Rhodes Must Fall

By | 17th February 2016

I don’t quite know where to begin. But somehow I have to get the words out because they are bubbling up inside me and, I suspect, inside many others. I feel that, somewhat ironically, in this cyber-era there is perhaps more self-censoring (than there was pre-Facebook and Twitter etc) because there is so often a lot of judgement which leaves its ugly cyber-mark in cyber-space where words linger. Anyway, this notwithstanding, I’m going to pour the words out. Because it’s cathartic. Because I have a right to freedom of expression. Because, it has been my experience in the past that words, chosen with sensitivity and true intent, can unite us in our differences and our similarities. So judge me if you will, but I want to express my thoughts on this matter as candidly as possible. I hope in doing so to add to the discussion in a constructive way – even if merely to enable people to identify or share their experiences.

The most recent events on UCT campus have saddened me deeply. I am a South African. I was born in this country. I love this country. And, as the idealist in me starts to feel buried, I weep for this country. I suppose I should begin by acknowledging that by virtue of my skin colour, I have enjoyed certain privileges in my life that others have not. I acknowledge that I have been guilty of bias or prejudice at times in my life – even if merely on a subconscious level. And I am sorry for this. I am sorry the colour of my skin is the cause of so much consternation and disharmony. I wish apartheid had never happened. I can never fully understand what it must have been like for those living in suppression and fear during those dark days; being made to feel like lesser humans simply because they were born with a darker skin. I can, and I have sought, to empathise on a deep level and to take steps, in my own way and to the best of my ability, to transform society for the better; be it through education, through dialogue, through pro bono legal advice, through small acts of kindness. I think many white South Africans are guilty of racism. But I also know that many of them are meaningfully committed – in big ways and small – to the vital project of transformation. To judge and hate them purely for their skin colour simply perpetuates the cycle of hatred and division and I can tell you that I know of many good, kind white South Africans who feel they need to apologise constantly for their whiteness and for the stamp of our history. This in turn tends to perpetuate either a silencing or a defensiveness, neither of which is helpful. And of course hatred begets hatred. We all know this is one of the reasons why Madiba has gone down in the history books as a legend: he broke the cycle. He forgave. And in navigating the run-up to democracy, he chose the path of meaningful and respectful engagement.

When I read Constitutional Court judgments which, in discussion of the facts, canvass the apartheid atrocities and the scars we live with today because of them, I genuinely feel saddened and quite mortified that such unfairness and cruelty was part of the fabric of our society. Things really hit home for me on a more personal level when speaking to a friend who told me of the scars she bears from her childhood witnessing of her parents’ struggle for freedom and their confrontation with security police. It honestly moved me to tears. I wish we could rewrite history. But we cannot. We are here today in the now and we must move forward. I acknowledge that this necessitates that we open channels of communication; that we seek truth and reconciliation; that we do not just put band-aids over these sore spots. That even if we feel we personally have not wronged our fellow man, we assume a collective moral sense of responsibility to right the wrongs of our past – through our actions and, indeed, our thoughts. That we open our minds and our hearts. Quite simply, that we be kind human-beings that recognise and respect the humanity of others, irrespective of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation and so forth. I believe that our institutions and corporations need to be transformed to reflect more accurately the race and gender demographic in this country. Glass ceilings must be shattered. We are all surely in agreement that this is a good and necessary thing?

For this reason, amongst others, people of all creeds and colours got behind the RhodesMustFall and FeesMustFall movements and the ideals they have sought to espouse, including equality, diversity, greater access to education, transformed academic institutions and so on. But, things have come to a head. The scales have been tipped in the proverbial balance. Last night on upper campus the value of the RMF dialogue was undercut by a heinous resort to violence; hate speech; damage to property (including the destruction of a shuttle that serves to transport students, the defacing of the bust of Maria Emmeline Barnard Fuller –who was one of the first female students at UCT and championed the cause of educating and empowering women). This is disproportionate and thus unreasonable behaviour. It amounts to violent protest – not peaceful protest protected within the meaning of the Constitution. This conduct, which epitomises so much hatred and anger, is surely not good, just, helpful?

I should add that many of my students – black and white – have felt “bullied” by fellow students championing these causes. They have felt that their voices are being silenced; that roadblocks are being put in the way of their right of access to education and housing; their freedom of movement, expression and association. Some of them have told me that they genuinely fear for their safety and well-being. Many academics – committed to educating and empowering students – feel the same. One colleague remarked that he/she “feels the hatred” from the students because of his/her skin colour. I know that this person is a dedicated educator and researcher – indeed an asset to both the law student and staff contingents. What if all these human resources leave? Choose the path of least resistance? What then for the value of our tertiary education for students of all colours and walks of life? A related pragmatic concern is how will we attract and retain academics of colour if things are so unsettled; so insecure and there is now even less financial incentive to join the academy? These are difficult questions to which I do not know the answers. I applaud RMF students for commencing an important dialogue on issues we must all face; for asking some tough questions and demanding tangible and speedy relief. But, as always, it comes down to that elusive balance: between principle and pragmatism, and indeed competing rights and principles; between means and ends. Last night, the means did not justify the ends. And so, “the centre cannot hold; things fall apart”. Time to start building again. Let us try to begin without malice, judgement and ill-intent. Let us try to be respectful. Let us be kind. Please.