#RhodesMustFall, race and essentialism

575fc635e692409d82cb27b378a5476cThe UCT protests sparked by Chumani Maxwele on March 9 are ongoing, with Students Representative Council members and other students currently occupying the Bremner building, where the Vice-Chancellor and other members of the executive sit.

As I said in my previous post on this, I do think that Rhodes should fall. But I also think that there’s scope in protests like these to be politically expedient, intellectually lazy, and also to fall victim to a (typically) well-intentioned but ultimately dangerous form of identity politics.

The identity politics I refer to are in the imagining of communities of agreement, to modify Benedict Anderson’s construction. In the worst manifestation of this (in a South African context), we might imagine that those communities are defined by the simple characteristic of “race”, but one can also wrongly conflate all sorts of beliefs under a category like “liberal”, as Xolela Mangcu does in a column today.

Sharing a skin colour, a nationality, or a gender (etc.) offers no guarantee of sharing opinions or ideologies. Yes, some inferences are reasonable – for example, in a country like South Africa, I think it immediately more likely that a white South African will be somewhat oblivious to his or her structural advantages.

White South Africans benefited from apartheid, and continue to do so. Some of us don’t acknowledge that, to be sure. But the fact that we did benefit from apartheid should not mean assuming bad faith when we speak about race and discrimination either – interlocutors should still be willing to hear arguments and judge them on their merits.

On the other side of that coin, being a member of a disenfranchised or oppressed group of whatever sort doesn’t automatically confer virtue on arguments or behaviour. It might be the case that your cause is more likely to be urgent, yes, but we have no guarantee of this.

The Rhodes protests going on at UCT are justified, and it is to our discredit that it has taken so long for the Rhodes statue to be an issue. But I do fear that some students are not being encouraged to think and debate by these protests, but rather to be dogmatic, and to make judgements according to simplistic categories like race alone, rather than arguments.

Any of you who have looked at comment threads on this might know what I mean. I also have privileged access, in that the discussion forums of my 1st-year course at UCT have carried much commentary on the protests, the statue, and transformation at UCT.

There is little consensus, and many students – across whatever categories you want to divide them into – are not supportive of certain aspects of the protest. Their complaint, and one I agree with, is that it’s antithetical to the purpose of a university to refuse to discuss something, as the SRC are doing by demanding that a date for the statue’s removal be provided before they engage in dialogue.

But what’s also going on is plenty of simmering racial judgement, where good faith or bad faith is assumed, based largely on race (as judged by the name of the student). In other words, prejudice, if not necessarily of the naked sort.

On social media, some folks are still talking about Maxwele and excrement, as if that’s the only issue – or even an issue at all. It’s not, really – it’s a detail trivial enough that focusing on it simply marks you out as someone desperate to deny the legitimacy of the protest.

There is scope for various lazy arguments, and for various easy forms of prejudice, in situations like these. Given that this protest is likely to go on for some time – and (rightly) focus attention on transformation more generally – everyone involved will hopefully remain aware that when emotions run high, we can lose sight of subtleties.

However things end up going, this is going to be one of those moments in time that gets recorded as part of UCT’s history. Let’s all do our best to make that history one that we can be proud of reading, and shaping.