South Africa

South Africa

Letter to the Editor from a ‘Taliban’ at UCT

The older white liberals of UCT are a fascinating bunch of academics. With fully fleshed out ideological paradigms they have experience enough to immediately conceptualise current affairs within the larger historic narrative that has made up their life in academia. Ken Hughes is such a man. By MOHAMMED JAMEEL ABDULLA.

I know Ken Hughes as my old lecturer from his course in History of Economic Thought. It was thus interesting to learn that his generation and peers were among the liberal anti-apartheid activists. Hughes himself was somewhat involved in the 1968 occupation of Bremner Building in protest of UCT going back on its word to hire Archie Mafeje. At the time UCT was under pressure from the apartheid government not to stray from the status quo in hiring a black member of staff, and had not the institutional courage to stray too radically from the mainstream. It seems that even after decades, some things just don’t change.

Thus it is somewhat poetic that this intergenerational, interracial, Fallist to white liberal, decolonialist to colonial apologist dialogue should take place. The purpose of this dialogue is not, however, intended to address the concerns of Hughes or those like him – they are but the shadows of a falling intelligentsia that seek to preserve their own relevance in a context that is evolving beyond them. This dialogue is for those curious bystanders searching for an entryway into engagement. This is for those who’ve yet an idealistic sense that academia, in its truest form, is intended to liberate the mind, progress society, and cast out remnants of old regimes that seek to entrench outdated modes of thought and pedagogy.

Ironically, Hughes would probably agree with many of these values – with a strong sense that UCT has, indeed, lost its moral calibre over the years. The difference between us would be that I’d contend that in no point in time did an anachronistic white institution on African soil have any right to make moral claims in the first place. Hughes, in turn, seems to view the above sentiment as a form of violent xenophobia. With this, the arena seems set: let’s contend.

On Straw Men, Slippery Slopes and Questions of Pedagogy

The university environment is a wholly different experience for individual students depending on one’s background and intersection of identities. In the context of a historically white institution such as UCT, the environment is one where buildings still yet bear the names of colonialists, apartheid architects and white saviours; it is a site that is continually called out for its institutional rape culture and black exclusion; it is within this anachronistic site of hegemony where the narrative of academia, as a Eurocentric construct, is reinforced – a construct which African discourse has (of late) been “allowed” entrance into.

Thus when Hughes argues that the university space should be a site where tolerance is challenged, the question must be posed: who is it we are saying must be the practitioners of tolerance? Who, and what, are they to continue tolerating?

Within the UCT context, the phrasing of Hughes’ “offence principle” is wholly one-sided and acts to preserve tolerance towards Eurocentric hegemony within an African institution. It ironically echoes the absurd power relations exemplified by the TRC: that “reconciliation” (like tolerance) is when the oppressed and dehumanised must come to terms, and accept without reservation the injustice that is met upon them.

A distinction must be made between “intolerance to offense” and “intolerance to injustice”. For by arguing for the former, one may arrive at a slippery slope towards censorship, as Hughes does, while the latter speaks to a path of dismantling manifested systems of injustice – the primary focus of Fallism. Once again, Hughes must be charged with asking, if he is truly committed to promoting tolerance to offence, why is it he is not also campaigning for art that offends white students? Why the one-sided approach that feeds into the clearly vocalised sense of imperialism? Students are taught not to attack straw men and to beware slippery slope arguments – one would think academics, too, would be aware of such by now.

This die-hard defence of the ability to “offend” is not a new notion to us in any sense though. It speaks to the ideological values of Western liberalism, which enshrine free speech as a right of particular importance in being able to express sentiments that might cause “offence”. It seems, by now, a social meme of intellectual white men to “righteously” test the proverbial waters of controversy for what they are, and aren’t, allowed to say: in order to measure the social degradation of society towards “tyranny”. This has become a hallmark of Western academia itself: the positing of liberal enlightenment values as universal principles that span contexts which have come to be accepted as the mark of the “modern civilised world”, under liberal capitalist democracy. Freedom of expression is a necessary human right in that it allows one to speak truth to power – not for those with imbedded power to silence the disadvantaged.

In understanding this, it is shameful and reprehensible to read an academic cast lived experiences of systemic injustice as individualised “hypersensitivity” that one ought to seek personal therapy for. There is no shame in acknowledging that many are affected by the context we find ourselves in – but it is absurd and irresponsible to reason that this trauma may disappear without interrogating the systems that gave birth to and sustain it. At best, the above can be viewed as a derailing tactic to avoid accountability; at worst this is to be seen as the most unapologetically arrogant form of victim blaming – for which I wholly believe Hughes should be made accountable for before UCT.

However, beyond the fallacious reasoning is also a deeper philosophical question that seems overlooked in public discourse surrounding decolonising education – the question of pedagogy. That is: the question of whether “who” and “how” something is taught informs and influences “what” is taught. For with these questions in mind, it becomes worthwhile interrogating why an entire History of Economic Thought course, taught by a right-leaning European man, only ever covers Western discourse and focuses on course material by capitalist thinkers. It is within this context that the Decolonise UCT Economics movement has gained traction.

Fallism, White Marxists and Anti-colonialism

What follows in Hughes’ analysis of the ideology of Rhodes Must Fall (Fallism) is the idea that Fallists are made up of middle-class (economically privileged) blacks seeking some form of perverse role-reversal in victim-perpetrator relations. This is in order to appease some psychic satisfaction – seemingly borne out of a subconscious shame complex, and jealousy, of those able to succeed in a (white supremacist) system. He argues that the actions of Fallists in no way speak to the legitimate struggles of the “truly disadvantaged” (economically) who are too busy struggling to survive in society, in order to meaningfully engage in political action. There’s also a strong sense that RMF is xenophobic to whites. This last point is probably the most interesting of his propositions as it’s unclear whether he’s saying that RMF doesn’t like white foreign exchange students in particular, or whether he’s implying that all whites, regardless of citizenship, are foreigners on South African land. While I do find the latter thought quite bemusing, I’m led to believe he meant the former.

Wow” was the first reaction for myself, and many others, upon first reading the above doggerel… but I digress.

Rhodes Must Fall is a movement contextualised within the premises of UCT, which is situated in the context of the dominant “rainbow nation” ideology of South Africa where inequality is still statistically, socially and experientially demarcated along lines of historic identity – 22 years after democracy and over 350 years since colonisers first arrived. The national context itself must be placed within a Global South, Global North relation – with much of the Global South (and the east) being characterised by legacies of colonialisation by Europe. This is important because RMF is among many black, decolonial movements around the globe. RMF is a participant in the international narrative of decoloniality and neocolonialism. RMF politics specifically locates itself at the intersection of the ideologies of black feminism, black consciousness and pan-Africanism – the founding pillars of the movement.

UCT is a site of privilege requiring the highest university fees in South Africa, is a first-language English institute and is located within an upmarket urban environment. Simply put: to be at UCT is to experience privilege. But it is empirically incorrect to argue that all Fallists are economically privileged or “middle-class”. One also begs the question in assuming that economic poverty is the only “real disadvantage” in society.

Many of those in the movement would contend that one cannot separate one’s economic standing from that of one’s sexuality, race, gender, ability, nationality etc. These identities intersect and affect each other in diverse, nonlinear ways. This means that to view class oppression in a singular dimension is to theorise outside of any real context, ahistorically, on an empty notion. This is one of the tropes of analytic philosophy. It is through this fallacious reasoning that staunch nonracialists are able to conceive of notions such as class, offence and achievement as abstract universals.

This is particularly interesting because Black Consciousness posits nonracialism as its logical conclusion, but the approach of first accepting racialised thinking as a social reality separates it from mainstream discourse that tends to descend into facades of “colourblindness”. The separation and emphasis of class over race is also a prominent facet among older “white Marxists” whom Hughes no doubt is more acquainted with than any Fallist, given his familiarity with the old left of UCT. To disregard the notion of intersectionality is to not acknowledge that an impoverished white man and an equally impoverished black man face a vastly different array of suffering. Specifically because the latter faces both racism and class conflict simultaneously.

Hughes’ most contentious proposition, though, is the charge that RMF and anti-colonialism are in some manner xenophobic towards white people. He states that “anti-colonialism is the second cousin of racism”. It seems that the weight of his argument rests on the events surround Shackville and the UCT housing crisis of 2016 – where students were in an uproar that UCT had over-allocated residence accommodation and that foreign exchange students from Europe and the US were housed, while black students were left squatting or placed in cramped hostels. After concerted pressure by RMF, these students were lodged at a nearby hotel in the interim period.

At no point does Hughes justify why anti-colonial theory is “racist”. Anti-colonianial authors write to aid others in conceptualising varying experiences of imperialism and how to combat it. One can only imagine that Hughes is among those who have falsely equated responding to violence and imperialism with violence and imperialism itself. In doing so he is not only complicit in the continued hegemony of imperialism, but seeks to dictate the terms and conditions under which the subaltern may act to liberate themselves.

Paradigms of Achievement and Shame

It has been equally difficult to comprehend where one gets the impression that Fallists suffer from some form of shame complex over “not being able to achieve”. It’s unclear whether Hughes truly believes such sentiments, but we shall assume such paternalistic arrogance is indeed sincere. This being the case, it bears interrogating what Hughes means to do by distinguishing the “low achieving” Fallists pushing for radical change from the “high achieving” black students who complain about feeling belittled by perceived lower academic standards in comparison to white students.

First, this is empirically incorrect. Fallists, like any grouping, are diverse: many hold multiple degrees, are postgrad students, leaders in civil organisations, accomplished artists, performers, writers and are continually consulted by international bodies wishing to do research.

The false dichotomy of black students Hughes tries to create is laughable: he may as well have called his high achievers “well-behaved better blacks”. The little-told story of RMF is that our radical point of departure comes by way of realising that existing “progressive” routes are entirely ineffective at changing anything fundamental. Yet despite this, most Fallists remain fully engaged in all these avenues in our individual capacity, if for nothing else but because it’s what most of us have committed ourselves to. To construe our apathy towards bureaucratic reformist systems as arising out of lack of commitment, hooliganism and psychological trauma manifest in extremism is misguided, and in my view, thinly veiled bigotry. At least, that’s what this “Taliban” believes.

Fundamentally, many have yet to realise that Fallists are calling for wholly radical redefining of what Hughes seems to be defining as “achievement”. We’re calling out what has tacitly come to form our norms and values of our social system – and education’s role in reproducing this dominant ideology. The context of Hughes’ use of “success” is politically defined within a paradigm of white supremacist, capitalistic patriarchy. It is within this illegitimate paradigm that one celebrates Justice Ian Farlam over the departed of Marikana; that white-washed caricatures of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King are our black heroes; that it is easier to get off for rape at UCT than for plagiarism; that activists of the Amadiba community in the Eastern Cape are currently being assassinated for refusing to sign over their ancestral land to an Australian multinational mining company.

It is with this understanding that one looks to UCT’s claim of being “the best university in Africa” and sees it as insincere in its commitment to truly challenging injustice, fighting for equity and opposing violence. It’s complicit and panders to a system that it knows to be toxic – the great irony of this is that most us came to understand this within UCT itself.

Decolonisation is not Transformation

It is as at this point that readers may be surprised that I agree with Hughes on a number of points: adding more black professors, black students and repainting the symbolic landscape of institutions is not in and of itself cause for celebration. This is indeed merely a superficial change in a context where we need to revisit the fundamentals. “Academic standards” should not be “lowered” as this is condescending and patronising – but learning outcomes and methods of testing still bear hallmarks of 19th century capitalistic industrialisation. New methods need to be assessed. The “ivory tower” needs to humble itself – the lofty white tower dismantled and used to construct a translucent stairway.

We ought to keep in mind that decolonising education cannot be relegated to the realm of “transformation” rhetoric and the empty numbers games of representation. It may perhaps start there but must extend much further and deeper in radically imaginative ways.

It is a fact that many decolonial academics and budding progressives are currently engaging in this discourse both locally and internationally. This process will not happen quickly, but the importance of this early stage of posing critical questions cannot be emphasised enough. One cannot responsibly propose a remedy when the full complexity of a sickness is not understood. It might be the case that the answers to these questions lie not in the ivory towers, but “on the ground”.

In either case the point of departure currently seems situated within our universities, and thus we find that our responsibility in sincerely engaging as Fallists in all realms of discourse is of utter importance. This cannot happen if we are being derailed by vestiges of old regimes: it is distracting, beside the point and currently only serves a purpose as sites of critique. We should be expecting more from our academics.

The present predicaments of Africa are often not a matter of personal choice: they arise from a historical situation. Their solutions are not so much a matter of personal decision as that of a fundamental social transformation of the structures of our societies starting with a real break with imperialism and its internal ruling allies. Imperialism and its comprador alliances in Africa can never develop the continent.” – Ng?g? wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature DM

Photo: Students burn art belonging to UCT. Photo: Ashleigh Furlong.