It’s not a war on whites

CityPress - - Voices -

‘It can never hap­pen here” is a phrase we love to ut­ter when we try to make the claim for South African ex­cep­tion­al­ism. We look at failed states and con­flict re­gions, and con­vince our­selves that such will never be­fall us. We look at dic­ta­tor­ships and au­toc­ra­cies, and serve up the mantra that our democ­racy has enough safe­guards to pre­vent a slide in that di­rec­tion. We pity those em­broiled in civil con­flicts and con­fi­dently say our peace is per­ma­nent.

In this mis­placed ex­cep­tion­al­ism, we run the risk of lulling our­selves into a false sense of com­pla­cency. We are not ex­cep­tional.

This week’s burn­ing of works of art at the Univer­sity of Cape Town (UCT) should have jolted us out of this com­pla­cency and re­minded us that our na­tion is still a work in progress.

To re­cap, stu­dents who were protest­ing over the lack of ac­com­mo­da­tion at UCT made a bon­fire out of works of art that had been ripped down from the walls of res­i­dences. Most of the pic­tures were of white alumni and most of the works of art were by white artists. But in their ig­no­rance, they also burnt a paint­ing by anti-apartheid artist Kere­se­mose Ba­holo.

Scream­ing “white­ness is burn­ing!” th­ese stu­dents told them­selves they were strik­ing a blow at white supremacy on be­half of the de­coloni­sa­tion move­ment. But their act of bar­barism put the stu­dents in the fine com­pany of the Nazi book­burn­ers; the Tal­iban and Is­lamic State (IS) de­stroy­ers of an­cient arte­facts and mon­u­ments; and the ji­hadists who laid to waste large chunks of Tim­buktu’s rich, pre­cious her­itage. They are co­trav­ellers with the Kh­mer Rouge, who turned Cam­bo­dia’s Na­tional Li­brary into a pig­gery and used book­shelves and books to make fire.

In the fa­mous book-burn­ing episode, the Nazis said they were cleans­ing so­ci­ety of un-Ger­man in­flu­ences. The Tal­iban, the IS and north African ji­hadists have de­stroyed arte­facts and his­toric struc­tures be­cause they be­lieved th­ese were sac­ri­le­gious and in con­flict with their ex­trem­ist brand of Is­lam. The Kh­mer Rouge sim­ply placed no value on education and in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism.

It now ap­pears that the achieve­ment of uni­ver­sal ac­cess to higher education and the quest for trans­for­ma­tion is at risk of de­scend­ing into a nurs­ery of ha­tred. The burn­ing of im­ages of white peo­ple and works by white artists is an omi­nous de­vel­op­ment. What this de­vel­op­ment – and the grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity of the “F**k whites” slo­gan among stu­dents – in­di­cates is that the bat­tle for the trans­for­ma­tion of South Africa is be­ing in­ter­preted by young ac­tivists as a fight against the white race.

In so­ci­eties that ex­pe­ri­enced eth­nic con­flict, the early warn­ing signs were the de­hu­man­i­sa­tion of the other with la­bels and the blan­ket at­tach­ment of neg­a­tive stereo­types. The signs were ig­nored.

We have to ask the ques­tion: How long be­fore the burn­ing of pic­tures of white peo­ple be­comes the burn­ing of white hu­mans? The lead­er­ship of South Africa needs to drum into young peo­ple that the fight against racism and white supremacy is not a war on whites.

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