian and Indonesian flavours together with new religions to the embattled Southern extremities of Africa.

In consequence, as pointed out by Prof Charles van Onselen and widely understood by most thoughtful observers, South Africa is a desperately rickety construct of multiple identities bound together by accidents of history.

By most criteria South Africa should fail. We live in a continent of economically ravaged, post-liberation states, prey to tyrants, wracked by unresolved ethnic and religious violence, extreme climatic conditions and ideologies. Our own society is characterised by gross inequalities: economic, educational, cultural and social. We have a history of bitter and prolonged internal ethnic conflict and oppression and our social fabric is ravaged by violent crime, corruption, poverty and the disintegration of the binding social institutions of family and clan. Simultaneously we face a tide of rising expectations on the one hand and serious disillusionment on the other.

The "Rhodes statue" episode at UCT is a symptom of a social-political climate characterised by low trust, scarcity and simmering tensions, ripe for activists seeking publicity and power. South Africa is a country seemingly destined for various forms of disintegration.

The only binding cement we have is democracy buttressed by a liberal Constitution, still functional though wounded educational and other institutions, a degree of industrialisation, an embattled middle class founded on the virtues (and vices) of a free market-based bourgeoisie and the knowledge that we sink or swim together. This demands of us a higher-order morality; one which extends beyond the boundaries of the self or the immediate loyalty group, whether family or religious or ethnic clan, to encompass the turbulent mix of South African society.

Our predicament is existential - a point many learned commentators have not adequately internalised.

In terms of this analysis the University should have asserted the primacy of process while always affirming an on-going need for dialogue and debate. But it cannot tolerate the blatant politicisation of the protest nor the means and threats whereby it was pursued without paying a price in terms of its own legitimacy and authority. The action by the small band of largely black activists alienates and intimidates other students of all races, including fellow blacks who do not share their unipolar views, and clearly undermines their legitimacy.

Even more importantly, the explicitly racial terms in which the challenge was articulated directly undermines the normative consensus that the only viable option for South Africa is to evolve towards an inclusive, non-racial identity. But such has been the trajectory of our new democracy that even to make such a statement elicits a cynical jeer from those communities threatened by a constant emphasis on demographic (that is, racial) transformation, whether in sport, business, the professions or academia. They would claim that the non-racial boat has already sailed, if indeed such a boat is even feasible or meaningful.

For the obstinate optimists South Africa is faced with a set of stark challenges. Are we willing and able to uphold due process, a respect for law and the rights of others against radical challenges from within or outside the formal political domain? Are we willing to challenge the notion of "transformation" framed entirely in racial terms? Are we willing to challenge the reductive, self-serving versions of history being used to justify assaults on democratic norms and inclusivity?

If not, we will facilitate the entropic forces within South African society and further undermine the institutional culture of expertise and merit which underpin sustainable, complex societies. If the centre does not hold, South Africa will enter deeper into a downward spiral. The need for the University to be an empowering and affirmative force in the lives of its students, all its students, must not be the excuse for opening the door to political and moral blackmail. It is on such important judgements and moral courage that the University (and South African society) will stand or fall. 

So what, from this perspective should the University, have done? In my view:

Leave the statue in place until an adequate debate and appropriate referendum is held soliciting all points of view from students, staff and alumni (and possibly general public), not just on Rhodes but on the place of history and historical symbols in society and especially within a University. Make the submissions and final results public together with a declaration of policy.

Institute a disciplinary hearing into the behaviour of the protestors.

Put in place future contingency plans for similar politicised protests into which University non-Academic staff may well be recruited.

Ensure that adequate forums exist for the expression of student issues. Once again ensure that this reflects a broad spectrum of students.

Ensure the fundamental values, processes and ethos of the University are succinctly articulated, made available to all students and consistently applied.

Finally seek to pro-actively instil within all students a pride in the University and a feeling of belonging to a worthwhile community.  Much of this is already in place no doubt but it needs constant revision.

Capitulation to political blackmail reinforces the current South African trend to lawless protests and contempt for the rights of others in general. The social contract rests on justice done, seen to be done and the wise but firm exercise of lawful authority. UCT should be leading the way.

Note: This is a reworked version of an article which first appeared in News 24 on 31 March. I thank readers for their comments on the original which helped in the rewrite".

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