On 10 October 2013, a certain segment of white South Africans left their children with the “girl” for a couple of hours as they marched through the streets demanding acknowledgement of the “genocide” (sic) being perpetrated against them as an “oppressed” (sic) minority. I also stumbled across, to my horror, Carly Rae Jepson (of “Call Me Maybe” infamy) mangling a cover version of Joni Mitchell’s classic “Both Sides Now.” My faith in the intelligence of humans reached a nadir. But nothing prepared me for an article by Dutch journalist Fred de Vries: “Grahamstown: Love and sex in the city of saints” in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian.

De Vries lives in South Africa and has some local fame for his interviews of leading South Africans. His most recent book, Rigtingbedonnerd (2012), focused on Afrikaner identities after 1994. More recently, his bio lists a writing fellowship at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research in Johannesburg and teaching creative and travel writing at Rhodes University (in Grahamstown). His Mail & Guardian article is ostensibly based on his experiences at Rhodes University.

Now, beyond doubt, Grahamstown is a strange place. When I first arrived I found, as a Star Wars nerd, that the best way to describe the place was in the words of Luke Skywalker, “if there is a bright centre to the universe, you’re on the planet farthest from it.”

I first saw the Mail & Guardian article on Facebook. The friend who pointed me in the direction of the article and I shared experiences of being care-free, largely irresponsible and upper middle-class kids at traditionalist English liberal Model C schools.

Our Rhodes days together followed a fairly similar pattern. On a first reading, the article evoked feelings of nostalgia–being “smashing[ly] drunk during orientation week,” meeting people we had real connections with, and getting up to mischief that would not have occurred if we had stayed in South Africa’s capital Pretoria on the wrong side of the “Boerewors Curtain.”

However, the article preyed on my mind. On a second reading, I realized that hoping that “Red October” and Carly Rae Jepson were the low points of the intelligence of individuals was wishful thinking.

Rhodes University, including staff and students, constitutes some 9,000 of the Grahamstown population of 120,000. It is quite some accomplishment that in a few short paragraphs de Vries, drawing on the archaic ideas of his informants (not at all problematized), insults almost every group in Grahamstown.

Let’s begin by observing that de Vries entirely conflates particular, mostly white middle-class and privileged experiences of a segment of the Rhodes University population and their clubs, bars and bedrooms with the identity of Grahamstown as a whole.

There is no reference to the thousands of mostly black residents who, in the face of massive unemployment, terrible service delivery, a largely broken state school system, HIV/AIDS, high incidence of rape and gender violence, don’t live the life of post-material freedom of identity that de Vries so glibly ascribes to Grahamstown.

In a display of shocking scholarly and journalistic blindness and ethno-centricism, the different lives and experiences of some 110,000 other people are utterly effaced.

But there are also other kinds of blindness and silences. De Vries writes:

Grahamstown as a bastion of experimentalism – who would have thought that in 1812, when Colonel John [Graham] established it as a garrison town?

Had he cared to learn about the history of Grahamstown, de Vries may have reminded us of the ‘experimentalism’ that Colonel Graham introduced – that of declaring amaXhosa women and children fair game during the wars of colonial conquest and dispossession. But why spoil a ‘clever’ narrative.

The article contains glib throwaways such as Grahamstown has a “reputation for tolerance and progressive thinking and for experimenting with love, sex and relationships”. Really, where is the evidence?

Were there special relationships of love and humanity between the black and white folk, an abundance of sex across the color lines and marriages across ‘races’ among the population of Grahamstown?

This is sheer obfuscation on the part of de Vries. While there may have been some differences at the margins, at core Grahamstown was hardly different from other ‘white’ towns before or during apartheid.

And how about this: Rhodes University “would gain a reputation for being a liberal, free-thinking institution”. When and among whom? After the 1980s perhaps, forced by the explosion of anti-apartheid struggles but before that?

I wonder what Bantu Stephen Biko would say, having led a walk-out in 1967 when the Rhodes administration refused to permit black student to stay in the residences. Or Basil Moore, having been denied a teaching post for obviously political reasons.

De Vries is either oblivious of Rhodes’ own 2008 public acknowledgement of shame, which makes clear that for much of its history it was far from a “liberal, free-thinking institution”, or suffers from a bad dose of amnesia.

The fact of the matter is that Rhodes University and Grahamstown do not begin and end with a certain segment of middle-class students spending their days and nights drinking and experimenting with their identities and sexualities.

Either de Vries walks around Rhodes and Grahamstown blind or with a set of lenses that simply blind him to the rich diversity of people, issues and challenges. Rhodes is not only the girl from the leafy suburbs of Johannesburg whose parents were so “progressive” as to send her to a state school, as if there is not a world of difference between Model C schools and other public schools.

There are students at Rhodes who are far too busy wondering where the next term’s fees will come from, how to survive the social scene when they don’t have the type of disposable income young men and women from rich and middle-class families have, how to navigate an institution with a pervasive culture of whiteness and class privilege, and how to ensure they cope with Rhodes demanding academic standards.

Students are busy growing as individuals, in more ways than being taught how to kiss women, learning why statements such as “try[ing] to be lesbian” (a quote de Vries seems to have made up) is as odious and gag-worthy as much of the “Red October” discourse – and hopefully becoming socially and politically conscious in ways that allow them to grasp just how shockingly ethnocentric his article is.

De Vries seems to be in a time warp, reinforcing the idea (as do the photographs that are used) that Rhodes is the privileged stamping ground of certain social class and groups, and it is somehow they who define Rhodes and Grahamstown.

This is putrid analysis and over-clever writing masquerading as serious journalism. It must be a matter of real concern that a person who seems so utterly blind to the realities of Rhodes or Grahamstown and who analyses their realities in such parochial ways has been let near the diverse classroom that today constitutes Rhodes and which requires teachers with expansive, sharp and imaginative lenses.

Image: Niamh Walsh-Vorster

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