In Defence of Ntokozo, Wandile, and Black Political Agency

BRIAN KWOBA argues that much of the discussion surrounding the now infamous Obz Cafe incident attributed to Ntokozo Qwabe reveals problems of white supremacy, anti-blackness, and coloniality which the corporate media and even many “progressive” social media commenters have largely failed to grasp.

There has been a firestorm of media reporting and social commentary about a tiny incident in a restaurant in South Africa. Two activists refused to tip a white waitress until stolen land is returned to black South Africans. The waitress responded by crying and her anguish elicited an outpouring of sympathy in the form of over R140,000 in donations. The media has wrongly attributed the initiation of this event to Rhodes Must Fall activist and Oxford student Ntokozo Qwabe.

Qwabe has been widely reported as deliberately “bullying” the waitress into tears and then “bragging” about it. This is inaccurate. In fact, the non-binary trans black activist Wandile Dlamini, who was with Qwabe, wrote the message about returning the land. So, not only was Wandile’s political agency wiped out by careless reporting (an experience all too familiar for trans people), but the reports also wrongly imply that the two activists aimed to induce tears. They did not.

Race and Land in South Africa

According to University of Cape Town sociologist Lungile Ntsebeza, the 50 000 white commercial farmers in the country are not only the “major beneficiaries of past apartheid policies” but also, “their continued control over the vast expanse of South African arable land lies at the heart of the enduring African exclusion and deprivation.”

The land they own was stolen from black people in vicious wars of dispossession of the kind that Cecil Rhodes championed, not to mention various white settlers before and after Rhodes’ murderous 19th century reign that established the foundations of apartheid. South Africa’s ongoing status as one of the most unequal countries in the world divided along racial lines is a direct legacy of colonialism and apartheid.

Therefore, black demands for returning their stolen land are economically, morally, politically, and historically incontrovertible. Anyone who cannot see this is blinded by the influence of white supremacy.

What about the waitress?

There are various reasons so much attention has been paid to Ashleigh Schultz, the waitress: 1) she is white, 2) she is a “working-class” woman 3) she cried.  Let us take a closer look at these.

First of all she’s white. This is a salient fact. If a pair of white people had failed to tip a black waitress in South Africa, would it become international news? Would all the donors who sent money to Schultz react in the same way? Any honest, race-conscious person instantly knows the answer to the questions. A feature of whiteness, which Ashleigh enjoys, is the racial privilege of eliciting sympathy as soon as you emote. Because a white person isn’t supposed to be challenged, and show vulnerability, in a society in which white supremacist attitudes prevail.

Then there is the class and gender question. Some people are suggesting the attitude of the Black activists was anti-working class and possibly sexist because of their refusal to tip a waitress. But the mere fact that she is a woman or a waitress doesn’t settle the matter. It is the content of the challenge from the activists that needs closer scrutiny in order to decide whether the activists were, in this instance, being sexist or elitist.

For example, if a female politician is protested as a woman, that’s sexist and oppressive. But if the very same individual is protested as an imperialist war criminal, that’s progressive.

So whether a protest is oppressive or anti-oppressive has everything to do with the basis on which it is undertaken. What was the basis of the activists’ protest?

The black demand for white people to give back the land is the fundamental content of the political act that took place. In particular, the tear-inducing language was “WE WILL GIVE TIP WHEN YOU RETURN THE LAND.” This is a black demand. After the waitress went to a white male colleague for support, the activists further clarified the political basis for their act. Ntokozo noted how “its great that business as usual has stopped & the pressing issue of land is on the agenda in that [restaurant] space – seeing [how South Africa] was celebrating ‘Freedom Day’ yesterday.”

If the basis of their protest had been the notion that “women are land thieves” or something similar, it would indeed have been a sexist act. Yet there was no such anti-feminist approach. If the note had read “workers are greedy…” or something similar, it would indeed have been an elitist and anti-working class act. But the class background of the waitress was never the issue. As Ntokozo put it, “No white person shall rest. It is irrelevant whether you personally have land/wealth or you don’t. Go to your fellow white people & mobilise for them to give us the land back.”

Again, fundamentally a self-conscious act of Black political protest was undertaken.

For those who sympathise with working people, it bears mentioning that the demand for land to black people *is* a working-class demand. Those who align their class sympathies with a white waitress over the demand to decolonise the land and return it to the black masses of poor South Africans, reveal how white their very conception of “working class” is. It’s called having a white blindspot.

Boycotting Israeli apartheid is likely to economically harm white workers (and capital) in Israel. But it is for the greater cause of Palestinian liberation. In other words, the oppressed cannot seriously be expected to calibrate their political strategy and tactics to the emotional or economic comfort of white Israelis or South Africans.

Of course, the clearest evidence that the decisive operational dynamic of the interaction was race (rather than class or gender) is how Shultz herself described the incident.

Waitress Response slider

By charging black people with “racism,” Schultz demonstrated that she felt oppressed, racially. She clearly didn’t feel under siege as a woman, or even as a worker. She felt the weight of her whiteness, and that is what occasioned the tears. Her own words confirm this to be so.

What she clearly does not realise is that racism is not about individual acts. It is rooted in the structural hierarchy that systematically privileges or oppresses people based on their skin colour. And, as the saying goes, “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression”. Schultz’s decision to–literally–bathe herself in a privilege that so many landless black South Africans cannot even afford only further demonstrates the confluence of racial AND class privilege, even for “working class” white South Africans.

So apart from these factual matters, the notion that the act was patriarchal or anti-working class overwrites the black reality and motivation of those who undertook the political protest. Overwriting black agency is, quite simply, peak anti-blackness.

By erasing Black oppression and overwriting it with a political framework favorable to the waitress, white supremacy is conveniently left unchallenged.

Does it need to be mentioned that black South African waiters and waitresses are refused tips on a daily basis and no fund is set up to protect their interests or to compensate them for the innumerable discomforts and racial indignities they experience?

3) What are white tears? Dr. Robin DiAngelo, a white woman, has masterfully explained this phenomenon. In short, white tears are the sound of white fragility shattering, the washing away of barriers and blindspots which previously obstructed the crying person from seeing the reality of racial privilege and their own complicity in the system of racial oppression.

White tears usually emerge from people who have not seriously confronted their whiteness, or for some other reason remain attached (even subconsciously) to white identity. Some white people have acknowledged and reflected upon their racial privilege and committed themselves to challenging white supremacy. Folks in this category who hear a remark that is implicitly or explicitly critical of white people (e.g. ‘give back our land’) tend not to cry because they don’t identify strongly enough with whiteness to take the comments personally.

Anyone who reads Ntokozo’s statement carefully will see that he did not “brag” about the tears. I suspect the charge that he did flows in part from people’s prejudicial notions of all black men as “aggressive”, and in part from the mistaken notion that the white woman’s tears are a bad thing, the tragic outcome of “bullying”. It’s true that Ntokozo’s recounting of the event used phrases like LOL and “lit,” indicating satisfaction. But a close reading makes it clear that he was energised about the political assertion of black consciousness in a restaurant setting where such events are usually nowhere to be found.

In fact, race psychologists like Beverly Tatum have researched and taxonomised the process of racial identity development in people racialised as white. The research suggests that racial identity progresses through distinctive stages, one of the earliest of which involves feelings of guilt, shame, sadness, and anger. Seems reasonable. Therefore, to the extent that they open the door to a deeper racial consciousness, white tears are actually a good thing, a necessary growing pain on the path to greater racial self-awareness.

In other words, any white person who bursts into tears at the notion that black people want their land back demonstrates that they have much more to learn about their complicity in the white-supremacist racial hierarchy.

Money Raised: Oppressor-Group Solidarity

The fact that over 100,000 Rand (£5,000) has been raised to restore the comfort of a white person further demonstrates the whiteness of the problem. This becomes clear by looking at more extreme cases. George Zimmermann, who shot the unarmed Black boy Trayvon Martin in Florida, raised $300,000 from supporters of anti-Black violence. Darren Wilson, who shot the unarmed Black boy Michael Brown in Missouri, found that supporters collected $500,000 for him.

The effect of these ludicrous sums is to say to anti-black murderers “what you did was not wrong” and “anyone who wants to kill black people can expect to get financially rewarded for doing so.” In other words, they reverse the possibility that the perpetrators learn something by self-reflecting on their racially oppressive mindset. Although not as extreme an example, the fact that Schultz is receiving a huge cash payout sends her the message “your racial conscious was fine right where it was” and “you have nothing to learn from the ‘washing away’ which you experienced in the face of black political agency.”

As with the more extreme cases, a lesson in racial awareness has thus been erased by the knee-jerk response of white solidarity, the subconscious impulse of white denialists who seek to keep other whites from developing an anti-racist consciousness that might (if it spreads) threaten the privileged status of the group as a whole. In short, racist whites will discipline those who threaten to “leave the flock”.

Calls for Ntokozo to lose his scholarship speak to the hostility of the white mob to decolonisation and the assertion of black political agency, because if Ntokozo’s decolonial politics were not a central part of the outrage, the fundraisers would not feel the need to mention that he is a part of Rhodes Must Fall movement. In fact they have to mention this because otherwise it would be impossible to generate such a hysterical international reaction towards a tipping dispute in a random restaurant. (How many tipping disputes occur in restaurants all over the world, every hour of every day?)

Some have suggested that Ntokozo acted rudely by not inquiring into the situation of the waitress, as an individual. These people need to ask themselves: why are we so quick to centre the emotional reaction of white tears over black landlessness? And how is the polite scribbling of a legitimate political message impolite anyway? Has the bar for impoliteness been lowered in order to meet the fragility of white tears?

And why didn’t the waitress inquire into the situation of Ntokozo as an individual? Why didn’t she inquire into the situation of Wandile as an individual? Does she (or her financial supporters) give a damn about black pain or black landlessness?

The notion that whites must be treated as individuals is itself a typical outlook of the racially-unconscious. Most black people learn early in life that they are seen by whites as members of a group, as demonstrated by catch-all epithets like the K and N words. But for whites, thinking of oneself only as an individual, as “normal”, “without a racial identity” is itself an aspect of white privilege. In other words, many whites don’t even realise or acknowledge the social consequences of their whiteness!

The Root Problem

The fact that tears born of white fragility have become such a news item only further demonstrates a major problem which Rhodes Must Fall seeks to address: the prioritising of white privilege, white comfort, and white domination over the needs, interests and aspirations of the black people.

But surely white tears emerge in restaurants, cafes, university campuses on a weekly (if not daily) basis. So why did this incident become international news?

The real reason is simple: Ntokozo is a leading black voice within the decolonial movement, which fundamentally challenges the power of white supremacy. That is precisely why the white-owned corporate media attacked him so viciously in December and why they are rousing the public to attack him likewise now.

Let us condemn this nakedly reactionary attack upon Ntokozo and Wandle by the media. Let us also resist the ridiculous urge to focus on white tears rather than Black landlessness.

If we are ever to overcome racism, we must eventually come to see how the racial hierarchy, resting as it does on a foundation of anti-Blackness, cannot be seriously challenged (let alone abolished) without a process whereby humanity learns to respond to the assertion of Black political agency with humility and solidarity.

#RhodesMustFall
#BlackLivesMatter
#DecoloniseTheMind

Brian Kwoba is a doctoral candidate in history at Oxford University. Follow him on Twitter @BrianKwoba

Editor’s note: A previous version of this column stated a claim that white people own 80% of land in the country. The author has since amended  this sentence to illustrate the extent to which white land ownership dominates the economy.

Featured image: Lizeka Maduna/The Daily Vox

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22 Comments

  1. Jans de Jager says

    I’ve found reporting on this matter to be perfectly cautionary. Please notice the implied uncertainty how to evaluate actors’ malice in issues of race in today’s media. All subjects here had the opportunity to clarify their positions as they would feel appropriate, but only Schultz seem to have taken the opportunity to glibly enunciate her windfall without passing judgement on any party. The blame here for the perpetuation of prejudice lies with popular media’s fatalistic penchant for objectivity in all matter, often clashing with normative views held by divisive activists like Ntokozo. All the players here should know that arbitrated accords trump unilateral grandstanding in the public sphere and misbehaving actors should expect the occasional vindictive slap across the wrists by the arbitors of public opinion. It would be senseless to reward brash and desperate leaps at vitriolic vindication.

  2. Fires van Vuren says

    As a Doctoral candidate at Oxford one would have expected Brian to be much more economical with the truth. The whole argument that White people still owns 80% of the land in South Africa has been disproved so many times that to still propagate it as the sole truth can only be done with malicious intent. Have a look at the following credible sources for n more accurate depiction of the status quo:

    https://africacheck.org/reports/do-40000-whites-own-80-of-sa-the-claim-is-incorrect/

    http://businesstech.co.za/news/wealth/113714/the-truth-about-land-and-home-ownership-in-south-africa/

    http://www.plaas.org.za/sites/default/files/publications-pdf/No1%20Fact%20check%20web.pdf

    To also argue that all land currently owned by Whites were stolen by vicious wars of dispossession are clearly contestable. Yes that dispossession took place historically are a fact but these were not only perpetrated by White people for example King Shakas violent takeover of communal land of other tribes. See below:

    http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/king-shaka-zulu

    The article also omits to state that not only White people were upset by the actions of Qwabe and his friend. One of the online campaigns was triggered by an outraged South African, Sihle Ngobese, who decided to pay the tip himself and said: ‘Qwabe is someone that claims to speak to the downtrodden and the disenfranchised yet he has the audacity to bully a working-class young woman.

    Lastly, yes Qwabe did not write the note himself a fact which most of the media acknowledged by stating that it was written by his friend so why try and create a false impression Brian? Fact is however that it was Qwabe himself which afterwards bragged about the incident on his Facebook page which is why he copped most of the criticism.

    Qwabe wrote: ‘She sees the note and starts shaking. She leaves us and bursts into typical white tears.’ He said a male waiter then approached the table to ‘annoy us more with his own white tears telling us that he finds our act racist’.
    He added: ‘It is irrelevant whether you personally have land/wealth or you don’t. Go to your fellow white people and mobilise for them to give us the land back.’

    1. Keith says

      His father was upset as well……..how about that?

  3. Sheana says

    There a few glaring discrepancies that need to be addressed in this article.
    The first would be the lack of current data to support the hypothesis that whites own 80% of land. This statement is also not clarified to indicate which land the whites supposedly own. Agricultural? Industrial? Home ownership?
    Next would the assumption that all land was stolen. Not all the land was settled at the time of the colonisation of Southern Africa. And several of the settlements bought their land from tribal chiefs at the time.
    The claim that the waitress cried tears of white supremist frustration also fails to take into account that women will be women and some days we just cry when things get rough.
    The last point is that funds were not gathered to fuel her white supremacy, but rather as a response to rub salt in the eye of a male who failed to show a single point of human empathy.

    While I realise that white supremacy is a real issue, bad manners are just as much of a hindrance to the furtherance of any progress.

    We are not robots, we are flesh and blood, and asking for understanding of your cause while showing no understanding of basic human nature is a particular blindness that stems from a hard heart.

  4. John Vallmont says

    The new revolution shall be fought by affirmative action Oxford toffs in swanky bars giggling over denying a waitress a tip. Black political agency agency? Rubbish. Pay your bill and tip your waitress, then talk your nonsense like everybody else. The poor woman was merely being compensated for listening to their half baked political opinions.

    Is this really how an Oxfod scholar writes? Reads like a high school essay written by some kid who has been getting his political opinions and history off YouTube.

  5. John Vallmont says

    And as far as “Black political agency” is concerned, my goodness, we seem to have plenty of it, Zuma and Nkadla are a direct exult of Black political agency! How a man can argue that a country ruled by a corrupt black party elected by a black electorate does not have black political agency boggles the mind.

  6. JP de Villie says

    Interesting that the author says that the land were “stolen” from the black people. Between Mzilikazi (from the Matabeles) and Shaka (Zulu) the cleared most of the inland areas of all South Africa even before the Voortrekkers moved into those areas. During the mfecane they murdered and plundered the inland areas leaving nothing behind – especially Mzilikazi. Mfecane (Zulu pronunciation: [m̩fɛˈkǀaːne], also known by the Sesotho name Difaqane (scattering, forced dispersal or forced migration) or Lifaqane, was a period of widespread chaos and warfare among indigenous ethnic communities in southern Africa during the period between 1815 and about 1840.
    During the the attack at Vegkop approximately 5000 Matabele attacked the lager of the Voortrekkers close to current Heilbron. There were about 35 Boers defending the lager. The Matabeles lost.
    At Bloedrivier (Blood River or Ncome River) an impi of between 15000 and 21000 Zulu’s lost the battle against 470 Boers. Prior to this Piet Retief got Dingane’s signature for a piece of land in Natal – but he and his men were murdered by Dingane’s men. After the batlle of Blood River the agreement was found on the skeletons of Piet Retief and his men.
    Similar situation with Mzilikazi – after he lost the war he signed an agreement giving the Boers a large track of land.
    Now come and tell me that the Boers stole this land? Mzilikazi and Shaka Zulu stole the land from their black brothers by murdering everything in their path. Did they steal that land?
    Come on – wake up ! ! ! !
    From whom did they steal the land? The San and Hottentot people? The San and Hottentot people were the only original people living in these areas before the black people migrated into these areas from the north – and they murdered everybody to get this land.
    Now go to Europe – how many of these countries still host their original occupants? Was that land stolen? Look at America – how many of the original people (Red Indians) are left? Look at Australia – how many of the Aborigenes are left? Most of these people were murdered and hunted nearly to extinction – – – – –

    1. Bigbadjon says

      Good points, JP. The whole story is premised on white theft of black land, a lie. The problem is that blacks didn’t keep written records, in fact they had no written history and their oral history was not objective.
      Now these ‘Oxford scholars,’ apparently unable to verify the historical record as it involves more than googling, proceeded to base their campaign of libel and defamation on this lie. The RMF# story is not much better. Although Rhodes was by today’s PC standards an evil man he achieved great things, grounded a superb university (UCT) contributed to Oxford, to a renown scholarship, etc etc.
      One must really question the recent choice of Rhodes scholars, standards appear to have dropped dramatically.

    2. Concerned 19 year old says

      This is Africa not Europe.

    3. Loren says

      C’est justement les mots cochons et les injures que je cherche d’abord dans un dictionnaire, en particulier un bilingue, pour savoir s’il est bon et s’il vaut l&cqsuo;arhat!

  7. TheRealMidnite says

    You could have just said, “I’m going to blame the victim!” and spared yourself all that effort. Or maybe you just needed the exercise in writing crap.

  8. George says

    Brian, you are a proper idiot.

  9. Saitamago says

    ” racism is not about individual acts. It is rooted in the structural hierarchy that systematically privileges or oppresses people based on their skin colour.”

    No, this is an example of your twisted equivocation. Interpersonal racism doesn’t cease to exist just because you re-label structural racism. The woman in question is in no way responsible for structural racism and did not get to choose her skin color. Qwabe is a reprehensible human being and if he is an accurate example of his movement it is reprehensible by extension

  10. just saying says

    All of the above twaddle is still no excuse for a douche bag like him to bully a woman…REGARDLESS OF HER RACE, RELIGION , OR SOCIAL STATION . Oxford should teach these twats how to be gentlemen.

  11. Katie says

    Zimmerman & Wilson were directly involved in incidents where young people lost their lives. To compare support for her to the support for them is outrageous. The message given to her basically said it was her responsibility to right the wrongs of colonialism, something that started before they were born. It would be like if here in the US, a young black customer told a young white waitress he wouldn’t tip her until she provided monetary reparations for slavery. It’s ludicrous.

    I don’t think he should be expelled, for the reasons Oxford gave – they clearly view this as a freedom of speech issue & I agree. But to mock this woman & defend this man is embarrassing, and to make any comparison to Zimmerman & Wilson is an affront to common decency.

    He said “Go to your fellow white people & mobilise for them to give us the land back.” How did he know she hadn’t already done so? For all he knew, she could’ve been an activist herself. He chose to assume she wasn’t because she was white. I’m sorry – that’s racism.

  12. Anna says

    The more remarkable thing is that black people are kind and polite to whites in interpersonal relations 99% of the time. Given our history this is truly remarkable, but of course most whites (and I am one) are too arrogant and privileged to understand this.

  13. tony Cox says

    I remember an album called Pretzel Logic….Brian is trapped in it, contorting common sense till it makes perfect nonsense. Brian your own mom and dad will clear this up for you. Your academic learning has taught you sfa. Rudeness and being impolite and devoid of manners will not bring your land back no matter how you whine and wiggle…be a man and stand up for basic COMMON human decency…idiot…

  14. Concerned 19 year old says

    Some of the replies are saddening , some people still cannot see that we are still living under white South Africa. I am not calling for the abolishment of white people but I am calling for equality. The South African constitution may say we are equal and free but really we aren’t . In my perspective black South Africans still haven’t tasted freedom. Freedom still only exists for white people in our dear country. The donation was a true confirmation to the fact that white people are still afraid to conform to our “new found democracy” . The donation was absolutely unnecessary. Why are some white South Africans so scared ? What is it that makes so afraid ? Why are so nervous about being ruled by black people. Our forefathers have been ruled by white people for many years and we claim to be free today yet we are still chained down by the very same chains that held our forefathers down.

    Yes Ntokozo was rude but don’t you agree there’s so much truth in what he said. He treated her as how we were treated and in most cases how still are . Loved that saying “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression” She shouldn’t have in any way felt oppressed because that is what how we feel every single day when we drive past OUR land day by day.

    1. TheRealMidnite says

      You just don’t get it, do you? Do you really think we were born yesterday? Do you really believe we should ignore the bitter lessons history has taught us? Do you believe we should, like those African immigrants murdered or made homeless during our recent bouts of xenophobic violence, suffer more death and harm in order to realize, once again, that, like them, we have always been, and forever will be, nothing but the “other” to the black majority of this country – the very people which politicians try to manipulate by offering them scapegoats in the first place? Do you not think we have seen how those who qualify as the “other”, have, time and again, been violently used as scapegoats by politicians to hide their own stench? Whether it’s Indian or gay people in Uganda, white or Matabele in Zimbabwe, or Tutsi and sane-minded Hutu’s in Rwanda, the results are always the same. We have ALWAYS been painfully aware of that. There’s a damn good reason they taught us about old Piet Retief in our history books – it’s a short little tale, one that perfectly sums up our place in this world – today, as it did then. You really believe this is about “privilege”? No. It’s about survival. Not even freedom. We don’t have the “privilege” of anonymity amongst the majority. We never had. The ANC has been toying with it for a long time now, dropping hints here and there about blaming white people for this and that, but never going for broke. They haven’t been desperate enough. Not yet. The EFF wants to make it policy – it’s their only real drawcard. Do you think we will give up that, which you may call “privilege”, when it’s that exact “privilege” which has allowed our continued survival here? Empowered people, people who are still willing and capable of standing united, do not make easy scapegoats. I’m glad that waitress received that money. I’m glad it’s made such a splash in the news. It sends a strong message that white people here hasn’t lost sight of how precarious our very existence here is. It sends a strong message that we will not be an easy target to those who wish to victimize us because of the colour of our skins. Laugh this off, if you must. Classify me as a racist, and be done with it, if you will. But the next time we show support for one of our own that has been victimized, do not claim ignorance of what makes us “nervous”.

    2. Keith says

      He was a Born Free………so he should have not have been disadvantaged. Yet he seems to be taking up the cudgels for the previously disadvantaged(not him)………..with a claim to land that belongs to th San?

    3. Jacob says

      My dear Concerned Citizen,

      I for one believe that if I was targeted publicly as displayed, I would feel ashamed and know that everyone will always know me as that person. The fundraiser was simply to acknowledge the wrong in the scenario and restore the wronged person’s image.

      Unfortunately we live in a time where it is very difficult to find an inspirational African leader. The majority of them are useless as displayed in the current events of parliament.

      As everyone states, this poor man is making a scene about the past to benefit himself. Typical behavior in this country.

      And just by the way, before you comment about equality. Go do some research on stats for the wealthiest people in Africa…

      And also, go have a look at equality when it comes to general benefits and education to different races.

      Sadly, it seems that you have done no research or found not insight to back your argument.

  15. Kelly says

    If Ashleigh were dealing in any way with her white privilege, if she was really committed to a world without racism, she’d know enough to give the money to a black person who has much less possibility of ever acquiring a home in Cape Town.

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