Cecil Rhodes as Amakwerekwere
By Sanya Osha
Francis B. Nyamnjoh’s latest book, #Rhodes Must Fall: Nibbling at Resilient Colonialism in South Africa explores and contextualises the notions of makwerekwere, imperialism and the boundaries of citizenship.
Social and professional mobility by immigrants, as in many other places, is viewed with suspicion and sometimes elicits violent reactions on the part of so-called insiders. However, in South Africa, whiteness and its numerous privileges are often exempt from the stigma and violence that otherness historically attracts. In the popular imagination, (black African) otherness apart from its ontological stigma is also equated with vulgarity.
Francis B. Nyamnjoh considers the term makwerekwere and explains that it connotes difference as explicit threat and is therefore sometimes deserving of counteractive violence and invites a xenophobic reaction. In this context, homogeneity and “tradition” become crucial markers of racial, ethnic and political belonging.
The writer inserts himself into this account of Cecil Rhodes as a makwerekwere to broaden the South African understanding of freedom, to question its more contestable limits so as to underscore that the fight for freedom is far from over.
Nyamnjoh’s categorisation of the British Rhodes as amakwerekwere is intriguing and baffling. It probably stems from the very real anxieties of being an amakwerekwere in present-day South Africa. To be labeled as one is to be plagued with challenges and violence. For many, it has meant death, or a vegetative existence in the criminalised shadows of South African society.
The condition of the amakwerekwere is marked by chronic anxiety, psychological unease and physical menace. Rhodes, on the other hand, was an incorrigible territorial predator who dreamed of colonising the African continent. But even more than that, he had fantasised about total world domination by the British Empire.
He had absolutely no respect for the indigenes of the territories he subdued and assailed their dignity and humanity at every turn. So even if we grant that Rhodes was an amakwerekwere, he was one with a profound difference, a difference defined by unbridled power, excessive material acquisitiveness, utter disdain for local hosts and elemental forms of violence and dispossession.
When the first Dutch arrived in the Cape in 1652 labeling the locals “Hottentots”, meaning “stutterers” and speakers of a barbaric dialect, it was the beginning of a history of relations characterised by greed, capitalism, violence and hyper-exploitation. By Rhodes’s era, this unequal order of relations had culminated in the systemic seizure and plunder of indigenous lands. Such was the case that after the quelling of the Matabele rebellion by Rhodes, the chief of the natives in the area was distressed to find out that he and his people had been dispossessed of their land and would be forced to exist henceforth at the mercy of the colonial overlord on minutely parceled out tracts of land. The effects of this systematic dispossession are still felt all across South Africa in discourses, social movements and grassroots protests calling for the equitable re-distribution of land at national, provincial and municipal levels. These calls are part of ongoing collective exercises pertaining to decolonisation and are also a contestation of the native/settler divide as established by the colonial/apartheid scheme of things.
It is doubtful if the black amakwerekwere could ever transform the South African physical space or its natural character with the same predatory intent of Rhodes because his presence in the country reduces him/her to outsider status, one marked by an almost permanent sense of transition. In other words, he/she is not necessarily in a position to demarcate physical space with the same air of authority, menace or permanence that Rhodes displayed and has to relate to the terrain in fluctuating states of withdrawal and agitated movement.
Nyamnjoh’s conceptual prankishness serves to underscore the absurdity as well as theorerical/existential impossibility of xenophobia in a context of hyperglobalisation. In such a context, xenophobia would undoubtedly be a sign of regression, a terminal malaise of insularity, a collapse into an anti-culture enclave, an anti-cosmopolitan retreat stamped by the death of language itself.
What the constant reference to amakwerekwere also achieves is to re-cast the Rhodesian era within the South African present while at the same time drawing attention to a violent South African past that is continually being re-enacted in the present. Thus a violent dialectic links the past to the present and vice versa.
Embedded in Rhodes quest for the total subjugation of Southern African natives was a concomitant drive to entrench the racial and cultural order of whiteness; a quest most evident in the elaborate effort to re-populate the region with white folk. And by this concerted effort at re-population based on white supremacy, Rhodes had intended to overturn the original native/settler equation through inordinate force. The native would in turn become a settler on his/her own land while the settler became native.
Ultimately, Nyamnjoh unearths the oddities lodged in the meaning(s) of amakwerekwere which through the onslaught of capitalism create divisions in South African society; divisions that are largely informed by the native/settler dichotomy or the insider/outsider distinction. Perhaps more importantly, these societal schisms are meditated by shifting technologies of power, which could all of a sudden alter what it means to be native or settler in really drastic and often confusing ways.
It also means as long as the notion of amakwerekwere continues to be politically active, the democratic project remains at risk and the discourse on human rights faces severe ethical and practical challenges.
More than just an analysis of the student movement within UCT and beyond, Nyamnjoh’s narrative includes an interrogation of the ways in which conceptions of “outsider” and “insider” are never fixed categories but instead are subject to power, positionality, capital and contingency.