Paralyzed with Fear of the Past

J.M. Coetzee wondered in the late 1980s what price white South Africans are willing to pay for fraternity with Black South Africans.

A beach for reserved for whites on Cape Town's False Bay coast photographed in the 1970. Image credit KM via UN Photo (CC).

Those who know history in textured detail, not just in sweeping generalisations or in the sanitising and glorifying terms of jingoism (whether imperialist or nationalist) which enable and encourage reinvention and mis-memory, are better equipped to imagine the future in ways which neither repeat nor reinstate the past and its exigencies. Nuanced understanding of what went before allows people to resist the paralysis which reactionaries want to induce with their misreading of the past. Careful, subtle readers of the historical record also realise that they do not have to accommodate themselves to the shortcomings of the present to avoid repeating history’s mistakes.

In 1990, when I began undergraduate studies at the University of Cape Town, the statue of Cecil John Rhodes struck me as absurd. By 1994, when I was running tutorials in analysis as a teaching assistant, the statue, and much else about the university’s possessive investment in aggrandized colonial history, struck me as obscene. It was during this period that anti-apartheid graffiti was systematically removed from the campus, while none of the repellent symbols of colonial violence and violation, mis-remembered by many as the symbols of civilisation, remained. Even at the time, as I shared an office with another graduate teaching assistant, we marvelled at this spectacular ‘white-washing’ of recent history.

In 1997, during a seminar by Noam Chomsky, the most cited living thinker, a man who identified himself as a retired professor of economics, harangued Chomsky and the audience with a homily about how the post office on campus, called “Rhodes’ Gift,” symbolised what “white civilization” had brought to a “disorganised tribal people.” The discussants, Martin Legassick and Mahmood Mamdani, seemed both bemused and embarrassed. At the end of the twentieth century there were still esteemed people who believed in old racist myths about colonialism and the nobility of the imperial mission; in 2015, it seems, there are still people who insist on denying historiographical evidence.

The same Mahmood Mamdani, appointed to the Chair of African Studies, was then attempting to change the curriculum in a specific course (“Introduction to Africa”) by opening up a debate on how ‘African Studies’ is taught to African students in Africa, and which scholarship is used in such instruction. He was suspended from the course, and an unpleasant public exchange ensued in the press, with the university management, headed by Dr. Mamphela Ramphele as vice-chancellor, coming across as both unnecessarily arrogant (an accusation they flung at Mamdani himself) and shockingly ignorant of the long history of intellectual engagement in Africa, by Africans. No doubt the University has a more palatable account of the episode.

But this should have shocked many of us less than it did. The University of Cape Town, having accommodated itself to apartheid era National Party diktat, refused to appoint Archie Mafeje to a teaching post in 1968; 600 students occupied the Bremner building then, in protest at the University’s capitulation. In the mid-1990s, having held senior research and teaching positions around the world, Mafeje returned to South Africa, and the University under-offered him a senior lectureship, which he justly rejected as an insult. He was, at the time, one of the most cited living African scholars. Between 1968 and the end of the millennium, little seemed to have changed.

In 1999, and again in 2008, I co-taught a course on “race”, class, gender, and employment equity in organisational transformation with a leading sociologist at the same university. The statistics on transformation were tragic in 1999; they were farcical by 2008. Reading Dr Siona O’Connell’s work recently on the topic, I was pained, but not surprised. Three younger relatives had had to negotiate the University of Cape Town as undergraduates in three different faculties in the fin-de-siècle, and they reported more reactionary racism than even I had experienced a decade earlier, from both fellow students and staff members.

At the end of 2014, an African-American friend who had also done graduate work at the University of Cape Town in the late-1990s, returned to South Africa for the first time in sixteen years. As part of revisiting old haunts, she wanted to go back to the campus of the University of Cape Town. The visit was disturbing; memories of old horrors were triggered, we left very quickly. Twenty-five years after Nelson Mandela’s short walk to freedom from Victor Verster Prison began the long drag of all of South Africa out of its violent and violating twentieth century history, the University of Cape Town’s campus remained festooned with the symbols of nineteenth century British colonial violence and violations: Rhodes himself, and his close associate, Leander Starr Jameson, he of the illegal ‘Jameson Raid’, and for whom the hall at the centre of so much of the pomp and ceremony of ‘UCT’ is named.

I have been puzzled by many aspects of the so-called debate about the Rhodes statue. The unfinished business of decolonizing higher education in South Africa features only as a side-issue for many of those who speak up and out. Some senior university academics and administrators insist that there is a need to ‘debate’ the meaning of the statue. Not for the first time, it struck me that among the students, in their various views, were thinkers ahead of those who were responsible for teaching them. Vice chancellor Max Price’s remarks last year, in the wake of reports implicating students at the University in racist attacks off campus, revealed his strangely dated grasp of the meanings of ‘race’, the dynamics of racism, and the work of anti-racism in post-apartheid South Africa.

Those who wish to defend Rhodes either chose to ignore the historical record, or choose to sanitise it for convenience. Even in his time, Cecil John Rhodes was a controversial figure, loathed by many for his political and economic thuggery and skulduggery, and among these was Olive Schreiner. The novelist William Boyd covers some of this ugly history in his review of Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s “The Randlords” from “The London Review of Books” in 1985. Paul Maylam, a former professor of History at Rhodes University, has written a critical biography of the man and his legacy. But such details are countered by invoking his ‘legacy’: scholarships, gifts, bequests.

Some of the more mediocre contributions in the ‘Rhodes debate’ have suggested that removing the colonial symbols and statues would be to erase history. Firstly, some of us do not need statues to be reminded of colonial conquest and violation; the landscape bears the traces of that violence. Secondly, removing statues from public spaces does not require their destruction; museums are places where such statues can be kept in curated exhibitions which provide context for those who wish to see them. Thirdly, for twenty years many people have walked past statues like Rhodes, and not remembered the violent history commemorated; and those of us pained, viscerally upset by such constant glorification of genocidal megalomaniacs are told to stop overreacting, to develop thicker skins, and ‘get on with it’. One hopes such people have a greater capacity for empathy in their private lives.

The discussion around the Rhodes statue and its symbolic anchoring of the University of Cape Town’s relationship with its colonial history, needs to be elevated beyond misinformed and crude accusatory gestures. The way in which many cling to the University’s ‘heritage’, and insist that there is nothing that needs to be contested, slipping into inaccurate misreading of the past, serves as evidence of a larger failure to decolonise apartheid higher education, and in many significant senses, other social and political institutions in post-apartheid South Africa.

The vitriol spewed onto the internet by individuals who see themselves on opposite sides of the false debate – keep the statue or lose historical memory; lose the statue and overhaul society – reveals yet more unfinished business which was sutured over during the 1990s. The choice, of course, is neither between whether to destroy the statue or to keep it, nor is it between respecting history by doing the former, or erasing it by doing the latter. Conflations of heritage and history, of memory and monument, of debate and polemic, reveal the depth of the mediocrity engendered by colonial education systems.

Also, one wonders, again, as J.M. Coetzee did in the late 1980s, what price white South Africans are willing to pay for fraternity with Black South Africans, given the ineluctable connections between such fraternity, and equality and liberty in a democracy. One also wonders, given the ugliness those trying to reach across perceived divisions of ‘race’ and class are subjected to, some of them by bullies who identify themselves by name and employment status as managers of brand-name furniture stores and banks, whether there is indeed a widespread desire for fraternity among post-apartheid white South Africans living in a majority-Black country.

What the whole Rhodes fracas has revealed, quite spectacularly, is how colonial worldviews have taken root in South Africa’s higher education sector, and in the minds of its graduates. What can also be traced in both the tone and the lack of substance in much of the antagonism, is the wider insistence on misreading ‘race’ as a biological, phenotypical reality, a fundamental, scientific misunderstanding seemingly shared by some of the most educated South Africans. But worst, and most depressingly, this historical moment has unveiled the casual racism that lurks beneath the polite surfaces of everyday smiles in the tax-funded organisations dedicated to higher learning.

There is no doubt in my mind that the statue must go. The discomfort and rage some folks professed at seeing swastikas on their campus is like the discomfort and rage many of us have felt having to walk past symbols glorifying the extermination of people like us, at the same time as walking corridors, sitting in meetings and classes with people who not only actively wished we were not there, but had no shame or reservation about telling us so. To recall a white South African professor who continues to be held in esteem by others, “We already have [Fatima]; we cannot have too many of you around.”

We must refuse the debased and fallacious terms of engagement set by those who suggest that to take the symbols which glorify colonial violence and violation from public spaces and placing them in museums is to ‘whitewash’ history (the irony!), or to risk taking South Africa down a path towards the ‘horror’ of the rest of postcolonial Africa (yet another ironic moment of South African exceptionalism). Would they have said the same thing to a German Jew in Berlin, 1965? Would they say the same thing to a French resistance fighter’s children and grandchildren? Again, one hopes such people display a greater capacity for empathy in their private lives.

In the age of the Internet and social media, everybody and their cousin seems to have felt entitled to air an opinion, however ill-informed, on Rhodes, his place in history, the substance and texture of colonialism in South Africa, its legacy in our social and political institutions, and the risk we run of repeating the past mistakes of others if we do not quietly accept the present and accommodate ourselves to its inequalities, inequities, and unfair distribution of resources. In such circumstances, in these times, we must apply critical literacy and separate polemic from historiography, and distinguish between argument and diatribe.

Also, perhaps, as we reflect on the history of higher education in South Africa, especially at places like the University of Cape Town, we would do well to read or reread the work of people like Saul Dubow, who traces the relationship between ‘science, sensibility, and white South Africa’ from 1820 to 2000 in “A Commonwealth of Knowledge” (2006). Many, especially the vice chancellors of local universities, would do well to read or reread George Lipsitz’s “The Possessive Investment in Whiteness” (1998), and J.M. Coetzee’s “White Writing” (1991). To invoke the latter, too many of our institutions seem to be “no longer European, not yet African”. We cannot afford to ignore a generation of scholarship in our responses to issues of racism and the articulation of ‘race’ in this moment in history just to suture over individuals’ discomfort.

The dystopian past need not be the reason to accept the dystopian present in order to avoid a dystopian future; ‘utopia’ is indeed ‘no place’, but our humanity and decency may be measured by the determination with which we strive towards it.

*A version of this piece has been published on

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