Is it fair to ask black South Africans, again and again, to commit to nonviolence in the face of white brutality? Are the idiots who ran onto that rugby pitch any less responsible for the burned paintings? – Chris Thurman, Business Day, FEBRUARY 26 2016,
I would like to take issue with certain white commentators with regards to the burning of artworks at University of Cape Town and the beating of black protestors at the University of the Free State. One of these commentators in Business Day suggests that the behaviour of the Rhodesmustfall students must be seen through the prism of the white students beating up of black students. That is to say that the white physical oppression and violence (as manifested in white racist students beating black students) is the cause of the Rhodesmustfall students’ behaviour. This kind of meretricious populism is of course perfect for newspapers and it serves a great deal of purposes:
- it is the kind of self-satisfied argument of the the camouflaged hierarchy. The kind of ‘yes we are right behind you brothers’ that has been at the centre of so much of the intellectual duplicity of the last one hundred years.
- it is, as he glibly suggests, also a nice piece of fence sitting which in actual fact is an attempt to show the white backed establishment ‘I am actually merely being objective’.
- it serves to maintain the hierarchy (and the commentator’s position in it) by laying claim to the idea that: actually there are elements of the hierarchy that ‘feel your pain brothers’ and are working for you from within – this is in fact highly contentious.
To suggest that Rhodesmustfall is about a bunch of white racists who, in the most disgusting racist action I have seen in many years, decided to beat up black students who were airing their frustrations with the community, is simply wrong. Rhodesmustfall is about structural power not physical power. This vulgar display of force may back up the status quo but it is in fact not the status quo. Rhodesmustfall is not about a pathetic bunch of bearded anachronistic de le Ray worshipers whose notions of identity and ownership are entirely misplaced – although their actions may confirm to the Rhodesmustfall students that the establishment has no intention of changing. To confuse this is to aim the gun at the wrong target.
With this in mind we must take to two incidents (the burning and the beatings) and judge them on their own terms. Firstly, the beatings are one of the most troubling incidents I have seen within South Africa since the end of Apartheid and they show clearly that racial divisions are still very much in place. Legal action needs to be taken against these white racists. They are threatening the country’s peace and stability. They have shown themselves to be exactly what they are: unreformed, intolerant, unrepentant lovers of the old regime and worse. As for the burning of artworks this too must be strongly condemned. This kind of violence will never be the solution. The indiscriminatory nature of the burnings, without thought or understanding will not lead to anything. But police and legal action will never be part of a solution here. The solution to this will be found partly in the fact that the wealthy and privileged (largely white) people of South Africa have obligations, both social and historical, to those whose lives have been effected by poverty and racism.