This is talk I gave to the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Cape Town last year as part of a series in which we grapple with issues of transformation in South Africa, in the university and in our department.

Now it’s typical, isn’t it? You have hardly started a transformation process to deal with the current consequences and sequelae of past injustices predicated on race and in muscles a white male, whose voice he feels, must be heard. Given half a chance he will probably use his assumed centuries of privilege to start telling you what to do.

How this came about – the justification, if required – is either offensive to all or a reasonable part of the process that is within the aims of our departmental initiative. I perceived that, as with South African society in general, a certain amount of the response to the initiation of the Transformation process had gone off screen. A sense of threat and hurt was being expressed by some of those the process has identified as beneficiaries of that past injustice. So as a previously and currently advantaged white male, I asked the Transformation Committee if I could join the Voices programme. An additional motivation was that I had been having a personal eye-to-eye with Cecil John Rhodes and his legacy, and the long legacy he now represents for a couple of years before the shit hit the statue. I had been turning “all Rhodes lead to“ into a musical as part of that engagement with what that means for me. So here we are….Speaking for myself, and no-one else.

Power & privilege – shorthand and proxy for Race in this context. I plan to face that squarely while acknowledging (as we as a Department have agreed) that it cannot be the only item of the Transformation agenda. Race itself is a proxy for so many aspects of Power & Privilege that I will acknowledge its value as shorthand in this talk, and hope that others will understand this reasoning, uncomfortable though it be.

Power & Privilege – Not so far from Pride and Prejudice.

This talk could be ‘Power and privilege, but….’ – an attempted justification for who and where I am.

Or, ‘Power and privilege, how you see me’ – but then there is no point in me being the Voice.

Approaching this task/opportunity/responsibility, I decided the following:

It will be ‘Power & Privilege, so……’. I will describe my P&P – probably revealing my Pride & Prejudices on the way – and explore the implications.

I have made the following additional decisions in approaching this task:

My past has bequeathed me the power of a very large vocabulary and a word-smithing gift in a language that has a massive hegemonic impact. Rhodes recognised this as one basis for his broad planet-annexing vision for England. The dangers of manipulating with, confusing with, hiding behind such facility I saw as real; the danger of falsity, of not being myself if I changed language persona to a group of colleagues I also recognised. So I decided to be who I am while staying aware of the dangers; language is powerful and it can shut people down or out.

The irony in my first paragraph today will not recur. Ironic humour is a standard means of messaging in my culture, but its capacity to be mis-directed and misunderstood is so great that I have not allowed it breath.

The other decision was to pronounce the word British as Breeteesh. This is Robert Mugabe’s pronunciation of the word. I use it here not to ridicule him (he’s arguably also one of Rhodes’s legatees), but to give voice to the troubled context of my charmed journey in life. The parallel voice in today’s Voices input.

In this talk, Rhodes is sometimes a shorthand for British imperialism or white supremacy. Context should tell you when I’m referring to the man.

I also need to express an anticipatory apology for unintended hurt, heavy-footedness, and offence that I may cause. Transformation talk takes us into awkward territory; often unspoken but deeply felt shoals lurk in the waters. Words spark fires, as St James tells us; the Bee Gees bleated that ‘it’s only words’. Oh, no it is not!

Generally my writing tone tends to lightness; please do not mistake that for lack of application or seriousness. So here we go: Westwood through Rhodes-tinted spectacles.

Ulodzi! – That’s the working name of the musical – was going to end with Cecil John Rhodes dying under a hot tin roof in his hut in Muizenburg, Dr Jameson at his side. We hear the arrhythmic beating of his failing heart. In comes a young Sol Plaatje – he who chronicled the devastation wrought to indigenous African peoples by the 1913 Land Act. He starts to dance around the deathbed. Gradually in the band the rhythm of Cecil John Rhodes’ irregular Sino-atrial node is taken over by the young beating rhythms of Africa. Sol spins. Sol stamps. Sol shouts. The drumming rhythms rise, Rhodes dies, the roof opens up to high blue African skies. Africa’s rhythm is now the only rhythm. It spreads from the south-western tip of the continent. Rhodes has died! Africa lives! Long live Africa.

But it doesn’t, couldn’t end like that, or not yet. Here’s a hypothesis: I am living proof of that.

I am not going to try to disprove or prove that hypothesis today. I’m going to explore the questions that the British Rhodes and Boralong Sol Plaatje are asking me.

I’m nearly 60. Career-wise, a late phase. A senior paediatrician, nationally, provincially, academically. An inevitable look back: a view sharpened and refined, re-calibrated by the Transformation imperative. The retrospection will be followed by a current situation analysis, then a look forward.

Marc has read you my potted biography. I will plot the “favouring gale” that has “wafted” me “to a height that few can scale”, to quote Gilbert and Sullivan’s Lord High Executioner. Yes, I have flapped my wings but all the time under those wings were warm breezes, most but not all breathed by British imperialism and Rhodes.

My maternal grandfather’s Indian Army background, through Imperial contacts, facilitated my parents leaving British mainland (as Rhodes had intended people like them to do) to join colonial society in central Africa. The thing sought by my parents was sunshine and Central Africa, bought and fought for by Rhodes, had that. Inevitably my parents got so much more. Part of the design. Tony was the next generation of colonial society; colonial formal education (with pictures of the Founder in the Alfred Beit-endowed school hall) gave him the edge. It did by a good margin. He got one of the places reserved for Rhodesians (white Rhodesians) at UCT Medical School; apartheid South Africa opened its arms to its presumptive ally – me.

Dr Tony returns to Bulawayo in 1980 as an intern just as Zimbabwe was born. Down with the British; replace with the Zimbabwe flag. Rhodes’ statue in Main Street moves to the museum. But Rhodes is still there for me. I want to be a paediatrician; my wife is from Cape Town (she is classified white). It is so easy for me to come to better myself. We don’t see UDF marches and witdoeke as an impediment; the chances are that I will be safe. Anyway, I am only coming for higher training. Then we will return.

Some wonderfully generous zephyrs within the Department of Paediatrics UCT give me great learning opportunities, despite my colonial persona. Thank you.

Making economic decisions I see being made by young parents of all stripes even today, Jean and I put our children’s education ahead of our African contribution in Zimbabwe (good schools in southern suburbs, can’t afford the “good” ones in Bulawayo on an early 1990s Zimbabwe public doctors salary). I become an economic migrant.

Next thing Mr Rhodes turns up again. I’m offered a paediatrician post at this hospital. Recruitment: “Won’t you come to my office?” Interview: “Would you like this job?” Selection: “May I think about it, but yes please”.

If it is very important for me to say that I’m not biting the hand that fed me. In the decision some of us make, Mr Rhodes is much more present than we may think he is. My recognised merits are not all of my own making. Their expression has been facilitated by history. And that has continued to the present. Our children are beneficiaries of the continuing influence of this history.

Before I can assess the present, I have to go back again. I have had a parallel education that was certainly not typical 1960s/70s Rhodesian or colonial. Through the church we met and socialised with black Africans in our home, not a Rhodesian standard. We would never have been allowed to use the epithets others use so freely and intently to demean members of indigenous communities. Trevor Huddleston’s “Naught for your Comfort” was on my mother’s reading list for me. People tried to get my father to stand for Parliament in opposition Ian Smith’s Rhodesian front. But Doris Lessing-like radicalism was not to be found there. Nor here now.

Anglican connections when I was an undergraduate at UCT continued this attitudinal training. I demonstrated on Jammie steps – vaguely aware that Jameson had raided something at some time. (Sorry, irony crept in, but at least it was aimed at myself). In the late 1970s, my letters home were addressed to Zimbabwe. So I was ready in 1980, I thought, to be part of that country’s formal African life. Working in Zimbabwe under black consultants from there and from across Africa was formative, probably more subtly, re-formative. As was the first phase of white returnees and British doctors who were definitely not Breeteesh coming to a free Zimbabwe.

I’m going to telescope the last 20+ years in South Africa into the present. This is an acknowledgement of the limited change for many, many in South Africa and unfinished business that the Rhodes Must Fall movement is highlighting; and a tacit statement that I too may have been marking time in some important ways.

So, to now, the present. I’ve asked myself a few questions. Mr Rhodes and Mr Plaatje I’m hoping to silence. I stand alone.

Am I a racist? I cannot assume that I am not. Am I a sexist? I cannot assume that. I am an not. Elitist? Myopically class conscious? I know that my upbringing in colonial and Apartheid central and southern Africa have made me an agile classifier, and hard on the heels of that, unless I’m very careful, is a stratifier. In there are the seeds of prejudices if given any quarter. So I have little doubt that there would have been not a few actions, omissions, assumptions along the way that would demonstrate prejudicial discriminatory-isms. Pervasive? I trust not, but here’s a story within our department that may illustrate some of the things I need to think about. In synch with the overall theme, I call it ‘Ralph and me’. When I was a registrar here pre-1994, I used to see Ralph coming to Respiratory Clinic for his session. So friendly but his anger at Apartheid’s bitter consequences was palpable to me. Later I went on outreach to Worcester where he was the sole paediatrician. So welcoming. Later still I was part of the interview panel for the post he took up under me in Ambulatory Paediatrics. My partner and colleague. After I left Red Cross and he stepped into the senior role, there was one issue regarding service provision that we found that we did not agree on. When I look back with Rhodes-tinted spectacles, I see two things: I may well have behaved like a supremacist, not giving quarter just because I’d been around longer and felt a right to my wisdom and authority. I also know for a fact that I did not engage at the right level because I was not certain that the things that Rhodes has given me would not poison the atmosphere. What right had I, who the system had favoured, to confront someone who had had a harder journey to where he was? What would happen to us if I did push through? I let things drift. I do not know what Ralph felt about our differences on that issue (and we only crossed swords on that one), but I cannot impute to him anything I have found in myself.

Second question. Am I an African? Some may see it as an H word, hubris. How can I a white person from Breetain answer that question? Others would see it as a long-since answered question that it is foolish to bring up. I consider that I can and must answer that question (with its resonances and sub-questions) myself if I am to be a prepared and thoughtful part of our shared re-designed future. But I have – with the opposite H word, humility – to put myself through a number of tests, and I believe that I am. Perhaps a superficial example. Can I love the music of Gustav Mahler (who probably never gave the needs of Africa a thought while the king of the Belgian was raping the Congo Free State) while not being able to name a Kwaito star and call myself an African? It depends how that love for Mahler is expressed. To adapt St Paul: if I give all my money to the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra but have not Africa in my heart, I am but a sounding gong and clashing cymbal. In other less poetic words, being an African in Africa is about a deep commitment to the people and continent, I believe. “Je suis Africain” I stated to a group of French MPs who visited Somerset Hospital under the auspices of Kidzpositive. I had restitution by a colonial power in mind. Was I a hubristic poseur? A self-deluding Romantic? Do I, like Shakespeare’s Portia, “protest too much”? Can the same words come out of Africanist Thabo Mbeki’s mouth and mine? I believe so.

“Words, words, words! I’m so sick of Words!” sang Eliza Doolittle. “Show me!” And that’s where I move from present to future. In looking forward I must not assume that because, in the new South Africa, I work for and with largely poor and needy children in the public sector as a white South African that this cancels out or assuages the consequences of my privileged past. If I think that, I am undertaking an accounting exercise. My medical, academic and policy-related work is or can be part of the post Rhodes and Race R-words – restitution, reparation, redemption of the past (Michael Lapsley’s phrase), redress, re-distribution. But those R words must walk the corridors with me; they must go home with me; they must pervade my choices (he who has been bequeathed choices in almost every sphere of his life). Choices in what I do with ‘my’ time, ‘my’ money must also be guided to a significant extent by those R words. Most of those “my’s” have been bought with a price. White guilt? White reality. White liberation, I would say. Our shared future demands these responses of me, work and play.

Here’s an example: I am both discouraged and angered that our government granted an unaffordable pay increase to civil servants. I further regret that the obvious re-distributive and restitutive step of giving smaller increases to people at the top (like me) has never been taken. What I can do is to take that tainted gain (and any other such gains, financial, skills and other – present and those stretching into my pre-history) and plough it and them personally into reparation and redress.

So I hope to be guided by some words in thinking this through and acting.

H words: Hubris – out. Humility – in. The other silent H word, honesty – with myself and with colleagues and friends and everyone!

R words. I won’t spell them out again, but they all begin with R and E, thanks to the way the English language works.

The academic in me is screaming at this point because I have not had time to construct a neat ending to this talk. But this is probably just as well.

R is for Raw. So let me leave a raw, ragged and bleeding end to my Rhodes and Me talk. It may be a fitting metaphor.

Thank you.