No love at Rhodes University?

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There’s a widely used quote by Martin Niemöller that I love: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

I was reminded of this quote as I read Larissa Klazinga’s article in the SA Jewish Report titled: “Rhodes University: Not a Home for All”. I am not interested in much of Klazinga’s article per se but more the extent to which her story offers an important teachable moment about white masculinist racism, whiteness and privilege and how it is as harmful to white women as it is to black people. Klazinga’s story is a clear example of how it’s only when whiteness rejects them, that many white women start speaking out about exclusionary processes and silencing done by white men at predominantly white spaces like Rhodes.

Klazinga in the seven page piece chronicles her two year journey as a self-identifying “Jewish lesbian” and the “anti-Zionism” she has encountered leading to her leaving Rhodes in 2013. A self-identified “Zionist”, Klazinga says she was not prepared for the “bigotry” and “the vitriol directed [at her] over the past two years” and is in shock.

While working at Rhodes for over a decade “conceptualising and organising a myriad of transformation initiatives [aimed at] highlighting gender-based violence, xenophobia, racism and other human rights abuses” she managed to displease Roger Adams (the Deputy Dean of Students) by her support of Israel. What interested me the most is Klazinga’s conclusion that Rhodes “has become a totalitarian institution” and that she was shocked that she was not “allowed to speak, even in private … At Rhodes. In 2012.”

This is something many black Rhodes alumna have been saying for years (myself included) for we know Rhodes is not a home to all. We also know the violent silencing that often occurs at predominantly white institutions of higher learning in SA, the “Ivory towers of white supremacy”.

The Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA) at Rhodes faced disciplinary action, were convicted and had to do community service for inviting the ANC secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, in 2010. When they were going to bring Julius Malema, Rhodes called the police and surrounded the venue with heavy police presence (although he didn’t eventually come). In their statement at the time the PYA noted that while leaders from the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Congress of the People (Cope) could come and talk at Rhodes without hassle, there was always contention, fear and resistance with the ANC. They concluded that Rhodes University “is led by counter-transformation forces … because Rhodes University is still run by the same ‘old boys club’ that subscribes to the racist philosophies of Cecil John Rhodes …”

This was in 2010, and one of the reasons I am interested in understanding why Klazinga who held such an important office at Rhodes only realised in 2014/2013 how autocratic the university is when so many black students have been saying this for years. Part of the answer to this lies in that many white women only speak out about oppressive white (male) systems and institutions, not when they still enjoy white privilege, but after that system rejects and turns on them.

In her pioneering Stanford Law Review article “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color”, Professor Kimberle Crenshaw writes about the importance of intersectionality especially the intersection between gender and race. While Klazinga claims to have been doing intersectional work at Rhodes, her article exposes her white privileged gaze and how oblivious she is to the authoritarian treatment many black students are continuously subjected to, how they are silenced and often excluded from the university for their political views and associations.

The big lesson here is the importance of intersectionality and that whites should not wait to speak when out against injustice and white authoritarianism when their privilege is threatened. Klazinga herself says she never thought her Zionism would be the reason she left Rhodes, and this is because she saw her struggle narrow and isolated for instance from the struggles of the (mostly black) PYA members.

But Klazinga is marinated in white privilege and will do just fine as a white woman with incredible social capital (including an attorney), a generous settlement with Rhodes and higher education, which is more than I can say for the many young black women and men I saw continuously silenced and excluded from the university in debt, without degrees and quite frankly depressed. No one spoke out for them.

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