Rhodes Must Fall: The End of Negotiating Black Pain in Post-Apartheid South Africa

At an emotionally charged forum debating whether the statute honouring Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town (UCT) should be removed, a young Black woman took the floor to say something that resonated with the many young Black South Africans seated in the room and throughout the country: the time for negotiating Black pain is over. Transformation is now.

For those of us who happened to be born towards the twilight of Apartheid, her words encapsulated everything that we’ve had to face navigating a South Africa that still privileges and upholds white supremacy. The dawn of democracy in 1994 saw the liberation leaders place Black pain on the backburner in order to establish peace in our country. It is a decision that I do not condemn them for. Our country was on the brink of total destruction and they made that they the best decision they could. I realise how easy it is for me to criticise freedom fighters with the blessing of hindsight. Young Black South Africans are aware of the fact that unlike our forefathers and foremothers, we were spared the overt humiliation that was colonialism and Apartheid. We were not denied our civil liberties by virtue of the colour of our skins. We were not legislated to a life of second-class citizenry where our dreams, hopes and aspirations were denied in order for us to be white South Africa’s servitude. We did not have to be pillaged, beaten, abused, attacked and killed for the right to call the land of our ancestors home.

Yet what many, including those who were involved in the fight for our freedom, fail to understand is that we live with the painful legacy of colonialism and Apartheid every day. We are reminded of it by the numerous symbols of white supremacy littered across our country. When young Black South Africans enter institutions of higher learning, the curricula they study reminds them of their consistent subordination in society. It tells them that their narratives do not matter and that in spite of the number of Black blood that has been shed in the name of freedom, it is white people who contributed the most to our current democracy.
A lot of us have been forced to come to terms with the fact that our miracle democracy only happened on paper and that white South Africa, for the most part, has remained blissfully apathetic towards the plight of Black South Africans. They have interpreted reconciliation to mean that they can ignore their complicity in perpetuating and maintaining the oppressive structures which continue to marginalise non-white South Africans. Instead of interrogating their own prejudice and thinking of ways in which they can help trasofrm South Africa, they continue to denigrate Black South Africa and deny the role they played in the current racial inequalities and discrepancies which plague our country.

The reason why we as young Black South Africans want that statue to fall is because it represents all of the above. It represents the struggle that most of us have had to endure to be able to have a small slice of the pie from which our white counterparts continue to eat. It is revelatory of the 100 Black academics who constitute the 1,500 staff members who make up UCT’s academic body. It is the lack of funding given to Black students from disadvantaged background. It is the pittance paid to the workers of UCT who’ve had to wipe up the indulgent spillages of the white and Black bourgeoisie. It is emblematic of the lack of transformation that has taken place in our country owing to a lack of political will on the part of an ANC-led government which continues to protect white privilege at the expense of Black lives and pain.

As UCT Professor Xolela Mangcu said, I do not think it’s necessary to go to great lengths to explain why the statue of Cecil John Rhodes needs to be taken down. Many Black South Africans are exhausted of having to negotiate and debate their pain in condescending forums frequented by a largely arrogant, defensive, disinterested and patronising white South Africa. We are fed up with those who cherry-pick at Nelson Mandela’s legacy in order silence us. While our activism is shaped by the likes of Mandela, we are Mandela-ists. We are autonomous human beings capable of shaping our own destinies while simultaneously paying tribute to the leaders who made it all possible for us.

Contrary to those who criticise the Rhodes Must Fall movement, Cecil John Rhodes was not a man of the times. He was a greedy murderer, racist, coloniser and misogynist suffering from a superiority and cult complex. He was committed to rendering Africa into a pariah for barbaric racism and imperialism. The land he “donated” to UCT was expropriated from Africans. The businesses he built continue to profit from centuries of Black labour.

As young Black South Africans, we are demanding radical transformation. We are no longer interested in appeasing white sensibilities and attempting to work within a system that was designed to stifle us. We are releasing ourselves from carrying the burden of reconciliation. We are asking that the spaces we occupy are distinctly African and reflective of an African society that is proud of its identity. We are committed to securing genuine equality and building a more inclusive South Africa for all who live in it. - Khanya Mtshali

Photograph: Schalk Van Zuydam/AP

Khanya Mtshali is a Black South African writer and actor who lives for postcolonial feminist discourse, vegan chilli, Roxane Gay and Solange's life on Instagram. She's also an aspiring academic despite her chronic procrastination and short attention span.

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