Gareth Cliff: Are you a white liberal?

2015-03-25 14:01

Dear Gareth,

Was that really historical education?

The students you characterised their actions as a product of stupidity, implicit in your ‘all I know is that you can never win an argument by emptying human turds on a statue – and you don’t need to be a Rhodes scholar to figure that out’, are busy in internal revolution at UCT. Your article was not a history lesson; it was a classic example of the paradoxical liberalist existentialist crisis in today’s South Africa. At one point, you do not care about the statue of Rhodes at another point you argue passionately about the retainment of symbols of the past because ‘to hide the statues and spare a generation three times removed from the event is to do those sufferers an injustice’.

Who are these sufferers? They are the great-grandparents of many living black families today in this country. Your crisis is wanting to embrace the white privilege inherited from ancestors such as Rhodes whilst on the other hand pleading solidarity and understanding to black people for the inhumane suffering under ancestors such as Rhodes. You miss the fact that the statue is merely an entry point to a larger part. It is the keyhole to view the darkness filling the UCT campus with relentless anti-transformation policies. The UCT saga as a whole is but a microcosm of the broader South African reality. To overlook this nuance is to undermine the very authenticity of the Rhodes must fall campaign.

There is a problem with black people taking your ‘history lesson’ seriously. Steve Biko put it this way, “The limitations that have accompanied the involvement of liberals in the black man’s struggle have been mostly responsible for the arrest of progress. Because of their inferiority complex, blacks have tended to listen seriously to what the liberals had to say. With their characteristic arrogance of assuming a ‘monopoly on intelligence and moral judgement’, these self-appointed trustees of black interests have gone on to set the pattern and pace for the realisation of the black man’s aspiration” (2004:71).

Your article is indeed intended to ‘set the pattern and pace’ around the Rhodes must fall debate and beyond. You question the very problematisation of Rhodes and not King Shaka. To you, there are striking parallels so much that black people would feel the same level of repulsion towards both figures. You are setting the pace of when Rhodes must fall because you are telling the students to take a 100 steps backwards from the advances they have achieved thus far. Beyond this, you become a custodian of intelligence, with the power to decide that only Rhodes Scholars are somewhat the sharpest among all of us black people. This is shallow and fits in well with Biko’s framing. It is not your skin colour that deligitimises you (in this instance) from speaking on issues affecting black people, it is the shallowness and blurriness of your prism of analysis that does. Your tools of analysis are not fit for the job at hand.

On Shaka, violence and displacement within black communities

Did you bring up King Shaka because you think black people are not aware and dealing with his history? Did you bring him up because you want to divide black students in UCT? Do you think every black person, including those of KwaZulu-Natal, embrace Shaka as a hero? Or are you irked that black people have choice on what to prioritise as their immediate historic question to address in the NOW? Obviously this choice is protected by the constitution. You are unfortunately trying to set ‘pattern’ on how black people should deal with their multiple historic questions. However, you are in no position to.

Added to your King Shaka narrative, there is another (loved by FF+ and AfriForum) that seeks to paint the ‘bantu’ natives as having committed atrocities to the Khoi and the San people at proportional (if not worse) levels than those of white settlers. Yet, present day isiXhosa has elements of the languages of the Khoi and San people. Siya qiqiza xasi thetha, siya rharhaza, si krakrazele. These heavy and click sounds you will not find in the other subgroups of the Nguni nation. Hardly do conquerors have to learn the language of the oppressed and incorporate it to theirs. The very influence of the Khoi and San on the isiXhosa language indicates deep historic nuances that will one day be told properly, hopefully by black scholars. Conquerors enforce their language as lingua franca. Something that the National Party tried in the 1970s and failed dismally, for we were resisting strongly that imperialist project. To understand how conquerors enforce language you need to look at how French dominated spaces of Britain after the 11th century Norman invasion. Today almost a third of English has traces of French.

I cannot say that black people did not fight each other, for resources, for territory, for egotistic reasons and some other trivial or not reasons, which we do not know. Wars amongst black people happened in various spaces. My grandparents left the village of Nkozo in Flagstaff because of such wars. In the same town of Flagstaff cross-village wars in places like Esighodlweni and Mfundisweni were happening. Some of these are as recent as the period of the 1970s. These communities are now at peace and live communally – they have been for years. They did not need white liberal intervention to transition to peace and create a new society. In fact, black people have been actively dealing with the injustices that have happened amongst them. They continue to do so till today.

Black people are dealing with the legacy of King Shaka and the very concept of the Zulu Kingdom. The last time I checked iNkosi yase Mandlovini was in self-imposed internal exile because of being in the crossfire of a heated land dispute in the Umvoti Local Municipality area that affects directly agricultural business interests and indirectly the Zulu Kingdom. The Dlaminis in KwaZulu-Natal under the leadership of Melizwe Dlamini continue to agitate for the restoration of their kingship, which would directly challenge for some land from the ownership of Ingonyama Trust of isilo uNkosi Goodwill Zwelithini who is living it up with taxpayers’ money. Other nations like abaThembu under iNkosi uNgoza II (Ah! Zwelibanzi) are organising more and even went to fetch the spirit of the first Ngoza who perished in eQaukeni at the hands of amaMpondo fighters. Before his passing, iNkosi Thandizulu Sigcau pointed the site where the bones of Ngoza lay and that has gone a long way in restoring a sense of communication between eQaukeni kwindlu yoFaku and Msinga kwela baThembu baka Mvelase.

You may not know these daily efforts and struggles within and amongst communities of black people because you live in ivory towers that insulate you away from the struggles of black people, their pain, their suffering and positive strides to build their local communities. These ivory towers of residence are a direct inheritance of the privilege brutally secured for white people by the likes of Rhodes, Smuts, Hertzog, Malan, Verwoed, Botha, etc.

All societies have a tragic history

No society is without differences, certainly even Europeans were bludgeoning each other for centuries right into the 20th century with the second World War as almost a finale. We, as black people, have never seek to counsel Europeans on how to heal and move on from those deep divisions. Instead, the healing process of Europeans led to greater brutalisation of us black people when the Bretton Woods institutions (the IMF and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in the main) were developed to reconstruct Europe after WWII and underdeveloped Africa, assisting in the plundering of her resources. Launching the Inaugural Nyerere Lecture on Lifelong Learning in 2004 at UWC Naledi Pandor shared this response by Nyerere to a World Bank official who asked him “why have you failed?”

Nyerere answered: “The British Empire left us a country with 85 per cent illiterates, two engineers and 12 doctors. When I left office, we had 9 per cent illiterates and thousands of engineers and doctors. I left office 13 years ago. Then our income per capita was twice what it is today; now we have one-third less children in our schools and public health and social services are in ruins. During these 13 years, Tanzania has done everything that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have demanded.” And Nyerere passed the question back to the World Bank experts: “Why have you failed?”

Black Africans have a constructive intellectual history on race

I know you are not ignorant. You have just chosen a destructive ideological orientation whose sole purpose can only be to distract black people from their pursuit of social justice. This brings me to your other bizarre claim that ‘We can’t judge a person who died a hundred years ago by the enlightened thought and sensitivity of the present’. We certainly can because by the time Rhodes died in 1902, black people’s thinking was far ahead on questions on issues of nonracist societies. Read this quote from a piece by Dr Motsoko Pheko sharing a question posed by a Khoi African King to Jan van Riebeeck:

“If we [Africans] were to come to Europe, would we be permitted to act in a similar manner [to the way] you act here? It would not matter if you stayed at the provision station, but you come out here in the interior. You select the best land for yourselves. You never ask us even once whether we like it or not or whether it will disadvantage us. You say land is not enough for the pastures of your cattle and sheep as well as ours.

“Tell me, Jan van Riebeeck and your colonial settlers, who then, with the greatest degree of justice, should give way, the natural owner or the foreign invader?”

If you read Dr Pheko’s book The hidden side of South African Politics, you will find a quote by King Moshoeshoe in the 19th century, expressing his bemusement to notions of individual property rights and the practice of buying and selling land. This was a clear socioeconomic intellectual intervention by the King. The foundations of the much celebrated ‘I am African’ speech by Thabo Mbeki are traced back to the intellectual work of people like Pixley ka Seme in the early 20th century. What you are failing to accept is that the sensibilities of black South Africans have long been advanced and futuristic than those of white settler colonialist-expansionist-imperialists.

Tiyo Soga, in 1857 returning from this study tenure in Scotland came back and wrote a song that today appears in the isiXhosa Methodist Hymn book, ‘Lizalis'idinga lakho Thixo Nkosi yenyaniso. Zonk'iintlanga, zonk'izizwe, mazizuze usindiso.’ It was a solemn prayer for all nations and all ethnicities to receive salvation from God. He was witnessing the destruction and ruins of wars of resistance instigated by the white settler colonialist-expansionist-imperialists, but he never excluded them from his prayers. This song was used, history tells us, to open the founding meeting of today’s ANC in 1912. This song was very close to Oliver Tambo’s heart and his tenure in the ANC as its President.

The celebrated national anthem today opens up with words from Enoch Sotonga’s song written in 1897. It is a prayer for Africa, written in the height of expansionism by the likes of Rhodes and his fellow travellers. This is a brief history of positive intellectual history by black people at a time white people like Sir Alfred Milner (Cape Colony Governor) held on to exclusionary credos. His published one opens this way, “I am a Nationalist and not a cosmopolitan .... I am a British (indeed primarily an English) Nationalist. If I am also an Imperialist, it is because the destiny of the English race, owing to its insular position and long supremacy at sea, has been to strike roots in different parts of the world”. He went on to setup the South African Native Affairs Commission, which became a pretext of the 1913 Land Natives Act.

There is no competition here – it is a dead end. This intellectual vibrancy of the natives had to be institutionally violated by the enactment of the Bantu Education Act. Even Rhodes himself had acknowledged the presence of educated black people and expressed the undesirability of such. Much to your distorted reasoning, you want us to accept that as black people we have embodied the primitive and banal logic of racism as settlers and their offspring did. This suggestion must be rejected with the contempt it deserves. If anything, we have an era of destructive white intellectualism running parallel to constructive black intellectualism. At the time Robert Sobukwe was pronouncing on the ‘human race’ in the late 1950s this was unimaginable in the white community en masse.

He said, “The Africanists take the view that there is only one race to which we all belong, and that is the human race”. He went on to be one of the most brutally treated prisoners during the apartheid era, with a special ‘Sobukwe clause’ being the subject of Parliament. Today, white people shout ‘human race! Move on from apartheid thinking black people’. This is double victimisation of people’s psychological sensibilities. We are to reject it with contempt. You are not going to dictate ‘pattern and pace’ of how we as black people should respond (within the frames of the just society we are building) to our own suffering.

There is one guarantee – black people throughout illegal and brutal occupation have been on the right side of constructive intellectualism that is now today being claimed selectively by white people to make black people feel ashamed of their very own notions of justice. No more!

The 1994 breakthrough

1994 will remain an important year in the history of South Africa and a triumph of longstanding constructive black intellectualism that all citizens of the world are equal. The problem that black people have with 1994 is that important questions on socioeconomic justice were postponed. Instead, it is the transition government and the subsequent majority governments of the African National Congress that continue to service odious debt inherited from the Nationalist Party government. This is the same debt that was servicing the brutalisation of black people by the right wing oppressive government that administered a system aptly captured by the United Nations as ‘a crime against humanity’. To understand the seriousness of this move to accept such debt read Naomi Klein’s chapter 10 in her book The Shock Doctrine.

This odious debt and a perilously unstable economy inherited by the Mandela government in 1994 meant that the government of the people was side tracked managing failures of there then minority government. This has derailed, in inexplicable ways, the agenda for socioeconomic redress for the many black people that suffered during apartheid. Because repairing the economy is business focused, this has led to the co-option of the ANC and its cadres by big ‘white monopoly capital’ in the country. This further frustrates any possibility for meaningful socioeconomic redress. However, the Rhodes Must Fall movement seems to bring these issues vividly into our national discourse. Our duty is not to retract any longer on such questions. Our duty is to now demand a date for a CODESA on the Economic Question in South Africa. The census of 2011 demonstrated starkly that white people have enjoyed a much more fulfilling and comfortable life than their black counterparts in the years since the end of apartheid. I have no doubt you have come across a lot of work on white privilege and Gillian Schutte is one of the persistent writers on this issue trying to enlighten white people.


In his book A nation in crisis Professor Paulus Zulu talks about the existence of ‘contested moral registers’ in South Africa that are used to interpret events and actions to be taken. At the heart of your ‘history lesson’ is the notion, ‘We have an opportunity to build new legacies, create new scholarships, enhance our world and add to a horrible history by making a better future’. We must also subtract from that history and this is where contested moral registers stand in South Africa. Because at the heart of the subtraction is the need for active redress that disturbs actively and consciously patterns of white privilege in our country. In Higher Education institutions this project has been called transformation, outside some people call it redress. However, there are people frustrating this project deliberately and hanging on by all means possible to their privilege.

Debate is good. Dialogue is what will win us the day. But I think as black people we must reach a stage where we are unwilling to have dialogue exhaustively with white people who have taken a dogmatic ideological position to defend white privilege. These white people talk about black people taking opportunities in today’s asymmetrically structured South Africa that favours the prosperity and economic dominance of white people. You cannot counsel black people not to reject the very notion of ‘enormous wealth’ having been a legitimate possession of Rhodes. Your opening lines were an attempt to glorify a positive side to Rhodes while on the other hand you reject his racism. Yet the latter is the foundation upon which this immorally and illegally accumulated wealth was built on.

There is no separation here. We cannot today glorify the Rhodes Scholarship and land upon UCT stands as some largesse bestowed upon South Africa by his generosity. Dr Mzukisi Qobo captured this aptly, “He [Rhodes] was bribing the future [by leaving behind the ‘prestigious scholarship’ and the likes] to regard him kindly”. It seems you have been bribed already Cliff, in present day South Africa that is a criminal offence. We are unable to create discontinuities with the past, hence we call on white people to realise their generationally inherited privilege and understand that redress will take a generational posture in order to be meaningfully enduring. This is the duty you have, to go and educate other white people about the privilege they enjoy founded on white settler colonialist-expansionist-imperialists pursuits and nothing noble.

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