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Open letter to Barney Pityana on the Rhodes Must Fall Movement

Leigh-Ann Naidoo is currently a PHD student in the School of Education at Wits University. Her work is on the role of education in building political movements and her masters focused on the formation of the black consciousness movement and it's relation to education. She is currently looking at questions related to the formation of black intellectuals. She is a co-convener of the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism ( and was previously an Olympic beach volleyball player.

How is it possible that Professor Pityana, as a founder of the South African Students Organisation (SASO), which developed into the BCM that inspired so many South Africans – and now in a position of some power and privilege as the president of UCT’s convocation – can remain silent on the burning issues that are beginning the writing of a new history of resistance to an inadequate education, and more broadly the oppressions that continue to afflict South Africa?

Dear Professor Barney Pityana,

Allow me to introduce myself to you. I was born in 1976, the year that South African youth and students rose up resisting Bantu education and its colonising curriculum. Raised by parents who were committed to Black Consciousness, to non-racialism and to the fight against Bantu education, the questions about how to decolonise education are questions that made me. My teacher father sent me to the local primary and high schools on the Cape Flats where I grew up. My home was a place from which colonial and capitalist education was constantly questioned. In the 1980s, my mother worked with Neville Alexander at the South African Committee on Higher Education (SACHED) and from 1997 she administered Alexander’s Project for Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA). Committed to another kind of intellectual project from what I saw celebrated at UCT – white, liberal, privilege – I chose to attend the University of the Western Cape (UWC) to study to become a teacher and to complete my Higher Diploma in Education at UWC instead of access the 100% rebate my mother’s status as University of Cape Town (UCT) staff enabled. I did not want to move closer to the admired mountain and UCT.

Some years later I found myself as a project administrator at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) working with the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism. Through the administration of this project and my interaction with the conversation of academic colleagues, I began to engage in more structured ways with critical intellectual work from the ‘Global South’. Out of this experience, and supported partly by a staff rebate and the Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) policy, I decided to return to do a Masters degree in Education at Wits. This is when my history intersected with yours. Because of the recent re-emergence of the black conscious (BC) philosophy, as well as questions that remained with me from my youth about the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), I decided that my Masters research should look at the role of pedagogy in the BCM in the 1960s and 1970s in South Africa. You are present in that archive, where your story unfolds as an activist in resisting Apartheid education.

I have been following the many writings on the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) movement and have just read UCT management’s demand for the movement to end their occupation of the University’s administration Bremner Building, (renamed Azania House by the movement). I am wondering how it is possible that you, a founder of the South African Students Organisation (SASO), which developed into the BCM that inspired so many South Africans, now in a position of some power and privilege as the president of UCT’s convocation, can remain silent on the burning issues that are beginning the writing of a new history of resistance to an inadequate education, and more broadly the oppressions that continue to afflict South Africa. I spent many months immersed in the SASO and BCM archives engaging the question of the importance of education in transforming society and the specific role of the project of conscientisation, through not only education, but connecting the university to the broader issues of society or social consciousness. This is an archive of revolutionary history that you were part of living and writing. I cannot reconcile your earlier work with what the university is doing during your tenure as president of the convocation.

For better or worse, Max Price’s intersecting privileges explain his inability to grasp this moment, but the Barney Pityana that I see in that archive knows from back then that white liberals seldom understand the reality of black lives. That Barney Pityana knows that BC is necessary because White Supremacy needs the antithesis of Black Consciousness before it can be transcended as non-racialism. The RMF movement takes seriously BC and Biko and are reading Fanon and Freire, Cabral, Nkrumah, Sankara… all the things you guys were reading and debating then. They have what SASO called formation schools in the form of The Azania House public evening seminar programmes, open to anyone willing to engage and think through a new way of fighting oppressive white supremacy, which remains largely intact in SA and especially Cape Town. I wonder if the you of today connects with what they are doing? Have you met with the students in this movement? Do you know their story in their own words?

Biko, yourself and other BCM leaders engaged with older struggle activists who didn’t try and tell you how to struggle, but who encouraged you, even as you understood that you had the kind of consciousness needed to lead the movement. Yet so many BC stalwarts (yourself included) seem unable to accept the validity of this current movement. I know why Max Price isn’t that kind of person with that kind of ability, but why are you not distinguishable from him? Maybe you can’t hear that the institutions and procedures at UCT seek to silence and keep in check black students and staff and workers? Maybe you feel similarly silenced and are yet to speak out? Are you feeling like you are part of the institution and therefore need to be loyal to its procedures and principles, even as black students, staff and workers have shouted about how they cannot breathe, let alone speak up at UCT without being labelled monkeys (on the UCT management discussion boards), savages (by someone at the convocation meeting), radical splinter groups (in the UCT management’s communication to the RMF movements and email correspondence to staff)? And if the more progressive, radical Barney Pityana does not feel silenced, how are you engaging?

If you would show solidarity and engage from the vantage point of being willing to listen and learn rather than knowing better than them, then you would be able to start seeing the amazingness of these young students – mostly undergraduates and honours students. They don’t have all the answers as they grapple with competing oppressions and urgent issues. They are working with concepts like ‘intersectionality’ that bring in to focus the multiple oppressions that occur in addition to the race/class lenses of the past. The movement and its public or popular education programme has created a space that has allowed for people with varying privileges and their corresponding blind spots, to be part of the conversation. This is radical dialogue, which I believe formed part of the legacy with which BC has left us.

Biko and you would be impressed by the black female voices and black transsexual voices in the conversation. But you don’t have access to any of this because you choose to stand outside of the movement and last we heard from you, you were challenging Prof Pumla Gqola, who has been writing and thinking about radical BC, because you believed somehow that the idea of removing the statue was not well or deep enough thought through. Pumla has come to speak and listen at Azania House, why haven’t you? Is it perhaps because it may make your boardroom meetings with the powerful untenable? Or is it that you have been contorted by privilege and comfort? I am asking because I truly don’t know and would like to understand how so many of the people who fought and sacrificed to fight Apartheid and all its oppressions can stand by silently now and ignore the fact that while things have changed, a lot has morphed into something worse. Poverty and inequality under the ANC’s watch is getting worse, and there has been a rampant entrenchment of white privilege, even under a black government.

When I read the SASO archive I was astonished at the level of engagement and thinking that you and SASO showed at such a young age and in a time where radical literature was hard to come by and movement was restricted. I thought you were exceptional young people. Now I am starting to understand that you were not simply exceptional. You were responding bravely to a context that was untenable and you therefore committed to creating a space to find your voice by centreing black experience and black pain, and then building solidarity from there. I am seeing similar things happening at Azania House now. Young students thinking and acting beyond their years and in spite of their class aspiration. It was Biko himself who said that students are a ‘wishy-washy group’ until they find themselves in a context that wakes them up. I am sure you have heard or read this already, but let Biko remind you of the significance of the BCM originating in a student movement in this excerpt from his court testimony:

Judge: Do you see any significance in the fact that the Black Consciousness movement originated in a student movement rather than some other sort of movement?

Biko: Yes. I think there is a lot of significance. 

Judge: Yes, could you expand on that?

Biko: I think it is similar in many instances to the redevelopment of many philosophies. They either start with the so-called intellectual class within a society, or alternatively where this is not a strong section of a society they start within the student world. I think liberalism for instance as a concrete philosophy started within the intellectual class in Britain especially, I think the doctrine of Marxism if you look at it, started within an intellectual class in the German universities, and so it goes with most philosophies. Now in our given society we do not have an unlimited number of so-called intellectuals within the Black situation, and certainly those who are there often are embroiled in the whole problem of existence, so we do not have researchers, we do not have people with free time to look at problems of the Black people and to evolve ways and means of cutting out our problems. But on the campus you do get a little bit of free thinking and experimentation, and this is why Black Consciousness evolved from there.

Judge: Would you agree with me that students generally speaking are the most easily and effectively mobilised group in a society?

Biko: I think in most self-sufficient societies students can be, you know, a pretty wishy-washy group, but I think students in this kind of context see themselves as playing a very serious role in the evolution of a way out of the morass in which we are right now.[1]

The morass is now. That context is now. You form part of the privileged and powerful at UCT. These students are playing a very serious role in redeveloping relevant philosophies and figuring out a decolonised consciousness. If we take seriously the point Biko makes about time and space to allow free thinking, then we should guard Azania House and the platform and space it provides for students, staff, workers and the broader public to engage the question of what is a decolonised university and society. The academic project at UCT has not allowed for the sufficient answering of that question. Why would the university management of which you are a part want to shut down the incubator for real change? The RMF movement has made compelling arguments about how transformation has been an appendage to university business and how Max Price can no longer be trusted to steward real change. And he and the management team continue to provide more and more examples of this inability by missing the opportunity to learn of different approaches to tackling the lack of transformation from the very people who you believe are its beneficiaries.

If the university continues with its eviction of the RMF movement occupiers, it has to understand that it is banishing the ONLY space at UCT where black staff, students, workers, and allies have felt safe and able to speak to the real issues of transformation and the lack thereof. It is the ONLY space where arrogant white people have been told to take account of their privilege, where black men have been told to account for their patriarchal privilege, where heterosexuals have been told to account for their homophobia, and where issues of poverty and class have been raised in a complex and intersectional way. The country and many parts of the world is watching as students rise up at Rhodes University, Wits, University of Kwazulu-Natal, and in places as far as Montreal, Amsterdam, the United States of America, England, Brazil, and importantly, UCT.

Don’t stand by and watch these students and their message and action be criminalised. They are speaking truth to power as you once did. And you know what it feels like to be served with legal papers, bannings, trials, and police harassment. Perhaps Max Price will go to sleep at night feeling accomplished to have contained and shut down the possibility for real change driven by brave black staff, students, workers and alumni. But will you?

Yours in continued struggle,

Leigh-Ann Naidoo

Phd Student, Education, Wits University DM


[1] Biko Testimony, Collection, Name and Index: – State vs. Cooper and 8 Others, AD1719, Volume 81, pg 5 and 6 of 31, Historical Papers, Digitised Collections, University of the Witwatersrand.


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