skip to Main Content
Menu

Why are South African Universities sites of struggle today?

Uct Protest

At the forefront of this struggle are students, many of whom were born after the dismantlement of juridical apartheid but are experiencing cultural alienation, exclusion due to high fees, and exposure to ideas of dead white men as a form of education inside universities.

300×250-vbs-mutual-bank-sme-partner

By Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni

A definitive entry of the descendents of the enslaved, colonised, racialised, inferiorised, and dehumanised people into the realm of thought is directly challenging the very foundations of Euro-North American-centric modernity and western civilisation. I am here talking about those who were once deemed to be non-humans, lacking souls, devoid of history, rationality, and knowledge and how they are vigorously claiming their place in the human family. They are loudly proclaiming that ‘black lives matter’ and all human beings are born into a valid knowledge system that has to be included in the academy. In the process, they are challenging the very idea of South Africa that has been determined by an indelible paradigm of difference and practices of impossibility of co-presence among races and ethnicities.

The university in South Africa in particular and in Africa in general, is a legitimate site of struggle as it is a power structure that underpins the Euro-North American-centric modern world system and its shifting global orders. By 2015, the students had reached a consensus that what Nelson Mandela and his generation negotiated at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) failed to break the indelible paradigm of difference – as exclusion of black people from the economy and knowledge continues. Inevitably, the students joined the insurgent citizens and demanded immediate decolonisation of the universities. Faculty and university leadership as well as the government were taken by surprise as what began as the Rhodes Must Fall Movement (RMF) targeting Cecil John Rhodes’s statue at the University of Cape Town quickly expanded into broader demands for cognitive justice; change of curriculum; de-commissioning of offensive colonial/apartheid symbols; right to free, quality and relevant education; cultural freedom; and overall change of the very idea of the university from its western pedigree (‘university in Africa’) to ‘African university.’

Here I provide a systematic theoretical and historical framing as well as interpretation of the terrain within which deeper meaning of the current student movements could be found while challenging the liberal interpretations of this phenomenon.

Bernard Makhosezwe Magubane posed five arguments about the importance of theorisation, historicisation, and holistic analysis. Firstly, he posited that ‘Contemporary development, let it be said at the outset, is not a field of study for those who see no need for comprehensive theory of social change, for an understanding of the laws of motion that define the epoch and the social formation under examination.’ Secondly, he argued that ‘Fragmentary descriptions, however voluminous and detailed, provide no substitute whatsoever for sustained reasoned theoretical argument.’ Thirdly, he criticised academics involved in Southern Africa studies for avoiding historical analysis. Fourthly, he reiterated that ‘Once again, the detailed examination of trees eliminates the forest from sight.’ Finally, he criticised liberal literature for contributing ‘little or nothing to our understanding of the current era in Southern Africa. Indeed they do worse than merely fail. Together they manage to obfuscate the complexities of the social movement in Southern Africa and deny in their premises its historical originality.’ What all this means is that to gain a deeper understanding of RMF movements it is important to situate it within global, continental, and South African contexts. Let us begin with historical and theoretical framing of the issues.

Theory and history

The current ‘uprisings’ rocking ‘postcolonial’ Africa in general have revealed some core inadequacies of existing social theories particularly Marxist and liberal analyses. For example, from both a Marxist and liberal understanding, the contemporary world is facing a ‘middle class revolt.’ Francis Fukuyama has written about a global ‘middle-class revolution.’ The thinking is that a disgruntled professional class that is globalised is pushing for deeper democratisation. If it is not the middle- class that is identified as the drivers of protests, then it is the ‘precariat’ class/new proletariat/multitudes of precarious working classes of unemployed, underemployed, and indebted experiencing the harsh effects of global capitalism. Class analysis must not be discarded but too much reliance on it amounts to concentration on trees within a forest.

This analysis is inadequate at many levels. It assumes universalist interpretation of complex politics of protest that emerge within specific and diverse historical contexts, including the global terrain, of course. It is still locked in narrow class analysis that obscures complexities and multi-faceted issues at play in the protest movements. It does not take into account varying historical contexts. For example, the condition of precariousness in urban Africa is not a new phenomenon. It is traceable to the time of colonial encounters during which indigenous black people were conquered and then ‘re-invented’ first as slaves and second as providers of cheap labour. Mahmood Mamdani explained the colonial process of ‘re-invention’ of Africans in a revealing way: ‘the native is the creation of the colonial state; colonized, the native is pinned down, localized, thrown out of civilization as an outcast, confined to custom, and then defined as its product.’ This was implemented through a combination of outright forcible / physical capturing and selling of black people as commodities, dispossession, displacement, pauperisation, peasantisation, and proleterianisation.

The native is the creation of the colonial state; colonised, the native is pinned down, localised, thrown out of civilisation as an outcast, con ned to custom, and then de ned as its product.

The key problem that is often overlooked in theorisation of the current social movements including student protests is that most of the liberal /neo-liberal conceptions of the world were and are inscribed within the modern body politic, constitutions, laws, institutions and even social organisation of people as citizens and workers, where they have to be observed and respected rather than opposed and subverted. In this sense, it is very easy to make a simplistic interpretation of all forms of violence from a ‘Nuremberg template’ as criminal instead of political and revolutionary.

The RMF movements defy easy class analysis because they are an amalgam of many class and non-class issues of gender, culture, language, symbols and epistemology. The very category of ‘middle-class’ that is increasingly being used today, encompasses a bulk of property-less people who are highly indebted whereas the category ‘working class’ embraces millions of what can be correctly termed ‘working poor’ like security guards and cleaners, some of whom are paid as little as R2000 per month in South Africa. This is why Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly argued that ‘A realistically defined middle class would comprise only a narrow sliver of Africa’s population, set against a backdrop in which nearly half of all Africans live in extreme poverty, with numbers growing.’

These issues complicate the situation beyond the remits of class and liberal analysis as the RMF movements in particular, and protests worldwide in general, include feminist, gays and lesbian rights and dispossessed indigenous peoples. Race rather than class is still an invisible but active organising principle informing unchanging patterns of inequality, poverty, Eurocentric curriculum, alienating university cultures, use of ‘foreign’/colonial languages of instruction, and standing colonial/ apartheid symbols. Like all other protests, RMF movements are riddled by tensions, contradictions, ambivalences, and violence; making them difficult to interpret from a singular perspective.

But it is not only Marxist and liberal theories that are limited; existing social theories coming from Europe and North America in their market (materialist/ class analysis), sociological (race theory), psychoanalytical, culturalist, post-structuralist, postmodernist, and postcolonial versions have reached an ‘epistemic break’/crisis/exhaustion. Immanuel Wallerstein revealed that nineteenth century social science’s presumptions which were previously considered to possess a ‘liberating of the spirit, serve today as the central intellectual barrier to useful analysis of the social world.’ Before his death in 2013, Patrick Chabal echoed Wallerstein’s concerns about the limits of social sciences, noting that they have proven to be both historically and conceptually out of date to the extent of being ‘obstacles to the understanding of what is going on in our societies and what we can do about it.’

Thus delving into the epistemological questions and crisis is important because the RMF movements are loudly calling for what Brenda Cooper and Robert Morrell terms ‘Africa-centred knowledges’ as a form of cognitive justice. The domain of knowledge is a site of struggle in the RMF movements and the anger is clearly over continued exposure to academic and intellectual works of dead white men like Karl Marx, Max Weber, Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault and many others most of whom never even set foot on the African continent. These are simply idols of Western modernity and its promotion of rationality. But the very last sentences in Chabal’s book capture the ‘epistemic break’: ‘The end of conceit is upon us. Western rationality must be rethought.’

What is clear is that what is upon us is not simply a crisis of capitalism as an economic system. In the RMF movements particularly, there is a clear revolt against epistemological domination and cultural extroversion. If this analysis is correct, then we must speak of a crisis of civilisation and modernity. This civilisational crisis was predicted in 1955 by Aime Cesaire taking the form of incapability of a civilisation to solve ‘the problems it creates’ rendering it ‘decadent;’ turning its focus away from ‘its most crucial problems’ making it ‘sick;’ and playing ‘fast and loose with its principles’ opening itself to death.

A crisis of a civilisation is also highlighted by Cornel West in his articulation of the limits of Marxist and liberal analysis in enlightening African- American oppression. He specifically wrote of ‘a pervasive and profound crisis of North Atlantic civilization’ because of his concern with the specific problems of black Americans. The core symptoms of this crisis include ‘the threat of nuclear annihilation, extensive class inequality, brutal state repression, subtle bureaucratic surveillance, widespread homophobia, technological abuse of nature and rampant racism and patriarchy.’ Slavoj Zizek understood the crisis as that of the global capitalist system that was approaching ‘an apocalyptic zero-point’ in the process producing ecological crises, inequalities and poverty, struggles over raw materials, food and water as well as ‘the explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions.’ The multiplicity of contemporary problems inspires us to speak of a crisis of civilisation.

It is very easy to make a simplistic interpretation of all forms of violence from a ‘Nuremberg template’ as criminal instead of political and revolutionary.

But the most stringent critique of the whole edifice of modernity and Western civilisation has been mounted by Latin American decolonial theorists. They have exposed what has come to be termed ‘coloniality’ as a global structure of power, which manifests itself in the domains of being, knowledge, and the rest of modern human life.They have reintroduced decolonisation/ ‘decoloniality’ as a ‘family of diverse positions,’ which identifies ‘coloniality as a fundamental problem in the modern (as well as postmodern and information) age.’ To the decolonial theorists, decoloniality is ‘a necessary task that remains un nished.’ They have de ned coloniality as ‘an intricate matrix of power, knowledge, and being as modernity/coloniality’ resulting in ‘naturalisation of hierarchies of being that divide some humans from others, and subordination of people and nature to the demands of production and accumulation.’ The importance of decolonial interventions from Latin America is that they bring together a strong historicisation, theorisation, and holistic view of modern problems and issues.

This broad framing enabled Ramon Grosfoguel to come up with a useful description of the contemporary world as ‘Euro-North American-centric/ Christian-centric/ modern/colonial/ imperial/racial/patriarchal/heteronormative/capitalist’ discursive terrain – an important global context within which the spirit of protest is provoked and emerges.This broad discursive terrain was understood by Kwame Nkrumah as ‘neo-colonialism: the last stage of imperialism’ and Walter Rodney termed it a process of ‘how Europe underdeveloped Africa.’23 Highlighting the epistemological damage imposed by colonialism/imperialism/coloniality, Ngugi wa Thiong’o understood the problem of ‘postcolonial’ Africa as that of colonisation of the mental universe of Africans and agitated for ‘decolonisation of the mind.’24 While these broad framings are very important they cannot be adequate without a de-escalation of analysis to the particular historical context within which actually existing protests are taking place. It is, therefore, imperative to bring the African historical context in general into the picture and the South African case study in particular into the conceptual, theoretical, and historical framing of the issues involved in politics of protest.

Branch and Mampilly provide a good contextualisation of protests in recent African history.They correctly emphasise ‘the need to look inward to Africa’s own past and its own history of protest before looking outward to events in the rest of the world in order to explain today’s continental protest wave.’ This approach is very important as it addresses the problem that Mahmood Mamdani described as writing ‘history by analogy.’

Mamdani specifically criticised the use of ‘received democratic theory’ as a prescription from a different context from that which gave rise to its problems.

Mamdani also emphasised the need for an analysis that is focused on actually existing protest politics in Africa. Branch and Mampilly categorised the actually existing protest politics into three broad waves while concentrating on the identification of the active motive forces/social bases of each of the protests. The first wave was that of anti-colonial protests that culminated in the ‘political independence’ of Africa. The second emerged in the 1980s and 1990s ranged against single-party, military dictatorships, and austerity measures imposed by Bretton Woods institutions. Today we are facing a ‘third wave’ of protests of which we are engaged in understanding ‘what political transformations it may foretell.’

Who have been critical agents of protests in each of the three waves of protests?

Who have been critical agents of protests in each of the three waves of protests? The ‘detribalised’ urban ‘underclass’ of Africans who constituted a ‘political society’ of those who had nothing to lose and everything to win in the dismantlement of colonialism played a prominent role in the anti-colonial protests of the 1950s and 1960s. These Africans had a very confiictual relationship with the colonial state – ‘a relation de ned by an alternation between neglect and direct violence, between extra-legality and illegality.’ This social category of Africans faced urban controls, night searches, forced removals, and overt violence from the state. The category ‘worker’ does not include these people’s identity within a colonial political economy and governmentality: they were dispossessed and unemployed. They were uprooted from rural areas, separated from their kinsmen and women; they lived in ‘the shanty town’ and constantly faced the full force of colonial power.

This ‘political identity’ made them to constitute, in Frantz Fanon’s analysis, ‘one of most spontaneous and the most radical revolutionary forces of a colonized people.’ The important point that emerges from this analysis is that: ‘Different political identities, based on different relations to state power, produce different forms of political action.’Unlike many workers in a colonial environment who tend to protest for higher wages or improved working conditions while conscious of preserving their jobs; what Fanon termed the ‘lumpenproletariat’ do not fight for reforms; they are propelled ‘by a more radical need to transform the very conditions of life, which are enforced by an arbitrary and violent state power.’ It was this social base that provided the foot soldiers of the anti- colonial forces. But the anti-colonial struggles did not succeed in delivering a genuinely ‘postcolonial’ dispensation.

The changes of the 1990s left the ‘precarious livelihoods of urban political society’ unresolved, hence today’s vehement ‘rejection of the neoliberal economy by Africa’s poor’

Inevitably the second wave of protests of the 1980s and 1990s were sparked by a combination of realisation of the ‘myths of decolonisation,’failure of the ‘postcolonial’ redistributive developmental state, dictatorship, austerity measures and repression that was encouraged by Bretton Woods institutions. The activists included nascent civil society, students, workers and intellectuals. The struggles were multifaceted to the extent that the concept of ‘third wave of democratisation’ occludes the complexities, ambivalences, ambiguities, diversities and other alternative readings of protests and the concomitant diverse imagined horizons.

The ‘third wave of African protest’ is what we are seeing today of which RMF movements are part. At the forefront seems to be a category called ‘the youth’ tired of being put in a permanent state of what Alcinda Honwana termed ‘waithood.

Branch and Mampilly have distilled broad causes of the current wave of protests. First: ‘The multiparty regimes and neoliberal economies that emerged from the upheavals of the late 1980s and early 1990s have proven unable to meet popular aspirations for fundamental change.’ In short the changes of the 1990s left the ‘precarious livelihoods of urban political society’ unresolved, hence today’s vehement ‘rejection of the neoliberal economy by Africa’s poor.’ The second condition precipitating current protests is the continuing lack of accountability, poor delivery of service and use of violence by the state even under multiparty democracy.

In all this, the Arab Spring/Arab Awakening that emerged in North Africa seems to fall within the second wave of democratic transition that took place in the rest of Africa in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Having framed the core issues of protest from the continental perspective, a turn to South Africa is in order. Julian Brown argued that ‘a consensus politics’ of 1994 and the post-apartheid dream of a rainbow nation has collapsed and in the cracks and fractures of South Africa’s political order has emerged an ‘insurgent citizen,’ new forms of activity, new leaders and new movements.Brown posits that ‘our existing society has inequality at its core. The formal political order seems to separate from the social and political worlds of ordinary citizens, and the poor.’

The root of all political, economic, social, and epistemological problems haunting South Africa today and provoking current citizen uprisings are genealogically and historically traceable to the sin of the ‘paradigm of difference,’ which according to Mudimbe enacted ‘the colonizing structure responsible for producing marginal societies, cultures, and human beings.’The other name for the ‘paradigm of difference’ is the ‘colour line’ that was coined by William E B Du Bois in 1903. Lewis R. Gordon has elaborated on the broader meaning of the ‘colour line’ this way:

Born from the divide of black and white, it serves as a blueprint of the ongoing division of humankind.

The colour line is also a metaphor that exceeds its own concrete formulation. It is the race line as well as the gender line, the class line, the sexual orientation line, the religious line – in short, the line between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ identities.With specific reference to South Africa the ‘paradigm of difference’ became known as ‘apartheid’ – a form of institutionalised racism that underpinned the politics of ‘separate development’ (a colonial euphemism for legalised racial inequality and oppression). The Nobel Peace Prize Winner and veteran of the anti- apartheid liberation struggle Chief Albert Luthuli in his autobiography entitled Let My People Go correctly characterised the institutionalisation of the ‘paradigm of difference’ in the form of apartheid as ‘a tragic failure of imagination’ in which ‘We Africans are depersonalised by whites, our humanity and dignity reduced in their imagination to a minimum.’ What was ‘tragic’ about the ‘paradigm of difference’ in the context of apartheid South Africa, was its inscription of what Boaventura de Sousa Santos termed ‘impossibility of co-presence’ through such legislation as the Native Land Act of 1913, Urban Areas Act of 1923, and the Extension of University Education Act of 1959 among many others. Such laws not only demarcated land but segregated people as well as students into white, black, Indian and coloured universities.

What was even more tragic was the apartheid government’s official attempts to ‘de-nationalise’ the majority black population through forced removals from urban areas and pushing all black people into ‘Bantustans’ as well as fragmenting black people into rigid tribal identities. This created a misnomer that Neocosmos rendered as shift from ‘foreign natives’ to ‘native foreigners.’ Consequently, South Africa has been haunted by a struggle for inclusion and equality by those who have been excluded, peripherised, and pauperised since the time of colonial encounters.

South Africa was informed by a ‘paradigm of difference,’ producing the ‘impossibility of co-presence’ and the ‘de-nationalisation’ of indigenous people. This inevitably unfolded and fossilised as a highly contested and conflict-generating identity problem. One can confidently say that the core problem of South Africa is that of ‘a struggle to become South African.’This problem can be rendered as an idea, a national question, and a liberation challenge. As an idea, it was well captured by Kader Asmal in these words:

Here was born an idea, a South African idea, of moulding a people from diverse origins, cultural practices, languages, into one, within a framework democratic in character, that can absorb, accommodate and mediate conflicts and adversarial interests without oppression and injustice.

What was even more tragic was the apartheid government’s official attempts to ‘de-nationalise’ the majority black population through forced removals from urban areas and pushing all black people into ‘Bantustans’ as well as fragmenting black people into rigid tribal identities.

At the centre of this idea are such

A national questions as ‘What is the post-apartheid nation? Who belongs or is excluded, and on what basis? How does a ‘‘national identity gain its salience and power to transcend the particularities of ethnicity and race?’’Inevitably, the contested idea of South Africa imposed itself on the liberatory discourse and agenda as a challenge of how to resolve the related questions of nationality and citizenship. This liberatory challenge was well-expressed by C R D Halisi:

In a very fundamental sense, the struggle for liberation required black activists to confront nascent questions of citizenship and national identity – how the ‘people’ are to be defined, who belongs to the political community, and what are the criteria of inclusion and exclusion.

In short, the still unresolved idea of South Africa has a long history beginning with Dutch settlement at the Cape and the politics of moving ‘frontier’ of genocide, enslavement, conquest, dispossession, displacement, colonisation and exploitation; to Anglicisation as an imperial phenomenon accompanied by conquest, ‘liberal racism,’ dispossession, exploitation and segregation; Afrikanerisation as a colonial process of the institutionalisation of racism and de-nationalisation; Africanism as a resistance movement that branched into black republicanism, cultural nationalism, pan-Africanism, black consciousness formations, socialist-class-based imaginations, liberal nationalism, and non-racialism.

What emerged as a result of these contestations, struggles and resistance is what Brown termed the ‘social consensus’ of a ‘New South Africa’ founded on rainbowism (inclusive and democratic society). Alexander Johnston termed it an ‘improvised nation.’ But Brown depicted the stories of a successful transition, miracle and ‘new South Africa’ as ‘a dated story’ because ‘South Africa is once again influx – caught in a moment in which the boundaries of politics and society are unstable’. Halisi correctly predicted the current ructions and convulsions rocking post-apartheid South Africa when he wrote:

Rival populism, nourished by competing visions of liberation are bound to have an impact on the evolution of South African citizenship. In addition, popular democratic traditions, of which populism is one manifestation, are among the most durable sources of inspiration for democratic thinkers. After centuries of racial domination, it would be unrealistic to expect an ethos of non-racial citizenship to prevail unchallenged by the older political perceptions. […]. For the immediate future, however, successive governments will have to cope with the implications of both non-racial and race-conscious political sensibilities.

The rise of such political and social formations as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Black First Land First (BLF) and Rhodes Must Fall Movement (RMF) cannot be divorced from the long-standing contestations over the idea of South Africa. These movements are challenging what Johnston has described as an ‘identity of convenience’ as they continue to fight for a ‘South African idea’ based on the imaginations, knowledges, experiences and aspirations of the formerly enslaved, colonised, racialised, dispossessed, and dehumanised people.

exposure to ideas of dead white men as a form of education inside universities

Cecil Rhodes’s statue is removed in Cape Town

The current struggles which have produced what Brown termed ‘insurgent citizens’ are deeply etched within the painful reality of living an illusion of an insider, a citizen, and a human rights bearing human being while the reality is that black people are still languishing and kept outside through economic and epistemological exclusion that produce a property-less people. At the forefront of this struggle are students, many of whom were born after the dismantlement of juridical apartheid but are experiencing cultural alienation, exclusion due to high fees, and exposure to ideas of dead white men as a form of education inside universities. In reaction, they have turned the university into a site of struggle.

The university as a site of struggle

What exists today are ‘universities in Africa’ rather than ‘African universities.’ This is mainly because the modern ‘westernised’ university emerged in Africa as a transplant from Europe. The existing universities in Africa did not grow from the African seed and are not a product of deliberate and slow growth from the African socio-cultural and politico-economic developments.This transplantation of universities into Africa provoked resistance from early African elites like Edward Wilmot Blyden and J E Casley Hayford. Blyden, for instance, agitated for the establishment of a ‘West African university’ in 1872 and he was specific that such an institution must not be an imitation of European or American university.

In the first place, Blyden argued that those European textbooks that portrayed Africans as ‘a heathen and worse than a heathen – a fool’ had to be banished from the ‘African university’ if an African ‘national intellect’ was to be produced and shaped. Secondly, Blyden became the earliest advocate for transformation, decolonisation, and Africanisation of education in Africa. He advocated an African university that was free from ‘despotic Europeanising influences which had warped and crushed the Negro mind.’

Blyden was deeply concerned about what he termed the ‘race poison’ embedded within European civilisation and advocated a form of education that restored cultural self-respect among Africans – one that was informed by African literature, African languages, songs and oral tradition. Such an education was expected to produce a distinct ‘African Personality.’ Blyden was not successful in his struggles for an ‘African university.’ For example, Fourah Bay College, one of the earliest universities in Africa, emerged as an affiliate of the University of Durham in Britain.

The Eurocentric epistemology remained intact, only hiding under ‘Africanisation’ which in reality meant adding African experience and agency to the discipline of history.

The other important advocate for an ‘African university’ was JE Casely Hayford of Ghana. Between 1911 and 1920, Hayford campaigned for an ‘indigenous university’ where teaching was to be in vernacular languages, where books written in foreign languages would be translated into indigenous languages and where the overarching objective of education was to ‘preserve in the students, a sense of African Nationality.’Just like Blyden, Hayford was ahead of his time but did not succeed in establishing an indigenous university. Achimota College located near Accra, another of the earliest universities in Africa, was an affiliate college of the University of London.

‘Universities in Africa’ multiplied after 1945. Examples include Makerere University in Uganda and Ibadan University in Nigeria. These were products of Cyril Asquith Report/ Doctrine (1943-19450 that became a blueprint for the export of universities from Britain to the colonies as ‘university colleges.’ Robert R. July correctly noted that ‘The first universities in black Africa were imports, their purpose the indoctrination of a foreign culture.’ The purpose of colonial education and its impact on Africa is well analysed by Ngugi wa Thiong’o beginning with the criminalisation of use of ‘mother tongue’ within the premises of colonial schools so as to produce alienated colonial subjects.

In other words, colonial education was delivered in the package of what Ngugi wa Thiong’o termed ‘a cultural bomb’ and the ‘invasion of African mental universe.’ Some of those who spearheaded the anti-colonial struggles were aware of the cultural bomb, the invasion of the African mental universe and the deep alienation that colonial education imposed on Africa. This is why decolonisation entailed the revival of indigenous cultures, reaffirmation of African identities, rise of nationalist historiography and other initiatives aimed at reversing alienation. This struggle produced such initiatives as the ‘African personality,’ ‘Ethiopianism,’ ‘Negritude’ and many others. The challenge was that the African elites spearheading these initiatives were ‘men of two worlds, true cultural hybrids’ which created a lot of contradictions, ambivalences and ambiguities in the way they spearheaded decolonisation. Those who were highly conscious like Kwame Nkrumah immediately they achieved political independence; they pushed for ‘African universities’ that reflected African traditions and cultures.

However, the decolonisation project of the 1960s did not succeed in producing genuinely ‘African universities.’ Africanisation took the form of the appointment of black Vice Chancellors, black professors and addition of African thinkers and novels into an existing Eurocentric epistemology. South Africa has to go beyond this shallow form of change in which the concern is about simple racial and demographic equity. This simplistic conception of change takes the form of the promotion of black South African academics and their superimposition on a system that has not yet been fully decolonised. Alienation hits them in the face. This is so because even the introduction of African Studies did not fundamentally transform the epistemological scaffolding of ‘universities in Africa.’ There were no ready social forces to stage a radical epistemological rebellion as most of the academics and professors were direct products of ‘westernised’ universities.

Even the celebrated Ibadan, Dakar and Darfies Salaam nationalist schools did not unleash an epistemological rebellion, rather they engaged in creating a ‘counter-discourse’ aimed at ‘counter-factualising’ the racist claims of imperial/colonial historiography.The Eurocentric epistemology remained intact, only hiding under ‘Africanisation’ which in reality meant adding African experience and agency to the discipline of history. But as noted by Jacques Depelchin the very discipline of African history, as a form of knowledge and its methodology remained inherently colonised and this became apparent in the ‘selection of themes, problems, periods’ in the so-called African history.

When we turn our analysis to South African universities in particular, it becomes clear how the paradigm of difference and practices of impossibility of co-presence not only produced also ‘universities in Africa’ but further informed racial categorisation of universities in accordance with race and ethnicity. In short, the universities in South Africa became detestable reflections of a society bifurcated by an indelible paradigm of difference and racial fundamentalist philosophy of impossibility of co-presence. Worse still, these racially and ethnically bifurcated universities shared one common feature that Francis Nyamnjoh depicted as ‘European greenhouses under African skies’ making them ‘a space of whiteness’ even if inhabited by black people.Even the ‘black ethnic universities’ were not grounded on indigenous knowledge. Rather they deliberately taught a poor version of Western epistemology that Isaac Bongani Tabata described as ‘education for barbarism.’Tabata elaborated on the logic behind ‘Bantu education’:

The apostles of Apartheid have fathered a new monstrosity, called Bantu Education, by means of which they aim to arrest the development of the African people, who comprise more than nine million, or nearly three-quarters of the total population. It has its counter-part in ‘Coloured Education’ for the Coloured people of South Africa, comprising, with Indians, about one and a half million. They want to re-create for the subject races a social order belonging to the pre- industrial age.

What is commonly ignored in existing analysis of student protests is how the spirit of Tur oop (the spirit of black consciousness and protest) spread to Soweto and resulted in the Soweto Uprising of 1976.

Bantu education was a colonial instrument used to produce a people whose very purpose was to ‘minister the whites’ through provision of cheap labour. It deliberately incapacitated ‘the African student from reaching the required standard for entering a university.’ Writing specifically about segregation in university education, Tabata concluded that:

This Apartheid in university education is not simply a matter of separating the races at the universities. It is an end result, the logical completion of a systematic process not only of robbing Non- Whites of education but turning a whole population back to barbarism. To put it another way: if Bantu Education is the bricks of that immense edifice, the retribalisation of a whole people, the Apartheid university is its caping stone.

Hector Pieterson being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo after being shot by South African police. His sister, Antoinette Sithole, runs beside them.

Tabata concluded his book with a chapter entitled ‘Bantu Education Must Fail,’ that is, it must ‘fall.’ What is important to note is that the bifurcation of universities along racial and ethnic lines impinged on the formation and fossilisation of student movements and student politics.While student formations began as Christian ‘ecumenical’ movements they also branched into the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) formed in 1924 that was dominated by English-speaking white students who pursued liberal politics of protest; the Afrikaans Studentebond formed in 1933 that were part of the broader Afrikanerisation nationalism project; and the South African Students Organisation (SASO) formed in 1968 that embraced black liberation thought in general and black consciousness politics that challenged the entire edifice of apartheid colonialism.

Between 1968 and 1973, the ‘black ethnic universities’ became the real site of struggles particularly the University of the North (now University of Limpopo).

White liberal students actively protested against particular actions of the apartheid government such as the 1968 decision to block the appointment of Archie Mafeje at the University of Cape Town and against particular pieces of legislation. White liberal students did not mount any sustained critique of apartheid as a colonial system. This is why Richard Rathbone wrote that ‘Poor NUSAS was detested by government for being radical and detested by blacks for being insufficiently radical: in short the liberal dilemma.’Between 1968 and 1973, the ‘black ethnic universities’ became the real site of struggles particularly the University of the North (now University of Limpopo).

There were various reasons why these ‘black ethnic universities’ became sites of struggle. They were initially placed under the authoritarian Department of Native Affairs and were run by entirely white Vice-Chancellors together with entirely white university senates that were not critical of apartheid but were eager to sustain it.As noted by Julian Brown:

At black universities responsibility for suppressing protest that took place on their campuses. Protesting students were either expelled or suspended for an indefinite period of time, and consequently were forced to leave the university grounds – and often to abandon their studies. When students did not willingly obey the university’s expulsion orders and chose to remain on the campuses, the administrators rarely hesitated before inviting the police onto their campuses to enforce their shaky authority.

The political consciousness of black students reflected the harshness of the world outside the university. But inside ‘black ethnic universities’, just like outside, black politics was criminalised. By 1970 the students at the University of the North had fully embraced black consciousness thought and were speaking of ‘liberation first before education’ and were directly locating their struggles within the broader context of the psychological liberation of black people. The university administrators responded with mass expulsions of students in 1972. These expulsions spread the Turfloop spirit to other campuses and black solidarity was expressed through the Alice Declaration where the oppressive politics practiced in ‘Black Institutions of Higher Learning’ was condemned strongly and this was followed by student protests at the universities of Fort Hare, the Western Cape, Zululand and Durban-Westville.

what is commonly ignored in existing analysis of student protests is how the spirit of Turfloop (the spirit of black consciousness and protest) spread to Soweto and resulted in the Soweto Uprising of 1976.

But what is commonly ignored in existing analysis of student protests is how the spirit of Turfloop (the spirit of black consciousness and protest) spread to Soweto and resulted in the Soweto Uprising of 1976. Heffernan captures how the expelled students from Turfloop went to teach in schools in Soweto, spreading the spirit of protest and black consciousness; he focuses mainly on the role of Onkgopotse Abraham Tiro, a former university student leader administrators generally assumed and rebrand who taught History and English at Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto. Black consciousness politics permeated the South African Students Movement (SASM) that was already active in Soweto. Tsietsi Mashinini passed through Tiro’s tutorship and he became the leader of Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC) that actively participated in the organisation of June 1976 Soweto Uprising.This background is important because it links genealogically the Turfloop spirit, Soweto spirit, and the current RMF spirit as a continuum with ruptures and breaks in a living spirit of student protest.

The other important and noticeable feature is the current change in the site of struggles from the previously ‘black ethnic universities’ to the previously white-English and Afrikaans universities. Even though protests began at the predominantly black Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), they captured the nation’s imagination when they shifted to the University of CapeTown(UCT),RhodesUniversity, University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), University of Stellenbosch, University of Pretoria (UP), University of North-West (UNW-Potchefstroom campus), University of KwaZulu-Natal, and University of Johannesburg (UJ) as well as the University of South Africa (UNISA). This is where transformation, Africanisation, and decolonisation have been painstakingly slow. Of course, such universities as Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and the University of the Western Cape (UWC) have also been rocked by student politics.The key reason for the slow pace is that a decolonisation, which gets deep into epistemology, curriculum, pedagogy, institutional cultures, access, language, demographics, and symbolic representation, is yet to take place in all South African universities.

By 1970 the students at the University of the North had fully embraced black consciousness thought and were speaking of ‘liberation first before education’ and were directly locating their struggles within the broader context of the psychological liberation of black people.

Transition and transformation of South Africa

The promises of a radical transition and transformation in the 1990s, following the unbanning of political organisations and release of political prisoners and the notions of forgiveness, reconciliation, and a horizon of ‘new South Africa’ were expected to resolve student grievances through the decolonisation of universities. South Africa, in the words of Gillian Hart, was expected to shift from ‘de-nationalisation to re-nationalisation.’

the liberal ecclesiastical discourse of forgiveness

The Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) was meant to enable black and white people to find each other across the long-standing ‘paradigm of difference’. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was meant to break the practices of impossibility of co-presence through truth-telling and what Hart termed ‘the liberal ecclesiastical discourse of forgiveness’. The adoption of a new South African Constitution in 1996 was meant to resolve the paradigm of difference and bury the curse of a ‘de-nationalised’ black majority.

In the education sector, a number of pieces of legislation and frameworks as well as commissions were rolled out in an endeavour to transform education. Examples include National Commission on Higher Education (1994) that emphasised access and alignment of qualifications; A Policy Framework for Education and Training (1995) that highlighted the right to basic education for all citizens; the National Qualifications Framework (1998) that emphasised adherence with international standards and training of students as a potential workforce for a global economy; and the National Plan for Higher Education (2001) that indicated a shift from access and transformation to adaptation to a global knowledge-driven world. What is clear from a close analysis of these policy frameworks is that the intended transition and transformation became entangled and captured between and betwixt powerful forces of human rights versus market-driven neoliberalism; internationalisation/ globalisation versus indigenisation; Africanisation versus decolonisation; as well as imperatives of rights versus imperative of justice.

Transformation became a major challenge. Three empirical examples demonstrate how difficult it is to transform, Africanise, and decolonise South African universities. The first example is the Mafeje Affair (1968-2007) which is a case of exclusion during and after apartheid.During apartheid the state was blamed for having interfered with the appointment of Archie Mafeje to a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology position in 1968 at UCT, but what boggles the mind and is hard to explain is why Mafeje was blocked twice in the 1990s when he expressed an interest to join UCT. In 1990, Mafeje took the initiative and indicated his willingness to join UCT only to be given a one-year Visiting Senior Research Fellow, with a salary pegged at Senior Lecturer level (for someone who had been a professor for over 20 years outside South Africa). The one year offer was explained as due to ‘the current financial circumstances’ whatever that meant but the salary level at senior lecturer was never explained, perhaps it was also due ‘the current financial circumstances.’ In 1993 Mafeje applied for the AC Jordan Chair in African Studies at UCT, a technicality was used to exclude him: that Mafeje had not advised the appointments office of his change of address when he left Namibia for Egypt.

The second is the Makgoba Affair (1994-1995). This example speaks directly to challenges of transformation and Africanisation. Eddie Webster argued that ‘The Makgoba affair provides a deep and tragic insight into the South African transition. As with the rest of South Africa, black and white are struggling to find a common project.’Malegapuru William Makgoba was appointed the first black Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1994 and he began to champion the discourse of Africanisation of the university claiming that Eurocentric education was still the mainstay of teaching. As noted by Webster, Makgoba had ‘entered a racially polarised campus’ deeply entrenched ‘in the ways of the old South Africa’ where ‘institutional change will take a long time.’ Between 1995 and 1996, Makgoba found himself engrossed in bitter struggle in which his academic credentials were investigated and questioned, where he was accused of having embellished his CV, of being administratively incompetent, and of tarnishing the image of the university. James M Statman and Amy E Ansel deployed the concepts of discursive ecology and hidden scripts to reveal that:

The Makgoba affair was profoundly unsettling in that it revealed and perhaps heightened the terrible racial, political and class-fault-lines suddenly found lying so close beneath the dominant discursive patina of reconciliatory rainbowism.

The then Vice-Chancellor of the university R W Charlton indicated that the Makgoba Affair ‘acted as lighting conductor for some of the tensions of society in transition’ and somehow admitting that it was basically about transforming the university rather that the other accusations. Whatever is the real truth behind the Makgoba Affair, its entanglement in the politics of transformation is important and indicates the difficulties, tensions, contradictions and oppositions inherent in trying to actively advance Africanisation in this case from the top. Makgoba eventually lost his position due to this affair.

The third example is known as the Mamdani Affair (1996-1998). It is specifically about the challenges of curriculum change, particularly how ‘Africa’ is to be taught in a post-apartheid society and how to give content to a Centre for African Studies. The crisis began soon after Mahmood Mamdani was appointed to the AC Jordan Chair in African Studies at UCT, particularly with regards to the introduction of a core foundation semester course on Africa which he crafted as ‘Problematising Africa.’ Mamdani’s proposed course was worlds-apart from what he depicted as ‘versions of Bantu education, Bantu Studies called African Studies’ that was taught at UCT.The course was subject to contestation by a Working Group that hastily designed another course which was said to be primarily about equipping students with learning skills necessary for students entering higher education rather than about Africa as subject matter. Mamdani staged a one-man protest against this example of the politics of curriculum making. Taken together, these three examples demonstrate empirically three challenges in transformation: employment of black faculty, Africanisation, and curriculum change. The RMF is a continuation of these struggles that have remained unfinished.

Rhodes Must Fall/Fees Must Fall Movements

The liberal readings and interpretations of RMF movements are contained in Focus: The Journal of the Helen Suzman Foundation, issue 76, September 2015. There is silence on ‘decolonising’ but everything is articulated from the perspective of ‘transformation’ with students categorised as ‘advocates for transformation.’92 Inclusivity and diversity frame the liberal discourse. At least six core issues are identified as constitutive of transformation from a liberal reading. The first two are the need for a diverse and cosmopolitan student cohort; as well as enhanced access for talented students from poor and marginalised communities. A dramatic increase in African and Coloured representation in the university and evolution of the institutional culture where black staff and students feel comfortable within the university is identified as a solution. The curriculum has to be reorganised to incorporate African theorists and contextual challenges. The ending of the exploitation of workers through the in-sourcing of all outsourced services is accepted. Finally, naming has to reflect the diversity of society and students. There is also a pointed critique aimed at the RMF movements as pursuing protest informed by ‘a racial and ethnic essentialism’ based on misreading of Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon. Overall, the liberal solution is reformist rather than decolonial.

A decolonial interpretation that is based on studying the emerging student archive comprising of memoranda, speeches, graffiti, songs, placards, media articles, and presentations is unapologetically about decolonization.The students openly embrace the black consciousness ideas of Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon’s ideas on decolonisation.

A decolonial interpretation that is based on studying the emerging student archive comprising of memoranda, speeches, graffiti, songs, placards, media articles, and presentations is unapologetically about decolonization. The students openly embrace the black consciousness ideas of Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon’s ideas on decolonisation. The students speak of changing the very idea of the university from being a ‘westernised’ institution into an ‘African university.’ This decolonial change has to be realised in restoration of cognitive justice premised on the fact that African people as human beings have produced knowledge and that knowledge must be placed at the centre of the ‘African university.’The students are also pushing for the use of indigenous languages in university learning and teaching. The ‘Fees Must Fall’ (FMF) strand of the RMF movements is specifically demanding the implementation of ‘the right to education’ that was promised in the Freedom Charter in 1955. The students’ emphasis is on quality, relevant and free education in their life time. The issue of alienating institutional cultures features prominently as a grievance in the student protests. University institutional cultures are deemed to be European, anti- black, racist, and patriarchal. Hence, ‘depatriachisation’ and institutional cultural change are part of the decolonisation drive. Removal of all symbols and relics of colonial apartheid and rectification of the dehumanisation and exploitation of black people through outsourcing constitutes part of the important demands by advocates of decolonisation of universities in South Africa.

What is emerging clearly with specific reference to South Africa is a country that is back at the cross- roads in which the ‘rainbow nation’ is unravelling; reconciliation is being tested; Nelson Mandela as the ‘father of the nation’ is, for many protestors and activists back on trial in the public court; and the concealed ills of post-apartheid social, economic and  political order are daily unmasked and laid bare.

Prof. Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni

is the director of the Archie Mafeje Research Institute (AMRI) and is also a professor in the Department of Development Studies at the University of South Africa. He has written 9 books

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back To Top