On Friday 28 August the Black Student Movement (BSM) at the institution still known as Rhodes University reached a watershed moment in its short history. University management called armed police officers – with dog units – to confront students who wished to address the University senate on accommodation during the short vacations. There was an overwhelming sense of fierceness among the police, dog units and university campus protection.
Students are angry, and rightly so. What drives a university to treat its most vulnerable students in this manner? Who is permitted to shape and access our institutions of tertiary learning? Who is legitimately there and who should just be ‘grateful’ for the opportunity to be ‘educated’ there?
At the institution known as Rhodes there is an implicit assumption that the white middle class acts as the custodian of the university while black people, poor and working class people, queer people, etc, are tolerated as guests. The BSM has been continuously challenging this assumption. At the heart of the BSM’s outlook is an insistence that the university must locate itself in the realities of contemporary South Africa; that the student imagined by the institution must be the (South) African student. This has translated to – amongst other things – a rejection of the colonial name, the Eurocentric curriculum and the financial exclusion of students from residences during short vacations.
Because the goals of the BSM are rooted in an ethical imperative they have been widely accepted. Its detractors have, however, been very concerned with the ‘way of doing things’. From the naming of the movement to the use of public protests and occupations, the custodians of the status quo have insisted “there is no need to disrupt anything if you wish to be heard”. In short: there is a ‘right’ way of doing things and the BSM is not expressing itself appropriately.
This liberal conception of politics assumes, at its heart, that all voices are heard equally. It assumes that those who exist in the peripheries of this institution – and our society – can simply get together, sign a petition and have their grievances addressed. This idea of politics imposes a ‘methodology’ of participation. It assumes that those who are protesting are asking to be integrated into the system that currently excludes them. This is not the mandate of the BSM.
During a meeting last week the vice-chancellor invoked Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness to absolve the administration from its responsibilities. He argued that students ought to exercise their own agency to deal with the problems they face. This response led to the BSM’s ongoing occupation of strategic university spaces. The vice-chancellor, who has in many instances acted as a foil to Biko rather than an advocate of his ideas, was invoking the ideas of an emancipatory theorist to stifle a movement for emancipation.
Biko, Frantz Fanon, Audre Lorde, bell hooks and Malcolm X have been some of the central figures in the proliferation of student movements throughout 2015. These thinkers and activists all advocate for an emancipatory politics; a politics of actively creating a better world. They provide us with some tools for challenging the status quo and creating an alternative society which is not exclusionary. They emphasise the value of disruption and emotion in bringing about change. Their ideas are suitable for a movement. Invoking these thinkers and their ideas with the intention of maintaining the status quo or postponing emancipatory action constitutes a tragic bastardisation.
It is actional politics which informs the Black Student Movement. The movement is concerned with actually going somewhere. In fact, the movement positions itself as diametrically opposed to the passively liberal politics which is rife in formerly white universities across the country; the politics which stifles true liberation from our colonial shackles via appeals to the ‘right way of doing things’. We are mindful that 20 years of working ‘through the correct channels’ has failed to change our universities. At the university currently known as Rhodes it is clear that, in fact, the official structures function, including those putatively dedicated to ‘transformation’, to reinscribe white domination.
The BSM is not interested in the ‘right’ way of doing things. The ‘right way of doing things’ is only useful for people who wish to integrate those on the peripheries into the centre. It is of no use to those who wish to eradicate the very categories of ‘periphery’ and ‘centre’. Most fundamentally: a movement which seeks to move society away from an oppressive status quo and towards an emancipated future, cannot adopt the liberal ‘methodology’ of participation in oppressive structures. Lorde poetically pointed out that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. The moment the custodians of the status quo approve of the BSM’s way of doing things it will be perpetuating that which it seeks to resist.
The BSM must continue occupying, protesting and disrupting. It must challenge the status quo – and its custodians. The means to attain the South Africa of tomorrow cannot rely on the approval of the beneficiaries of the South Africa of today. DM