The Rhodes debate – Early warning of racial civil war?

I vowed not to attend the assembly called to discuss the removal of the Cecil John Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town on Wednesday 25 March. I am long past the need to explain to white people why their racism hurts. For me, it crosses the line of intellectual deliberation in the same way Holocaust denialism and anti-Semitism do for Jewish people.

A colleague insisted I should go to show solidarity with the students. And so I reluctantly sauntered to Jameson Hall – one of those names that must change after Rhodes has fallen. The place was filled to the rafters.

What happened next was arguably the most historic moment in the history of the university. The students started by asking the president of convocation, Barney Pityana, to step down as chair of the event.

They argued that he had pronounced himself on the matter and therefore could not be an impartial arbiter. They instead nominated Kgotsi Chikane, a member of convocation but also a leader of the movement.

As a former student activist, I could see what was to unfold.

The students had managed to do what we had been advising the university to do in the first place, which was to have the students host the discussions themselves instead of coming with prepackaged solutions to them. To watch Chikane and his colleague, Keenan Hendrickse, run that whole assembly was a wonder to behold.

Students at the forefront of change

Throughout history, students have been at the forefront of social change, whether we are talking about Karl Marx and the Young Hegelians or Giuseppe Mazzini and Young Italy in the 19th century, Steve Biko and black consciousness in the 1960s, Tsietsi Mashinini in 1976 or our generation in the 1980s.

In a manner reminiscent of Abram Onkgopotse Tiro, the president of the students’ representative council Ramabina Mahapa spoke about how students had reached out to the administration in vain.

They read out racist hate mail they had received from some of their fellow white students. In less than an hour, they showed up the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of their so-called interlocutors and called out the university’s constant rationalisation of why it did not have black academics.

But they also showed up the government Department of Arts and Culture that, by telling us all these hideous statues were part of our heritage, displayed sheer cultural bankruptcy.

The department feeds into the sense of entitlement that leads white people to think Rhodes is all there is to our history. What about those who were effaced from history by Rhodes? Where is the place for Maqoma and Bambatha in our public symbols?

The very same white students do not even know anything about the Rhodes they are defending. It has taken black students to bring that history to their consciousness.

But this is not the first time black people have had to play a leadership role in this country. Those very same white students would not be enjoying the freedoms to insult them if it were not for the black liberation struggle.

Racist garbage

Contrary to the racist garbage that black people will lower standards, black students have showed up and called out the university’s wrong assumption about black intellectuals.

Every night over the previous week, black staff members were taking turns to conduct seminars with students in the administration building, Bremner – which the students now call Azania House.

The quality of the discussions was not anything I had seen at the University of Cape Town, Cornell, Harvard or any of the universities I had attended. Sadly, the racists among the white students were reduced to issuing expletives.

When it came to my turn to speak, I told the students that if our generation had paid attention to the majority of racist white students at the University of the Witwatersrand in the 1980s we would never have had the courage to join the struggle.

I urged them to keep their eyes on the prize because the racists would ultimately come around to their position.

Whenever black people have been abused by racists, they have risen above the abuse – and this country is the better for it.

This was also the experience of Gandhi at the hands of the British in India, Martin Luther King Jr in the United States and Steve Biko in South Africa – except now it comes dressed up in the name of tolerance of racism.

However, as the political scientist Robert Weissberg put it, “unadulterated tolerance is a dangerous illusion”. Such tolerance mocks the very idea of the antiracist society we fought so long and hard to attain.

Fear of a racial civil war

My biggest fear is that black people will not take the racist abuse any longer and we will find ourselves in the racial civil war we averted in 1994. I don’t say that lightly.

Nobody wins in war. Too many innocents lose their lives. Lives are interrupted and what once existed can never be rebuilt.

As a middle-class professor, I have everything to lose in a war. I’d rather continue to enjoy democracy’s creature comforts. But I’d be lying if I thought my reality was everyone’s.

I was telling a friend that I switch channels whenever I see images of war on television. I compared this instinct to what must be happening to white people when they are told about the conditions in townships.

They just switch mental channels. But my friend, a leading medical expert, said this was an inappropriate analogy.

While my denialism was a conscious act, white people were not even conscious that they were denying black people’s reality. He said the proper term for this behaviour in medicine would be ‘psychosis’.

But that makes me even more scared. If people can continue to behave in hurtful ways without knowing it, then surely a counter-reaction is inevitable?

Between us and that outcome stand the students of the University of Cape Town. They are our best antidote to racist psychosis. They are the miner’s canary that is foretelling us of the perils of racial war.

Heed them, and heed them now.

Xolela Mangcu is an associate professor at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

* This article by Xolela Mangcu, “The Rhodes debate: My biggest fear is that we will find ourselves in a racial civil war”, was first published by City Press on 29 March 2015. It is republished with the permission of the author and the newspaper.