The violent fantasies of the Rhodes revolutionaries by Rodney Warwick 12 May 2015

12 May 2015

Other physical locations acknowledging Rhodes abound; literature specifically concerning him or dealing substantially with his life and works is boundless, including that lodged within UCT’s libraries. Bringing down the Jameson Steps statue was ultimately pointless, as will always be any effort, in any guise, to permanently expunge historical record, truth and debate. As I outlined in an earlier Politicsweb article the statue’s continued presence was entirely justified and remained appropriate. Rhodes Memorial will now have to take this role.

During past weeks Rhodes’ statue invoked emotion-charged events; strongly expressed viewpoints; the aggressive posturing by individuals - some of them dubious in their motives and methods. The same occurred regarding certain political organisations and last but not least, the print media. The reality of the latter’s general political positioning meant the “anti-statue” lobby dominated and almost seemed to direct the discussion and ultimate statue decision.

There were plenty of rational and intelligent rebuttals also published in letter form in the newspapers or on internet platforms; but it appeared that the university administration decided it was best to just remove the statue.

Some of the participating UCT students - who call themselves the “Rhodes must Fall collective” or whatever - involved themselves with actions many South Africans viewed with disgust, contempt and anger; events which will also be remembered for a long time.

The “Rhodes must Fall” grouping also stressed through the media, in braggart tones, their admiration for Franz Fanon; therefore a good part of this article makes references to him. But my main objective is to make some comments concerning the wider groupings currently attempting to profoundly reshape UCT. It is my hope that more UCT alumni will in the future assist by using their influence to help contain trends that I believe augur ill for their old university.

Fanon was an Afro-Caribbean Marxist revolutionary theorist who died in December 1961 aged 36. Fanon was particularly interested in the human, social and cultural consequences of decolonisation; his best known work is Les Damnés de la Terre or the English title: The Wretched of the Earth published in 1961, just as the horrific civil war between French and Arab Algerians was drawing to a close. Ironically, Fanon died late that same year from leukaemia while being treated in Bethesda, Maryland, USA.

Fanon fully justified violence by the colonised against colonists and in the early 1960s his context for this was the violence being inflicted upon the pied noirs or colons – the French Algerians. The SA Communist Party (SACP) and the ANC were also at this time in thrall to Algerian events, to whom the Front de Libèration Nationale (FLN)’s terror against Arab and French colon alike served as both an inspiration and possible revolutionary method.

In January 1962, Algeria was one of Nelson Mandela’s ports of call during his travels through African countries now coming into their own independence. It was in Algeria where Mandela underwent his own military training, besides also being a location where later Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) recruits learnt about weaponry and tactics; MK having been principally established by SACP members and Mandela at this time being one of them. 

While I studied History at UCT during the 1980s, there were several specialised African and South African history courses amongst others offered; including “Imperialism and Colonisation”; the United States before and after 1865 (2 separate half-year papers); 20th Century History and one entitled “20th Century Modern Revolutions” which I completed along with most of the others.

It was during this study that I first heard of Fanon. The convenor was Professor Colin Bundy whose own writings on South African history are dominated by Marxist perspectives. The course’s various components were taught by lecturers who largely seemed to sympathise with or indeed in some cases even idealised the revolutions studied: Russian, Chinese, Algerian and Cuban, along with the post-revolutionary tyrant leaders these violent historical processes produced.

Nonetheless, it was an excellent course to participate in like most of those offered during my time as a student in the UCT History department; this despite my experiencing profound distaste and disbelief regarding many of my fellow students’ apparent enthusiastic condoning of revolutionary violence. But of course this superficial affirmation of Lenin, Mao, Castro and the violence glamourized in the 1960s film:The Battle of Algiers was easy to accord from the sanctity experienced by students within a university environment, as opposed to say, a revolutionary purge victim’s experiences.

But to return to the “anti-statue” UCT black students interest in Fanon in 21st century South Africa: The Wretched of the Earth endorses political violence; this based substantially on the effectiveness of barbaric FLN cruelty during the Algerian Civil War. This was despite atrocities perpetrated by both sides destroying any hope of building a political middle ground supported by French and Arab Algerians.

The FLN, which Fanon supported, had as one primary strategy, the destruction of any form of cultural assimilation or multi-culturalism; they therefore emphatically rejected any acknowledgement of and respect for different cultural identities and specifically that of the French Algerians, whose roots in the territory dated back to the early nineteenth century.

The terrorising and murder of moderates was also applied to Algerian Muslims loyal to France via the most grotesque of atrocities, akin to and even exceeding the barbarism of contemporary fundamentalist Islamic terrorists. The FLN also adopted a policy implementing indiscriminate killing of French Algerians.

Amidst Pied Noir rage and French Army retaliation, the Algerian war nearly spilled over into a violent internal conflict within France, with some armed forces generals launching what was ultimately an unsuccessful coup attempt.

The hate, savagery and methods the FLN and Fanon sanctioned resulted in President de Gaulle recognising the war as irretrievably divisive and expensive for France and ultimately a pointless struggle consuming the metropole’s resources and seriously impacting upon its stability.

De Gaulle wrote off both the territory and all its inhabitants. Once De Gaulle’s attitude was obvious, the FLN made it clear to French Algerians that it was the “suitcase or the coffin”. By March 1962, besides a tiny remaining minority of white French FLN sympathisers, the 1.3 million Pied Noirs had left Algeria, many as virtually penniless exiles. The went mostly to France but also to Spain and South America. Algerian soldiers who had fought for the French, and their families, were executed in their thousands. Some soldiers being forced to swallow their military decorations; others used as human detonators to clear minefields. Grimly, many of these atrocities would have in all likelihood been occurring at the precise time Mandela was meeting FLN leaders.

I make this reference to Algeria’s horrific revolution because it demonstrates something of the implications regarding the radical UCT black students’ perceptions of both the university and this country.

Fanon utilised the Marxist term lumpenproletriat which Marx defined as the “lowest, most degraded stratum” of the proletariat; in particular “criminals, vagrants, prostitutes, gangsters, racketeers, chronic unemployed or unemployables, degraded persons or degenerated elements”. Fanon also employed this term to describe those of the colonized not involved in industrial production, particularly the “peasantry.” This group may not fully understand their role in a revolution, but have sufficient collective insight that through numbers and violence they can sap the strength of, and at times even overwhelm, both the “colonists” and their agencies for physical defense – police, military.  

Therefore for Fanon the lumpenproletriat lacked the “class consciousness” to participate in a violent revolution through any formally organized method, but they could still be channeled, albeit it usually chaotically as an important revolutionary fighting bloc employing the most atrocious of violence.

Fanon was right for such is exactly what happened in Algeria, but also in South Africa during decades even long before 1994. One of the most grotesque of many examples was the murder and part cannibalization of the Dominican Nun, Sister Mary Aidan Quinlan, who was also a medical doctor. She was killed by a mob in 1952 near East London during the (peaceful) Defiance Campaign. This is something I am sure Maxwele and the vast majority of South Africans today know nothing about.

It goes without saying that an enormous and amorphous lumpenproletriat grouping unquestionably exists in South Africa, although precisely defining it in sociological terms is difficult. But the existence of thislumpenproletriat’s myriad material grievances and its collective dysfunctionality in coping with modern social demands, symptomized particularly obviously by crime and most specifically violent crime, was not lost on Chumani Maxwele, the black UCT student whose human excrement hurling catalysed the stature affair.

During the “Rhodes Must Fall” furore Maxwele was feted by the media and extensively profiled. On April 19 he was pictured on the Sunday Times’s front page standing on the vacant Rhodes statue pedestal holding up his raised right fist. I expect that Maxwele and his friends considers themselves as sort of junior Fanons; both “intellectuals’ and “revolutionaries”. In his comments to the press Maxwele provided telling insight regarding the violence inherent within his own (and we must assume his friends) revolutionary world view.

Die Burger’s writer Murray La Vita conducted an interview with Maxwele published on 27 March 2015 where Maxwele expressed his admiration for Fanon who “…had made it clear that any decolonisation should occur through violence” and that he (Maxwele) thought it highly unlikely that South Africa could escape this”. Maxwele further stated: “We are saying to whites: Help us prevent what is coming – I mean, the day when young people in Manenberg, in Khayalitsha, in Langa, stop killing each other…(for) cell phones, and realise we must stop killing each other, we must get to the rich. What is going to happen my brother….on that day?” (My translation – La Vita assured me he had done a direct translation from Maxwele’s limited English to Afrikaans, which I reversed – hence the clumsy style).

While these are rambling, wild words, Maxwele will no doubt assure us that he is serious. Certainly his views could be interpreted as implying the kind of threatening scenario that Maxwele and his comrades might like to anticipate. And of course in describing such threats, we can refer back to Fanon’s revolutionary lumpenproletriat which Maxwele helpfully links to criminal elements within Cape Town’s black and coloured townships.

South Africans of all cultural descriptions are hardly unfamiliar with being crime victims. Some groupings, such as the beleaguered largely white farming community for example, have long identified a racial dimension to the thousands of attacks and murders they have been subjected to since 1994. But anti-white race hate in the form of violently expressed insults and humiliations are part of urban crime too.

It appears that UCT’s radical black students crudely perceive their white counterparts – UCT students, lecturers, the white population as a whole - as “colonists”, just like the French Algerians. Indeed the old SACP theory of South Africa representing “Colonialism of a Special Type” still resonates, for this country abounds with “colonial institutions” with the white “colonists” retaining material and privilege advantages. Within so-called “Whiteness Studies” this is simply called “White Privilege”. And UCT of course remains a “colonial institution”. The role of local “Whiteness Studies” specialists, specifically those who are white, is to explain the meaning of “White Privilege” to white South Africans, while most particularly rousing within them both a misguided guilt, but with a bit more subtlety, hesitation and fear too. 

Therefore, following Fanon, the continued presence of whites within South Africa is regarded as bordering on the illegitimate. Their lives, occupations, property and activities could, at a push, be considered fair game for legalised looting. Like Fanon and the FLN’s attitude to the French Algerians, white South Africans are being told they do not really belong here; sometimes directly, but mostly more subtly.

White South Africans are told that if they want to remain relatively unmolested, they must permit every conceivable aspect of their heritage, history and identity to be ignored, played down, reinterpreted in an inevitably negative way, or where possible, dismantled.

Furthermore white South Africans must accept being a permanently disempowered minority, responding affirmatively and unquestionably to black leadership (whether of Zuma-like quality, or better or worse) and needs in virtually all political and economic spheres. They must accept they will and should be discriminated against. However grim this description may seem (at least to white South Africans) I am convinced it underpins many black attitudes to what is glibly called: “Transformation”.

In my opinion it has been obvious all along that the radical black UCT students (in common with many other political groupings) have no respect or interest in a South Africa of multiple identities, heritages and histories and specifically those pertaining to white South Africans (whatever their origin). We have not reached the point where the choice that is given is “a coffin or a suitcase” but there are certainly politicians pushing us in that direction.

Indeed the call of the “Rhodes Falling” collective was effectively another way of saying: “Africa for the Africans”. The statue’s actual removal was accompanied by shouts of “One Settler, One Bullet”. Although I read the local press, I would not have known about this had it not been confirmed in one of Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price’s online letters to the UCT community. The same slogan - a call for racial murder, was also chanted when students invaded the premises where the University Council met the day earlier to finally confirm the statue’s fate.

I wonder how many of UCT students today, of all backgrounds, know that in May 1993 the “Azanian People’s Liberation Army”, the armed wing of the PAC, launched a murderous terrorist attack with assault rifles and grenades on the Kenilworth St James Church congregation just a few kilometres from UCT, and a few months earlier at the Heidelberg Tavern in Observatory, within walking distance from the upper campus.

The killers “bag” at the church was 11 dead and 58 wounded; at the tavern 4 dead. These murderers slogan was also “One Settler, One Bullet”. This vile utterance is and remains a call to murder whites and it was being chanted by young people on university property. Price acknowledged the slogan is completely unacceptable and that transgressors will be investigated – this must still be seen to happen. There were also attempts by the same students to vandalise the statue as it was being removed.

Rhodes’s statue was obviously never going to be physically defended. The white English South African community feel no passionate claim to Rhodes as “theirs” – and neither should they. Rhodes is simply part of the country’s collective history to be debated ad infinitum. Although Rhodes is inextricably part of South Africa’s colonial (and of course UCT’s) heritage, any “tribal-type” loyalty to him by the once “British South Africans” faded away decades ago.

There have been other theories mooted regarding what lies beneath the anti-statue destruction/vandalism, which of course later spread well beyond UCT boundaries. The black middle-class, including students, are angry and embarrassed at the ANC government’s corruption and incompetence. Many black South Africans sense that minorities, not least whites, ridicule and sneer at the many ANC failings. The attacks on symbols representing white South Africa - statues and memorials – are applauded and even supported by many in the black middle class. This could be read as the displacement of the continued black shame and the self-contempt that Steve Biko’s philosophy originally strove to counter. There is no doubt Biko can today be lauded by all, black and white, for his courage in facing up to this black predicament before his murder at the hands of the security police.

But I do not for a second believe Biko would have approved the Maxwele’s behaviour or that of the other black UCT students during the statue affair. I say this because in my opinion, the black dignity which Biko strove to protect has been severely tarnished by Maxwele and the other statue vandals across the country, and I believe that deep down many black South Africans know this too. The same applies to the current violent attacks on black foreigners; again it is the local black lumpenproletriat slipping with ease into violent criminality as circumstances appear favorable; but it also again represents a displaced rage at the ANC/SACP government’s failings.

Finally, regarding UCT and any other quality local university, the most destructive consequence of Maxwele and others actions and the demands of those citing “transformation” at UCT, is the impact upon the student majority. Many of these, black, colored and white, have been privileged to study at what were the previous so-called ‘Model-C schools’ and in private schools. In these places, they worked alongside one another in strictly non-racial and meritocratic educational environments.

Dedicated teachers, again of all “races”, attempted to socialize these young people into a culture of non-racialism, meritocracy and equal opportunity – in academics, sport and culture. The work these schools are doing in many ways directly contradicts much of the ANC/SACP and allies' (and those to the left) programme of racial “transformation”. The Rhodes statue affair has been polarizing; surely the worst exacerbation of a racial divide at UCT since 1994.

The narrow demands for racial transformation are in my opinion contributing to unravelling much hope by undermining what should be the university’s predominant culture. I say this because prominent advocates thereof are essentially insisting blacks must “take over from whites”. This is not to say that the UCT Council and management is anywhere near “all-white”, but the demand is that the white component – staff and student - must be numerically cut down to size, as crude as that.

Put another way “transformation” can also be understood as a method of simply advancing personal ambitions while also severely reducing potential competition, using South Africa’s history of racial conflict as a guise to achieve what might not be achieved through individual meritocratic advancement.  To unashamedly employ “race” to lever oneself or one’s associates into higher status positions, is in my opinion disgraceful and dishonourable – although it is obvious that this has long been happening in many areas besides education.

The schools and universities where a genuinely non-racial and meritocratic culture prevails are South Africa’s best hope for our future. The Rhodes statue affair has done this country no favours. We can study Fanon in history classes by all means; but his violent, hateful philosophy is not something young South Africans should be taught to admire.

Dr Rodney Warwick PhD MA BA(Hons) (UCT)