The #RhodesMustFall campaign makes some white men afraid that they are no longer relevant, writes Gillian Schutte.
Johannesburg - The powerful social-media platform that the student-driven #RhodesMustFall movement has given rise to has all but been misappropriated by some gatekeepers who have made use of its momentum for their own ambition and even their personal vendettas.
Not that it has not been compelling to watch academics and opinion-makers alike veering around their “I am not racist but …” and “We agree, but only halfway…” agendas in order to politick for maximum popularity from all sides of the ideology map – and possibly even canvas for academic or political leverage.
It seems social movements that become momentous are often quickly arrogated by expedient male gatekeepers (and wannabes) as platforms for self-aggrandisement.
None so much as some white male gatekeepers who have even used these platforms as a form of social media Viagra for their flagging relevancy anxieties as they insert their strident views into these struggles – some even casting themselves in a virile and heroic role.
Let’s face it, the de-erection of Cecil John Rhodes is having a terrible impact on those white male gatekeepers who are feeling “so last month” and many suggest the un-hanging of Rhodes is dysfunctional.
Their mostly liberal arguments, though, remain flaccid in the face of collective black fed-upness and rage and their clamorous and self-important views are mostly lost by the wayside.
I do not speak of white men who have reimagined themselves and kept up with the social trends and transformation.
I speak of those anachronistic windbags who simply seem not to know how to be anything other than 20th-century phallocrats with liberal top-down individualistic views that they assume apply to all.
They have wielded this phallic power in our society for decades and are desperately endeavouring to keep it that way by theorising to death every struggle that threatens them.
It seems that the removal of Cecil John Rhodes is at the forefront of this white male frenzy because the takedown of his effigy is certainly indicative of the beginning of the dislodging of the assumed white male supremacy over our public sphere.
Many of these liberal white gatekeepers have scrambled to become overtly significant in this discussion around the demise of imperial and apartheid effigies in celebratory public spaces.
Some have claimed, in paternalistic tones, that they understand black rage and they empathise with it, as if they are speaking of collective teenage angst that will surely last only so long. Some have argued that the statue must be moved – but not altogether. Some have even claimed that they are in solidarity with the students, but then have insisted that the statue be moved to a less important place on the same campus. They have even reminisced “prematurely” that the statue, if moved, may one day be returned to the campus… you know… when the natives have calmed down and realised that they need white men to rule the roost.
Are they seriously imagining that finally the majority will make the rational choice to listen to them and not upset the status quo?
It is plausible that white men with this particular liberal view are trying desperately to retain their own relevance in a world where it is clear that black voices, women’s voices and gender non-conforming voices are fast gaining their rightful agency and shifting these men out from their previously held position of top dog.
It seems to me that all this public acting out signifies that they harbour a deeply etched fear that they are also going to be moved into obscurity, so they argue for Cecil John Rhodes to remain in plain view. This is what they would want for themselves.
They imagine that they will be the next to be boarded up, closeted and then discarded in some dark dank annal of history.
This anxiety is clearly felt in articles by writers such as University of Cape Town lecturer Jacques Rousseau and DA MP Michael Cardo, where the crisis of white masculinity bubbles palpably below the surface of their didactic and punitive tones.
Rousseau attempts to disguise his own dread in theoretical yet cavalier language.
But on further deconstruction it occurs to me that his self-congratulatory self-assurance may well disguise a neurotic unconscious fear that, like Rhodes, he too will be moved, relegated to an irrelevant space and stripped of his authority.
But pontificate he does in his self-assured liberal framework, as he more or less decrees, in writing on the website Synapses: “More broadly, the liberalism I subscribe to recognises the human flourishing that can result when people are treated equally, respectfully and so forth. Keeping a statue of an arch-colonialist on campus, in such pride of place, sends a signal that can quite plausibly be read as a lesser commitment to the interests of some rather than others.”
You think? Could it possibly be plausible that the statue is indicative of gross misconduct towards some rather than others – and is, as many a black commentator has said, an abomination for black people? Liberal discourse can be so non-committal and slippery.
To speak on behalf of the majority in “ifs and maybes” is plain arrogance and seeks to explain that experience through a narrow whitist privileged view.
Rousseau – who claims, on the one hand, to be in solidarity with the students – has this to say on the other: “I would have kept it on campus, and that was in fact the first proposal that the senate debated, before an amendment suggesting it be removed entirely was proposed.
“In later years, we might decide to bring it back, and have it form part of some new installation. But whatever happens, there will no doubt be some significant recognition of what was in his place, and why it was moved.
“We’re not obliterating history at all, in other words – we’re making it.”
Exactly who is making history here? And does Rousseau imagine that in a few years white men will still be making all the decisions about what belongs where?
While Rousseau treads carefully in his comfort zone of theory and jargon, Cardo dives directly into a non-reflexive privileged white male diatribe, all gung-ho. His is the voice of reason, of that he has no doubt.
This is clear when Cardo loftily pontificates in his muddled article on Politicsweb on Rhodes Must Fall that: “One of the lesser noted aspects of the #Rhodesmustfall campaign is the complete and cowardly retreat of liberals in the face of majoritarian demands to remove the Randlord’s statue.”
I beg your pardon? Giving in to the will of the majority is a cowardly retreat of the liberals? So you admit then that liberals only pretend to believe in equality for all?
Cardo then, for some unknown reason, turns his lens on me, along with all the political parties in opposition to the DA, implying that this hotch-potch collective has been the backbone of this struggle to topple Rhodes – usurping the student protesters’ agency.
“No wonder, then, that the most vocal defenders of the campaign have been the ANC, the EFF, the SACP, Equal Education, and the likes of Gillian Schutte writing in The Sunday Independent,” Cardo writes. “Schutte seems to think that she can ‘abolish whiteness’ by wringing her hands repeatedly, and by boring her readers to death with self-righteous, jargon-laden prose of the very worst order.
“She once wrote an essay titled ‘The Politics of S*** and Why It Should Be Part of Public Protest’, which tells you everything you need to know about her.”
All of this takes place under the title, “The sinister under-belly of the Rhodes Must Fall! Campaign”, which implies much more afoot, some malevolent plot in which I somehow have a major role.
On the sidelines the liberal egalitarians cheered and tweeted in a social media orgy of delight at the power they wielded in public debate – oblivious that this was one debate in which their weigh-ins had little sway.
This was about the collective and what it wanted and the protesters and students were clearly not asking for advice or analysis.
Self-professed liberal egalitarian Eusebius McKaiser joined in the Twitter fracas – congratulating his fellow liberals for their must-read takes on black sentiment while also sloganeering in solidarity with blackness. This contradiction was hotly debated by black youth concerned that some black liberals were supporting those in opposition to their demands while paying lip service to them.
As student Rethabile Makoanyane puts it: “White male liberals have their agents in the form of black egalitarian liberals who think playing for both sides of the coin helps in this discourse – but it’s only about their own personal interests and seeking relevance from their white masters and the black population. That way when the revolution comes they find themselves on the right side of history.”
Rhodes may have fallen, but his legacy lives on. The struggle for equality, economic freedom, transformation and seizing back the narrative is ongoing. But one thing is clear: this movement has shifted the power base of the public debate out of the historical grip of white patriarchy and privilege and into a wider democratic and inclusive space.
It has dislodged the monolithic assumption of white males that it is their god-given role to dominate the public spaces with their rules and has made it clear that they no longer have the authority to police black rage and black pain, whether in angry right-wing diatribes or slippery liberal analysis. Rhodes has fallen, mate. He is gone and in the space that has been left is so much possibility.
* Schutte is an anti-racism educator, activist, social justice feminist and film-maker. She is co-founder of Media for Justice, author of the novel After Just Now and a published poet.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.