In Defence of Ntokozo, Wandile, and Black Political Agency

A *Biko Disciple 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 R100,000 (£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.


Biko Disciple (*name has been changed) is a PhD candidate at Oxford University

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. The author’s name has also been changed at their request.

Featured image by Lizeka Maduna/The Daily Vox