The merciless murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have fuelled national and international protests against systemic racism and antiblackness. These issues are not new, and many have argued that they are haunting democratic societies such as the US and South Africa. This raises the question: How have systemic racism and antiblackness seemingly remained hidden for so many people and institutions for so long?
A brief comparison between #BlackLivesMatter in the US and #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall in South Africa can help to address this question. The question is crucial as the same mechanisms that allow systemic racism and antiblackness to remain hidden in plain sight may be undermining the effect of the protests right now.
Both #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall and #BlackLivesMatter have taken place in self-described democratic republics with a history of genocide of indigenous people, racialised slavery and legalised segregation. The US has had a white demographic majority for a long time, while in South Africa, self-described white people are a demographic minority. Every projection of demographic shifts in the US indicates that the situation has been changing. Sometime in the second half of this century white people will no longer be the majority in the US. The rise of President Donald Trump and neofasicism in the US cannot be understood without this consideration. Systematic racism and antiblackness are bound to become more overt as white people lose the status of demographic majorities in the US. This situation makes the South African experience and movements such as #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall particularly relevant for the US.
#RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall emerged in the context of dissatisfaction with the South African process of democratisation in a context where black people have been the demographic majority. An important lesson from #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall is that democratisation without decolonisation becomes a form of systemic racism, and that antiblackness can easily perdure in contexts where white people do not enjoy the status of being a demographic majority.
Moreover, #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall called attention to three central elements of systemic racism and antiblackness in self-described democratic contexts: first, keeping the land away from black people (with this comes the erosion of self-subsistence, community formation and identity), second, having the economy respond to the needs of the national bourgeoisie and the capitalist international market over the needs and wellbeing of the impoverished and landless black people and, third, controlling the regime of truth and the criteria for legitimating ideas, that is, education and knowledge production.
No one should dismiss the importance of Trump’s constant reference to the defence of “law and order” in his opposition to #BlackLivesMatter. As was made clear by #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall the control of land, the economy and knowledge have been dependent on the dehumanisation of black, indigenous and colonised people. The simple assertion that black lives matter raises a challenge to the “law and order” of the state. The result is that the Trump establishment wants to shut down any such challenge.
Others are more sympathetic to #BlackLivesMatter and consider themselves to be very distant from Trump. On closer inspection, the reality is different, which explains how systemic racism and antiblackness can easily reproduce themselves in self-described democratic societies. The bottom line for many, particularly white and honorary white liberals who vehemently criticise Trump, seems to be that reforms to the police and other institutions are fine, but only insofar as the imposed social contract remains untouched. This means the appropriation of land, the control of the economy and the authority over what counts as truth and knowledge are supposed to continue unchallenged. In other words, many of those who see themselves as supporters of #BlackLivesMatter would be satisfied with reforms to the police and other institutions while keeping intact the regime of appropriation of land, the capitalist economy and modern/colonial pedagogies and epistemologies.
Where Trumpians and neofascists on the one hand, and liberals, on the other, tend to distance themselves most greatly is in the area of knowledge. Trumpians and neofascists question the value of science and believe in “alternative facts”. Trump’s appeal to “law and order” focuses mainly on the security forces and the economy, not schools or universities. This can create the impression that the defence of the arts, letters and science taught at universities provide an effective opposition to the vulgar racism of state leaders. It can also create the impression that universities are naturally aligned with the goals of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. But this would be a major misunderstanding, as #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall have shown.
It is not difficult to see, for instance, Chumani Maxwele’s 2015 performance around the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town (UCT) as a denunciation of the established law and order, and of its legitimacy at the university. The performance called, not only for the removal of a statue, but for the creation of a higher form of reason and education in function of a different, more humane and truly post-racist, social order. The performance also put the spotlight on land dispossession and poverty affecting large sectors of black people who lived under the shadow of the Rhodes statue and who still live in the flats, not far from UCT.
To be sure, many in South Africa may remember #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall for the riots, as well as various forms of vandalism that took place in a number of the protests. That many would focus on these aspects and interpret them in the worst possible way is hardly surprising. Here, considering reactions to #BlackLivesMatter protests today is instructive. One can ask with African-American historian Robyn Kelley “What kind of society values property over black lives?” (The New York Times, June 18 2020). What kind of society and individuals become more scandalised about the damage to property than about an established form of law and order that justifies systemic and long-standing land theft?
#RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall and #BlackLivesMatter lead one to consider that what appears as irrational violence to some can be, instead, a direct challenge to the perceived legitimacy of property and to the order that guarantees it and legitimises it. That scholars tended to be among the first ones to launch accusations to student activists in 2015 and 2016, instead of figuring out ways to decolonise the university and society in direct collaboration with students and non-academics, points to the divide between the spirit of black revolt and many scholars, even some black scholars.
#RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall helped us see that without decolonisation democracy remains an instrument of coloniality — what decolonial feminist political theorist Breny Mendoza has referred to as the “coloniality of democracy”. It also showed that systemic racism can take place through exclusion from education and through inclusion into anti-African and anti-black eurocentric school and university systems. The experience in schools and universities in the US is not much better; it might be worse in some respects. Yet, South African (and other southern) state and university leaders and academics overwhelmingly see US universities as the model to follow. #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall taught us that the search for democracy and for excellence in the academy needs to include a rejection of modern/colonial rankings and the invention of new ways of producing and legitimating knowledge. This lesson is critical for the US as well.
Beyond the simple question of reforming the police, #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall and #BlackLivesMatter call for a serious questioning of basic presuppositions, such as that there can be a serious form of democracy worth its name without decolonisation, or that education and knowledge production lead to sustainability and wellbeing without epistemic, symbolic, material and pedagogical forms of decolonisation.
Supporting #BlackLivesMatter entails standing up for the process of material and epistemic desegregation and decolonisation that was at the heart of #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall. These are gifts from the US and South African struggles, as well as reminders of contributions by previous generations of organisers, artists, and intellectuals from all over the world, about combating systemic racism and antiblackness seriously in our modern/colonial world.
Nelson Maldonado-Torres is director of the Rutgers Advanced Institute for Critical Caribbean Studies in the US and co-chair of the Frantz Fanon Foundation in France. He was a distinguished scholar at the Academy of Science of South Africa in 2018-2019