Human Rights and the Non-Human Black Body

HRLR Online May 20, 2019
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A. Kayum Ahmed is an Adjunct Faculty member at Columbia Law School, where he teaches classes in socio-economic rights and African law, literature, and politics. Following his participation in anti-white supremacist protests at Columbia University, he was placed on the right-wing Professor Watchlist for advancing“leftist propaganda in the classroom.” Before joining Columbia, Kayum served as CEO of the South African Human Rights Commission from 2010 to 2015. He holds degrees from the universities of Oxford (MS.t), Columbia (MPhil), Leiden (LL.M.), Western Cape (M.A.) and Cape Town (B.A. (Hons) LL.B.).

On March 9, 2015, a black student threw feces against a statue of British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes, located at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. The incident sparked the formation of #RhodesMustFall, a black radical student movement that sought to address institutional racism at the university through its demand to decolonize the institution. While #RhodesMustFall adopted a decolonial framework centered on Black Consciousness, PanAfricanism, and Black radical feminism, the movement simultaneously rejected the human rights discourse embedded in South Africa’s progressive Constitution. This paper examines the arguments developed by #RhodesMustFall in its rejection of “human rights,” including the idea that “human rights” are incapable of contemplating the “non-human,” an entity, often a black body, that takes on human characteristics but is not recognized as human. This article draws on qualitative data, including 44 interviews with #RhodesMustFall student activists, to examine how social movements like #RhodesMustFall shape conceptualizations of race and human rights in post-apartheid South Africa.

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