THE SILENT RACISM THAT RESIDES IN THE SHADOWS OF RHODES UNIVERSITY by Malaika Mahlatsi**
“What is necessary as a prelude to anything else that may come is a very strong grass-roots build-up of Black Consciousness such that Blacks can learn to assert themselves and stake their rightful claim.” – Steve Biko, I WRITE WHAT I LIKE
Rhodes University is revered as one of the most academically excellent institutions of higher learning not only in South Afrika, but in the Afrikan continent as a whole. It is regarded as a factory wherein future leaders of this glorious continent are manufactured. Those who reside outside its walls view it as a yardstick by which great universities are measured and most of those who reside within its walls are in a permanent mode of defence for its traditions and culture. But there are those within these walls, the silenced voices, who have a different opinion about the institution but can never speak out for fear of victimisation by the institution’s management and rejection by the student body. These students and workers nestled within the walls of this institution have experienced first-hand, the brutal nature of the extent to which subliminal racism and stratification on the basis of class can go. But very few dare to rise and be counted amongst the brave and while the reasons for their silence and refusal to fight are admissible, the ramifications are fatal, for in refusing to be counted amongst those who fight for genuine transformation, we are setting up a time-bomb which will explode in the faces of our children and their grandchildren who will someday inherit this institution from us.
Many will be uncomfortable as they read this article, not only because it provides an alternative and dissenting view to that which has been internalised and defined by the institution’s literature, but because it is human nature to reject that which is foreign. And in Rhodes University, engaging on issues of race and class is foreign. In this institution of ours, you are more likely to be marginalised for breaking ground on issues that few want to discuss than you are for anything else. In our institution, we find comfort in burying our heads in the sand and pretending that there are no race and class antagonisms that exist. We seek solace in an ignorant ideal of superficial racial harmony, because that solace shields us from the brutal truth that we do not want to confront, a truth that we would rather ignore for fear that it will expose us all for what we truly are. Yes, we seek comfort in the existence within ignorance, because if we opt for this existence, we move further and further away from directly confronting the questions that deep in our hearts, we know must be confronted. And we know this because we do not exist in a vacuum. We are part of a society that finds itself engulfed by these antagonisms and try as we may to treat Rhodes University like a castle in the air, it is inevitable that we will someday stand before an uncomfortable truth and answer to our own conscience. That truth is that subliminal though it may be, there is racism in this institution and there is an ostracisation of students from a working-class background by both the management of the university and the student population. I want to quote a recent incident that corroborates this somewhat controversial assertion (not disregarding the understanding that in Rhodes University, anything that relates to race is controversial by default).
The example regards the scathing attacks on mostly Black students, attacks that have found expression on the SRC Facebook page. Over the past three weeks, perhaps because of the SRC period, the Rhodes SRC group has been a very volatile platform of engagement where at least 2000 students converge to discuss matters that concern the institution and its activities. While most of the discussions have been about general matters, there have also been very critical debates that have been instigated by students the likes of Mthobisi Buthelezi which have often dealt with issues of racism, classism and sexism. Many students engaged on these debates and a quick perusal will indicate to you that most of them were White. The responses and the contributions that these students made to the discussions were not only appalling in their total disregard for ideological and intellectual depth, but they were also decorated greatly in pathologised racism and White supremacy. On the 22nd of September 2012, in a discussion about Black Economic Empowerment, a capitalist model of wealth redistribution designed by the South Afrikan government to redress the inequalities of the apartheid regime by giving previously disadvantaged groups - mainly Black people - economic privileges previously not available to them, a White student said, and I quote:
“But by taking it away from the people who created it won't benefit the country in my mind (I stand to be corrected). Would we rather not want to integrate the black people into the 'white monopoly' over just trying to remove it or over take it, colours can change with mixing after all?"
This comment was made in response to a comment that BEE seeks to share the country’s wealth amongst the people, Black and White, equally. Most people will find a way to intellectualise this comment, but few will dare to dissect it and expose it for the White supremacist thinking that it actually expresses. Firstly, this comment insinuates that White people “created” the wealth that they inherited from the apartheid legacy. Such a fallacious insinuation must not be dismissed by those whose principles favour truth over popularity. And the truth is that White people did NOT “create” wealth, they stole it. They found everything in the motherland; the land on which they build their industries and the minerals with which they trade. Many native people had to die fighting against this brutal dispossession. And to claim that the solution to inequality is to “integrate Black people into White monopoly capital” is as racist and White supremacist as it can get, for it implies that the only destiny for the Black man is White. That is to say, it implies that Black people are consumers and Whites are producers. It implies that the former are incapable of creating and as such, must be integrated into a system whose very nucleus is confined within their historical oppression and subjugation. The tragedy in this student’s thinking is not only the thinking itself, but rather, that through various engagements that have taken place on the SRC platform, there is evidence that suggests that he is one of very many. Though not on the subject of BEE, many such related debates have been entered into where many White students have exerted and exposed their White arrogance and ethnocentric mentalities that seek to define the experiences of Black people and measure the worthiness of the Black world using a White ruler. Interestingly and unfortunately, there have also been a few Black students who have been vehicles on which this White supremacist ideology is driven. These students have continuously defended ideas that are antagonistic towards a Black consciousness perspective in favour of liberalism. I understand their positions, for they are a product of a particular socialisation which still remains foreign to the reality of the nervousness of natives’ conditions. But I do not sympathise with ignorance about the truth, nor do I have the moral inclination to tolerate liberalism. A liberal, Black or White, is but an obstacle to authentic social cohesion and a secret advocate of the status quo.
The vigour with which students who say anything that is not comfortable for the Rhodes students are ganged up on by so-called progressive liberals can also not be left unchallenged. There have been very many “progressive liberals” who have come onto the threads of these discussions simply to exert their arrogance, which has more often than not been misguided, for very few of the counter-arguments raised have been rich with ideological and philosophical depth. What we see instead is intellectualised liberal rhetoric, an advanced detachment of fermented philistinism.
I must add that this example alone does not speak for the majority of Rhodes University students, for in our totality, we amount to just over 6500 while on the SRC Forum there are exactly 2000 of us. But it is a cause for concern when even within that 2000, we find many whose views are shaped by this arrogance. It is problematic that a university that is supposed to produce a new generation of thought-leaders is so pregnant with economisation of truth, that leaders of tomorrow are ignorant of the yesterday that has shaped a today from which tomorrow must be built. A university where debate is turned into a platform for the expression of White arrogance and White supremacy is no progressive university. It is a sanctuary for liberals, conservatives, right-wingers, neo-Nazists and fascists. It is a prison for the Black Conscious students, the Afrikanists, the Socialists, the Communists and all those who are an anti-thesis to all constructs of oppressive, ethnocentric and intolerant ideology. The time when students who subscribe to BC ideology are not criminalised is now. If students of Rhodes University and indeed the institution’s management are going to refuse to allow us to be the ones who write the Black narrative without the consent or the approval of the White world as is the case, then Rhodes University is refusing to create a festival of ideas. It is instead creating platform for a battleground of ideas. But whether our ideas are converged in a festival or a battleground, the fact is, our voices will be heard and White supremacist attitudes will be challenged.
I pause…for now.
**Malaika is a member of the South African Students Congress but writes in her own capacity. The views are not that of the organisation.
1st year BSS (Geography)