Ntokozo Qwabe and how not to fight racism

When Ntokozo Qwabe – law student and activist in Oxford’s Rhodes Must Fall movement – bragged on social media about reducing a white waitress to tears back in his home country of South Africa, refusing to tip her until she ‘returned the land’, he reflexively dismissed any and all criticism of his actions (later revealed as his friend’s) as an effort to attack and delegitimise the noble struggle of anti-racism.

No doubt there was some of that around. But in his most recent ‘final word’ on the matter, Qwabe delivers a covert justification of the rights of wealthy members of elite universities to intimidate and harass female workers – provided that they are white, and provided that it ‘disrupts whiteness’:

This incident was not about class, and the bullying of an innocent white worker. That it has been made about class has mostly been a result of an inability to comprehend that the political act was not about Ashleigh or the fact of her being a waitress. As a person who has worked first as a “trolley boy”, then as a till packer and lastly as a cashier at a supermarket for a substantial period of time, where I was reliant on tips from customers, tips, I should add, that were nowhere close to what Ashleigh gets in a restaurant – they were usually more like anything from 10c to R2, if anything at all. I know exactly what it means to be in a position of “an exploited worker”…

This whole class furore speaks to the insufficiency of class analysis in our particular context, and in other contexts more generally where the means of production have historically lied with the coloniser. The idea that Ashleigh is some vulnerable, exploited, working class person needs to be closely interrogated, and in fact speaks to the irrationality of whiteness’ image of who forms part of the exploited working class and who does not. In the context of South Afrikan society, Ashleigh is actually way more privileged than most black working class people.

Sure, many black people have it worse than Ashleigh.

But Qwabe, a law student studying at a global elite university on a highly-paid scholarship, is not one of those people. It is his private accumulation of labour power produced by members of the South African working class – black or white – that allows him to sit in fancy restaurants making the conscious decision not to tip a low paid waiter, whose living standards and job security are dependent on his willingness to leave satisfied with her service.

Saying that he can’t oppress restaurant workers because he used to be one is like Lord Sugar trumpeting that he’s a member of the working class just because he hasn’t lost his northern accent.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that Qwabe is indeed a black restaurant worker – and that he could only afford to eat in Ashleigh’s place because more rich white South Africans than normal happened to tip him that month. Can Ashleigh (who is still white and poor) ‘return the land’ then?

Yes ‘the means of production have historically lied with the coloniser’ but that’s precisely why ‘the coloniser’ could ever be so the first place: powerful European states, through force of arms, seized land and economic production, and so forced black workers to surrender the entire political arena to their white bosses and landowners.

But capitalism doesn’t care about race. Since the end of Apartheid, some white people (like Ashleigh) have fallen on hard times while a number of black people (like Qwabe) have, by exploiting the competitive spirit of neoliberal economics, risen to the top of the social order. Seizing land for himself and for other black people without any conception of what they might share with white workers does nothing to challenge the class dynamics that oppress the majority of his countrymen.

Sure, black people are still by far and away the greatest victims of South Africa’s deeply entrenched economic inequality. But the answer to that isn’t black people (rich or not) humiliating white people in their place of work, ‘disrupting whiteness’ while reinforcing systems of economic oppression – it’s in the entire working class organising in their collective and unique economic self-interest to take control over land and the means of production.

If they did so, would Qwabe be on their side?

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