Qwabe doth protest too much, me­thinks

From Ox­ford Union to the Obz Café in­ci­dent, stu­dent ac­tivist Ntokozo Qwabe is mak­ing his pres­ence felt in a way that makes his mo­tives ques­tion­able, writes

CityPress - - Voices -

What does Ntokozo Qwabe really want?

This was not my ques­tion. It was posed by a young neu­ro­sci­en­tist from New Zealand. He came up to me af­ter the de­bate – about whether the univer­sity should take down the statue of Ce­cil Rhodes – in which Qwabe had been in­volved in at the Ox­ford Union ear­lier this year.

“He is just a rab­ble-rouser with­out a proper cause,” the neu­ro­sci­en­tist added. “I don’t buy any of it. He is only look­ing for at­ten­tion.”

His girl­friend, stand­ing by, nod­ded em­phat­i­cally. When I asked her where she was from, she said “Louis Trichardt (Makhado Lo­cal Mu­nic­i­pal­ity)”, which was sur­pris­ing. Here in Ox­ford, in the deep freeze of win­ter, it seemed a par­tic­u­larly long way from home. Like so many of the other 12 000 or so stu­dents, she was quirky and sharp-minded.

That night, the Rhodes Must Fall de­bate came to an end. Oriel Col­lege, where the statue stands, de­lib­er­ated, lost its nerve, then fi­nally re­gained it and hung on to Rhodes af­ter all. Af­ter that, ev­ery­thing went quiet for a while.

Un­til Qwabe backed into the lime­light again with the cu­ri­ous in­ci­dent of the wait­ress’ tip at the Obz Café in Cape Town. You could not miss the head­lines in the Bri­tish press about the lat­est shenani­gans of the Rhodes scholar.

Could Qwabe really have been crazy enough to post this on Face­book? “No white per­son shall rest. It’s ir­rel­e­vant whether you per­son­ally have land/wealth or you don’t. We are here, and we want our stolen land back.”

At this point, maybe we should re­mind our­selves about the type of per­son Ce­cil Rhodes wanted to lav­ish his bene­fac­tion on. The se­lec­tion cri­te­ria that he laid down in­clude “sym­pa­thy for, and pro­tec­tion of, the weak, kind­li­ness, un­selfish­ness, and fel­low­ship.” Sounds as though Qwabe was lucky to get in.

He cer­tainly ben­e­fited hugely from be­ing cho­sen. Rhodes schol­ars have all their univer­sity and col­lege fees paid (pretty steep at Ox­ford, as you can imag­ine). They also re­ceive air­fares, plus about R300 000 to cover their ex­penses. Qwabe calls it “tak­ing back crumbs of Rhodes’ colo­nial loot”.

Rather big crumbs, no?

The pe­ti­tion in Ox­ford, signed by 50 000 peo­ple de­mand­ing Qwabe’s ex­pul­sion, got nowhere. The univer­sity re­fused, stat­ing that Ox­ford en­cour­aged “free­dom of speech, how­ever of­fen­sive that might be”.

So what might the young fire­brand’s mo­tives really be? Is he plan­ning a fu­ture in pol­i­tics at home, with­out the fear of any­one at­tack­ing him then as an Un­cle Tom, happy to take Rhodes’ loot? Giv­ing him­self an al­ibi for the fu­ture, so to speak?

At the Union de­bate, I thought he was tee­ter­ing on the edge of hys­te­ria – un­like two of his fel­low Rhodes Must Fall or­gan­is­ers, Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh and Athi­nangam­son Esther Nkopo. They were bal­anced and ar­tic­u­late, and made some good points – as they ar­gued in calm but deadly fash­ion, there cer­tainly are too few black aca­demics and stu­dents here at Ox­ford.

They chose to make the Rhodes statue the sym­bol of that im­bal­ance, and it worked.

But Qwabe seemed to be af­ter some­thing else. I had the im­pres­sion that he wanted to hurt his au­di­ence, just as he and his mates hurt the wait­ress in Cape Town. He sneered at us that the Bri­tish Em­pire was fin­ished – as if any­one in the au­di­ence was ig­no­rant of that or cared about it.

And when he claimed that some­one in Ox­ford had called him “a dirty lit­tle n*gger”, I doubt if any­one there, in­clud­ing the peo­ple who agreed with him about Rhodes, be­lieved him. Qwabe, I would say, has per­sonal is­sues.

I did not men­tion at the out­set of this ar­ti­cle that the New Zealand neu­ro­sci­en­tist I spoke to was of In­dian de­scent, or that his girl­friend from Louis Trichardt was black.

To me they were sim­ply two bright young peo­ple, clever enough to have made it to Ox­ford against huge odds. Their skin colour was ir­rel­e­vant. What mat­tered was their clear­headed self-pos­ses­sion. They had thought their ideas through, and they knew who they were.

To para­phrase Michael Jack­son at the height of his pow­ers: Do we ab­so­lutely have to spend our lives be­ing a colour?

Kruger is a jour­nal­ist based in Ox­ford

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