President Jacob Zuma must be exceptionally happy about the #Rhodesmustfall campaign. It takes the heat off him and puts it on a dead white man.
The focus of the campaign is on the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, financier, statesman, and empire builder of British South Africa. He was Prime Minister of what was then Cape Colony. However, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign states that “the fall of Rhodes [the statue] is symbolic for the inevitable fall of white supremacy and privilege at [The University of Cape Town]’s campus”.
This is not a new idea. The calls to remove the statue have been around since the 1950s. The good news is some progress in demographics has been made: the percentage of ‘black’ students attending the university has increased by nearly 25 percent in the last six years. The bad news is that there is still a long way to go.
But whilst there may be persistant racial inequality at this particular institution in South Africa, white supremacy is not the most pressing of the many problems for the country as a whole, 22 years after the end of apartheid. Why has the campaign whipped up momentum now?
Economic inequality and corruption are rife, and living standards are falling. In the first seventeen years post-apartheid, income for the poorest 10 percent of the population did not increase at all. 2012 saw Section 27, a South African NGO, take the state Department of Basic Education to court because its 22 billion rand budget had been swallowed and left school children without textbooks for the academic year. (The saga continues to this day, with some schools across in the country always being left short.)
Zuma’s administration has wantonly frittered away the last traces of South Africa’s rainbow of equity and the African National Congress’ promise of economic equality. His nonchalant attitude to mathematics is crippling the country’s chances of economic progress: the rand has lost 26 percent of its value in the last six months and has bottomed out at just over 23ZAR to the pound.
In an ideal world, #Zumamustfall would make for a more meaningful campaign than #Rhodesmustfall – the ANC have no policies and no programmes to take South Africa forward.
The problem is that the protestors have no ideas to replace them either. They do not trust the middle-class economics of the main opposition party, Democratic Alliance. Fear of returning to a segregated system could influence them to see its leader, Mmusi Maimane, as merely a parrot for the country’s bankers – his party is still largely ‘white’, and historical memory is a powerful thing. But this is a tenacious commitment to a revolution that Lenin would be proud of. Supporters of the #Rhodesmustfall campaign cannot see an alternative to ANC rule. Meanwhile, Julias Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters are noisy, malevolent, and make a huge show of providing opposition to the ANC, but their radical-left redistributionist policies make little sense in the real, globalised world. Not to mention the dark cloud of corruption swirling around Malema, just as it does Zuma.
So if Zuma cannot fall because the protesters have no alternative to him, and no programme to reform a self-seeking ANC, what better substitute than a statue of the dead white man who began it all?
It appears increasingly clear that the growing levels of economic hardship and the tensions in national politics in the South African context are igniting a new era of post-Apartheid voices.
As I wrote in January, the problem is that the ANC are taking full advantage of this agitation, not fighting to find a solution to the economic and social problems:
“The ANC stated it intends to propose a specific law criminalizing ‘any act that perpetuates racism or glorifies apartheid’. This stinks of censorship. And sure enough, the ANC has hurled accusations of racism at those behind the recent Zuma Must Fall campaign, who have organized marches across South Africa in protest at Zuma’s leadership and government corruption. ANC Party national spokesman Zizi Kodwa stated: ‘They’ve got other interests, such as regime change, and they harbour racist hatred’.”
The anger at the current dire state of the economy and social tensions should be directed at Zuma, but instead it has been skilfully deflected and funnelled towards a man who has been dead for almost 114 years.
Rhodes was not a particularly nice man, and certainly not by today’s standards. Even plenty of Rhodes’ contemporaries criticised his racism and shameless imperialism. But getting angry about his beliefs now seems superficial.
Students at Oxford University have been playing catch up with America in campaigning against history’s villains- through the form of removing statues. The #Rhodesmustfall Oxford campaign wrote on Facebook on Monday that Oriel College, where the statue is:
“sold out when Cecil Rhodes first poured his blood money into the College. And it sold out again when it decided that the voices of wealthy alumni were more important than the voices of the students committed to their direction, protection and care. Oriel has proven that “historical context” – or rather, the whitewashing and glorification of genocide and imperialism – can be bought and sold, rather than discussed, debated and changed.”
This is a bit unfair. Oriel College is not in the habit of glorifying genocide. The statue was erected to acknowledge the fact Rhodes’ will has financed a lot of opportunities to study in what is still an extremely privileged and exclusive setting: his scholarships go to 89 young persons from 32 different countries a year, regardless of gender, race or faith. In fact, few British universities have benefited from philanthropy on the scale Cecil Rhodes bequest Oxford.
(Incidentally, these comments come from students at Oriel College. They have chosen to apply to, and accept a place at this college and university. Surely that could also count as selling out?)
At this point I risk be accused of moral relativism or, worse, complacent acceptance of racism. It is tempting to reply with an equally priggish argument that the Oxford #Rhodesmustfall protestors are practising historical absolutism. And to borrow a phrase from Peter Scott, who wrote an excellent article about the Oxford campaign in the Guardian, asserting the supremacy of 21st-century sensibilities of the West may not be the best starting place for exploring difference and equality.
But I do not particularly care about Rhodes’ statue. If it is offensive, then yes, talk about taking it down. But I can’t agree with the bizarre belief that this will tackle the problems the students purport to care about. Rhodes’ ‘blood money’ has already been spent. Taking down a statue will not erase his involvement with the university. Removing a block of stone shaped to resemble someone who used to be racist will not remove an institution’s racial discriminations. And most importantly, this identity politics is too often a displacement activity. Campaigning (or actually helping) to get more underprivileged students from within the UK into Oxford, or working out how to reduce tuition fees, would be a more useful activity. There are many more urgent targets than Rhodes’s Oriel statue.
Which brings me back to South Africa.
Rhodes cannot bring the rand back up, or strike trade deals to compensate for the crops which are due to fail this year, or reclaim the country’s credit rating which has fallen to BBB. This is what Zuma and the ANC can and should be doing.
Rather than calling for more wealth redistribution as a way to address the economic inequality in South Africa, the ANC should be focusing on ways to increase the growth of the economy and reduce income inequality. Only 1 in 53 South Africans pay tax, there is simply no way the government can tax and redistribute their way out of economic inequality, especially when it is in so much debt itself. There are plenty of viable options though: South Africa currently suffers from a bloated civil service, crushing labour laws, too many state-owned businesses, and property rights that are too often undermined. Reducing any of these would be a good start.
The two campaigns – one to topple racism, one to topple Zuma – are getting dangerously tangled. Zuma and his faction within the ANC will soon be able to accuse and criminalise those who are making legitimate objections to his governance, which have nothing to do with race.
Campaigning to remove Rhodes’s statue, in England and South Africa, is the easy option. It has a clear end point and Rhodes is the easy target: his faults are obvious, he cannot answer back, and it’s always much simpler to blame your predecessors. But Rhodes has been dead for more than 100 years and his world is never coming back. The world we live in now has enough problems of its own that need fixing before we try to correct the past.
Campaigning to end corruption, to improve national education, creating a fairer society of true opportunity, this is what is needed. That is today’s heavy lifting.