Has #RhodesMustFall displaced the politics of bread and butter on campuses?

By Ayabonga Cawe (@aycawe)

Ayabonga Cawe on the student movements that have shaken the foundations of the post 1994 political establishment that continue to ask the ‘bigger picture’ question of “what should a 21st century decolonized African university be like, in form, character and content?” and by extension, can be posed to our national polity and economy in equal measure, “what should a 21st century decolonized African society be like in form, character and content?”

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Very few can dispute that the actions of the student movement since the beginning of the year, have shaken the foundations of the post 1994 political establishment. In particular, #RhodesMustFall at UCT, the Black Students Movement at the institution that is currently called ‘Rhodes’ (my emphasis) and OpenStellenbosch at the University of Stellenbosch among others, have changed the terms of engagement. How have they done this?

These movements have shifted the focus of the debate away from bread and butter issues; fee increments, residence challenges, questions of access inter alia, to existential questions of being and decoloniality. These existential questions, and the accompanying actions, in my view broadly aim to answer a fundamentally ‘bigger picture’ question: what should a 21st century decolonized African university be like, in form, character and content? It is an audacious and ambitious question, which by extension can be posed to our national polity and economy in equal measure; what should a 21st century decolonized African society be like in form, character and content?

It is not a question with a defined teleological answer, which neatly fits the question-answer nexus. However, it also unravels other questions, in particular regarding the space that these movements now occupy; who held this space before, and how have these ‘new’ movements displaced or complemented those forces? A necessary layer of complexity emerges from these questions; how do we problematize where this discontent is emerging, and is it the sum total of the problem, and by extension the decolonization project? Clearly, these movements have emerged in erstwhile white institutions, with the voice of historically black institutions like Ongoye, Fort Hare and Turfloop notable in their absence from the public debate as carried out in the picket lines and in the media

So two related concerns of mine are at play here. Firstly, does the absence of the historically black institutions suggest that decolonization isn’t a project to be pursued in these institutions, in other words have these institutions shed their coloniality, assuming there is one if at all? Secondly does the emergence of an existential politics on campuses displace the bread and butter issues so central to historically black institutions, which often serve the poorest rural, peri-urban and township communities?

In response to the second question, former SASCO leader, Zuko Godlimpi noted;

‘…elsewhere student politics are centred on the provision of basic facilities. The existential politics of decoloniality are still absent, SASCO is very dominant in those student politics’

This comment was in response to an opening shot taken at SASCO by Liz Molomo on Twitter who had the following to say;

…if I was SASCO I would be quiet because student politics on campus have sidelined them, one can only assume because of the ideological vacancy’

Without reading Zuko’s comment one would easily assume that Liz Molomo’s view reflects the political displacement of an organization like SASCO and the politics of immediate need and ‘basic facilities’ on campuses, and this is for me where the schism is. The media analysis of the student actions has given them, for the purpose of alarm and sensationalism, a role that unintentionally displaces and supersedes the political struggles around bread and butter issues. This has silenced the grassroots political nature of many of these movements, conveniently positing their action as political grandstanding on issues we all knew existed. We all knew, but what did we do?

…..the voice of historically black institutions like Ongoye, Fort Hare and Turfloop are notable in their absence from the public debate as carried out in the picket lines and in the media

We conveniently forget, that these movements have members from across the party spectrum, and the role and action of these movements and other political forces like the EFF Student Command at Wits for example, in linking community, worker and student struggles. All of the movements give prominence to the conditions of outsourced workers on their campuses, whose struggles they show, are not removed from nor mutually exclusive to other issues of institutional and curriculum overhaul.  It is clear that perception in many instances trumps the politics of fact. However perceptions are as instructive, if we look at the class character of the decolonization movement, which is perceived as middle class and termed as the ‘coconuts Model-C’s coming into consciousness’.

In the same conversation, Zuko argues that there is a particular metropolitan concentration to the current wave of Black Consciousness underpinning the decolonization movement, with middle class trappings and all. A similar criticism was made of the Black Consciousness movement by the late BC poet, Mafika Gwala  in an interview with Lesego Rampolokeng;

Biko himself made mistakes. He wasn’t a revolutionary in the first place. When he had to choose between Azapo and the Congress Alliance or PAC, he chose Azapo, which shows he wasn’t a revolutionary. He didn’t identify himself with the huge masses of people fighting the struggle in this country. He thought that the BC elite, black consciousness-wise, were the ideal that the nation had to take on. But it wasn’t. Biko himself made mistakes. We said that black consciousness has bourgeois overtones, just like negritude, which Frantz Fanon explained so clearly when he talks of national consciousness and he identifies the revolutionary idea: “away from negritude as negritude

This comment by one of the shining lights of the Black Consciousness movement in the 1970s, may be harsh and unfair and reflective of Gwala’s own political view on what was revolutionary or not, however it is not surprising nor novel in its critique of the ‘missing mass’ in the movement. A similar acknowledgment of this view came from a recent New York Times article on the student movement in South Africa, narrating the view of one of the leaders of the #RhodesMustFall movement, Rekgotsofetse Chikane;

“The elephant in the room was class. Class was never discussed. It was neatly swept underneath the rug. I knew that if you bring up class too early in this organization, all you would do is to split the black students. Then it would be blacks-who-have and blacks-who-don’t-have. And at UCT, you can see that quite blatantly.”

The ‘class critique’ of BC is not new, and has been dealt with by many thinkers, including Frank Wilderson, largely on the question of worker subjectivity inherent in class analysis not fully capturing the slave relation that gives rise to’ blacks’.

.. the coloniality and Afrikanerdom that created Stellenbosch, is the same as that which created the ‘bush colleges’ of Ongoye and the University of the Western Cape

What then do these views present, in light of the initial questions? It is clear to me, that the binary between bread and butter issues and existential politics of being and decoloniality is one of little analytical value. The systemic causes of bread and butter issues are the same sites of power that the decolonization movements are calling into question. The only difference is the terrain, environment, grammar and operational specifics of the issues raised in each of the campus struggles.

With so little in the way of fundamental differences, I argue that the coloniality and Afrikanerdom that created Stellenbosch, is the same as that which created the ‘bush colleges’ of Ongoye and the University of the Western Cape for example. The pedagogic purpose of these institutions to the colonial and Apartheid project rested on two illustrative (not exhaustive) fronts; that of agent and functionary. It’s clear for instance, that Stellenbosch sought to develop the policymaker (‘agent’) and the erstwhile University of Transkei (now WSU) and Ongoye for example, the public administrator (‘functionary’) in the homeland.

It is a moot point whether these roles have been altered in contemporary South Africa. Perhaps there is a case for a principled solidarity and synthesis of struggles in historically black and white campuses, against a coloniality of common origin. What such solidarity presents is a closing of the circle per se, linking existential and bread and butter struggles, rather than the former displacing the latter.

Historically black institutions can also allow us to unpack how coloniality plays itself out in the absence of white bodies

Such solidarity will be powerful in demanding space for the voice of struggles in historically black campuses, and we can all learn from this. For instance, how many of us know that Fort Hare has a cross-disciplinary module on Freire’s pedagogy and the role of the university and knowledge in the Pan African project. This module is very similar to the recommendations of the Soudien report in 2009 on transformation in higher education. That the module occurs when other erstwhile white institutions are contemplating moving or are being pushed in a similar direction, is telling.

Historically black institutions can also allow us to unpack how coloniality plays itself out in the ‘absence’ of white bodies. As Fanon informs us;

‘The black man has two dimensions. One with his fellows, the other with the white man. A Negro behaves differently with another Negro. That this self-division is a direct result of colonialist subjugation is beyond question’

Fanon shows us that the character of the colony transcends the ‘physical’ presence of whites. In other words the absence of a numerically dominant white student population, as is the case in the historically black institutions, doesn’t displace the colonial gaze. Therefore, the advent of a politics of existential decoloniality, rather than displacing the politics of bread and butter issues, bring into question the aspirational template we wish to build for our institutions.

Is Oxbridge the standard, or should we, as Freire wanted, ‘be our own example’ and what does this mean? This is an important debate, as students collectively build ‘new’ institutions, in the dying ‘presence’ of the vestiges of the old order. It may also be an important discussion on how to decolonize black institutions, which in full view of the pervasive ‘colonial gaze’, uneasily contest and in some instances oversee the colonial mission in 21st century South Africa.

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