Rhodes and white privilege: A reply to Rodney Warwick

Quraysha Ismail Sooliman
Main Photo by: Sydelle Willow Smith www.sydellewillowsmith.com
 Quraysha Ismail Sooliman asks why our universities still largely teach knowledge of white males from the US and Western Europe

There are many brazen comments in Rodney Warwick’s response to the fall of the Rhodes’ statute; but it is his contempt (which I will illustrate below by reference to his use of language) for the reality of the historical injustices suffered by people of colour because of colonial and imperial exploitation and genocide which is most unbecoming of a PhD graduate.

Unbecoming, but not unsurprising. This is because Warwick has received his education from an institution and a system of white privilege that has been developed on the foundations of a supremacist ideology. This ideology is steeped in the epistemicide of African, Arab, and Indigenous Indian knowledge.[1]

White supremacy is a political system that has dominated the world for the last several hundreds of years; and it has produced an education system whereby the text-books and learning material are developed mostly by whites, for whites. As a result, most whites have so taken their racial privilege for granted, to the extent that they do not see this “privilege” as political, let alone as a form of domination.

Years of taught discrimination, engaging with subtle texts and soft language that perpetuate the notion of white superiority and African barbarity has effectively indoctrinated Warwick. I say indoctrinated because Warwick actually believes that protest action and rebellion against injustice, continued subjugation and domination by Imperial and colonial powers which manifest in symbols, statues, commands of reverence to specific literature, figures and endowments that have denigrated the dignity of Africans is about ” [an] intolerant black nationalist perspective” that is not “enthusiastic” about “academic freedom.”

For Warwick, African students who are demanding “real academic freedom” are actually seeking inferiority, because they dare to engage with alternate discourses that are produced by non-Whites. It is about regressing into “third world” status!

For Warwick, academic freedom is only viable, when the hegemonic narrative is not allowed to be challenged. For the students at UCT, Wits and those seeking transformation at the University of Pretoria – academic freedom for Africans who have endured an epistemicide of their knowledge, culture and heritage, the right to first engage with knowledges and histories that are not primarily Euro-centric is the ultimate academic freedom. Because establishing this right is about establishing their dignity. It should be remembered that academic freedom is not inviolable, but human dignity is.

For Warwick, there is neither dignity nor merit in alternate knowledge, because for him this right is akin to establishing a “socialistic, third world ‘People’s University’ which is also re-stamped as a black nationalist institution”. These words are loaded with images that punctuate the dialogue with supremacist stereotypes.

So while it is ok to be immersed in knowledge produced by white supremacy, engaging with the thought, knowledge, philosophies and writings of non-White persons is akin to “third-world” inferiority. And African students who demand a non-reverence to figures such as Rhodes – figures who trampled on the dignity of Africans are considered as having an “immature and destructive attitude.”

This statement confirms Warwick’s belief that only “white” knowledge is “knowledge” and that Africans need to be grateful for Rhodes’ “education endowments” and “economic modernisation of South Africa during the Mineral Revolution.” Has Warwick even considered the cost of these “endowments” and “economic modernisation” to the indigenous people of South Africa? And can the violation of an entire people’s dignity even be measured against these so-called generosities and “progress” to warrant a contemptuous claim that “Western and more specifically British colonisation in the long view arguably brought more light than darkness”?

At what cost? At who’s expense? Light for whom? Light defined by whom? The typical contrasting of light and darkness in Warwick’s language seeks to reinforce the supremacist, colonial claim that Africa was the “dark” continent that needed the light of the “saviour” – the White, Christian, “civilised” European people!

How dare he?

Warwick’s comment alone is proof that there is an urgent need for an absolute transformation within the universities and places of learning that can no longer be stalled in pretentious dialogues and commissions. We need a paradigm change, and we need it now.

Of note also is the use of excrement in the display of social and political anger. This is not vulgarity, barbarism or disrespect, as Warwick attempts to portray. Gillian Schutte clearly elucidates in “The Politics of Shit and Why It Should Be Part of Public Protest”[2] that,

“[w]hen human shit is used in struggle and protest it is usually a last resort. To be sure, when the rules that control and govern defecation are broken (in any culture) it signifies a shift toward revolt against indefensible social conditions.”[3]

In this regard, the questions that should be asked are: Why is it that our South African universities still largely teach and reproduce the knowledge of White Christian males from only five countries – Germany, France, Italy, the UK and the US? And why is it that students have to resort to the most desperate measures in order for their protests to be registered?

I have to concur with Warwick that universities such as UCT are dependent on donors, including their alumni for funding. As a result, in reaching out to those African students who have been deprived of a life of dignity because of the white supremacist ideology that produced apartheid and justified colonialism and slavery, a “real” gesture in affirming Warwick’s claim that the majority of white students at UCT “evince a rejection of Apartheid, support of the SA Constitution and for many, a deep desire, often practised, to contribute to the development of South Africa” is needed.

The time has come for all white administration staff, academics, managers, students and alumni of UCT, who worked, did research, lectured, were registered or graduated from UCT up to and including 1993 to pay a compulsory monthly contribution to an endowment fund established by the university that would offer scholarships/bursaries in conjunction with the Rhodes’ fund.

The Rhodes’ fund must continue, because the wealth that smothered him was wealth that was stolen from those whom he exploited and subjugated on the premise of an inferior humanity. This is just reparation. And the compulsory contributions from the “privileged whites” must come with a “double realisation”; that for the “colonised people” this contribution from white alumni/academics/administrators “is their due” and not charity; and secondly, that the people of privilege “must pay.”[4]

As for the Rhodes statute, I agree with Andrew Donaldson (in his comment: “Rhodes at UCT: A very sensible solution”) that it should be decapitated, but I believe that the headless form must have a very visible and bold plaque that states:  Cecil John Rhodes -colonialist, murderer, racist, exploiter. A history to be remebered. A history that shall not and must not be repeated.”

We must never forget our past,  nor must we allow the past to be sanitised by the political ideology of white supremacy. In this regard it is necessary to be prudent of the realities of the past that shape both the present and the future, as Ramose states, “History is the repository of memory necessary for the construction of an ever changing present and the projection of a better future.”[5]

Quraysha Ismail Sooliman (MPhil)

Associate Fellow (GovInn)

PhD Candidate (Centre for Human Rights)

Freelance Journalist

University of Pretoria


Follow me on twitter @QISmail

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[1] See: Grosfoguel, Ramón (2013) “The Structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities: Epistemic Racism/Sexism and the Four Genocides/Epistemicides of the Long 16th Century,” Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge: Vol. 11: Iss. 1, Article 8.

[2] http://sacsis.org.za/site/article/1691

[3] http://sacsis.org.za/site/article/1691

[4] Frantz Fanon “The wretched of the earth” Penguin Books: England 1963 81

[5] M. Ramose “Transforming education in South Africa: paradigm shift or change?” South African Journal of Higher Education (2003)  17 (3); 137-143

(This article first appeared on PoliticsWeb on 25 March 2015)
(Photograph:  Zwelakhe R Lephoma #Rhodesmustfall Facebook campaign – students are calling for the removal of colonial-era other statues around South Africa )