Rhodes and the politics of pain

| Jeremy Seekings and Nicoli Nattrass
Statue of Rhodes covered with tape on UCT. Since this photo was taken, the statue has been boarded up while the process to have it removed continues. Photo by Masixole Feni.

A statue that appears to commemorate racism and imperialism occupies a uniquely privileged position on the university campus, causing evident pain to some students, professors and staff.

As our colleague Xolela Mangcu has rightly argued, the pain of the minority must count for more than the indifference of the majority. The statue should be moved, and the University of Cape Town (UCT) has erred in not addressing this issue until protesting students forced it onto the agenda.

Passion and pain play important roles in political life. But the Manichean politics of pain has its weaknesses. It fosters an intolerance of both the diversity of opinion and of reasoned deliberation, and it easily serves to obscure some privileges and injustices at the same time as highlighting others.

The intolerance of the politics of pain was evident at the University Assembly held on Wednesday 25 April (subsequently viewable on YouTube). The Assembly provided an overdue opportunity for students and staff to express their pain over the Rhodes statue and other aspects of what is seen as a lack of ‘transformation’ at the university. But the expression of pain served to legitimate less laudable aspects of the Assembly. The Assembly was hijacked by a well-organised group of students implementing a carefully-prepared plan. Instead of allowing a rich diversity of voices to be heard, examples of racist commentary from the social media were used in an attempt to reduce the debate to ‘us’ (the pained) and ‘them’ (racist critics), whilst students who sought to express dissent were heckled and jeered. We suspect that there are very many students, both ‘black’ and ‘white’, who are disgusted by racism but remain unpersuaded by the SRC, and whose voices were silenced.

The undermining of deliberation was evident also at the meeting of the university’s Senate to discuss the Vice-Chancellor’s proposal to remove the statue. The politics of pain prevented serious debate over what should be done with the removed statue, and legitimated an amendment (to the Vice-Chancellor’s proposal) that the statue be removed off the University and permanently. Senate voted against the suggestion that the university should retain the option of relocating the statue into a university museum or gallery, as part of a critical examination of the nature of imperialism and privilege. The only substantive argument made for denying current and future students the opportunity of a museum was the supposed imperative of making an important political statement of solidarity with students and others who are pained by the statue. The politics of pain pushes us to the purification of ejecting the statue, not to engaging with it critically.

It is important that the university sends a clear political statement that it does not defend imperialism and that it is committed to being a premier African university. But this is not the only statement that the university should make.

The politics of pain pushed UCT’s Senate to forget its role as an educational institution. Senate had an opportunity to commit itself to using the statue as the centerpiece of an educational project. Instead, Senate sent a message that education is not our primary concern. Some speakers at Senate asserted that there are no statues to Hitler in Germany. This misses the point. German museums have galleries that use a variety of Nazi artifacts to aid a critical reflection on an awful and indefensible period of German history, a period in which many, many Germans were implicated. The victims of the Holocaust rightly call on all of us to ensure that Nazi symbols are not displayed in public. But the victims of the Holocaust are at the forefront of demands that we examine critically the past, and that we use the most awful artifacts of the Holocaust – including the death camps themselves - for educational purposes. Similarly, artifacts of apartheid are preserved in the Apartheid Museum and elsewhere. The statue of Rhodes might have been the central artifact in a museum or gallery at UCT, dedicated to the critical study of imperialism, ‘warts and all’.

The politics of pain has a third weakness also. The racialization of pain serves to reduce injustices and indignities to race, foreclosing serious consideration of other forms of injustice and indignity. The university has the opportunity to make a clear political statement that we are committed to examining all forms of privilege, including the privileges that all of us at UCT – professors, lecturers and students; ‘black’, ‘white’ or other – enjoy to varying degrees as a result of Rhodes’ imperialist philanthropy. The privilege of working and studying at what is arguably Africa’s premier university cannot be detached from Rhodes’ legacy. Handing the statue to someone else to deal with might make us think we now have clean hands, but this is an illusion. By banishing the statue off campus, Senate sent the shameful message that we can wash our hands by othering privilege and ignoring that we ourselves are implicated in a privileged project that has benefited, and will continue to benefit, us.

More generally, the politics of pain over the statue serves to obscure other forms of injustice and indignity besides racism. This is evident in the coupling of pain over the statue with opposition to UCT’s revised admissions policies that acknowledge that students from bad schools and poor backgrounds experience disadvantages not shared by students – whether black or white – who attended expensive elite schools. Removing the statue into a museum or gallery would have provided a powerful focus for interrogating all forms of privilege, including those rooted in class as well as race, those that we enjoy at the elite institution of UCT, and those that will endure even after the statue has been removed. The Manichean politics of pain foreclosed the kind of debate and deliberation that might have allowed more serious consideration of this option.

Seekings is the director of Centre for Social Science Research (CSSR) at UCT. Nattrass is a professor of economics and also in the CSSR. No inference should be made on whether the views expressed in this article reflect the editorial position of GroundUp.

See Race transcends class in this country: a response to Seekings and Nattrass by Xolela Mangcu.

TOPICS:  Education

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