The politics of the past 18 months were symbolised in a fleeting television image at the height of the Fallist shutdown at Wits university last year.
The camera panned across hundreds of students toyi-toying and waving placards on the campus plaza in demand of free, “decolonised” education.
A lone student wandered into the crowd holding up a hastily scribbled poster calling for lectures to resume.
Within seconds he was set-upon, and his poster ripped to shreds. What happened to him next is a matter of conjecture as the camera panned away. But it is a matter of record that students who dared to disagree with the #Fallists were assaulted on several campuses.
At the height of the protests, Professor Adam Habib, Wits’s Vice-Chancellor, held an opinion poll to gauge student opinion on whether the university should re-open. In what amounted to a secret ballot, 77% of respondents agreed with the lone voice among the plaza protesters. The vast majority of students wanted the university to reopen. They were prepared to say so, but only under cover of anonymity.
This gives new meaning to the concept of the “silent majority”, a phrase that usually refers to people who aren’t sufficiently interested or affected to get involved in public debates. In South Africa it has come to mean those who are bludgeoned into silence, literally and metaphorically, by self-proclaimed revolutionary leaders who are no longer interested in mere “transformation”, but demand “decolonisation” by means of racial violence, as proposed by their intellectual guru, Frantz Fanon.
It makes no impact on them to invoke the legacy of Nelson Mandela or our Bill of Rights. This minority has established a toxic culture of racial invective and bullying on many South African campuses entirely at odds with the ethos of a university and our Constitution.
At UCT, the abiding image that defined the Fallist movement was the infamous video in which a student condemned science as a “product of Western modernity” that should be “scrapped” and started again from an African perspective.
The most revealing moment in this video was the silencing of the one participant who dared to disagree. The lone dissident was told by the authoritarian chair that he was in a “progressive” space, where there was no room for an alternative opinion.
It is incidents like these that have led UCT Philosophy Professor, David Benatar, to conclude: “The broad pathology affecting (and infecting) the campus is that of self-proclaimed ‘progressives’ who are anything but that. Instead they are deeply intolerant, closed-minded and unprincipled ideologues for whom particular conclusions and agendas come first, and then ‘arguments’ and ‘evidence’ are invoked selectively to support their preconceptions.”
In other words, they represent the very antithesis of open enquiry.
Hannah Arendt, a political theorist renowned for her analysis of the origins of totalitarianism, has observed that the tipping point in a society comes when it no longer matters whether something is true or not, only whether it is useful to those in control. “The ideal subject for totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction no longer matters.”
Re-reading Arendt in the context of what is happening in SA today has made me reflect on my hitherto optimistic analysis of South Africa’s complex transition towards a consolidated democracy.
It is the growing disdain for the truth that is central to the pervasive “race shaming” that has become the primary tool of South Africa’s emerging totalitarians, who drive their distortions and deceits, especially on what Benatar accurately describes as (un)social media.
Race-shaming is used even more viciously against black South Africans than whites, if they refuse to toe the line of the prevailing orthodoxy. Rational debate is replaced by race-shaming insults such as “porch negro”, “inauthentic black” and “traitor”. The discourse specifically aims to isolate individuals, because this causes the most pain and humiliation, and serves as a warning to others who dare to deviate from Fanon’s canon.
The same applies to whites, if they do not accept that their assumed “privilege” precludes them from expressing an opinion. Daring to differ is merely interpreted as proof of their “whiteness”.
This is such a risk to the future of our democracy that I have started writing a book to expose the brutal disregard for truth that characterises race-shaming.
Recently, I visited UCT to conduct an interview for my book.
While there, I learnt that the SRC election, held over three days, was drawing to a close. On further enquiry, I heard that there was not a single candidate representing the Democratic Alliance Students Organisation (DASO) on the ballot.
How could this possibly be? Less than three years ago, the DASO won an overall majority in the SRC election. This time they did not field a single candidate, leaving the race open to students broadly clustered around the Fanonist philosophy of “Fallism”.
How had it come to this? A few conversations later, I got the answer. Last year’s SRC election, scheduled for September, was postponed because a number of candidates were trying to shut down the campus through violent means, demanding free, “decolonised” education. Masixole Mlandu, one of the ringleaders, was arrested, criminally charged (for his activities on two different campuses), and expelled from UCT. The police said they had a strong case against him, and that eye-witnesses were prepared to testify.
And then the university administration surrendered to the Fallists’ demands to withdraw the charges, re-admit Mlandu and other expelled students, and reward their tactics by negotiating a transformation process with them, to the exclusion of other student formations.
This effectively validated the Fallists’ use of violence, intimidation and race-shaming to dictate the terms of engagement with the administration, and made it extremely difficult for others, including DASO, to raise their voices. In this context it became almost impossible for students advocating non-racialism and the rule of law to put their heads above the parapet, let alone stand as candidates in an SRC election.
A core group of courageous DASO activists (of all races) have nevertheless remained committed and are regrouping to encourage and empower their supporters to stand up and be counted again, at the next SRC election, scheduled for September. The DASO group draws courage from the fact that last week’s election did not produce a legitimate result, because the percentage poll did not meet the required 25% threshold. The vast majority of students simply stayed away from the polls. Those elected will constitute an “interim SRC”.
Can this be reversed? We cannot assume so. Looking at last week’s results (EFF students 6 seats; Pan-Africanist Student Movement 5; SASCO 1; “Independents” 3) it seems almost inevitable that Mlandu, who polled the second highest number of votes on a PASMA ticket, will play a very prominent role in university affairs in the year ahead. If the university administration genuflected before him when he could claim no representivity at all, how will they respond to him now?
And having grabbed the power he sought, combining violent and electoral means, he will undoubtedly seek to implement the commitments announced on his Facebook page towards the end of last year:
“We will usher into this country an attitude of black rage, black liberation, an attitude that threatened the foundation of whiteness” (September 28). “Revolution is the answer to our problem. … We must live up to our historical task … to change society from bottom up with no compromise. Viva the spirit of revolution that is yearning on our hearts” (October 1). (Jeremy Seekings, DM 12 December 2016).
Having succeeded in driving most other challengers out of the ring, he is unlikely to allow them back without a fight. He scoffs at democracy. Will he be able to keep the majority “silent” through threats of violence and race-shaming?
I fear the university in general and DASO in particular are about to learn a bitter lesson: once the democratic space has been ceded to Fanonistas, it is difficult to win it back.
Any challenger will need a backbone of steel, at a time when backbones of any description (at least in the administration) seem to be in short supply. Helen Suzman would have pitied the poor shiver searching the Bremner Building for a spine to run up.
Which effectively leaves it to DASO. Will they have what it takes to stand up to the fascist tactics that have become embedded at universities throughout the country?
This question has relevance far beyond our campuses.
For the next decade at least, DASO’s role will be pivotal to the course of South Africa’s democracy. All citizens who wish to defend the hard-won gains of our Constitution need to find their voices to support these brave students in their critical mission. DM