Academia and teaching Politics

#FeesMustFall – the student protests at South African universities

This entry is part of 7 in the series Rhodes

While I’ve co-signed a (as yet unreleased) statement from the academic community on the current student protests, there are of course pieces of that statement that I’d support more strongly than others. I have, however, recently sent the text below out to members of the Free Society Institute, and I reproduce that below for your interest.

It would not have escaped your attention that students, nationwide, are currently engaged in protests regarding university fees as well as other causes such as the outsourcing of workers on university campuses. In fact, the protests have already spread beyond campuses, with workers and protesters gathering at a local Shoprite to campaign for #ThePriceOfBreadMustFall.

Of all the things that need to – or will – fall, one thing that shouldn’t fall is our deep sympathy for the struggles of those who are unable to gain access to things that some of us take for granted, and are no less deserving of those things than we are. Our understanding of the frustration should also not fall, in that the significant State subsidy cuts to universities are arguably “deliberately retrogressive measures” and also unconstitutional – and yet are also part of what has caused university fees to become a serious barrier to entry.

Despite our sympathy and understanding, there is of course another side to the story – my university, for example, makes the case that fees are set high precisely in order to (at least in part) run the most generous financial aid scheme for poorer students currently available in the country. In other words, a fee cut at UCT could plausibly be described as benefiting the rich rather than the poor, as argued in this related piece by a Stellenbosch academic.

We can also be sympathetic to students and staff – and even just members of the community – who are being inconvenienced in various ways, but some of them significant in that exams are currently being written. Some have felt intimidated, and some have even felt themselves to be victims of violence – but even if true, this would surely pale into insignificance by comparison to the violence of tear gas and rubber bullets.

This is not a time for facile judgments, often made outside of context or awareness of the complexities of how the universities have grappled – sincerely – with these issues. I’m frustrated with the protests myself, at times, because I know how seriously UCT takes the issues that are provoking the protests.

However, that has little impact on the legitimacy of the protests, and (in all but the most exceptional of circumstances) the legitimacy of how they have been carried out. From what I have seen in reaction to the protests – the aforementioned riot police, or racist abuse on social media – there’s no question in my mind that the reaction to the protests has been by far the least legitimate aspect of this situation.

Between 2011 and 2013, student protests in Chile demanded a new framework for education, one that would make it more egalitarian. This is a model of an economy closer to ours, when compared with wealthy countries that provide free education, such as Germany – and Chile has announced plans to do just that also. There are of course practical difficulties, and practical differences. And maybe you’d disagree that education should be a right at all, as it currently is in our Constitution.

These issues are by no means simple, and I am aware of instances in which the protests have overstepped various bounds, including practicality and even reason in the sense that some of the demands cannot possibly be implemented. It is also indisputable that universities should be institutions of elite learning, and that this costs money – money which can currently only come from student fees, at least in part, thanks to declining government subsidies. Yet, education is a right, and it’s one that we’re not fulfilling. No wonder students are angry.

Academia and teaching Politics

#RhodesMustFall, race and essentialism

This entry is part of 7 in the series Rhodes

575fc635e692409d82cb27b378a5476cThe UCT protests sparked by Chumani Maxwele on March 9 are ongoing, with Students Representative Council members and other students currently occupying the Bremner building, where the Vice-Chancellor and other members of the executive sit.

As I said in my previous post on this, I do think that Rhodes should fall. But I also think that there’s scope in protests like these to be politically expedient, intellectually lazy, and also to fall victim to a (typically) well-intentioned but ultimately dangerous form of identity politics.

The identity politics I refer to are in the imagining of communities of agreement, to modify Benedict Anderson’s construction. In the worst manifestation of this (in a South African context), we might imagine that those communities are defined by the simple characteristic of “race”, but one can also wrongly conflate all sorts of beliefs under a category like “liberal”, as Xolela Mangcu does in a column today.

Sharing a skin colour, a nationality, or a gender (etc.) offers no guarantee of sharing opinions or ideologies. Yes, some inferences are reasonable – for example, in a country like South Africa, I think it immediately more likely that a white South African will be somewhat oblivious to his or her structural advantages.

White South Africans benefited from apartheid, and continue to do so. Some of us don’t acknowledge that, to be sure. But the fact that we did benefit from apartheid should not mean assuming bad faith when we speak about race and discrimination either – interlocutors should still be willing to hear arguments and judge them on their merits.

On the other side of that coin, being a member of a disenfranchised or oppressed group of whatever sort doesn’t automatically confer virtue on arguments or behaviour. It might be the case that your cause is more likely to be urgent, yes, but we have no guarantee of this.

The Rhodes protests going on at UCT are justified, and it is to our discredit that it has taken so long for the Rhodes statue to be an issue. But I do fear that some students are not being encouraged to think and debate by these protests, but rather to be dogmatic, and to make judgements according to simplistic categories like race alone, rather than arguments.

Any of you who have looked at comment threads on this might know what I mean. I also have privileged access, in that the discussion forums of my 1st-year course at UCT have carried much commentary on the protests, the statue, and transformation at UCT.

There is little consensus, and many students – across whatever categories you want to divide them into – are not supportive of certain aspects of the protest. Their complaint, and one I agree with, is that it’s antithetical to the purpose of a university to refuse to discuss something, as the SRC are doing by demanding that a date for the statue’s removal be provided before they engage in dialogue.

But what’s also going on is plenty of simmering racial judgement, where good faith or bad faith is assumed, based largely on race (as judged by the name of the student). In other words, prejudice, if not necessarily of the naked sort.

On social media, some folks are still talking about Maxwele and excrement, as if that’s the only issue – or even an issue at all. It’s not, really – it’s a detail trivial enough that focusing on it simply marks you out as someone desperate to deny the legitimacy of the protest.

There is scope for various lazy arguments, and for various easy forms of prejudice, in situations like these. Given that this protest is likely to go on for some time – and (rightly) focus attention on transformation more generally – everyone involved will hopefully remain aware that when emotions run high, we can lose sight of subtleties.

However things end up going, this is going to be one of those moments in time that gets recorded as part of UCT’s history. Let’s all do our best to make that history one that we can be proud of reading, and shaping.

Daily Maverick Morality

University of Cape Town march: #WeSayEnough

Originally published in the Daily Maverick.

Last week, an estimated 3000 members of the University of Cape Town community marched under the banner of #WeSayEnough. The march was a protest march, as these things typically are – in this case, a protest against the sexual and other violence against (particularly) women in South Africa. I joined the march, and I suppose this column is my attempt to explain why I did so.

Some of you might think this needs no explanation. Perhaps you routinely engage in the spectrum of activities that range from voting in online polls, signing petitions, putting plastic rhino noses on your cars, or donating time or money to some cause or other. But my starting point would be (or, perhaps “would have been”) to point out that the last two are different sorts of interventions than the first three. Giving time and money seems easier to categorise under “doing something”, rather than being simple liberal breast-beating.

Those who, like me, do think it needs an explanation might talk of slacktivism, desktop activism, or clicktivism. Even though this protest took place on foot instead of behind a desk, in academic garb or white t-shirts with protest slogans, one could ask what it might accomplish for all of us to assemble to say “enough”. Sure, we’ve all had enough, you might say, and everyone already knows it.

You might even say, as I did in my last column last week, that these actions aren’t likely to change the minds of the perpetrators of violence. But even if that’s true, I’m glad that we marched.

First, because the signal of solidarity that 3000 marchers with placards and songs send is a far stronger signal than a progress bar on a website, indicating that you want to save a rhino. I’d like to think that at least some victims of sexual violence participated in or were aware of the march, and saw that they aren’t forgotten.

This show of solidarity might comfort, which is only a trivial thing if you think our emotional states irrelevant. I remember thinking during the march that critics of these sorts of protests would most likely not also boycott funerals. Of course, funerals are not typically protests, but they are largely symbolic events, just as this march was. For someone to ask at a funeral “what’s the point? What is this going to change?” would not, I’d imagine, go down too well. We understand that the point it solidarity, and so it was with the march on February 20, 2013.

Second, as our Vice-Chancellor noted in his address to the marchers, we marched to insist that we’re not happy with this level of violence becoming expected or normalised. We marched to say that we won’t be silent as new (and ever lower) expectations of security are spoken of as if they were an acceptable consequences of living in South Africa. Or, more specifically, of living as a woman in South Africa.

We marched because it should concern us that the Oscar Pistorius media extravaganza has allowed us to forget Anene Booysen, and that during the four days of courtroom action in the Pistorius bail hearing last week, it’s likely that more than 400 women would have been raped (if the one-every-four-minutes statistic is accurate).

So much for our Delhi moment, then, as many South Africans seem to have moved on to having an O.J. Simpson moment – with the focus again on a compromised hero than on another dead woman. We marched, in other words, to remind each other that this is not normal, and should never be treated as if it is.

Third – again, as noted by Dr. Price, we marched to tell the government that they have betrayed the social contract. The criminal justice system can be improved, and NGO’s like Rape Crisis better supported. Funding could be made available to universities so as to train social workers, and also to support research in areas that could help us better understand and address this toxic masculinity and patriarchy that allows for the normalisation of sexual violence.

But mostly, and finally, I marched because of the energy that a crowd can generate. Columns, petitions and speeches can reach people, sure – but thousands of singing and chanting people, united in common purpose, generate a passion that might have a lasting effect on a larger number of people. And before anyone accuses me of an unreasonable level of idealism, I’m talking about the people who were there, rather than those who heard about it.

The people who were there were receptive to what Dr. Price and the other speakers had to say, and they were committed to doing what they could to minimise sexual violence, and to help the victims of it. And what they – especially the students – heard did offer strategies that will be effective, even if each of us can only make a small difference. Each of them, in this case, were the majority of the crowd, and these students were given some challenging assignments.

They were reminded that they need to criticise and ostracise their friends who commit even the slightest violence against their partners. They were reminded that sex is not the guaranteed outcome of a date, and that they should not let their friends believe it is, because that belief is likely to contribute to date rape. They were reminded that men of integrity need to be completely sure that their partner consents to sex, and that the language of boasting about “conquests” after the fact constitutes an unacceptable objectification of their sexual partners.

I think that solidarity is important, and that refusing to treat sexual violence as normal is important. The fact that the continent’s premier university takes this stand sends a message to government, and I think that’s important. Lastly, words like those above, in the context of a receptive audience such as the one we generated, can make a difference. And that is why I marched.