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Beyond Monuments: How Do We Truly End the Legacy of Rhodes?

Beyond Monuments:Beyond Monuments: How Do We Truly End the Legacy of Rhodes?

Andrew Nash | Amandla 39 | June/July 2015

In the heady years after 1994, a wide range of problems were seen as legacies of apartheid that would soon be resolved by a government committed to a better life for all. A decade later – as Zuma’s challenge to Mbeki culminated at Polokwane, say – it had become conventional wisdom that some institutions in South Africa worked well, while others were constantly in crisis. Analysts assumed that the working institutions would continue like that, and gave advice on how the others could be rescued.

Public hospitals were dysfunctional, for example, but the wealthy had access to private health care. Provincial education departments could not deliver textbooks, but SARS collected taxes efficiently. Crime was a problem, but specialized units like the Hawks were well regarded, as were chapter-nine institutions such as the Public Protector. Government tenders were influenced by corruption, but COSATU still gave priority to servicing its members.

It was assumed that correct policies and good oversight would solve the problem. Zuma’s first administration worked on this assumption, with a complaints hot-line and ministers signing performance agreements which supposedly made them accountable.

Instead the crisis has spread in all directions. It is no longer this or that institution that is at risk, but the entire project of seeking to overcome racial domination on the basis of capitalism.

The Marikana massacre of 2012 was the clearest sign of this. Since then, the crisis has continued to spread into the functioning institutions of a few years ago and even into parliament. Nelson Mandela’s funeral is a telling example – no-one imagined that any problems would occur. It may not impact every institution of South African life, but none is exempt from it.

The conflict around the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town (UCT) is a sign even the most protected institutions will be drawn into this generalized crisis, facing all the contradictions of the project of overcoming racial domination within capitalism. In this widening crisis, new layers of society may also be drawn into the larger resistance from below that has emerged since Marikana – for example, through students making common cause with workers, or demanding a new curriculum.

Apartheid made it difficult for South African universities to be brought in line with the imperatives of neoliberalism in the 1970s and 80s, when the process began in the United States, Britain and elsewhere. But South African universities were rapidly restructured on neoliberal lines after 1994. The process began before that, with donor funding being withdrawn from bursaries in fields like teaching and social work and increased in commerce and engineering, which were thought to serve more directly the needs of capitalist profit.

This was followed by outsourcing of workers, whose pay and benefits were slashed. Mergers of existing universities announced in 2002, separated the research-intensive, mainly historically white universities from the underfunded rural black universities and former technikons. State subsidies have been linked to postgraduate recruitment and research publication rates, deepening the class divide. Reduced per capita funding forced universities to seek funding or partnerships with business and industry and brought about a further reorientation of the curriculum towards the needs of capitalism. Expanding bureaucracies have been entrusted with performance review, marketing and the like – reinforcing the constant propagation of the ideology of “excellence”. This restructuring has worked to the advantage of the well-established, formerly white universities, especially those with a liberal tradition or easily able to adopt it. These are precisely the universities whose colonial heritage is now being contested. None of them has benefited more than UCT, which has become the university of choice for the new elite and the leading South African university in the global ratings.

UCT has had the resources to avoid much of the conflict around financial exclusions that have been regular occurrences at most South African universities. The idea that a UCT degree is a guarantee of career success has kept student discontent within limits. The slow transformation of its racial demography has been implicitly justified by the need to uphold what are widely seen as objective standards of achievement.

Put differently, within the post-apartheid project of seeking to integrate South Africa into a global order of neoliberal capitalism, UCT seemed to provide an inside lane to all involved. The market valued its products. As long as the majority of the UCT community remained committed to individual self-advancement, its ideological consensus seemed assured.

The campaign to remove the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from its central place at the entrance to the main campus of UCT has changed everything at the university, more suddenly than anyone could have imagined. Its demand that “Rhodes must fall” has made the endless procedures of UCT management redundant. UCT’s Senate voted almost unanimously for the removal of the statue.

A statue of British coloniser Cecil John Rhodes is covered in plastic bags as part of a protest by students and staff of the University of Cape Town (UCT) on March 20, 2015. RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty Images

At the same time, black student solidarity has exposed the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of racism that persist and are even strengthened in a neoliberal environment. Transformation, in such an environment, follows the logic of what Biko described as “white man’s integration – an integration based on exploitative values… in which black will compete against black, using each other as rungs up a step-ladder… in which the black man will have to prove himself in terms of these values before meriting acceptance and ultimate assimilation.”

Neoliberalism treats almost everyone as a cog in the machine of capitalist value. But it is likely to do so in ways that are especially wounding to blacks in a historically white context. The racism below the veneer of official non-racism was starkly exposed by the outpouring online and elsewhere of anti-black hatred in response to the campaign. Perhaps most significantly, the campaign has raised the question of the curriculum and how it relates to the historical needs and aspirations of the majority of South Africans – a question widely discussed in the 1980s, but stifled since then, or concealed behind the smokescreen of “excellence”. The question of the curriculum is significant because it goes to the root of the racism experienced by black students at UCT. To the extent that the education is seen as a commodity, students and teachers will relate to the curriculum as a means of enhancing the individual’s market value, not as a way of changing what kind of person you are or forming your innermost beliefs.

The almost unanimous vote of UCT Senate reflects the fact that capitalism in South Africa would prefer not to have a rapacious white imperialist as its public face. White capital sees the benefits of giving the new black elite a tangible interest in the exploitation of predominantly black labour in South Africa. UCT’s official representatives have never practiced the crude racism that has come to the fore in recent weeks, and explicit racism will probably recede once the statue is removed.

Removing the statue of Rhodes is easier than removing his legacy from UCT. That legacy lives on beyond the monuments, embedded in the racial form of South African capitalism itself. Rhodes depended on the denial of black rights to ensure coerced exploitation of black migrant labour for imperialist profit; at Marikana, a democratically elected ANC government ensured the same result. In that sense, the Marikana massacre represents the democratization of Rhodes’ legacy.

Rhodes’ racism and imperialism were integrally connected to the South African capitalist order, which he played a major role in establishing. Racism was the ideological means of ensuring a cheap black labour force to extract minerals. Colonial expansion was the means for controlling mineral resources and labour supplies alike. The British Empire provided a market for these minerals.

Rhodes’ plan to build a university on the slopes of Table Mountain and to establish scholarships for study at Oxford were part of the same grand design. Black mineworkers were cogs in the machine extracting mineral wealth from Africa, and colonial students were to become the rulers and beneficiaries of the same project. Beyond white privilege at UCT, Rhodes played an indispensable role in making South Africa the most unequal society in the world today.

The question that faces the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, then, is how we truly bring an end to Rhodes’ legacy. Is it enough to remove his statue, challenge racism and call for a black curriculum? Put differently, is it possible for UCT to remain elitist but produce a more inclusive elite? Or do we need to fight for a society in which all are treated equally, and a university which contributes to this task?

The way that question is answered will have an impact on many others, which are hardly yet being made explicit. Should we work towards more black mine-owners, or towards a society in which everyone is equally involved in decisions about how we exploit our mineral wealth and shares equally in their benefits? Should we be calling for more black professors or for a university which abolishes academic rank and uses its resources for the benefit of all who form part of it? The courage, determination and initiative shown by campaigning students at UCT and elsewhere will come to fruition in confronting such questions as these.

Andrew Nash is an Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Cape Town (UCT)

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