Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Why a 12 year old can be murdered by the state in Cleveland with no consequence

       Because of Black Lives Matter and mass pressure from below as well as an investigation by the Obama Justice Department, the New York Times editorial board speaks the truth about Cleveland and Chicago and the Occupying Police of America in poor communities throughout the US. The police did this; they then tackled Tamir's sister who was going to Tamir and held her in a police car while he lay bleeding.  Abstract from the city/country name and you will see clearly what this is.

      Who wants to live in a society where such wanton state murders - and poisonous voices of city/"prosecuting" officials - are routine?  It is up to us, the democracy from below, to stop them...


The Opinion Pages | EDITORIAL
Cleveland’s Terrible Stain
CreditOliver Munday 
Tamir Rice of Cleveland would be alive today had he been a white 12-year-old playing with a toy gun in just about any middle-class neighborhood in the country on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 2014.

But Tamir, who was shot to death by a white police officer that day, had the misfortune of being black in a poor area of Cleveland, where the police have historically behaved as an occupying force that shoots first and asks questions later. To grow up black and male in such a place is to live a highly circumscribed life, hemmed in by forces that deny your humanity and conspire to kill you.

Those forces hovered over the proceedings on Monday when a grand jury declined to indict Officer Timothy Loehmann in the killing and Timothy McGinty, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, explained why he had asked the grand jurors to not bring charges. Mr. McGinty described the events leading up to Tamir’s death as tragic series of errors and “miscommunications” that began when a 911 caller said a male who was “probably a juvenile” was waving a “probably fake” gun at people in a park.

The fact that those caveats never reached Officer Loehmann — who shot the child within seconds of arriving on the scene — was more than just an administrative misstep. It reflects an utter disregard for the lives of the city’s black residents. That disregard pervades every aspect of this case and begins with the fact that the department failed to even review Officer Loehmann’s work history before giving him the power of life and death over the citizens of Cleveland. Had the department done so, it would have found that Officer Loehmann had quit a suburban police department where he had showed a “dangerous loss of composure” during firearms training and was found to be emotionally unfit for the stress of the job.

Officer Loehmann joined a police department that itself had acquired a well-documented reputation for wanton violence and for shooting at people who posed no threat to the police or others. In a particularly striking event, documented by the Justice Department last year, officers mistook the sound of a car backfiring for a gunshot. They chased down and fired at the vehicle 137 times, killing two occupants who turned out to be unarmed.

The lengthy Justice Department report shows clearly why the black community viewed the Cleveland police as dangerous and profoundly out of control. In May, the Police Department entered an agreement with the Justice Department, enforceable by the courts, under which it is to adopt sweeping reforms.

The Police Department’s disregard for life was fully evident in the way the officers behaved after shooting Tamir. A surveillance video shows them standing by the child for four minutes without giving medical assistance, which was finally provided by an F.B.I. agent who happened to be in the neighborhood. Officer Frank Garmback, Officer Loehmann’s partner, nonetheless tackled the wounded boy’s 14-year-old sister as she tried to rush to his side. One can only imagine her suffering as she watched in handcuffs from the back seat of the squad car while her brother lay bleeding on the ground.

In addition to portraying the killing as a result of a tragic misunderstanding, prosecutors have also suggested the officer’s decision to kill Tamir was shaped by the fact that the surrounding neighborhood had a history of violence and that the boy appeared to be older than 12 because he was big for his age.

These arguments sidestep the history of violent, discriminatory police actions that led up to this boy’s death. They also have the reprehensible effect of shifting the responsibility for this death onto the shoulders of this very young victim.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The fall of Cecil Rhodes' statue at the University of Cape Town

        Sage Bard Gilbert ran across this intense column from the Guardian about young South Africans initiating and recently winning after many months the taking down of the statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town.

     Here is the society where the black and colored majority was oppressed by apartheid – the Boers modeling themselves on Nazis, the two-bit colonialism of the pompous and abject Rhodes. also celebrated by Hitler – and where a victorious movement, with negotiations, organized surprisingly a peaceful transition to decency.


    Here is the society revealed in "Invictus," the fabulous film about Nelson Mandela, in which this man, 27 years a prisoner at Robben Island, came out to heal the country – the divisions of apartheid – through rugby.


      Here were the Truth and Reconciliation commissions led by Bishop Desmond Tutu and beautifully described in No Future without Forgiveness.


      And here is a country, ruled by black folks, in which immense poverty and lack of opportunity for most blacks continues.  Here is a country where foreign capital continues to dominate and the black government murders 31 striking miners at Marikana for the Lonrho, London Rhodesia, named for Cecil Rhodes Platinum Mining Company,  just as under apartheid. See here and here.


       Here is a country where “the free ones” – the only generation born free – are forcibly, paternalistically, incomprehensibly subjected to what I call Founding Amnesia by older blacks.  “It is better for  you; you are born free.” Here is No Truth and No Reconciliation, but  utter suppression of truth and profound pretence on the part of leaders who want to hold on to  power but not to answer the young, nor to create a free and decent regime for the poorest people.


     And so people like Muzwele working to dispense AIDS medicine in a slum slum slum no sewer, looking deeply at women and children along the road, takes a bucket of shit where it had collected for a week from the poor township  and  fights back.


        A note on Cecil Rhodes, for whom Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, is named as well as the Rhodes fellowship:  this resulted from a great "rehabilitation" by Oxford or Founding Amnesia since at the time, not unlike John Evans or leaders of the Confederacy, Rhodes' reputation for racism and avarice - he was a billionaire and founded Debeer's diamonds, controlling 90% of the diamond trade - was seamy:EndFragment 

          "It was Rhodes, too, who in 1887 told the House of Assembly in Cape Town that “the native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise. We must adopt a system of despotism in our relations with the barbarians of South Africa”. In less oratorical moments, he put it even more bluntly: “I prefer land to niggers.”  

     "Rhodes imprinted his personality on the region with monarchical energy: dams, railway engines, towns and anti-dandruff tonics were all named after him. But his expansionist zeal was not always matched at home in Britain. 'Our burden is too great,' Gladstone once grumbled. “We have too much, Mr Rhodes, to do. Apart from increasing our obligations in every part of the world, what advantage do you see to the English race in the acquisition of new territory?” Rhodes replied: “Great Britain is a very small island. Great Britain’s position depends on her trade, and if we do not open up the dependencies of the world which are at present devoted to barbarism, we shall shut out the world’s trade. It must be brought home to you that your trade is the world, and your life is the world, not England. That is why you must deal with these questions of expansion and retention of the world.”

      ‘I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence; look again at the extra employment a new country added to our dominions gives. I contend that every acre added to our territory means in the future birth to some more of the English race who otherwise would not be brought into existence…’

    "‘Why should we not form a secret society with but one object: the furtherance of the British Empire and the bringing of the whole uncivilized world under British rule, for the recovery of the United States, and for the making of the Anglo-Saxon race but one Empire?…Afrika is still lying ready for us; it is our duty to take it. It is our duty to seize every opportunity of acquiring more territory and we should keep this one idea steadily before our eyes: that more territory simply means more of the Anglo-Saxon race, more of the best, the most human, most honorable race the world possesses…’" See here.  

      A man deserving at the least of a "Poo Protest"...


      Note that Max Price, a white University of Cape Town leader, responded to these student protests, and shockingly not black leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle (they need someone to wake them up; Muzwele is trying...):

         "Though this year’s student protests have harkened back to a time when white and black people in South Africa were at dire odds, in many instances, white people have been more curious about – and sympathetic towards – the protests than the young people’s black elders have been. Many white youth joined the marches at UCT and, last month, at parliament and Zuma’s offices. UCT’s vice-chancellor Max Price, a white former doctor, flew back from an education summit in Dakar a few days after Maxwele’s poo protest and released a statement supporting the protesting students and calling for the statue’s removal.

Max Price, the vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town.
 Max Price, the vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town. Photograph: Supplied

Over the phone, Price told me he was “so moved by the arguments of students that they found [Rhodes’s] presence offensive to the degree people would find [a statue of] Stalin or Hitler evil.” The born frees’ deep anger seemed to him legitimate, he said. He acknowledged that their protest “wasn’t about the statue. It spoke to a much broader feeling of alienation in the institution which could be named colonial hegemony. Everything held up the culture of the west as best.”

   Colonial hegemony - the bane of this planet, what may well destroy our species in this century (global warming and grotesque inequalities).  Everything is held up as if the racist culture of the West were superior; it is, for instance, sad to be in India where the decaying British structures are parliament, the round arc, where the statue of Lord Mountbatten has been taken down, has not to this day 68 years later been replaced by one of Gandhi....


       In the United States, there is a lot of racist "white" silliness about how names do not matter, how going to Universities named for lynchers like Woodrow Wilson  (or the authors of Sand Creek Massacre) is somehow consistent with decency in a multiracial, equal rights-upholding community.  On Wilson protests, see here and here. Here we should learn from Chgotse Chikane, son of the minister to Thabo Mbeke and a second protestor, who initially put off by the "poo protest," began to challenge the racism of a white Facebook author and soon found it an amazing and powerful issue.   For the rest of us, so racists tell us, have to live with the murderous  past, perhaps clarifying it some occasionally but letting them revel in their "traditions."  


     For instance, Justice Scalia who despite his bitter sayings, is distinguished in the way of a pompous and air-headed stupidity has announced that affirmative action is bad because separate but equal is where it’s at.  After all this time, that a two-bit, racist idiot sits on the Supreme "Court" and often in the "majority"  is a very sad commentary on America, as bad as climate change denial by the Imperial Authoritarain Party (the one that wants a $1.7 trillion military budget, but is billed in the corporate press as "opposing big government" for slicing any common good-sustaining program) and a few Democrats. See here.


     April, a University of Texas B.A. and Law School grad commented acidly on Facebook that Scalia "is a waste of skin." See here.


       It is time for us all to work for a democratic society, one where each person is given a fair shot, where condescension toward ordinary people is not the mouthy stuff of so-called "Justices."


       Colonialism in its Nazi form - Nazism was colonialism brought to Europe, the Wild East of Poland and the Ukraine and Russia substituted for Hitler’s favorite, the Wild West of Karl May, but unlike May, exterminating the indigenous Americans or slavs…whom Hitler referred to as blacks, Russians as “redskins”….  See Kristin Kull, The Wild East (2012).


     We have yet a lot to learn, but the role of Black Lives Matter on campuses across the country and the international role of the "free ones" in South Africa at last bringing down deservedly the statue of Rhodes and perhaps the name/painting of Woodrow Wilson is instructive.  Much remains to be done, as the end of the article indicates, but toppling that statue is in the sense of what I call democratic internationalism, with a robust, multiracial solidarity, a start.


The Guardian

Why South African students have turned on their parents’ generation

When a black South African student threw a bucket of excrement over a statue of Cecil Rhodes, it kicked off a protest movement that is shattering the way the country sees its past
Students attack the defaced statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town on 9 April.

 Students attack the defaced statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town on 9 April. Photograph: Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images


ne of Chumani Maxwele’s stronger childhood memories is of an aeroplane. Not one he rode, but one he heard flying over his dusty village in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, not far from Nelson Mandela’s birthplace. Maxwele, the son of a poor miner, used to play football with his friends in a field behind his house. One morning in 1994, when he was not yet 10 years old, he was startled in the middle of a game by an unfamiliar noise from above – somewhere between a rumble and a drone. He let the ball dribble away and tilted his head to the sky. Maxwele had heard rumours that the African National Congress (ANC) was flying planes around the country: in a few months, South Africa would have its first elections in which black people could vote, and the planes were dropping campaign leaflets decorated in the ANC’s black, yellow and gold, urging people to vote for Mandela.
The sound of the plane transmitted an impression Maxwele never forgot – one of motion and power. The Eastern Cape legend had it that planes, a rare sighting, were flown by influential people, even people to be feared. Power was something Maxwele had only glimpsed at a distance, wielded by South Africa’s apartheid state. On the TV in the village nurse’s house, he had watched tanks manned by angry-eyed white boys in battle gear, rolling into crowds of black protesters. But now the liberation movement had its own planes. That implied a promise: the promise of transformation, of the freedom to change your circumstances and be something different from what history had prescribed for your kind.
Several years after the historic election that brought Mandela to power, Maxwele moved from the Eastern Cape to an area outside Cape Town called Delft, where people said there were better schools and more jobs. But Delft turned out to be a bitter place. Almost half its residents were unemployed. The black township next door, Khayelitsha, where he went to volunteer for an HIV awareness campaign, was even worse. “In a 1km stretch of road, you’d pass a thousand people,” Maxwele told me. “For me, that was shocking.” He discovered that people loitered on the streets because there was hardly room to stand up in their dark, claustrophobic shacks. Families defecated in plastic boxes collected once a week by the municipality. While the boxes sat by the kerb, children played around them. In the winter, a bluster of whipping wind and sideways-slanting rain, Khayelitsha flooded, and sometimes the makeshift shacks dissolved wholesale, their tarp roofs and cardboard-box sidings disintegrating like sandcastles in a heavy wave.
Maxwele got a job in 2006 working at Woolworths, an upscale supermarket in another Cape Town neighbourhood named Claremont. On their first day, he and his mostly black colleagues were given uniforms: a pressed shirt, a tie, and shiny patent leather shoes. His colleagues felt proud – they were real businesspeople now, office worker types! But Maxwele could see he was not in an office. He just looked the part. The vast majority of the Woolworths customers were white, and he was standing on his feet, attending to the needs of white people. It was not really so different from what his father had done in the mines, or what the mothers of his friends had done when they toiled in white people’s homes as maids.
It was a bitter reminder of the plane that had soared over his village in 1994. He had heard that plane, but he had never flown on one. Freedom, it seemed to him, was an illusion, a promise heard but not truly experienced – fresh new clothes that concealed the dogged persistence of humiliations from the past.
“It’s not a coincidence that if you go to Claremont, it’s full of white people owning the entire suburbia, and there are black people in Delft,” he told me. In his years in Cape Town, at the Delft community library, Maxwele had been reading more and more about the history of South Africa. Khayelitsha was prone to flooding because it had been a black-only settlement, built on sand; under apartheid, black people were consigned to the worst land. The customers at Woolworths were mostly white because Claremont was historically a whites-only neighbourhood, and white people with capital were usually still the only people who could afford to live there.
The apartheid past, Maxwele realised, was still shaping his life. The realisation made him feel more and more angry, because it had not been what he had been taught growing up. His generation had been told they were the “born frees”: an exceptional generation in South African history, the first one raised with almost no direct memory of apartheid’s terrors. “They’re like nothing that’s ever been!” bleated a promo segment for Bornfrees, a reality TV show that began airing in South Africa in 2004. In school and at home, their elders often reminded them how different life was for them and how much they had to be grateful for.

On the morning of 9 March, Maxwele travelled by minibus taxi out to Khayelitsha, picked up one of the buckets of shit that sat reeking on the kerbside, and brought it back to the campus of the University of Cape Town (UCT), where, in 2011, he had gained a scholarship to study political science. He took it to a bronze statue of the 19th-century British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes that held pride of place on campus, just downhill from the convocation hall. Rhodes had been one of the main architects of South Africa’s segregation. “Where are our heroes and ancestors?” Maxwele shouted to a gathering, curious crowd.
Then he opened the bucket and hurled its contents into Rhodes’s face.

* * * 

What happened next shattered South Africa’s sense of where it sits on the wheel of history. The country knew UCT as a quiet, happy place, both intellectually rigorous – the Times Higher Education Supplement ranks it the top university in Africa – and unimaginably gorgeous, its campus tumbling down the side of Cape Town’s iconic Table Mountain in a cascade of Georgian buildings and lush gardens. Formerly whites-only, in recent decades it has been considered a Jerusalem for young black students, the height of post-apartheid opportunity.

Chumani Maxwele
 Chumani Maxwele set off a wave of student protests Photograph: Supplied

Maxwele’s “poo protest”, as it came to be known, revealed that behind this scenic facade, a great number of the black students were very, very angry. Three days later, on a Thursday afternoon, more than a thousand students gathered on the quad to debate Rhodes’s role in colonising Africa. They ended by demanding that UCT remove the statue from campus. For five weeks, hundreds of students massed around the statue, tagging it with graffiti, covering it in black bin bags, and singing songs from the anti-apartheid struggle such as Senzeni Na? (What have we done?). Saying the statue represented much about the university that still celebrates white culture – its curriculum is eurocentric, its governing council is mostly white, and its financial and mental-health support for black students is weak – they named themselves the Rhodes Must Fall Movement and occupied the university’s administration buildings, holding lectures on apartheid history and beating drums. Max Price, UCT’s vice-chancellor, had to tell his staff to go home.

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South African students light fires and attempt to tear down fences outside President Jacob Zuma’s office at Union Buildings in Pretoria in October.
In the weeks after Maxwele’s demonstration, students began protesting at several other universities – one called Rhodes, where students demanded the university change its name, and at Stellenbosch, where students protested the continued use of Afrikaans, the language developed by the Dutch-descended settlers who used to rule South Africa.
And then, in October, seven months after Maxwele lit the fuse, student uprisings exploded across the entire country. Citing the falling South African currency, universities had announced they would raise tuition fees by up to 20%; for many poor, mainly black students, yearly tuition at a South African university is already unattainable.
Suddenly, daily life in South Africa began to resemble a reel from a documentary of its own past. In 1985, an ANC leader vowed to make South Africa “ungovernable”, and at times it seemed that the students’ goal was the same, as were the tactics with which they pursued it. “We are going to shut down this university up until our demands are met,” a student activist told a crowd at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand. Students boycotted classes, as black youth had done in the famous Soweto student uprisings of 1976. Some campuses shut down for weeks; Cape Town’s University of the Western Cape is still closed.
They marched in tens of thousands on parliament and on President Jacob Zuma’s offices in Pretoria. Heading to the parliament protest, a score of young people, mostly black, swayed together on a public bus, chanting anti-apartheid songs as they clutched the ceiling rail on their way from the outskirts of town. Once there, anguished, they flung stones at steely-eyed policemen in riot gear. As used to happen in South Africa’s anti-apartheid protests of the 1980s, a tyre was set alight, its black smoke blocking out the light of the sun. A young black man was arrested and violently handcuffed; a woman injured by a stun grenade, her face streaming tears, was held up by the arms by two men and borne away. Another woman, her face set, her hair wrapped tightly in a colourful cloth, paced out in front of the enormous crowd, raised her fist, and yelled the freedom cry that black-liberation protesters used to shout when they faced down the apartheid state’s tanks: “Amandla! Awulethu!” (“Power! To us!”)
These student protests are far, far bigger than the last major demonstration against the immense structural injustices that linger in South Africa. That was the tragic strike by mineworkers in a town called Marikana in August 2012, where government police mowed down 34 miners who had spent weeks protesting against their low wages. [This was Lonrho or Lonmin, named for and invested in initially by Cecil Rhodes...] Marikana set off a national soul-searching, an outpouring of outraged op-eds and TV and radio debates. How could it be, 20 years after the end of apartheid, that black people still worked for such loose change, in conditions little better than their fathers endured, and then met their deaths at the hands of a weaponised state?

Students in Johannesburg protest against the rise in tuition fees.
 Students in Johannesburg protest against the rise in tuition fees. Photograph: Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

But the national reaction to the student protests has been more hesitant, muted. Many of the people who expressed heavy outrage about Marikana said nothing. Several older friends of mine told me they felt the students’ demands were completely justified, and yet they found something about the protests disorientating, and thus remained quiet; they were like the residents of a house feeling the tremors of something rumbling underground, but reluctant to explore what it was.
For the miners on strike in Marikana were mostly middle-aged. They had a right to expect something better from the second, liberated half of their lives. The “born frees” were not supposed to feel that degree of historical pain. As well as protesting the legacy of history, the young South Africans were trying on a historical identity, inhabiting the anger their parents had expressed decades earlier. My older friends found it eerie to watch.
And some of the most prominent people expressing that anger are children who really weren’t supposed to feel it. Many of the most active youth protesters hail from South Africa’s new black middle class and black elite. The young man who was handcuffed and arrested in front of Parliament was Kgotsi Chikane, the son of the Reverend Frank Chikane, the former chief of staff to the country’s second black president, Thabo Mbeki.
More and more, the anger of the young has pointed towards their parents and their black elders. Over the course of the year, the young South Africans moved from throwing stones at statues of dead white men to throwing them at live black ones – President Zuma and South Africa’s education minister Blade Nzimande, who rose to fame as an anti-apartheid activist. At the protest in front of Zuma’s office, young people raised hand-lettered signs that mocked Zuma as well as placards connecting their demonstration with the struggles of South Africa’s past. The story of why these generations are now at odds has deep implications for how a freed people, generation by generation, continues to relate to its history – implications that are relevant everywhere else in the world where the children of the oppressed are coming of age in what are supposed to be better circumstances.

* * * 

On 10 May 1994, the day of his inauguration, Nelson Mandela descended from the shaded veranda of the presidential offices in Pretoria to give an address to a crowd of tens of thousands that had gathered on the lawn. He began by seizing the hand of a startled FW de Klerk, South Africa’s last white president, and shouting in Afrikaans, the language of his white former jailers: “Wat is verby is verby!” (What is past is past!)
On the face of it, Kgotsi Chikane, one of the student uprising’s main leaders, could be a poster boy for that promise. A 24-year-old with close-cropped hair, a patchy moustache, and a quiet demeanor, Chikane’s upbringing could not have been more different from Maxwele’s. I met him on the UCT quad in May. “I come from a privileged black background,” he said with a smile as we sat down on the main steps. In his teens, Chikane’s family moved from the black township of Soweto to the “leafy suburbs” – South African slang for the posh, formerly whites-only neighbourhoods that are often shaded by stately jacaranda trees. The young Chikane attended a private Catholic high school that costs £3,650 a year, 30% more than the average black South African household income.
He showed up to our meeting wearing a T-shirt that said “Mandela Rhodes”, the name of the foundation – partially funded by Rhodes’s estate – that gave him a precious university scholarship. “This is my inherent contradiction in life,” he said, pointing to his chest. “I enjoy mocking Rhodes and yet he pays my university fees.”

Nelson Mandela campaigning in northern Transvaal<br>during the 1994 presidential election campaign
 Nelson Mandela campaigning in northern Transvaal during the 1994 presidential election campaign. Photograph: Brooks Kraft/Corbis

It was at UCT that Chikane began to feel aware of race. In the canteen of his 360-person all-male hall of residence, the students sorted themselves within a week into white tables and black tables. His white friends celebrated the fact that he was their “black friend”, saying he “grounded” them. In his macroeconomics class, his white teacher seemed to baby him. He would ask Chikane a simple question and then bore his eyes into him, “like, ‘Mmm, I don’t think you’ll understand.’ When I actually got a good mark, he was shocked. He said, ‘I wasn’t expecting that!’” That made Chikane angry. “I thought, ‘You don’t know me from a bar of soap.’”

Chikane’s first reaction to Maxwele’s poo protest was ambivalent. “I thought it was kind of disgusting,” he laughed. He had not grown up, like Maxwele, in a place where people defecated in buckets and left them on the streets. But within a day he became embroiled in a Twitter battle with a white student. The student claimed Maxwele’s protest “was actually disrespectful to the black poor because a black janitor would have to clean up the poo”, Chikane remembered. “I said, ‘Why are you suddenly so exercised about the plight of the black poor, only now, when your symbol is attacked?’” He realised that there was still an “us” – black – and “them” – white – and that black people like himself, however empowered they might appear, still had to endure being lectured by white people about what constitutes moral behaviour.
Three days after Maxwele’s poo protest, Chikane found himself leading a huge demonstration against the Rhodes statue. Beforehand, he chained his wrists together, his hands pressed awkwardly into a gesture of supplication. Paradoxically, assuming this pose of entrapment felt like the true liberation. It freed him to inhabit physically the sense of oppression he had only been feeling emotionally. “People started taking pictures,” he recalled. “And then I realised … black students weren’t taking pictures. The white students were taking pictures,” as white people have stared at the entrapped black body for centuries.
It was a common feature of the stories I heard from black student protesters: there had been a series of small experiences that made them aware they were not tabulae rasae, but black people enmeshed in a long history of black deprivation. Another UCT student, Ramabina Mahapa, 22, told me that, growing up poor in a semi-rural village, he had been almost unaware he was black. He excelled in science – “My heroes were Isaac Newton and Einstein,” he said. But when he got to UCT, he told me, he could no longer forget his race. In the car park of his 108-person hall, “there were 25 cars. All were owned by white people, except for one”. On Thursdays, the white boys went out to drink. He had little spending money, and so was left behind.
Mase Ramaru, a 22-year-old senior studying gender, remembered sitting in a class with a black lecturer and hearing white students complain that he was not a good teacher because his “black accent” was too heavy. “It becomes less about his ability and more about the colour of his skin, and that he’s not articulating himself the way people want him to articulate himself,” she said.
In her senior year of high school, Ramaru told me, she had begun “my own education” in the work of black thinkers such as the anti-colonial philosopher Frantz Fanon and the South African black consciousness activist Steve Biko – writers who traced the way the modern world had been set up to make black people feel fundamentally out of place. She noted that this history was not what she had learned in school. “I did the cold war for six years; I studied the American revolution in detail,” she recalled. “But the first specifically South African history came only when I was 12 and began with the democratic era.” The omissions had mystified her. Was there something that somebody did not want her to know?

* * * 

A few hours after I met Chikane at UCT, a group of 40 students gathered on the quad to demonstrate against the suspension of some of their fellow protesters. It was an unseasonably warm afternoon, and all of us were sweating. The heat only seemed to make the students sing louder. They held up their fists in the same gesture made by the African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics. “Nithi sixole kanjani amabhulu,” they sang, “abulala uChris Hani?”
I didn’t understand the words. So I asked one of the students, a boy in red Converse sneakers, what they meant. “It means, ‘How can we forgive the Boers [white Afrikaners] who killed Chris Hani?’”, he said, referring to the ANC leader assassinated in 1993. He broke into a sheepish smile, as if to acknowledge the incompatibility of the lyrics with the conciliatory feelings his generation was supposed to hold. “The Boers who killed Chris Hani are scared.”
Though this year’s student protests have harkened back to a time when white and black people in South Africa were at dire odds, in many instances, white people have been more curious about – and sympathetic towards – the protests than the young people’s black elders have been. Many white youth joined the marches at UCT and, last month, at parliament and Zuma’s offices. UCT’s vice-chancellor Max Price, a white former doctor, flew back from an education summit in Dakar a few days after Maxwele’s poo protest and released a statement supporting the protesting students and calling for the statue’s removal.

Max Price, the vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town.
 Max Price, the vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town. Photograph: Supplied

Over the phone, Price told me he was “so moved by the arguments of students that they found [Rhodes’s] presence offensive to the degree people would find [a statue of] Stalin or Hitler evil.” The born frees’ deep anger seemed to him legitimate, he said. He acknowledged that their protest “wasn’t about the statue. It spoke to a much broader feeling of alienation in the institution which could be named colonial hegemony. Everything held up the culture of the west as best.”
Many older leaders of colour, on the other hand, seemed to dismiss the students’ emotions. UCT’s few black administrators, including Barney Pityana, a founder of South Africa’s black-consciousness movement in the 1960s, refused to lend the protests their public support. Jonathan Jansen, the black head of another campus – the University of the Free State, in Bloemfontein – told me that he felt the Rhodes Must Fall protest was “crude” and “not in fact a movement. It was a moment”. Zuma delivered a disdainful radio address reminding students that “defacing statues is illegal”, as if they were unruly children requiring a time-out.
Chikane said the apparent unwillingness of black leaders to support the students’ awakening baffled him – and greatly amplified his anger. In mid-April, some 50 students broke into a UCT council meeting that Price had called to discuss the prospect of removing the Rhodes statue. The students climbed through a window that had been left open and surrounded the conference table, singing struggle songs.
Most of the members of the largely white council just sat there. But the head of the council, Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, a former anti-apartheid activist who was imprisoned with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, stood up and flapped his hands, gesturing for the students to leave. They climbed up on the table and moved towards him. “Who made you the policeman of black rage? As a black man?” one student spat, his eyes filling with tears. “You are disgusting! You are disgusting! Don’t you have your own children?”
After the incident, Chikane wrote a pleading letter to Ndugane, begging him to publicly express that he understood and supported the students’ anger. The young man compared the “obvious, obscene and repugnant acts of racism” in the past to the kind black students currently experienced at UCT. “Ours is worse,” he wrote. “Ours is subliminal. It is the form of racism that makes you ignorant about your subjugation.”

The archbishop sent Chikane a one-line note that he had received his letter, but said nothing more.

* * * 

Forgetting was a central part of the deal the ANC made when it took power from whites after apartheid. “The ANC denied issues of identity,” Xolela Mangcu, a sociologist who has written penetratingly on the new student protests, told me. There were few public conversations about race or rectifying past injustices. Leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu stressed the forging of a new “rainbow nation” over a narrative of black liberation. The statues depicting white heroes of the colonial age – some 97% of the country’s public memorials – were left standing.
In general, this will to move on from the past has been interpreted as a cynical strategy on the part of the ANC. The ANC, the theory goes, could not afford to scare white people, who held the vast majority of the nation’s capital, by discussing the history of black suffering in South Africa.
But there was also a powerful emotional component to the denial. What else had blacks fought for over so many years, if not their children’s release from a suffering black identity? When I flew into Cape Town to visit UCT, the Uber driver who picked me up from the airport, a black man from a township called Langa, spontaneously told me a potent story. His son was 14, he said; he was 50. Recently, his son had come to him to ask him what apartheid had done to him, his father. The question had made the older man feel angry. “I don’t want you to know about the past,” he had told his son. “You are free of all that!”

The state school curriculum that many students describe as infuriatingly “blank” on their country’s past was created that way deliberately. In the mid-1990s, the government’s curriculum-redesign committees eliminated history as a standalone subject, folding it into “human and social sciences”. “Everybody wanted to turn their faces away from the past,” Rob Siebörger, an education professor who participated in the redesign, told me. The most major episodes of black suffering in South Africa, such as the “Great Trek” of the 19th century, in which Afrikaner pioneers occupied formerly black-held land, were simply never addressed.
Mangcu told me that even he feels the instinct to shield young people from history. He is a believer in black consciousness, the philosophy that suggests that black people stagger under an incredible weight of psychological domination by white people. He supports the student protests. But he also has a young daughter who attends a “posh”, predominantly white school – the dream of many black parents. “All of her friends are white children. So I try to avoid a conversation about black history with her. I’m afraid of how she’ll process it. How she’ll relate to her friends. So I haven’t had the courage to do it.
This helps explain the curious silence among many older black South Africans towards the student protests; why Max Price, UCT’s white vice-chancellor, conducted a cautious engagement with the angry youth while black elder statesmen at UCT remained silent.
Jonathan Jansen, the first black vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, described to me the fear that the protests had engendered among older black South Africans – a fear that their hard-won progress over a bitter past was sliding backwards, or that it had never really succeeded to begin with. The student movements, Jansen told me, looked to him like a dangerous return to the very same racial discourses his generation had battled to defeat. “People were dead set against the apartheid narrative of race essentialism,” he said. “We fought very, very hard not to have the state name us [black]. But that is exactly what [the students] are trying to reinforce.”
But Mangcu reckoned that the historylessness that black parents believed would be a blessing for their offspring was backfiring.
Students such as Maxwele, Chikane and Ramaru had little context for the persistence of race in their daily experience. Initially, they would interpret the experiences personally. Why is my family poor? Why did somebody ask me to be her “black friend”? When they finally discovered black history and identity, the lateness of the discovery made them angry.
“We think we’re trying to protect our kids,” Mangcu said. “But our children are starting to deal with what we haven’t dealt with.” He gave me an example from his own family. “My nephew went to all these posh schools. He started to see, over time, how differently his white friends were treated. He became very, very angry. This happens a lot. Sometimes people even drop out of society.” At the age of 29, his nephew committed suicide. Mangcu couldn’t help blaming a society that hadn’t given him a sense of who he was.

* * * 

In mid-April, after a unanimous vote by UCT’s council, the Rhodes statue was trussed up in green twine and hoisted away by crane, leaving its bare plinth behind. The whole night before, thousands of students gathered to sing struggle songs and snap pictures of the crane manoeuvring around the historical bronze on their smartphones. When the statue finally rose off of its base, a huge, sustained cry went up from the crowd. “It was a joy, because something you envisaged happening did happen,” Maxwele remembered.
Counter to the university administration’s expectations, though, the plinth continued to be a touchstone. Months later, when I visited UCT, students were still massing around it. It was as if they did not want to let go of their relationship with the statue, with history. They sang: “Senzeni na, senzeni na? Sono sethu, ubumnyama …” (“What have we done? Our sin is that we are black …”)

A crane prepares to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from its plinth at the University of Cape Town, in April.
 A crane prepares to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from its plinth at the University of Cape Town, in April. Photograph: Schalk van Zuydam/AP

When I spoke to Malaika wa Afrika, a 22-year-old writer and student active in the year’s protest, she remarked to me that she felt the protests had tapped into an “incredible amount of nostalgia” for a particular kind of black dignity and resilience, forged under oppression. For centuries, as in many other parts of the world, whites in South Africa denied blacks a positive history. They were accorded no cultural achievements remotely commensurate with those of the west; they were considered primitive beings in need of tutelage. It took enormous courage to remain human against that attempt at erasure, and that courage – the courage of resistance – became a foundation of the black South African character. The struggle songs that the students now sing did not merely capture the longings of a particular moment in time. They formed the basis for a culture. Like the spirituals sung by black slaves in the southern states of America, many of these songs pair tormented lyrics with a mysterious harmonic serenity, capturing the capacity of black South Africans to retain some normality and honour in the face of brutality. This itself was a massive achievement, perhaps even as great as liberation. And it established a powerful identity that cannot, it turns out, so happily be abandoned for a tabula rasa.
It is an intriguing question: as, very slowly, black people gain power in a society such as South Africa’s, what will happen to this identity of resistance? Implicit in the criticism made by some elders is that it remains a trap, a negative, oppressor-oriented culture that has to be outgrown. “I always use the quote, ‘The master’s tools can’t take down the master’s house,’” Jonathan Jansen told me. He worried that the re-emergence of an older black identity had dangerous practical implications for contemporary South Africa, a fragile multiracial society in which black and white people must interact every day.
But Wa Afrika thought that a much fuller public conversation about the past would help South Africa both face the unfinished business of rooting out racism and help loosen the psychological hold of the past on its children. “When we go on the street, we sing songs from apartheid,” she reflected. “Our language in protest is still reminiscent of apartheid language. Why would we be singing this if this had nothing to do with an identity struggle? If we weren’t still learning about our identity and history, wouldn’t we have composed new songs?”
Human beings have a basic need to integrate their presents with their pasts. This is why we fixate on the stories of our childhoods as the keys to who we are, and why adopted children go in search of the stories of their parents and their parents’ parents. Researchers have even begun to think this longing works at DNA level: that we are driven to understand the history our very cells remember.
When I met Chumani Maxwele at the plinth, on my second UCT visit in June, nobody was there. In the few weeks since I had last seen it, the administration had covered the plinth with plywood, in the hope that hiding it from view would, finally, put an end to the students’ preoccupation with it. The panels were painted an anodyne blue, like the colour of the blank midday sky. It reminded me of the blankness South Africa’s leaders suggested the country could start from after 1994: an empty slate.
Maxwele seemed agitated. It was a school break, and “people are wandering around going to conferences like nothing happened”, he murmured. The nationwide student protests were still five months away. We ordered a taxi and got inside. He stared at the UCT gardens, with their gently waving flowers and twittering birds. The quiet was uncomfortable. It made for such an unreal contrast with South Africa’s bitter past, and a kind of denial of the way the past is still at work in the present. “This place will blow up again,” Maxwele said. “You’ll see.”