Rhodes, revenge, rage; what use is literature?

I already knew about the Rhodes protests before I left Leeds. I had been sent an email by our South African colleague, telling us that the University of Cape Town was alive with student activists protesting at the slow pace of transformation twenty years after the fall of apartheid, and demanding the removal of the statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes, who presides over the campus looking north to the rest of the continent. I’d also been forwarded the email communication from the VC of Cape Town, which seemed to me measured and respectful, acknowledging the justice of the students’ demands and promising accelerated action.

We were in South Africa as part of a series of projects, principally a project generously funded by the British Academy, ‘Contemporary Literature from Germany and South Africa: Critiquing the Narrativization of Trauma as Nation-building’. This also chimed with other projects – Performing the Jewish Archive, which traces the migration of archival artworks to, among other places, South Africa, and Comparative Perpetration and Contrition in Germany and South Africa. Last week, we had a wonderful day-long seminar with UCT colleagues discussing world literatures, transnational literary cultures, literary markets, aesthetic traces of trauma, cosmopolitanism and restitution in African and German culture. It was an intense, rich meeting of minds. (watch this space for a blog project, aesthetics of the alternative archive, responding to the seminar very soon.) The #RhodesMustFall protests were in our mind throughout our conversations. We Germanists knew of the analogous protests in Germany in the 1960s surrounding the continuing presence of statues from the German colonial era in Germany, indeed I’ve taught those protests in the context of Uwe Timm’s 1974 novel Heisser Sommer, which portrays the attacks in the statue of colonialist Hermann von Wissmann. So we discussed: were the Born Free generation repeating the protests of the German student movement, twenty years on from the end of another dictatorships? Were the two temporalities in parallel, were we now in an accelerated temporality instead, or was this protest in fact an example of ‘late postcolonialism?’ It was an intensely rewarding discussion.

By happy chance, UCT was hosting events surrounding the International Man Booker prize last week, and, on the evening of our seminar, the judging panel were being hosted at a discussion event. It sounded relaxing and vaguely gratifying as a follow-on from our intense seminar. We filed into the rather pompous hall to the sound of a troupe of marimba players, entertaining the audience before the event proper started. Each panelist then acknowledged that the Rhodes protests were very much in their thoughts and, serendipitously, the panel then turned to all of the questions that had preoccupied us in our seminar. What is World Literature? How can literature draw new cartographies? How can it make invisible structures of power legible? How can it avoid being ‘homogeneously exotic’? The panel was personable and entertaining, and the pleasant if unchallenging evening flowed on smoothly from the day.

Student protests at the Man Booker

Student protests at the Man Booker

A dark form drew over the corner of my vision, I turned my head: a large black flag stating that #RhodesMustFall was being carried into the hall by a silent convoy of protesting students. They were welcomed by the compère, and the discussion continued as they stood mutely in front of the stage. All the protestors were Black. The marimba players who had entertained us before the event, too, were Black and had not spoken either. There was not a single Black or Coloured African on the airily cosmopolitan judging panel who were filling the air with fine words about how literature restores our faith in the imaginative power of the written word in dark times, et cetera. The discussion continued with clumsy and, to my ears, slightly patronising, acknowledgement of the protestors, until they filed out and the questions and answers politely begun.

Finally, a Black student stood to pose the question: Given that the Black voice had historically been silenced and belittled in UCT, given that it is constantly delegitimised as not as rational as the White voice, how and why did the Man Booker decide to partner with an institution like UCT that diminished the Black voice? The PA was cutting in and out thanks to power outages, the compere frowned in concentration and said, sorry, , I couldn’t quite hear you, but I’ll try to repeat what you said for the other panellists. I can voice myself, thank you, said the questioner pointedly. The panel responded, vaguely, that UCT hadn’t paid them so they saw no need to boycott the place, and that literary festivals were far more commercial and elitist and exclusive than a University anyway. And then the discussion, that urgent, essential question that had hovered over the whole evening, was moved on and the next questioner asked: Had the panel read David Foster Wallace? A white, male, Western and of course dead author, you will note. The panel settling to discussing the White, male, Western, dead voice, and we shrugged and left the hall. Down below, the protestors were holding a candlelit vigil around the statue of Rhodes, singing as they covered his head with black plastic.

Was the whole event – from drummers to protestors to provocateur – stage managed? Had we just witnessed the systematic institutional appropriation and diminishing of the Black voice in a still overwhelmingly white institution? Or was a moment of inspiring change and resistance in the air? How were the institutions of World Literature – the prize, the book jury, the event – making themselves complicit in racist structures? What was my position, as a white visiting academic to a compromised institution? Sebald repeats the question, à quoi bon la littérature? and the prize panel amplified the question, what good are the institutions of literature, from prize to academic scholarship, in the face of such obvious structural injustice within and without the literary world?


We flew on to Namibia, where we were running a workshop at the South African Germanists’ Convention. A weekend in Swakopmund, site of a desolate mass grave and dismantled concentration camp constructed during the German genocide of the Nama and Herero, was sobering, as was a tour around the conflicted memorial landscape of Windhoek. Arriving at UNAM to find a cheerful crowd of white, networking Germanists – our tribe – was somewhat of a jolt after such an introduction to the brutal German colonial past. And yet, the convention of privileged transnational academics like myself did yield an answer to Sebald’s troubling question. The German ambassador to Namibia opened our proceedings with an unusually frank speech, expounding on the official German government line. There had been crimes but no genocide in Namibia, so the German government needed to pay no reparations. Instead, they would boost development aid, fund academic projects, ‘tourner la page’ to ensure that the problem of the German-Namibian past was behind them.


A very new monument to the Herero and Nama genocide, replacing the colonial Reiterdenkmal

A very new monument to the Herero and Nama genocide, replacing the colonial Reiterdenkmal

An unrepentant monument to the genocidal German Schutztruppen

An unrepentant monument to the genocidal German Schutztruppen

I am not sure that the ambassador’s words found universal appeal, certainly not with the rector of Freiburg university, guest of honour, who next addressed us passionately about how he had worked to return the skulls of murdered Herero from Freiburg’s questionable medical collection to Namibia. For him, this needed to be the beginning of a profound questioning of the genocidal complicity of German universities and German cultural institutions. The memory of the defiled human remains should not be quietly buried, but instead provoke a difficult, profound, ongoing learning process about other human ‘specimens’ held in European cultural institutions, about the tainted history of science and how that history is not over. But how can we engage the wider public in this discussion, outside of academic debate? asked a questioner, reasonably. Well, said the rector, people like our guest of honour, German detective novelist Bernhard Jaumann, can do that by incorporating this history into novels. The scene at the beginning of Der lange Schatten, where a Herero exhumes the skull of eugenicist Eugen Fischer from Freiburg cemetery in a fictive revenge scenario, is a perfect example.

Literature as a site of revenge as well as restitution! I grinned in sudden delight at the power of that idea. The grin turned to inner whoops of glee when Jaumann himself read from Der lange Schatten at the Goethe Zentrum Windhoek that night. After being formally introduced by that self-same German ambassador, Jaumann read us a gripping section from the novel in which the Herero activists kidnap the wife of a fictitious German ambassador to Namibia and demand that the ambassador publically acknowledge the murder of the Nama and Herero as a genocide, and promise to pay proper compensation. Oh, to have been sitting in the front row and to have been able to see the face of the ambassador as Jaumann’s reading fired a furious broadside into official German diplomatic rhetoric! It was glorious. A quoi bon la littérature? I’m returning from Southern Africa with my faith in literature restored, despite the painful events surrounding the Man Booker. Not a mawkish faith in the imaginative power of the written word to unite us, but in the power of literature to challenge official discourses of power and repression, and to create a gloriously angry irreverent space where fictive revenge as well as fictive restitution can provoke, perhaps, real change in the world. Perhaps.

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