A textbook study of 'cancel culture': Helen Zille weighs in on outrage over Adam Habib and the N-word

16 March 2021 - 11:24
Helen Zille has weighed in on the Adam Habib N-word saga. File photo.
Helen Zille has weighed in on the Adam Habib N-word saga. File photo.
Image: Esa Alexander

DA federal council chairperson Helen Zille says the outrage faced by former Wits University vice-chancellor Adam Habib for his use of the N-word is a textbook study of “cancel culture”.

At the weekend, Habib came under fire after he used the N-word during a video call with students at the University of London’s School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS). 

Zille said Habib expressed “amazement that his words were decontextualised” and his apology ignored.

“These are two of the standard tactics of cancel culture. The first tactic is to take the 'offending act' out of its context, to make it seem as egregious as possible,” said Zille.

“The next is to reject the apology out of hand. Indeed, an apology often makes things worse because it is (mis)interpreted as 'proof' of the seriousness of the offence.”

Zille compared the outrage Habib faced to that of the British royal family, after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey.  

“Public 'cancellings' and 'shamings' are coming thick and fast these days,” she said.

Public "cancellings" and "shamings" are coming thick and fast these days. In the last two weeks, it has been the turn...

Posted by Helen Zille on Saturday, March 13, 2021

The viral N-word incident took place during an online meeting with students who were complaining about lecturers using the word. Habib was heard saying that he comes “from a part of the world where we use the word”. 

One black student who was part of the meeting told Habib he had no right to use the word.

“You are not a black man, you cannot use the word, regardless of your lived experience,” he told Habib, who is the director of SOAS. “You have not faced the trauma and the oppression of black bodies, what we go through 24/7 for the last 500 years.”

In an attempt to apologise, Habib said he came from “a part of the world where when someone uses it, context matters”.

This then sparked outrage online, with students and the philosophers’ society at SOAS calling for Habib to be fired. The EFF also slammed Habib, saying he should be removed from his position because he “exhibited extreme bigotry”.

A petition circulating publicly called for the removal, resignation and/or dismissal of Habib within 31 days.

Speaking to Sunday Times, Habib said the meetings purpose was to discuss problems at SOAS, and he was challenged about a staff member who had allegedly used the slur.

He said his use of the N-word had no “malevolent intention”, adding: “It has become quite a controversy, in part because some student leaders have mobilised around it and some SA actors have got involved in it”.

In a Twitter thread, he also claimed the viral video was deliberately cropped in a way to misrepresent his comments.

“Do I think I did something wrong? No, for reasons I explained above. However, I did apologise because some individuals felt offended, and it was the right thing to do. Did it make a difference? No, because some focus on the politics of spectacle. These are my final words on the issue,” he said.


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