A black sun is rising at UCT

2015-04-19 15:00

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The #RhodesMustFall movement is now shifting its sights to focus on transformation at the University of Cape Town

The #RhodesMustFall collective at the University of Cape Town (UCT) is busy rethinking the entire concept of transformation in higher education. In so doing, it has helped give a context to many of the questions I have been asking about transformation at the university.

One of those questions is about the fundamental contradiction of having racial transformation entrusted to people who do not believe in the centrality of race as a social and historical concept.

It is like entrusting the word of God to nonbelievers. What you get are tentative gestures but no passionate advocacy of racial transformation. In fact, they have systematically downgraded race in admissions policy and replaced it with the concept of “economic disadvantage”.

Free State University rector Jonathan Jansen has attributed the origin of the concept of the “disadvantaged student” to white and English academics who sought to avoid reference to “the more appropriate label, black student”. For such white academics, the education of the black child was nothing more than “remedial education”.

Steve Biko spoke about this paternalism as a salving of the consciences of white liberals who went home after work satisfied that they had done something good for the “native” for the day, while sure in their minds that the structures of privilege remained intact. Among blacks it induced attitudes of gratitude, dependence and powerlessness.

I urge black students all over the country to banish the word ‘disadvantage’ from their vocabulary.

They must do to it what our generation did to the word ‘non-white’. They must reject it because it trivialises the black historical experience into a game in which one side was given the upper hand because of the unfair application of rules.

It is this notion that there are rules that can somehow be impartially applied that led many at UCT to call in a cavalier fashion for rationalist deliberation during the #RhodesMustFall campaign, while racist insults were being hurled at black students through tweets, on Facebook and in face-to-face comments.

It is this rationalist paradigm that underpins the National Heritage Resources Act’s requirement for a process of consultation and deliberation about apartheid statues. Somebody please tell me where the logic is of doing away with apartheid laws and apartheid racist speech while retaining the very symbols that communicated those values.

Anthropology 101 should tell us statues are systems of communication, meant to glorify a particular set of ideas – the very ideas we repudiated in 1994. There can be consultation across all our communities about what to replace them with.

Surely the white community is not limited in its heroes and history to the doers of evil deeds symbolised by these statues?

But why am I still going on about Rhodes? After all, the train left the station last Thursday. I do so because there is a concerted effort to rewrite the script and turn the students’ victory into that of the administration.

There is also an attempt to reduce these students into a group of ill-disciplined young people who sought to hold the university to ransom with their actions.

On the contrary, and having spent time with them, I can say without any fear of contradiction that they are what David Halberstam called “the best and the brightest”. What these students did is what black students at the very best universities in the US did in the 1960s. Indeed, the similarities between those movements and the #RhodesMustFall movement are uncanny.

But the similarities end there. While the leaders of the American institutions rode the wave created by the students to create a new field of black studies, the leaders of our institutions have resorted to defensiveness, reprisals, bullying and the age-old questioning of the motives of the people involved.

UCT students sing after a recent meeting between them and staff to discuss transformation at the university and the removal of the Rhodes statue from the campus. Picture: Jaco Marais

So, if any of our university leaders are interested, here are a few examples of how the best universities in the world responded:

.?On April 10 1968, a group of 50 black students at Harvard University formed an ad hoc committee on black studies under the name Afro. They presented three demands to the Harvard administration.

They wanted to have a say in black admissions, in a new black studies curriculum and the appointment of black faculties.

Harvard responded to the student demands by creating a department of African-American studies. It is now one of the best in the world.

.?In the same year, students at another Ivy League university, Yale, organised themselves into the Black Student Alliance. They also demanded the creation of a black-studies programme.

How did the Yale administration respond?

Yale president Kingman Brewster declared: “Yale will cease to be the finishing school on Long Island Sound and become a place that better reflects the demographic and regional composition of the country at large.”

Distinguished conservative scholar Robert Dahl called for the creation of an undergraduate African-American studies programme at Yale.

.?In 1969, gun-toting students at another Ivy League university, Cornell, invaded the administration to protest against the university’s suspension of five student leaders from a previous demonstration.

Calling themselves the Afro-American Society, they also demanded the establishment of a black-studies programme. The university responded by inviting James Turner to start what ultimately became the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell.

An alumnus, Tom Jones, became one of the richest black men in the US. He denounced his actions as a youth and became a significant donor and a trustee at Cornell.

.?At the same time, 50 students at Columbia University, another Ivy League institution, formed themselves into the Student Afro-American Society.

They rejected a course in African-American history taught by the progressive and distinguished historian Eric Foner. They wanted a fully fledged black studies programme with new black professors and a new curriculum.

I am listing these examples for two reasons. First, during this tumultuous period, I have not heard one concrete proposal from any of the vice-chancellors where students are making similar demands as those of their Ivy League predecessors. I also share these examples to debunk the racist notion that protesting black students will destroy the universities.

No, what will destroy the universities is something else – the lack of visionary leadership that can ride the wave of student protests to create something new and meaningful for them and the institutions.

But the students will not wait for such leadership to emerge.

Working with academics and the faculty of humanities, they have initiated a Distinguished Lectures Series starting on Thursday with a panel discussion featuring a few of our best black female intellectuals – Wits professor and leading feminist scholar Pumla Gqola, former Harvard fellow and UCT senior lecturer Shose Kessi and Zine Magubane, who received a PhD in sociology at Harvard and is a visiting Van Zyl Slabbert Fellow at UCT.

So let no one tell you they cannot find black professors. These women professors will be joined by three female students from #RhodesMustFall – Thulani Gqoloqa, Ntebaleng Morake and Thato Pule – and the students’ representative council. Future speakers include Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Achille Mbembe, Henry Louis Gates Jr and many more.

Watch this space, these students are raising the bar.


Do SA universities need black-studies departments?

Tell us what you think. SMS 35697 with RHODES as the keyword. SMSes cost R1.50 each

Mangcu is an associate professor at UCT and an author

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