Opinionista Helen Zille 27 August 2018

From the inside: A Tale of Two Meetings

Two meetings at Stellenbosch University this week gave a rare peek into campus dynamics at many of South Africa’s top tertiary institutions.

The meetings took place simultaneously, on the evening of Wednesday 22 August 2018, in venues a few hundred metres apart.

One was organised by the South African Students Congress (Sasco), in collaboration with the official transformation office of Stellenbosch University.

The other was convened by the house committee of the Dagbreek residence, home to 380 male students on the campus.

These meetings, and their purpose, deserve a passing mention because, looking back in (say) 10 years’ time, it will be interesting to assess which one was ahead of its time in shaping the world view of the young people who, by then, will have emerged among the country’s thought leaders in a variety of fields.

The first meeting, titled “Acknowledging Womxn Voices in Leadership”, offered a platform for Minister in the Presidency, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, to round off what the university transformation office calls “Womxn’s Month”. (The spelling deliberately seeks to ensure no “man” or “men” penetrates a word describing the bearer of two X chromosomes.)

To encourage the entire university to adopt such verbal virtue, the transformation office has published a booklet called Talking Transformation that purports to help cleanse the Academy of any word or phrase that might give unanticipated offence to anyone who is not a white, heterosexual male.

Which brings me to Dagbreek. It is safe to assume that a fair number of its residents are white, heterosexual males. It is also safe to presume, on the basis of the sample I met, that most would not wish to give offence to anyone, and would be entirely receptive to being told why describing women as “chicks” (for example) is demeaning and belittling.

But the Dagbreek student affairs committee also realises that Talking Transformation is not actually about avoiding gratuitous offence. It is, in fact, a thinly disguised imposition of the latest iteration of Marxist dogma, emanating from sociology departments on some American campuses, replete with its own jargon. The University’s “transformation office” has faithfully reproduced a campus “guide” on the appropriate use of this language throughout the institution.

The ideology behind it, broadly defined as “Identity Politics”, takes Marxist analysis a step beyond the concept of “class struggle” as the motor of history. It adds additional sources of oppression, particularly gender, sexuality and race (and various combinations of these). It offers yet another version of the simplistic “Four-Legs-Good-Two-Legs-Bad” approach to reality. The “oppressor” is, by definition, the white, heterosexual male (unless he retreats into self-flagellating, guilt-ridden silence).

After being confronted by the ideas described in Talking Transformation, Tian Alberts, a member of the Dagbreek House Committee, rejected the notion that an entire category of people could simply be assumed guilty of a range of repressive attributes, on the basis of what they are. Instead, he argued, people have the right to be evaluated in terms of who they are – which is much more than the sum of their immutable biological parts. It would be a fatal blow for the freedom supposedly guaranteed by our Constitution if society accepted the assumed “right” of a self-appointed correctness-collective to impose identities on individuals in order to determine their value and role in society.

So he broke the first rule of identity politics and dared to “speak while white”. Not only speak, but write. And not only “while white”, but “while male”!

The result is a booklet called InkululekoTalking Freedom.

I had the honour of being invited, in my capacity as premier, to speak at its launch. Waiting for the event to start, I expressed the naïve assumption that the Transformation Office would also have funded the publication of Talking Freedom – just as they did for Talking Transformation. No, answered Alberts. When he approached them for funding, they said they were no longer printing booklets. Undeterred, the Dagbreek residents generated their own funds, and covered the costs of both the printing and the launch. They are now negotiating with other structures in the university for assistance.

In contrast, the transformation office “collaborated” with Sasco (which I presume included funding) to support Dlamini Zuma’s “Womxn in Leadership” speech, including catering and pre-event advertising in the bold trademark ANC colours of black, green and gold.

Sasco describes itself as a student organisation that “seeks to ensure the destruction of capitalist relations of production and the ushering of a socialist society” by “striving for the transformation of not just institutions of higher learning but the whole system in order to achieve a non-sexist, non-racial, working-class biased and democratic education system”.

We should recall that Dlamini Zuma, their guest speaker, was the Gupta’s chosen candidate to succeed her former husband Jacob as president, in order to extend their project of state capture and wholesale looting of public funds indefinitely into the future. Her campaign was allegedly funded by the proceeds of crime, and its central promise was the replacement of “white monopoly capital” by “radical economic transformation” under centralised state control.

It makes complete sense that Sasco and the university’s transformation office collaborated to bring her to the campus as a champion of transformation. They couldn’t care less who she is, or what moral choices she has made. They care only about what she is: a black womxn. As long as those two boxes are ticked, she has the inherent, unearned right to occupy the moral high ground in the struggle against oppression.

I do not know what Dlamini Zuma actually said at her meeting on Wednesday, and I am genuinely interested to find out in what way it contributed to the debate on transformation, both at Stellenbosch and in our broader society.

For my part, I took the cue for my speech from the booklet I was launching. I said it was tragic that South Africa had moved from one system of hegemony (apartheid) to another, potentially equally virulent version of identity politics. There was nothing progressive or transformative about it.

On the contrary. Listening to the new authoritarian generation of race-gender-sexuality-warriors (defined, in the jargon as “intersectionality”), one would be excused for believing that they had missed a very significant development. They seem not to have noticed that, in 1996, South Africans adopted a Constitution that promised a very different society.

Real transformation requires realising the promise an of open society based on individual freedom, under the rule of law, where people can discover and determine their own identity (including their sexuality), and enjoy the right, the opportunity and the means to live lives they value. The state’s role is to advance and protect these rights and freedoms – including (and some would even say especially) the foundational freedom of speech and opinion.

But somehow, despite the watershed of our Constitution, there are significant sections of society (particularly on university campuses) who seek to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Having won the constitutional war, we are carelessly losing one battle after another, as opponents of freedom seize the moral high ground, capture the state, and render most state institutions incapable of fulfilling their core functions.

After decades of struggle, many good and true people have capitulated to the new version of hegemonic politics without a murmur. But not the Dagbreek student affairs committee.

It is people like them, who refuse to be banished to the “Republic of Silence”, who should keep us optimistic about South Africa’s future. They have the guts, despite the difficulties, to use the freedom the Constitution guarantees them.

It is particularly encouraging that they have not retreated into an “equal-and-opposite” mode of Caucasian cohesion, or white identity politics. They are determined to evaluate each person in terms of who they are, the content of their character, not the colour of the skin or the combination of their chromosomes.

As Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King, famously said: “Freedom is never finally won. It has to be fought for, and won again, in every generation.”

The vanguard of this battle cannot be found in “transformation offices” as many might assume. Real progressives are found in the most unlikely places. And it was a pleasant surprise to discover that the student affairs committee of the Dagbreek residence at Stellenbosch University is one of them. DM

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