Review: #RhodesMustFall: Nibbling at Resilient Colonialism in South Africa

“Makwerekwere, a mostly derogatory term for a perceived stranger who is most likely to be mistaken for ‘one of us’ “

In this timely, brilliant book, Francis Nyamnjoh uses the Rhode Must Fall (RMF) protests as a starting point to ask questions about citizenship and belonging in South Africa and Africa. He argues that the nation state of South Africa, much like Cecil Rhodes, is preoccupied with making visible certain kinds of citizenship. Cecil Rhodes granted this visibility based on how far the native sons and daughters he encountered matched up to the “imperial will and tastes of the British”. The South African state on the other hand, uses “bounded notions of culture and geography” to grant visibility to citizens. These notions have been shaped by a history of “visible and invisible mobilities”. Nyamnjoh traces this history of mobilities that have produced a shifting set of makwerekwere, from Cecil Rhodes to current day black Africans outsiders to understand the RMF movement.

Nyamnjoh claims that Cecil Rhodes and his ilk were the original makwerekwere who came to South Africa unbidden, and conquered the land and its people with violence and cunning. The unequal encounter between colonizers like Rhodes and the native daughters and sons led to the creation of hierarchies of ‘whiteness’ that now have “less to do with skin pigmentation” and more to do with the “privileges and opportunities that come with power and its culture of control and authority”. Not even independence from colonizers have been enough to destroy these hierarchies that have been internalized over years of subjugation.

Nyamnjoh describes the creation of these circles of exclusion by Cecil Rhodes in Chapter 1: ‘Sir Cecil John Rhodes: The makwerekwere with missionary zeal’. He shows how even though Cecil Rhodes came as a makwerekwere, he used a “racism of exploitation and elimination” to turn the native South Africans he encountered into makwerekwere on their own land. To add insult to injury, Rhodes and his ilk erected monuments to indelibly etch their presence on the land they had stolen.

Nyamnjoh goes to on to show that even after independence, a resilient colonialism still preys on South Africa. He draws heavily from literature, academia and other forms of media to compellingly make his case about blacks still trapped in the never ending game of ‘whitening up’ and harboring fantasies of ‘whitening’ up, with the rules of the game still controlled by the ultimate gatekeepers of ‘whiteness’, whites themselves.

The education system in South Africa, in particular, despite all the promise that independence brought, still clings to the dichotomies of ‘civilized’ versus ‘primitive’, ‘insider’ versus ‘outside’, that are legacies of the colonial system. This manifests itself in the composition of staff and students, the diversity of the curriculum and even the physical structure of universities themselves. This legacy  has frustrated any hope of ‘self-determination’ by the new denizens of the Rainbow nation.

On 9 May, 2015, Chumani Maxwele with two placards hung around his neck reading, ‘Exhibit A: White arrogance, Exhibit B: Black assimilation’, threw excrement on the statue of Cecil Rhodes still looming large over the University of Cape Town (UCT). This act was the start of the Rhodes Must Fall movement. This movement calls for decolonization of UCT through the diversification of the curriculum, increasing the number of black students and staff, and the fall of the statue of Rhodes and other colonial relics.

Nyamnjoh provides a detailed and useful view of the movement, its methods and the response of the mass media, university authorities and the different political parties in South Africa. His account is balanced, and even though he lauds the movement and its aims, he also reveals that the movement has been criticized for  its patriarchal structure and its lack of inclusion of trans and queer voices.

Nyamnjoh adds another dimension to his analysis of the RMF protests by drawing in the question of ‘citizenship’ into the discussion. The RMF movement is primarily about the lack of representation of black South Africans rather than all black Africans. It is a movement to specifically rid South Africa of the “residual makwerekwere of yesteryear”. He thus questions the distinction between decolonization, and South-Africanization and Africanization.

In this context, he speaks about concurrent events happening in South African black townships, where impoverished South African masses called for the removal of the new makwerekwere: black Africans who have come from the ‘heart of darkness’ to South Africa; as they claimed these new outsiders were stealing their jobs. These individuals are not protected by the South African state: as evidenced by the statements made at that time about the political elite. He states that the system”thrived on freezing individuals into citizens and subjects depending on whether their lives were governed by the civic regime of laws, or by culture and tradition.” The system thus paid scant notice of “straddlers”.

He , crucially, connects this with the RMF movement and questions whether this movement is perpetuating this “zero sum game of violence” in its methods and calls for a more in-depth discussion on this.

“Mobility is at the heart of being human”.

Due to increased mobility, Nyamnjoh argues, that we shift between makwerekwere and insiders based on context. He illustrates this creatively by including a piece of fiction in his novel, Chapter 6: ‘Pure Fiction: What I almost had in common with Rhodes’. He also includes two epilogues by Moshumee Teena Dewoo and Sanya Osha that boslter this point

He questions how “accommodating” the makwerekwere of the past will be of the new vanguard of South Africans. He questions how South Africans have to reconcile themselves with their past and its legacy of structures such as language. He then questions how South Africa will deal with the future: Will it subscribe to the current system of oppression where the “next oppressor is a level below the current one”, or will South Africa be able to develop a new kind of citizenship that will accommodate “straddlers” and provides for a conviviality that is “conscious of and critical of the hierarchies that make a mockery of the judicial-political regime of citizenship.”

He leaves the reader with these questions.

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