The Burning

The task for the new generation of South African activists is to reimagine power. That means resisting the impulse to use power in a way that demeans and cheapens and exploits.

Students at UWC during #FeesMustFall protests. Image Credit Barry Christianson.

At the University of Cape Town (UCT) this week, a group of students protested the housing crisis that has affected the university for as long as black people have been present as students on the campus.  Every year black students students starve and drop out because they cannot afford campus accommodation. The #RhodesMustFall (RMF) movement, from which South Africans have come to expect uncompromising and hard-to- watch displays of anti-colonial symbolism, decided to erect a shack to disrupt the complacency that says shacks must stay in their place.

The appearance of a small corrugated iron shack where it doesn’t belong.  It was jarring; incongruous amidst the pristine and manicured elitism of UCT.  It looked malignant; a growth where tidiness normally masks exclusion.

It was a powerful statement but the protesting students were not content with just ruffling feathers.  They wanted to make a pyre: to burning paintings the way one might an effigy.  It was a send-off to all the dead white men whom history has covered in glory instead of blood.

The fact that the UCT art collection continues to house so many of these sorts of portraits was laid bare.  The flames licked at history.  The colonial exploiters were framed in gilt and the fact of them, the idea that there are so many homages to this past, was sickening.

So I looked at the pictures and felt sick.  I felt sick at the fact of them, and I felt sick at their being burned.  Then I learned that the Vice Chancellor’s office had been petrol bombed and I felt very very sick indeed.  What if there had been, in there a black woman cleaning.  What would we then say about the collateral damage?

The events at UCT unfolded after weeks of tension at Wits University. Last week, a student Zama Mthunzi who was reported to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) for hate speech over a t-shirt he created during a protest over the financial exclusion of poor students from Wits, and the presence of security personnel on campus.

Art, it seems, has contagious qualities, as does violence.

At both UCT and Wits, at the University of Kwazulu-Natal and at the University of Johannesburg, indeed at many of the historically white universities in South Africa, private security has been heavily present since the beginning of the academic year in late January.   University administrators have dug in their heels, as have activists.  Both sides accuse one another of violence.

The university of course, has institutional and structural weight on its side.  It has far more “respectable” power than the students.  It has the logic of the status quo in its corner and so it is easy to see it as ‘rational’ in the face of irrational and angry students.

I take this as a given.  I do not suggest that the university and students have commensurate power.  Perhaps my problem is that I expect more from emancipatory movements than I do from the academy.  I want the movement that is building and growing to be ‘clean,’ and untainted by the decay and rot of violence, by accepting that the winning side gets to erase all traces of their enemy.

More to the point though, of what really worries me, is the sense that our national debates about these issues are so starkly polarized. Too many of us insist on scorn and derision, and yet these issues are critical for our common future.  South Africans, it seems are increasingly engaged in violent rhetoric and action.

So this is not a note aimed at berating #RhodesMustFall though the blowing up of the office is chilling.  I have disagreements with some of the tactics they have used of late.  More broadly though, as I look across the political and social landscape, I am concerned that our activists should not succumb to the either/or thinking that seems to have gripped other quarters in our country.  I fear though, that many amongst the student movement are veering in this direction.

Responses to the t-shirt and to the tactic of burning the Vice Chancellor’s office and also the art have been so frighteningly unequivocal.  You are either totally with the students, defending their right to burn art and buildings because people’s lives matter more and ‘who cares about those dead whites and rubbish art anyway?’ or you hate the students and dismiss their concerns because they are wanton and dangerous property destroyers.

Something is wrong.   Similarly, in the case of the t-shirt, there is an important debate to be had.  Is saying “Fuck Whites,” a useful or a diversionary tactic? Where does the violence of masculist language take us?  Yet in too many quarters, simply asking these questions makes you a sell out.  On the other end of the divide, it makes you anti-white, a hate-monger for daring to support a student’s speech as fair comment in a racist society.

The false need for agreement, and the vitriol spread around when people disagree – with university management, with politicians, and with activists – is starting to worry me.

But let me be clear about my own views on some of this. On RMF, and specifically the UCT issue, it is shameful that students have not been guaranteed the right to housing. Part of the project of making universities spaces of liberation and genuine learning includes supporting poor students to be fully functional students like their elite peers.

Also, art must not be burned.  Supporters of the burning of the paintings have argued that this is yet another defense of western notions of respectability; that art is sacrosanct because European democracy says that it is.  I find this view too narrow, and indicative of how much work we still have to do to decolonize our mentalities.

In African societies the griot, the dancer, the woman who painted her home or beaded, or who drew paintings on the inside of a cave –  have been important and in some instances sacred people in our communities.  So I am skeptical of the idea that ‘art’ is only valued by people from settler and colonizing societies. It seems to me that we ought to value art precisely because our acts of creativity have been so under-valued and mis-recognised for so long.

Burning colonial artifacts might feel good but in the end it seems like an act of woundedness rather than an act of strength.  It does symbolic violence to the colonizers and that may be okay, but more than that – and this is where I have real questions – it seeks erasure. I want to believe that a movement for justice is one that rages against forgetting, not one that enables it.

I continue to believe that the students who have brought Rhodes’ statue down and continue to insist that we look his legacy in the face, are some of our finest and bravest minds.  They have found a way to demonstrate the symbolism of the colony and to shake this country out of the complacency of accepting the intolerable. They must also know that when you begin to destroy art (regardless of its quality or who made it) the collateral damage is always, always far more bloody and self-harming than you can immediately see.

In the end a movement is not simply the sum of its ideas; it is spoken for by the actions of its members. A movement marks its progress by what it has created and not just by what it destroys (although destruction has its place).

A movement must see beyond the here and now; beyond the catharsis of immediate disturbance. Catharsis has its own power but it must not be mistaken for power. What is done in the name of a movement either builds it, or haunts it.

The task for this generation of activists is to reimagine power and this means resisting the impulse to use power in a way that demeans and cheapens and exploits. This means refusing to use the master’s tools. Violence is the favourite tool of the institutions and structures that do the most harm to black and poor and marginalized people everywhere in the world and so I will continue to repudiate its use, even as I recognize that it takes place in the context of greater and often disproportionate violence. I know this is not popular amongst those with whom I spend intellectual time but it is a position I have considered carefully.

I would like the RMF movement to employ ever more creative and energy-giving means to fight power as it is currently understood in this country. I would like RMF and other student groupings to also aim their ire at the liberators who are also black, because they have betrayed the dreams of millions and they command a trillion rand state budget. #FeesMustFall began this focus on the state but I am deeply interested in where it goes and what that also builds. I would like RMF to widen its scope while also continuing to aim at those who have always run the colony and who still today continue to administer a system of intellectual apartheid.

I know that this is not my movement and that I am almost old enough to be a mother to some of the protesting students, so these are just wishes. I am aware that this is a lot to ask and that it has its pitfalls.  Still, given everything I have witnessed this past year, I am hopeful. I continue to watch this generation and to be awed by its energy and dynamism and bravery. I remain an ally – critical; worried at times; on my feet with excitement at others – but an ally nonetheless.

Further Reading

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