It is a recurrent riddle why decent people often fail to speak out against injustice that occurs right under their nose; not something, in other words, that involves an intangible ideology but rather an act that they have personally witnessed – racial abuse, say, or sexual harassment. It is all the more astonishing when the echoing silence emanates from public figures whose entire career and rationale is based upon opposition to exactly that which they have chosen to overlook.
At Oxford University last month, during the annual lecture in memory of Bram Fischer (pictured) – one of South Africa’s towering liberation heroes – there was a pithy summary of the fall-out from Jacob Zuma: “That he remains the President of the country today – despite the growing catalogue of crimes of which he stands accused – is a stain on our nation’s history. That the ANC – the party of Luthuli, Tambo and Mandela – has not only not moved decisively to recall him, but has unscrupulously defended him, is a disgrace from which it may never recover.”
One of the most bizarre manifestations of current convoluted thinking is the response of a small section of militant black students demanding free university education. Instead of venting their anger on a corrupt President and his venal cronies who have looted enough from the public purse to subside most of their desirable demands, they damage buildings and attack other students. The South African Special Risks Association recently revealed their pay-outs rose 16% last year, mostly thorugh students trashing their own campuses. So far this year the student protest bill is for 42% of all special risk payments.
Simultaneously the statistician-general revealed that the percentage of black students progressing at universities was higher in the 1980s than it is now. There are far more university students today – but many drop out, frequently because they can’t afford it. So, in ratio to enrolment, the proportion of black graduates has shockingly decreased by ten per cent over the past 40 years.
No wonder many black students are angry. Yet why do they avoid attacking the government with the purse-strings? Instead, for example, my goddaughter – the first in her family to get a school leaving certificate – had to flee one of her final exams when protesters burst in to pepper-spray all present, mostly black.
One explanation might be found in a just published book, Rhodes University, 1904-2016, by Professor Paul Maylam. Regarding the seminal Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of the mid-1990s, he points out, “There were several sectors of society, such as the media, faith communities and the legal profession, that did make submissions to the TRC, acknowledging their role in upholding, tacitly or otherwise, and perpetrating apartheid. One party that did not make a submission to the TRC was the university sector.”
Rhodes University was founded in 1904 with funds from the Cecil Rhodes estate. Leander Starr Jameson – Dr. Jim of the notorious raid – declared it would be “the Oxford of South Africa.” By the time I was a student there in the late 1960s there were still smug boasts of “dreaming spires” – totally out of kilter with the nearby wretched township.
In his well-balanced account, Professor Maylam refers to the era of high apartheid as “ inglorious years in the history of Rhodes.” He says, “For most of this period the Rhodes authorities appeared to readily acquiesce in the government’s apartheid policies, and at times, through certain gestures, such as the award of honorary doctorates to high-profile government figures, appeared to endorse apartheid.” The collusion ranged from the absurd, such as banning Abdullah Ibrahim (then known as Dollar Brand), to the outright sinister: handing over information about students to the Security Police.
Maylam is also absolutely clear about the indifference of most students to the cruelty all around them, content to enjoy their privilege. But those few white students who opposed that racial tyranny were certain where the real blame lay: with the white nationalist government. In other words – as with Bram Fischer, the brilliant Afrikaans lawyer who turned his back on a glittering career within his own “tribe” in order to fight injustice – there was no snare of race solidarity.
But the inclination of most student rebels now to trash (colonial) buildings rather than take on President Zuma seems to involve an ominous element of discomfort over denouncing a black leader. Recalling Bram Fischer, Sipho Pityana declared, “When Afrikaner anti-imperialism became racial chauvinism, he took the difficult step of breaking ranks with his fellow Afrikaners to become part of a liberation movement.” The same should apply today: when former anti-apartheid fighters become state looters the time has come to break ranks. Otherwise acts of racial solidarity represent a posthumous coup for apartheid.