By Primus M. Tazanu*
Professor Francis B. Nyamnjoh’s Twitter-inspired title, #RhodesMustFall, describes the ugly head of racism and oppression embedded in persistent colonial thoughts, representations, and practices in South Africa. Nyamnjoh draws on Cecil Rhodes’s legacy to demonstrate the doggedness of colonialism in 21st Century South Africa. Rhodes was an influential British figure and a colonial agent, whose unfettered quest to subjugate other people has transcended many generations. Rhodes’s legacy in contemporary South Africa is often linked to the unpleasant history of white people – exploitation and racism (37). Rhodes notoriously treated Africans as commodities, exploiting them with impunity. He saw Africans as sub-humans whose supposed immaturity warranted that they be treated, in classic Kantian belief, as children. The fact that he was a land-grabber is made evident when he turned land owners into tenants (40). Rhodes believed, the white people – particularly the British – were authentic humans, god-sent to conquer and dominate the world. Accordingly, it was but right and unquestionable to exercise violence against anyone who was different or stood on their way. #RhodesMustFall succinctly excavates this theme of violence, showing how it resonates, particularly in South African educational system. In this review of the book, I emphasise on racial and colonial struggles that haunt South Africa, focusing on themes of authenticity, hostility, and the spirit of eliminating difference that is endemic and resilient in the country.
#RhodesMustFall details power and identity and the ways in which powerful subjects position themselves as the centre. Power in South Africa, Nyamnjoh highlights, operates in unequal socio-economic and political encounters between white and black people (7) as well as between (black) South Africans and Africans from other countries. It is through these unequal encounters and entanglements with the Other that black people, for example, critique the assumptions of white people’s narrative; the assumption that whiteness stands for the normal, the invisible, the virtuous, the right, the unquestionable, etc (42-43). The same could be said about non-South African black people who reflect on their blackness only after realising that their presence in South Africa is generally undesirable. This point is crucial for research because normalising whiteness and South Africanness have tended to influence the ways in which researchers conduct studies in South Africa. Nyamnjoh questions why few studies are conducted on white people in that country – their wealth, lies, power, violence, ignorance, colonial mentality, etc. Similarly, in contemporary South Africa, research on Africans from other African countries is usually shallow. Nyamnjoh further challenges researchers to break the tradition whereby they conduct studies only on the weak and vulnerable, leaving the powerful and privileged untouched. By raising this question, Nyamnjoh summarises all what critical diversity study aims at excavating – research the powerful and how their narrative and practices (often negatively) impact on the socio-economic and political life of the society (see Steyn 2015).
Scholars of whiteness studies and those interested in decoloniality would deeply appreciate #RhodesMustFall for reiterating that colonial education in South Africa inducts people into whiteness, either openly or suggestively (63). Nyamnjoh draws on Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Decolonising the Mind (1986) to emphasise that the persistence of colonialism in South Africa has much to do with how people’s bodies and minds have been captured to the extent that an African’s visibility is evaluated by how much whiteness s/he has imbibed and, crucially, how s/he performs the whiteness (65-66). Highlighting on coloniality, defined by decolonial scholars as ‘lived experiences of colonization and its impact on language’ (Maldonado-Torres 2007, 242), Nyamnjoh sees the pervasiveness of colonialism in nearly all aspects of life including politics, economy, sexuality, knowledge, aesthetics and architecture. Here, we understand that people are not colonised by chance; the colonisers consciously place curses on the colonised when they embark on practices of eliminating threats and differences, leaving the oppressed to painfully struggle to exorcise themselves of their own being and traditions. His observations reiterate a Fanonian (1967) critique where the colonised subjects strive for acceptance through whitening their body colours, speaking with the right accent, wearing artificial hair, etc. Unfortunately, in a world where their bodies, spirituality, arts, thoughts, and actions enter the racial picture from a negative standpoint, these invested practices of upliftment, of getting close to whiteness, are often catastrophic. They never succeed to attain full whiteness.
Nyamnjoh describes human interaction in South Africa using constructed racial categories to chart a narrative of the normal and the abnormal, the authentic and the inauthentic, those who belong and those whose belongingness is questioned. To him, the insidious ramifications of classifying humans in South Africa is just too evident. It contributes to fundamentalisms and inflexibility as when the privileged staunchly oppose or derail the demands and expectations of the oppressed majority. The (mainly black) students’ protest is one telling example of how the oppressed majority stands up to the inflexible powerful forces. These powerful forces tend to believe they have got everything right and that the students just have to integrate into the system that, unfortunately, does not reflect their life-worlds, values and aspirations. Aside from demanding reduction in study fees, the annual student protest also wants the curriculum and university environment to be decolonised. They protest because they feel alienated within these spaces. This protest is spearheaded by the so-called born-frees – those born after the official end of apartheid in 1994. They are restless in examining whiteness in all its dimensions. They defy a derogatory political language that dehumanises, belittles and delegitimises their struggle. How the authorities respond to the protesting students tells that they are not taken seriously and this, it should be remembered, is the protesters’ last option to be recognised as people who experience life differently (86-87).
Students’ protests are an indication that oppressed people may tolerate and condone domination only to a certain extent. Those who attempt to eliminate difference soon realise, from the pushbacks and resistance of the oppressed, that it is impossible to mute the voices of the majority forever. Acts of resistance by the oppressed also remind the oppressor that they are vulnerable but more terrifyingly, they realise that they do not wield the monopoly to exercise violence. Violence comes in various forms – institutional and through brute force – and anyone may become a victim once things get out of control.
One of Nyamnjoh’s greatest contributions in #RhodesMustFall is his humanistic view on the way forward in a South Africa currently embroiled in all sorts of colonial and racial tensions. To him, the privileged white people cannot change apartheid’s legacy in South Africa through tokenistic good gestures. White privilege and black pain must be addressed simultaneously without which there may be a temptation to look mainly at the black people as, according to Lewis Gordon (drawing from Du Bois), ‘problem people’ (2008, 76-77) who do not want to transform in post-apartheid South Africa. Nyamnjoh observes that although black and white people go through pain and anger in the country, interestingly, white anger is depicted as rational and meaningful unlike black anger. This may tempt researchers to reject black pain which is a way of rejecting South African history (89-90). The author also mentions that in post-apartheid South Africa where racism and colonialism are deeply entrenched, some white people present themselves as victims of reverse racism when their privileges are pointed out or when they find themselves in situations where they must compete with non-white people on equal basis.
The complexity of living side by side with different people in South Africa is not limited to black-white relations. Africans from other countries, derogatorily referred to as makwerekwere, are seen as ‘problem people’ by (mainly) black South Africans. Generally, black South Africans do not want to be associated with these migrants (116). Additionally, immigration policies and practices alienate this category of Africans even as the official rhetoric condemns xenophobia in South Africa (124). Nyamnjoh is, in fact, pointing out that blackness in South Africa is not universal; the black north of the Limpopo experiences South Africa differently. S/he is marginalised and oppressed more and is made to feel the discomfort of living as a black person in South Africa (128). Nyamnjoh thus questions if black South Africans, conscious of their own oppression, could not be more accepting to difference. Should non-South African black people be ridiculed and considered as weeping more than the bereaved when they talk about oppression in South Africa? (133).
He recommends that South Africa should prioritise on educating its citizens because educated people may feel more liberated. An educated nation would also more likely tolerate difference and diversity. To this must be added that xenophobia in South Africa, as elsewhere in the world, is citizens’ reaction to the socio-economic and political uncertainties that surround them. More precisely, xenophobia in South Africa is partly a response to the inability or unwillingness of South African leadership to provide citizens with public goods – housing, education, health, jobs, security, etc. One must not lose sight of the fact that black South Africans who had been excluded from white welfare state during apartheid, had high expectations of socio-economic mobility in the post-apartheid period. White capital still controls post-apartheid South Africa. With racialised structural inequality persisting in the country, we witness what is common among the oppressed in a racialised oppressive society; we see some black South Africans venting their frustration not against the oppressor but on people who look like themselves – black people from other African countries. To put it more bluntly: the black South Africans find it easier to hit those beside them rather than hit up at the irresponsible, unaccountable and illusive leadership and white capital.
After reading the book you get the impression that #RhodesMustFall targets mainly a non-South African audience. It basically keeps readers abreast with institutionalised oppression within South Africa; there are many other voices that could tell the story in different ways. It would be interesting to hear how protesting students evaluate the book. Does the book speak on their behalf, popularising their struggle or they believe the author (and other academics) should have protested with them on ground?Furthermore, for a book of this depth, and considering that it is read beyond South Africa, one would expect to see photos and maps that indicate sites of certain events and people. The above comments do not diminish the quality of Nyamnjoh’s book; it is interesting and captivating, if not enticing. He writes at length on the themes he raises, be they student protest, Rhodes, colonialism, diversity, etc. His record and chronology of events as well as citations from oral sources, blogs and online newspapers, gives the work depth and credibility.#RhodesMustFall is a must-read book for anyone wishing to understand the complexity of whiteness, blackness, racism, colonialism and xenophobia in South Africa.
*Senior Guest Researcher, Centre of African Studies, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
Gordon, L. 2008. An introduction to Africana philosophy. Cambridge University Press.
Fanon, F. (1967). Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.
Maldonado-Torres, N. 2007. On the Coloniality of Being, Cultural Studies, 21:2, 240 – 270.
Nyamnjoh, F. 2016. #RhodesMustFall: Nibbling at Resilient Colonialism in South Africa. Bamenda: Langaa Research and Publishing CIG.
Steyn, M. 2015. “Critical Diversity Literacy: Essentials for the Twenty-first Century.” In Routledge Handbook of Diversity Studies, edited by S. Vertovec, 379-389. New York: Routledge.
Wa Thiongo, N. 1986. Decolonising the Mind: The Problems of Language in African Literature. London & Nairobi: James Currey.
* #RhodesMustFall: Nibbling at Resilient Colonialism in South Africa is published by Langaa RPCIG (Bamenda, Cameroon), 2016. 298 pp., including bibliography, £24 (paperback), £30 (eBook), ISBN 9789956763160