Students' decolonisation of varsities has only just begun

24 May 2015 - 02:00 By Rekgotsofetse Chikane and Jessica Breakey


Black liberation writer Frantz Fanon said: "Each generation must discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it." As student movements and protests gain momentum in universities across South Africa, so too does the momentum of the counter-narrative, the narrative that insists students have "lost the plot" and are simply taking part in a life of panem et circenses (bread and circuses).It is expected that large segments of the public will refuse to understand the purpose of these movements, but it is particularly unnerving that many are wilfully and consciously misinterpreting them.Vice-chancellors across the country are openly utilising their influence on the media to control a narrative that posits university students, advocating for change, as an uncontrollable grouping of irrational, self-entitled cabals.story_article_left1University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Max Price once described the Rhodes Must Fall movement as a small lobby group and insinuated that our perspective could not truly be considered because our actions were not conducive to academic debate. It is a line of argument utilised by senior management at Rhodes University at a conference on how to transform the curriculum, who went so far as to compare our actions to terrorist cells in Cambodia and perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide.A recent article in The Times, "Theatre of the immature" by Professor Jonathan Jansen, the vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, feeds this public perception of student leaders, insisting that we are heading down a rabbit hole where the logical conclusion must entail a grim future for the country. A future in which arguments are dominated either by insulting your opponent into submission or justifying your opinion through the most formidable form of straw-polling: Facebook likes.These perceptions of students are being perpetuated by academically venal vice-chancellors through the use of fear-mongering tactics. They have begun to utilise self-righteous claims to moral authority in an attempt to delegitimise student opinion.They, like many others, believe we are simply not capable of orchestrating logical, coherent and sound arguments to defend our position on issues.But this will not change the fact that students have reached levels of consciousness that our universities are unable to help us achieve. We no longer view "transformation" as a BEE-style numbers game that universities can use to pull the wool over our eyes. We no longer see race the way society has told us is the right way - that the existence of the concept of reverse racism should remain unchallenged. We are able to categorically deny the existence of reverse racism while criticising racial prejudice. We are willing to call out the hypocrisy of placing disproportionate value on the opinions of white students over those of black students.We believe history is on our side, as it has been with student movements throughout history. Professor Jansen, in the words of a fellow student at UCT: The future is moving faster than your consciousness.story_article_right2We don't demand the recognition of past injustices against black people for the purpose of reconciliation. We demand this recognition of the past because of its continued influence on an individual's intersectional position in society. We demand it in order to ensure that people understand the effect their privilege has on others. Without it, people won't understand how their very presence perpetuates subjugation of the black body.We are indeed a "hashtag" generation of critical theorists willing to use our voice through an approach both expansive and meaningful to ensure people understand that #BlackLivesMatter. We use social media to express ourselves because the classroom constricts and suffocates our views.Why do you paint us as terrorists to the public when we utilise our academic freedom to explain that we don't want to transcend race in this country without going through the deep and painful lesson of why race matters?Jansen argues students are unable to reason or sustain an argument in public. He argues that if we were to engage in debate on a sensitive subject, it would obviously lead to an outburst of anger. He has unwittingly positioned himself as the harbinger of enlightenment to the "savage backwoods" of student politics; our intellectual coloniser dressed in the garb of academic freedom, a right to which he has exclusive propriety.It is problematic for Jansen to assume the moderate "safeness" of civil society, to suggest that those he dubs "extremists" have never found a place in the South African discourse.Yes, there will always be moderates and their voices will always be flattered - but the real, critical conversations have always been started by those dubbed "extremists". The revolution has always been deemed "too radical" by those sitting in a lukewarm bath. Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko were once deemed "extremists" and "terrorists".In his letter to the student body about the removal of Mcebo Dlamini as president of the student representative council, and in his subsequent blog post, the vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, Professor Adam Habib, makes claims that highlight the problem we face in our university spaces. He argues that because of the country's constitutional democracy, we as student leaders must work in accordance with the collective body.Habib makes an unqualified assumption that there is indeed a collective student body unified around one set of opinions; and worse yet, that these opinions are the correct ones. It would not be the first time that student movements have been able to expose the fallacy of that argument. story_article_left3These movements were born from the womb of the moral decay of our universities and their student bodies. Our thoughts, ideas and beliefs are our own, but were forged in the very university spaces that you are in charge of. We would advise you to listen to Kendrick Lamar's The Blacker the Berry: "They may say I suffer from schizophrenia or something but homie you made me. Black don't crack my ni**a."To the vice-chancellors who have not entered the debate publicly, you have been noted. When the day does arrive that you wish to have your voice heard, we implore you to enter the debate from a position of humility, not one of power. A position in which you are able to come to a basic understanding that transformation is indeed slow and that changing demographics will not solve the problem. That there is an earnest requirement for the deconstruction of preconceived ideas of change.The Rhodes Must Fall movement has been the catalyst for an introspective adventure not seen in decades. Yet it seems that those in leadership positions are hesitant to question their own roles in what we can now call the "pacifying project" of the last 20 years.Jansen believes students are no longer able to engage in intellectual discussions and that we are simply "political clowns". We would like to challenge his claims in an open debate on the need for decolonisation in our universities. It is time to step out of the bath, Prof.Chikane is a UCT honours student in public policy and administration, the national president of InkuluFreeHeid and a member of the Rhodes Must Fall movement. Breakey is an honours student in UCT's African studies department and a member of UCT's White Privilege Project

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day or Financial Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.



Questions or problems? Email helpdesk@timeslive.co.za or call 0860 52 52 00.