Rhodes, student politics and a small warning for PNG

Earlier last month South African students from the University of Cape Town rallied, threw excrement and tore down a statue of the historically prodigious businessman and politician Cecil John Rhodes (1853 – 1902). Rhodes is most clearly remembered for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, which has sponsored thousands of students globally – many of them African – to study at one of the finest universities in the world.

At around the same time similar public taunts emerged around South Africa against symbols of white colonialism and imperialism. These acts are clearly distressing in a number of ways but, to audiences in former colonies like PNG, they clearly express warnings of symbolic ignorance.

Among a list of vague grumblings from the students, for example, were empty suggestions for more black academics and thoughts that the university was too Eurocentric. ‘Nothing was suggested about a more African curriculum or more African modes of learning,’ observed Andrew Kenny in The Spectator. ‘Quite the opposite: there was an important silence about making any real changes at all.’

But, even among such ‘modes of learning’ and the worries of faculty complexion, this is hardly the most optimal way to look at tertiary education, especially in a poor nation trying to push forward in a globalising and highly competitive world. PNG, like many other growing economies, is undergoing seismic economic changes that require real skills and a real education. ‘If you want to know how to build bridges,’ says the economist Thomas Sowell, ‘you need to know something about maths.’ Accounting or finance, in turn, requires knowledge of numbers in the same way that medicine requires an obvious intimacy with hard science.

Clearly vague stabs at symbolism and acts of hollow belligerence – like demanding Rhodes’ statue be torn down – will only take you so far (if anywhere at all) when it comes to skills, study, hard work and professional aspiration.

Notably, the device of anti-colonial protest has never found tight footing or sustainable cause in PNG. This is despite some examples that the late Pacific expert Ron Crocombedescribed as ‘Australia’s own history of apartheid’. Former supposed radical political figures, like Sir John Kaputin, have been outrun by the legacy of formal British institutions (and even knighted) while the thrusts of Marxism and communism in PNG have been cancelled out by free-market economics and capitalism. Certainly, eager revolutionaries would look at PNG with some disappointment as its state institutions remain largely unbowed despite its troubled politics (see, for example, my article here).

PNG student politics, however, or at least the noisier quarters of its claimed representatives, have shown a capacity to tangle sharply with predictable causes – the anti-privatisation agenda of Mekere Morauta in 2001, for example, which led tomultiple student deaths, through to recent UPNG student protests against the Regional Processing Centre (RPC) on Manus Island.

Clearly, students are well within their rights to be angry. And South Africa’s students, like many of PNG’s next generation, are. But angry at what exactly? In South Africa the renewed vigour against colonialism is, I feel, a deflection from the tedious and harsh processes of self-improvement in a tough political and economic environment. But it also represents the wider let-down of post-apartheid South Africa which, even to a global audience, promised so much yet now has as its main exhibits lop-sided politics, astronomical crime, skyrocketing corruption, sexual violence and mass unemployment.

Sudden freedom from a colonial past requires sudden capabilities, which in turn means education and skills. ‘Freedom is stressful,’ writes the black scholar Shelby Steele inThe Content of Our Character, ‘difficult, and frightening – a “burden,” according to Sartre, because of the responsibility it carries.’

Notably, ‘dead white males’ are not the only targets of social outrage in South Africa – racism and xenophobia have recently been levelled (violently) against local Somalians, Nigerians, Zimbabweans, Malawians and Mozambique’s. These have been well-documented by the BBC and footage of the violence is available on YouTube.

The vigour of protest, of course, can fill young people with great pride, and can be a great motivator for action, especially when easy targets like colonialism and imperialism constantly emerge as the main reason for major indigenous issues. Forexample, some new observers of PNG like Antony Lowenstein attempt to blame Canberra for what are highly localised instances of economic and political underperformance, which is entirely distanced from the past or any external influence. Viewed through this lens, for instance, recent PNG government decisions – the RPC agreement and bids to re-open the Bougainville copper mine – are reduced to examples of neo-colonialism, which skates over the vibrancy and consultative nature of PNG democracy, let alone its formal democratic institutions delivering unprecedented stability and unbroken elections.

‘A placard may demonstrate whether its author can spell correctly,’ said the late Paul Hasluck – a former colonial Minister responsible for PNG – in 1969, ‘but it is incomplete evidence of whether he can think.’ And it’s not just ‘thinking’ but ‘doing’ where a better future for PNG’s students lies. Here again is Hasluck, worth quoting at length, in a 1970 University of Papua New Guinea graduation speech:

The community and each profession needs among its members people who will keep on learning, whose minds will be open and active, who will be always moved by a spirit of inquiry, who will not only do what their job requires them to do but will examine the results of doing it, and whose minds will be so well trained and under such a mental discipline that they will be able and fit for this difficult task of thinking as well as doing.

PNG’s current and future students looking to mimic their South African peers would be much better served orienting their outrage to build better services, drive health outcomes, create jobs and pacify corruption. Bridges, in other words, need to be built. This won’t be done by tearing down statues or falling for easy excuses.

Published at Online Opinion

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