Home/Rod Dreher/The Persistence of the Plinth

The Persistence of the Plinth

World hero -- and Uncle Tom? (Evan McCaffrey / Shutterstock.com)

Three cheers for Brown University professor Glenn Loury, who is black and politically liberal, and who stands up to the black militants trying to intimidate his college’s administrators. From his Facebook post:

Finally, over the course of 10 years of teaching at Brown, I have influenced many graduate students of all colors and from every continent on the planet (excepting Antarctica!) I have found the university to be an extremely warm, welcoming, supportive and open environment to undertake my work. I know well the people who run this institution, and the notion that they are racially insensitive is a shameful slander with no basis in fact. My colleagues, in the economics department and elsewhere at Brown, have shown themselves to be open-minded, decent and on the whole politically progressive scholars. The administration has lavished resources on me, and has enthusiastically supported any number of initiatives that contribute to promoting a just and decent society, both within the United States and throughout the world.

The notion that Brown needs a revolutionary reshaping in order to become hospitable to “students of color”, that idea that “anti-black pedagogy” at Brown needs to be countered with some mandatory indoctrination of faculty, the proposal that external student committees should review purportedly “racist” departmental appointment processes, the initiative of creating “specialty positions” in academic departments to ensure their openness to hiring “faculty of color” — these are all mischievous intrusions on the academic prerogatives of a distinguished faculty which no self-respecting scholar of any color should welcome. They are a step onto a slippery slope that slides down into intellectual mediocrity, and I will have nothing to do with them.

Is that clear and explicit enough…?

Now he’s going to be denounced as an Uncle Tom, you watch.

It’s fascinating and unspeakably sad to watch this kind of thing happen in South Africa. Take a look at this incredible story from The Guardian, about how the “bornfrees,” black South Africans born after apartheid, are turning on their parents’ generation.  Protests there began with a black university student, Chumani Maxwele, who had been raised in a black settlement, in great poverty, and, with the loosening of laws and social restrictions after apartheid’s fall, was able to move more freely in South Africa — including going to Africa’s best university on scholarship. He was better able to appreciate how apartheid crippled his prospects:

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 sh*t 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 ourheroes and ancestors?” Maxwele shouted to a gathering, curious crowd.

Then he opened the bucket and hurled its contents into Rhodes’s face.

Thus began a long protest by the university’s black students demanding that the University of Cape Town removed that statue, of 19th century colonialist Cecil Rhodes. The protest, as the Guardian piece explains, became part of a much wider movement in the country among the bornfrees. The Guardian distinguishes these new protests from a previous one, from miners demanding better working conditions:

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.


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.

Turns out that a surprising number of South African whites are sympathetic to the student protests — but not older blacks:

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.”

What an astonishing statement. This young black man is going to Africa’s most elite university because of the sacrifices that Archbishop Ndungane, who served prison time with Nelson Mandela, made. And yet, he contends that the racism he experiences is worse than what Mandela and Ndungane suffered!

Where does this come from? An answer:

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.”

Sounds a lot like the demand for race essentialism by black protesters on US university campuses, doesn’t it?

The protests succeeded in convincing the university to remove the Rhodes statue. Now, there’s nothing there but a plinth. But it has not satisfied the students. Maxwele predicts, “This place will blow up again.”

Read the whole thing; it’s worth it.

I find that image of the empty plinth still tormenting those students to be haunting. It’s like a phantom limb. It reveals that their minds are still conquered by Rhodes and what he represents. What’s going on here?

This is, as the Guardian piece notes, about identity. The lines between good and evil were clear during apartheid. Black South Africans found identity in their suffering, and in maintaining their dignity under the cruelty and injustices of apartheid. But when apartheid ended, and a black majority government came to power, the lines became blurred. The Guardian writes about how Mandela and his generation offered forgiveness as a strategic move; they knew that they had to reconcile with whites or white capital would flee, and the country would be impoverished. Forgiveness of this sort required a deliberate historic forgetting, which was deemed necessary by black leaders to make the transition from apartheid to multiracial democracy.

There is no way to undo in a single generation the legacy of white supremacy. It is not within the realm of possibility. This is something that has to be accepted, and worked through. Progress takes time, and sacrifice. Look at the people raised under Soviet-style communism. You cannot have an entire culture, an entire people, deformed like that, and expect them to bounce back instantly. Healing that deep wound will require time.

It seems to me somehow psychologically important for the bornfrees to deny that there has been any progress made on the racial front. It’s why I found Ta-Nehisi Coates’s (National Book Award-winning) volume so frustrating: he denies that there has been real progress in race relations in this country, and closes the door to the possibility of progress and reconciliation, and justice. It demands what it denies is possible.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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