Defend Truth


The politics of those who inflict pain: A response to Seekings and Nattrass


Jared Sacks is founder of a children’s nonprofit organisation and a PhD candidate in the department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African studies at Columbia University.

On the 31 March, UCT professors Jeremy Seekings and Nicoli Nattrass wrote an opinion piece on what they called the 'politics of pain'. While they claim to support the recent challenge by the Rhodes Must Fall movement to the legacy of Cecil John Rhodes, they call for the statue to be placed in an on-campus museum rather than taken away and possibly destroyed. Their argument raises a number of issues that should be examined in more depth.

Seekings and Nattrass’ piece was aptly responded to by Xolela Mangcu, a fellow sociology professor at UCT. In contributing, I would like to add to the points raised by Dr Mangcu, as the critique could go further into the essence of political resistance against the established neo-colonial order.

In their piece, Seekings and Nattrass argue that removing the statue to a museum or gallery would have provided a powerful focus for interrogating all forms of privilege.

There is a valid argument to be made for preserving relics of colonial and apartheid era racism as teaching tools in the struggle against oppression. Indeed, there is precedence for this in the Apartheid Museum, the District Six Museum and on Robben Island – all of which preserve artefacts from state sanctioned racism and oppression to ensure that we never forget the atrocities of the past. This is especially important because we are able to use such education to link to the various ways in which there has been a continuity of oppression into the post-1994 era.

Yet the approach that Seekings and Nattrass take in making their argument for the preservation of the UCT statue dedicated to Rhodes demonstrates something much more problematic.

Many years ago Seekings wrote a history of the United Democratic Front that elides grassroots participation in favour of a formalistic and elitist reading of a grassroots rebellion. Specifically, it ignores the core of what constituted UDF’s power as a social movement: local level organising.

In their recent argument about the Rhodes Must Fall movement, Seekings and Nattrass take a particularly dismissive approach to popular struggle, to the views of black students (some of whom they teach in class), and to this inspiring rebellion against neo-colonial authority. Their intervention is an open expression of contempt for democracy.

But Seekings and Nattrass present their critique as if it were motivated by democratic concerns. They claim the students themselves are operating against the basic tenets of democracy. They claim the students are using their pain to hold the university hostage. They even claim this movement have through “the Manichean politics of pain foreclosed the kind of debate and deliberation that might have allowed more serious consideration of this [museum] option.” And they say nothing at all about the silencing of black pain that was enforced before the emergence of the new student struggle and continues to be given lip-service by the university.

Seekings and Nattrass use the recent massive University Assembly held on the 25th of March as a prime example of what they present as intolerance. And yet the assembly was nothing but an assertion by students of their right to direct their own education and not have it dictated to by an out-of-touch, and in some cases racist, university bureaucracy. Their so-called ‘hijacking’ of the assembly was an insurgent assertion of their presence and rights in the sort of space that has long been manipulated by university administrators. These political operators are not interested in listening to the students but merely attempting to use such platforms to co-opt and placate them.

How are the students’ actions, then, anything but an assertion of popular democracy in the face of intransient and structural authoritarianism?

In fact, the only reason this ‘discussion’ is even taking place is because of the very actions being taken by black students and faculty who are fed up with a top-down administration and mediocre white-dominated senate and faculty who have, for years, been resorting to a bureaucratic anti-politics of technicalities to silence them.

In other words the students are doing a much better job educating us about the legacy of Rhodes than the majority of the UCT professoriate ever did or any museum ever could.

Seekings and Nattrass are, in their call for rational debate, describing as irrational forms of deliberation not managed by the establishment. This conforms to a basic colonial trope in which reason is the unique preserve of whiteness articulated through constituted forms of authority. In this racist colonial tradition, blackness is incompatible with both reason and democracy.

In essence, therefore, they are acting in service of the reification of the authoritarian power of the university as a neocolonial and paternalistic institution.

The rest of their argument merely serves to divert the readers’ attention away from the issue of transformation. For instance, their assertion that black students at UCT are privileged in relation to the rest of the black population is neither here nor there.

Of course this statement is true and no one is denying it. But judging by these students’ demands (see their comprehensive mission statement) to end outsourcing, to pay workers decent wages and to open the university to more poor black students, it is evident that the Rhodes Must Fall movement is acutely aware of their relative privilege.

It is clear, therefore, that Seekings and Nattrass have not bothered to engage with the student movement, never mind read their documents and comprehend what they have to say. If their call to engage with all forms of oppression were based on an open engagement with the evidence, it is inconceivable that they could make such a presumption about the movement.

Seekings and Nattrass, acting from a position of real power, both at the university and in society in general, believe it is their place to educate struggling black students about their relative privilege in relation to other blacks. This is grossly patronising.

Perhaps it is time that these two prominent professors take a trip down to Azania House – a space much more dynamic and educational than any museum I have ever encountered.

If they do, they will realise that, at this alternative university that has been founded in the ashes of the Vice Chancellor’s ivory tower, the students are the professors of their own pain and suffering. They have much to teach all of us about what a real education looks like. DM


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