Defend Truth


The Maftown Book Club and the day my prejudices were unexpectedly waylaid


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

Three texts helped to form the intellectual backbone of the #FeesMustFall movement. These are the writings of Steve Bantu Biko (I write what I like), Frantz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth) and works by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Mahmood Mamdani, Nelson Maldonado-Torres, among others, on decoloniality.

It was practically a year ago when I bumped into two of my long-lost comrades in Durban attending a Pan African Literary conference in 2019. They immediately seized the opportunity to corner me and invite me to speak at their book club in Mafikeng, hence the name, Maftown Book Club.

How could I refuse… they seemed so very enthusiastic and most organised, since they were planning the event months in advance. I assured both Sello Tatai and Laurence Modimokwane that I would honour the engagement, but what book would they like me to talk about? They could not as yet tell me, but they assured me I would be notified closer to the time.

Then came January 2020, six months after our first conversation, and I had clean forgotten about the commitment I had made to my dear friends but they, of course, had not. I received correspondence via mail that I was requested to please review Parcel of Death – the biography of Onkgopotse Abram Tiro and that the concomitant theme I was expected to address would be “From Tiro to Fallist Student Activism in Pre & Post Democratic South Africa”. How fascinating, I thought, not only does the book club review a book but they encourage the keynote speaker to reflect on an associated theme. I was up for the challenge and had to report to Mafikeng the following week on a Thursday at 5pm. They assured me that they had booked me into a Protea hotel so that I did not have to drive back that same evening. All seemed good. 

I prepared my seven-page input reflecting on both the life and times of Tiro and of course my impressions and insights on the #FeesMustFall movement. I finished a few tasks at my office on the said Thursday and made sure to hit the road at exactly 1pm, since it was a three-and-a-half-hour journey to Mafikeng. I took the opportunity and time to listen to my newest audiobook, HEROES – Mortals and Monsters, Quests and Adventures by Stephen Fry as the time faded away on the road.

I eventually got to my hotel room and settled in. A last-minute check of my notes and the post-its in my copy of the book and we’re all set. Sello arrived a few minutes later and asked whether I had had a bite to eat because we could also eat at the venue where the book club meets, he assured me. I indicated that it would be fine and he insisted we take his car. After about five minutes from the hotel, we turned into a shebeen in the same suburb as the hotel. It was an open-plan beer hall with a few patrons enjoying their Thursday afternoon. I soon realised after meeting the author of the book, Gaongalelwe Tiro (nephew to Tiro) and the Headmaster of the Tiro Farm School in the area, that in fact, the beer hall is the venue where we will be engaging in intellectual discussions. My heart sank… did I just agree to drive all this way, prepare my well-crafted speech, to come and engage with a few people of questionable sobriety? Please tell me this is not happening.

I kept quiet and decided to simply go with the flow. ChesaNyama was ordered for me and to my surprise, my preferred alcoholic beverage accompanied my food. Glenfiddich 12-year-old single malt. How very considerate of the comrades, I thought. Once I had finished my most delicious meal, I noticed that the beer hall was filling up with all sorts of patrons who surprisingly had copies of the said book under discussion tonight. In the end, by the time the facilitator took to the podium (a makeshift structure), the music had died down and a sense of seriousness befell the place, with almost 100 people in attendance. 

Proceedings were to be recorded by the local radio station, Mafikeng Radio, and so the necessary sound checks were done. I observed that some took out notepads while others were perusing the book chapters and making some notes. Our facilitator was a certain Doctor Sandile Fuku, a biochemist with a doctoral degree from the University of the Free State and currently a lecturer at North-West University. After briefly introducing me and the author, we started engaging with the book.  

The author told the audience about the book and what made him write it after all these years and the fact that he wanted people to know the Tiro story. After all, he was one of the first liberation cadres who was assassinated with a parcel bomb while in exile in Botswana in 1974. It was also apt that the organisers had requested me to do this review because I too share an alma mater with Tiro. We both attended the University of the North, affectionately known as Turfloop and lately called the University of Limpopo.

Once I observed the seriousness of the accession and overcame my prejudices about the choice of venue, I started with a quote from the former president, Thabo Mbeki, in which he says, 

“Modern political science recognises the fact that social systems are founded on definite historical origins. If the saying ‘out of nothing nothing comes’ is true, then it must follow that the future is formed and derives its first impulse in the womb of the present.”

I could see the attentiveness of most in attendance. Mbeki continues, I say, 

“All societies therefore necessarily bear the imprint, the birthmarks of their own past. Whether to a greater or lesser extent must depend on a whole concatenation of factors, both internal and external to each particular society.”

Pens now furiously writing and in some cases highlighters to extenuate certain points. 

“In this way, the relative is credited with the features of the absolute. Each society is thus presented as unique, its birth and development products of accidental collisions and inter-connections and therefore incapable of scientific prediction and cognition. We consider that this position constitutes a dereliction of intellectual duty. Those of us who claim to be revolutionaries obviously cannot proceed in this manner. Indeed, we must resist all attempts to persuade us that our future lies in the hands of an ungovernable fate. All this becomes attainable if we have succeeded to discover the regularities of social development, if we have studied our own society critically and in-depth to discover the interconnections, the dynamic links that knit together and give direction to what might at first appear to be a chaos of facts, incidents and personalities thrown up by this particular society. For, to repeat, out of nothing, nothing comes. But again, a penetrating understanding of our country today requires also that we look at its past,” Mbeki concludes. 

I deliberately chose this reference point since the Fallists often argue that they do not want to be reminded of past lived experiences of former student activists at institutions of higher learning and often want to locate their current struggle in some sort of silo, devoid of all other external historical factors. And so, by looking at which lesson we can learn from the period of Tiro leading up to his death, we may be able to discern some valuable pointers for our struggles hitherto.

I then proceeded to tell them of my experience of Turfloop and how I think Tiro must have felt during his days on campus. A quote from the book seemed rather apt, “Thrust into a political vortex – revolutions are brought about by men, by men who think as men of actions and act as men of thought.” (Kwame Nkrumah)

I informed them that when I first arrived at Turfloop exactly 20 years after Tiro had been in those hallowed halls, I was struck by the level of mature political thought there was. Mike Koyana, David Makhura, Arthur Moloto, George Mashamba, Gesla Nkondo, and Njabulo Ndebele were but a few of the intellectual reservoir I found there in 1992.

Situated about 30km outside Polokwane, there was never any doubt that this university was a site of struggle. My political education, Marxist ideological thought including my physical paramilitary training have shaped my consciousness to this day. A true university of political life. What followed over the next three years, as we edged ever closer towards our first democratic election ever, has been hailed as nothing short of miraculous. Negotiations on the one hand, so-called black on black violence on the other, training nationwide around issues of negotiations and what it means as well as how to vote, all in one period. It was chaotic, to say the least. Those were formative years for me and my political development. I would not trade it for the world. I can only imagine the Turfloop experience must have been similar for Onkgopotse Tiro.

The ANC had just come out of a period of awakening, following the 1969 Morogoro Conference. For almost 9 years the ANC was in limbo from 1960 (banning) to 1969, not knowing how to proceed with the National Democratic Revolution. Leadership battles plagued the movement leading to the resignation of OR Tambo and there was generally a sense of disillusionment amongst the MK soldiers in the camps.

This is when Tiro arrives at Turfloop (1969) at this juncture and hence the birth of ideas such as Pan Africanism and Black Conscientiousness were ripe for the taking. Being the consummate intellectual it did not take long for Tiro to embrace the BC movement and its ideals. The struggle over this period was characterised by Bantu Education, Homelands or Bantustans and a severe repressive Apartheid State. Secondly, it was characterised by a socialist epoch struggle. It is this characterisation that informed Tiro’s valedictorian speech, that later became known as the Turfloop Testimony. This is the context within which Tiro operated at this juncture in our history. The expulsion from university and the move to teach in Soweto some argue was also the beginning of the Soweto uprising in 1976 and from there the dominoes started falling one by one for the Apartheid regime.

As for the fallist movement, I tell them, Dan Motaung, another dear friend and comrade of mine, argues that, “There is no denying that the Fees Must Fall movement was a consciousness-altering, transformative, historical force that shook up the very foundations of our assumptions about South African post-apartheid politics.  However, the Fees Must Fall movement neither emerged nor unfolded within the hegemonic philosophical camp of the African National Congress (ANC) revolutionary politics and ideological leadership nor any traditional liberation politics”. To the utmost chagrin of many an ANC and EFF member. Motaung continues, “from its very beginnings,  the Fees Must Fall movement defined itself in antithetical terms to the status quo, openly calling for the dismemberment of both the tangible and intangible manifestations of all perceived manifestations of Eurocentrism in South Africa. At the same time, this student movement expanded its philosophical canvas to embrace all historically marginalised social forces. The Fees Must Fall movement was an expressly non-partisan student movement. The fact that it shunned ideological alignment with any of the existing political parties could be ascribed to it finding revolutionary politics inadequate to addressing the challenges facing South Africa in the current historical period”. Hence many would argue that this is precisely the Faultline of the fallists. 

It is not hard to see, Dan continues, “the causal link between the Fees Must Fall movement in South Africa and the Arab Spring in the Middle East as well as Black Lives Matter in America, and other global, youth-led movements that question power structures, establishment politics and the status- quo-maintaining leadership claims of historically leftist politics. At a more significant level, the emergence of the Fees Must Fall movement points to a lacuna in the intellectual, political and historical discourse championed by the liberation movement as the progressive agenda in South Africa. Any attempt at understanding not only the emergence of the movement but its defining character as a force outside the traditional revolutionary politics of South Africa should lead to both the realisation and the conclusion that the last decade has seen some drastic decline in the historical legitimacy of the ANC as a liberation movement enjoying political currency in the eyes of broader society”. 

Three texts helped to form the intellectual backbone of the Fees Must Fall movement. These are the writings of Steve Bantu Biko (I write what I like), Franz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth) and works by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Mahmood Mamdani, Nelson Maldonado- Torres, amongst others, on decoloniality.

My audience was captivated and some took furious notes as I spoke. When it came to the question and answer session, the book club members were all fired up. Mind you, the age gap of the members ranged from 22 to 65 years old, making for even more interesting expectations. An old lady got up and indicated that she is a retired teacher and now farms with livestock just outside Mafikeng.

“I would like to know what exactly free higher education means, does it mean free tuition, accommodation, food and travel costs or only some of these aspects? I ask because surely the government cannot afford for all of these to be free.”

Another question came from an elderly gentleman who quoted Noam Chomsky and his great contribution on language development and wondered, “Now that the Afrikaners are building their own Afrikaans university, what are we blacks doing about our own language development?” And still another patron, with a beer in hand, wanted us to debunk this decolonisation debate. He quoted some professor in the USA who had done some extensive work on this issue and wanted to hear my opinion on it. “What exactly is the purpose of wanting decolonisation?”

The engagements that followed were invigorating and liberating to say the least. I came with all manner of prejudices, only to be pleasantly surprised at this working-class intellectual engagement in a beer hall in Mafikeng. I would not mind being invited back soon. As we concluded the evening, the facilitator reminded members of next month’s book, How Europe underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney (1982), and introduced the keynote speaker, Gunnett Kaaf. A good friend of mine and a Marxist to the bitter end.

With political and intellectual thought fast evaporating in our ANC and SACP, it is encouraging to see and participate in such people’s education initiatives such as the Maftown Book Club. Keep it up, guys, I am in awe and take my hat off to you and your committed members. DM


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