There’s a joke about the alumni of an elite South African boys school that poses this question: “How do you know if someone went to…?” The answer: “They tell you.” There’s a similar joke now doing the rounds: “How do you know if someone was in The Struggle?”
Fighting apartheid used to be something to brag about, back when Nelson Mandela walked free nearly 27 years ago after 27 years in prison. But times have changed. Evidence of this came in the recent widely reported comment of a young Rhodes Scholar and student activist. He cut his teeth in the movement that began with efforts to decolonialize South African universities, #RhodesMustFall, which grew into the #FeesMustFall movement now causing campus unrest.
“Older black people who want to silence us on the basis that they fought against apartheid need to shut the fuck up!!! We are here because you failed us! So please!”
– Ntokozo Qwabe from Oxford University, UK
If that doesn’t look like a scholarly observation it’s because Qwabe posted it on Facebook, where you can end sentences like this!!! Unfortunately I can’t show you the post…
It is not clear whether by “older black people” Qwabe meant the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), the government or all black people of a certain age. Or if he holds the same negative view of older people of other races who were part of the anti-apartheid movement.
There are 79 Ntokozo Qwabes on Facebook at last count. The one chastising his elders on social media goes by Ntokozo Sbo Qwabe. His profile reveals him to be a homeboy of the KwaZulu Natal province. He went to a government high school in Durban before studying law at the University of Cape Town and the University of KwaZulu Natal. His first class honours led to his Rhodes scholarship.
In addition to his academic achievements, Qwabe is known for causing controversy around race. Earlier this year on a visit to Cape Town he upset a waitress by scribbling a condemnation of her alleged colonial land grabbing in the place where you’re supposed to write the tip.
– Ntokozo Qwabe’s message to his waitress
Last month Qwabe was accused of hitting a phone out of the hands of a student who was videoing him disrupting class. He later regretted online that he had not done more.
“I wish I’d actually not been a good law abiding citizen & whipped the white apartheid settler colonial entitlement out of the bastard – who continued to video record us without our consent.”
Qwabe’s Rhodes Trust bio states that his ambition is to be a Constitutional Court justice.
The scholarship Qwabe was awarded is no longer named only after the colonialist who inspired the Falling hashtag. Recipients are now called “Mandela Rhodes Scholars”. Yet it is Mandela and his peers who Qwabe told to STFU. That’s Shut The F**k Up in internet slang, which I prefer to use as it’s less painful to my sensitive old ears.
I don’t know what kind of upbringing Qwabe got in the Kingdom of the Zulu, but his famous Facebook post is a far cry from the traditional Zulu concept of hlonipha (respect). To even think of telling elders to STFU – Hawu! (As we used to say before Eish!)
Qwabe’s lack of respect for those before him who changed history is now common among South Africa’s youth.
“One could say that they have ‘lost faith’ in the legacy of anti-apartheid heroes of yesteryear and the supposed freedoms they have won.”
The comforting news for older people is that this theologian doesn’t see such youthful rejection of the liberation struggle as a bad thing.
“Losing a naïve and untrue ‘religious conviction’ might actually be a sign of the emergence of a more honest and mature commitment to an ethics of responsibility.”
Faith and Struggle
I’ll confess that I was initially a bit wary of that faith metaphor. Yet the more I ruminated, as we elders tend to do, the more I saw it as relevant. Indeed, why should the new generation “believe” in the “civil religion” of the previous century?
The youth’s loss of faith is understandable; it’s the style of communicating it that I find jarring. Mandela shouldn’t be worshipped as a messiah, but should he and his peers be rejected as sell-outs and told to STFU?
I realise that I am viewing this through my own particular (bifocal) lens, that my age – and my appreciation of Mandela’s contribution to history – makes me biased. So it may be no surprise that I value the respect for elders that is so common in Africa. I have seen it among young people who were raised by their grandparents, usually because their parents were either working in town or had died.
At the risk of sounding defensive, I wonder if it is fair to blame South Africa’s older generation for the disappointments of the country’s present political situation. Qwabe’s allegation – “We are here because you failed us!” – seems harsh. Mandela and the ANC, as well as members of other political movements, succeeded in ending apartheid. Was it their responsibility to fulfil all our dreams for the New South Africa, decades later?