Students from the University of Cape Town and University of the Western Cape gained access to the grounds of Parliament last week, determined to take their #FeesMustFall protest to government’s front door. Moving through the gates and acutely aware of perceptions of violence in protest, black students, their hands raised in the air, walked towards the stairs, where riot police had gathered.
We would encounter them – stun grenades, riot shields and batons – in the chaos that followed their targeting of Chumani Maxwele. The perceived student leader had been attempting to reassure comrades and urge calm when an officer wrenched him bodily behind the line of police. Moments later the first stun grenade went off, red smoke billowing from the canister as officers vacillated between acting out the blunt impetus of a violence they had initiated and mitigating its effect. Nearby, one comrade lay on the ground, her leg injured by the blast. We held ground around her and in the face of violent antagonism, sat down.

I should acknowledge my place within the crowd simply for what it reveals. As a white male, I stood towards the front of the group as it moved through the gates, my phone held above my head, recording the events of the protest as they unfolded. Even as I saw advancing protesters tackled to the ground and being choked by the neck while walking with their hands raised, I was barely aware of how differently my presence in that space was perceived. No police officer made any move to hinder my progress; I could break from the body of students and move among the officers unimpeded, in stark contrast to the black students around me.

This is white privilege in protest and the reality of it underlies the logic of the human shield. Black student activists called particularly for white women to move to the front of the crowd; white men insisted on stepping forward – a move that could stand as uninterrogated patriarchy. Stepping up and forward as a white student in this context was an imperative. I had two reasons for doing so: a clear knowledge of the position of white bodies in an anti-black system, and the clear mandate of the black students with whom I stood.

The idea of a white human shield holds meaning solely in the context of racism – specifically, the day-to-day, violent, structural anti-black legacy of colonialism and apartheid, obscured today by the rhetoric of the rainbow nation. I have witnessed the reality of a system that privileges white bodies as it does violence to black bodies: etched in memories of the Marikana massacre, the invulnerability of the white man who adapted Brett Murray’s painting while his black co-conspirator was brutalised. Earlier in the week, I had watched as a white man drove into black protestors at a barricade: the immediate response of police officers was to encircle the vehicle and to protect the white aggressor, even as a protestor was seriously injured. At the expense of black bodies, whiteness is afforded a particular protection.

My knowledge of this protection is not necessarily a natural knowledge. As a white man living in South Africa, I have no lived experience of racism. I have instead lived the constructed reality of white privilege, built on the back of black oppression. I no longer view my privilege as natural or benign. I am invested in seeing the reality of racial oppression and gross inequality as something that deeply implicates me and stunts my capacity for humanity. At the same time, I remain aware as far as I can of my situation within the construct of whiteness – inherently compromised by its material and psychological privilege – as well as how prone I am as a white person to act, unaware, in a way that plays out and perpetuates this privilege.

The very interest in the concept of a white human shield has been a case in point. Prior to the protest at Parliament, Rhodes Must Fall tweeted about the white human shield at the Rondebosch police station. White students did precisely what black students had been doing all along: they put their bodies on the line. And yet this was Rhodes Must Fall’s most retweeted post last week: it generated completely disproportionate interest and lauded white bodies for heroism where black bodies would have been criminalised. In this is the echo chamber of white privilege. As a white person, although I am only incidental to the struggle, I will take up a disproportionate amount of space (in that instance 900 retweets; in this, 900 words).

Knowing this, we white folk must reflect, not only on the moment of walking to the fore but more broadly on our involvement in this movement. When honestly confronting ourselves, what feeling grounds our desire to be present, to respond or act in a moment? To what extent, if at all, are we embodying a reflexive and committed politics that moves beyond the reactivity of white guilt? As a white person, my aim is to divest myself of whiteness, but so long as it remains, and with sensitivity to the mandate of people of colour, there are times when I can act from my position within it in strategically useful ways.

Timothy Wolff-Piggott is a master’s student in statistics at the University of Cape Town, a supporter of the Rhodes Must Fall, #FeesMustFall and #EndOutsourcing movements and is involved in racial awareness work though Disrupting Whiteness: UCT.