South African students toppled Rhodes – but they can’t get rid of Zuma

In some ways, South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, must be exceptionally happy about the #Rhodesmustfall campaign. After all, it takes the heat off him and puts it on a dead white man - or rather, a block of stone in the likeness of a dead white man.

I went to Rhodes’s grave in the Matopos Hills in Zimbabwe in 1980. These are the most beautiful landscapes in Africa – and the spiritual power accorded the region by the Ndbelele people was palpable. On the grave, a flat slab at ground level, huge rainbow lizards danced. It seemed prophetic: one day, there would be a rainbow nation that would be able to make light of the tragic restrictions of the past.

The reality, of course, is very different. Today’s Zuma administration has carelessly and wantonly frittered away the last traces of South Africa’s rainbow of equity and its promise of economic equality. In an ideal world, #Zumamustfall would make for a more meaningful campaign than #Rhodesmustfall – but while the end of the ANC’s increasingly careless reign should by rights be in the hands of South Africa’s students and young people, they have no policies and no programmes to replace it with.

They also see little in the way of an alternative to ANC rule.

The activists behind #Rhodesmustfall don’t trust the middle-class liberal economics of the opposition Democratic Alliance. To them, its leader, Mmusi Maimane, is merely a parrot for the country’s bankers and his party is still largely white. Meanwhile, Julias Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters are noisy, mischievous and make a huge show of providing robust opposition to the ANC – but the party’s radical-left redistributionist policies make little sense in a complex globalised world. And the whiff of corruption hangs around Malema just as it does Zuma.

The absence of an alternative to Zuma is almost as disheartening as the spectacle of an impulsive president without policies

So if Zuma cannot fall because the protesters have no alternative to him, have no programme to reform a self-seeking ANC, what better substitute than a statue of the dead white man who began it all?

The absence of an alternative to Zuma is almost as disheartening as the spectacle of an impulsive president without policies. The latest farce revolved around South African Airways, which was caught without a business plan and has had to take drastic fiscal measures. The airline’s reckless ambition to buy its way out of trouble was refused by the minister of finance, whom Zuma then fired – apparently without thinking the Rand would instantly lose value.

This resembles nothing so much as the 1960s television soap, Peyton Place, a black-and-white saga of small-town affairs and small-minded, small-scope melodramas. That’s what the ANC has become at the highest level: a self-obsessed village soap. And, at the popular level, the students also think in black and white, without proposing a single actual reform programme.

As for Oxford’s Oriel College and its rather small statue of Rhodes, the college went through the ritual of consultation, but was always safe in the knowledge that its buildings are under a conservation order. It itself had no power to unilaterally remove the statue anyway, so the whole thing was a charade.

In Zimbabwe, once called Rhodesia, the colonial tyrant’s name is almost never mentioned. There, politics is a matter of real substance and dramatic treacheries, with huge consequences. The country again faces a disastrous economic downturn, presided over under an aged, tyrannical president who it seems will never die.

And in Zambia, the furthest north Rhodes reached, it’s an election year. Prices for the country’s principal export, copper, have crashed and the currency is steadily losing value. As in South Africa and Zimbabwe, the rains were so late there are crises in both agriculture and hydroelectric power. The government holds days of prayer to plead with God to resolve the crises.

All the while, Cecil Rhodes’s name is never mentioned or his image defiled. Instead, he’s peacefully buried in the Matopos Hills, where the lizards dance on his grave.

Stephen Chan is Professor of World Politics at SOAS, University of London. This article originally appeared in The Conversation

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