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
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