Opinionista Paddy O'Halloran 25 March 2015

Transformation: The people decide the struggle

On Tuesday, columnist Jeff Rudin wrote a piece in which in which he referred to student movements challenging lack of transformation at universities as “conservative”. Do not be fooled.

On Tuesday, students at Rhodes University were again locked out of the main administration building. They were protesting for the university to accommodate students who can neither afford the vacation residence fees nor the costs of returning home. The university Registrar casually used the words ‘silly’ and ‘game’ as he, backed up by campus security, refused to let them in. After some twenty minutes the students were allowed entry.

At both the University of Cape Town and at Rhodes University, students are demanding that institutional transformation, promised since 1994, is taken seriously. Students have taken the transformation of their universities into their own hands. Where university administrators have dawdled, students are taking the lead. Where colonial structures, symbols, and legacies are preserved, students demand new symbols and new legacies.

Yet Mr. Jeff Rudin, in his article of Tuesday, calls these student movements “conservative”. Conservative, it seems, because of Mr. Rudin’s misunderstanding of the nature of oppression. Let Mr. Rudin be reminded that indicting oppression is the prerogative of the oppressed.

Many South African students are making that indictment. Students are talking about the racial exclusion they experience daily at their universities, the racial division which mediates their lives. Yet Mr. Rudin accuses them of fomenting racial conflict. Students are asking that universities do not proudly wear symbols of that exclusion and division. Mr. Rudin and others call it “distraction”.

Mr. Rudin’s article is clear that Cecil Rhodes was a racist. Rhodes was a man, writes Rudin, whose “offspring are to be found in… the Mineral Energy Complex (MEC). It continues to dominate the political-economy of South Africa. It continues to rely on migrant labour and low wages for its still enormous profits”. Mr. Rudin is also correct to decry the corporatisation of South African universities, something else he chalks up to the “living legacy of Rhodes”.

But these two ugly truths are linked. They are linked in the lives of students who have spoken up over the last two weeks. The Black Student Movement at Rhodes University has stepped forward for disadvantaged and marginalised students. These are students whose lives are on the one hand dictated by an economy of poverty and exclusion and on the other by a university proudly bearing the name of the man whose life’s work was to perfect that economy.

There is no distraction here except in Mr. Rudin’s clean phrasing, moderate voice, and accurate portrayal of some of the major problems facing South Africa. Students are taking on those problems, and Mr. Rudin calls it racism and distraction. There is no distraction here except in Mr. Rudin’s long quote from Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Mr. Rudin chooses Fanon, we must surmise, because the students themselves have invoked Fanon. Or maybe it is because European liberals are suddenly out of favour, and Fanon’s name has become a handy code word to denote radical politics. Do not be fooled.

Mr. Rudin quotes Fanon at length on the “pitfalls of national consciousness”. But the students’ struggle, their consciousness, is not national at all. The students at UCT and at Rhodes are fighting colonialism: the continuing colonialism of the corporations and racist structures that Rudin so clearly describes. The students face a world “divided in two”, to use Fanon’s characterisation of the colonial world. At their universities, they experience a divided world in which they are not welcome. They have told us so.

Mr. Rudin has not learned anything from Fanon, although he quotes him. He warns us, from Fanon, against “the incapacity of the national middle class to rationalise popular action, that is to say their incapacity to see into the reasons for that action”.

Rudin speaks of the students and their “privileged needs”. At Rhodes University it is precisely the non-privileged students who first spoke up. He adds these student movements to the list of “never ending ‘service delivery’ protests”. He speaks of violence. He speaks of the “seething mass” that is the greater population of South Africa.

Mr. Rudin has succumbed. He cannot rationalise popular action. He cannot see the reasons for that action. Rhodes University Registrar Mr. Stephen Fourie took the same attitude on Tuesday when he asked protesting students, locked out of their own university, “Do you know what you are doing?”

They do know. We do not need to quote Fanon to remind ourselves that it is the people who decide the struggle. They make it and they carry it forward. DM

Jeff Rudin responds: 

“Yes, people do indeed decide the struggle. However, the expectation is that the activists will at all times remain open to comments by other people, foes as well as friends.

“What began as a far from clear protest against ‘white arrogance’ and then quickly became a protest against a relic of colonialism has now rapidly begun to address some of the broader issues outlined in my contribution. The statement by the United Front and more particular that by the UCT Workers’ Solidarity Committee (both attached) connect much more directly with the thrust of Fanon’s critique and of his call for the post-colonial leadership to move beyond their narrow ‘race’ interests to those of the broader society still left ‘wretched’ despite the formal independence bestowed on their nations.”

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