“Love” and “Reconciliation” the hypocritical revisionist musings of a UCT Law Dean
As a student at the University of Cape Town who was involved in the protests of the 2015/16 period I feel somewhat compelled to respond to the arguments put forward by our Dean of Law, Penelope Andrews, to participate in the debate she and others claim to want but consistently fail to further (https://theconversation.com/disagreement-can-become-an-act-of-love-and-reconciliation-61037).
Prof. Andrews begins her analysis by centering the “problem” of the Apartheid era as primarily a time that imposed limitations on freedom of expression which she strategically juxtaposes to the present day. This emphasis on expression and not on the material structural impacts of colonialism and imperialism of various kinds suggests a bourgeoisie tendency in her argument towards “debate” and its outcomes that posits conflict as centred around the “clashes of phrases” and not as a means of combating the existing world.
It is of course no surprise that she goes on to proclaim that apartheid, colonialism and the likes have been “officially eradicated” leaving only their vestiges in the wake. What analysis other than that of bourgeoisie sensibilities would ever proclaim such a notion? South Africa’s own liberation party openly entered into what it termed a negotiated settlement with the Apartheid regime, purportedly in the hopes that power sharing would result in a more equitable solution.
As virtually every economic indicator, and the ordinary South African’s common sense will tell you, inequality has continued to increase and the structures and impacts of imperialism and social domination of past and present, having not undergone radical restructuring, unsurprisingly reproduce inequality and its accompanying social effects. Instead of an honest, critical reflection of South Africa’s failing “democratic” transition we continue to be assured by senior academics and certain politicians that evils of the past have evaporated and a new rainbow hued South Africa lies just around the corner. This is unfortunately somewhat less convincing while the country is gripped by privatisation, crony capitalism and engulfed in fire.
Returning to her analysis on the call for “safe spaces”, which she locates in the calls made by similar student movements in the US & UK, Prof Andrews offers a critique that frankly leaves me baffled. During the first of three major occupations conducted by RhodesMustFall in 2015 popular educational spaces were established (a number of which can be seen online: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCx_16zjNtBjktlosfraeR7Q) where students, teachers, workers and community members engaged in debates on discussions on history, political thought, philosophy and so forth centred around the brutal legacy of our past and present but conducted from perspective wanting to resolve the challenges that formed that history. These spaces, imperfect as they may be, became educational spaces for students to encounter different thought and political traditions cutting across disciplines and privileged forms of knowledge. In fact the irony of Prof Andrews’ call for engagement stands in the light a number of postgraduate level work that has been worked on all over the world stemming from the public debates, writings and various public pedagogies employed by the movements she speaks of. How many academics engage the “public” in the ways that these movements have done? How many academy authorities who call for dialogue and more nuanced discussions engaged with the student archives with the Johannesburg Workshop for Theory and Criticism (http://www.jwtc.org.za/the_salon/volume_9/rhodes_must_fall_rmf.htm) consisting of works compiled during the occupations at UCT? Or the essays, poems and documentaries that led from the anniversary of Marikana through to the fight for insourcing? (https://youtu.be/4VO7mIgyXoM)
While UCT academics pretend that their voices alone are important, graduate students from several universities across the globe study, many formally, the student arguments from across South Africa hungrily in defence of their richness.
If one would take seriously the critique from Prof Andrews that much of these debates were inward looking parochial practices surely we should ask if this is not a criticism commonly made of the very academy she forms a part of.
It is precisely out of the stifled alienating nature of UCT and the likes that we have unsurprisingly seen similar push backs transnationally. Once again instead of reflecting critically on where it is these calls are coming from Prof Andrews misses the profound questioning of the legitimacy and trajectory of the academic project she stewards and the society that affords it privilege and power.
In a year marked with the spurring of many different kinds of organisations on our campus such as Decolonise Law, Decolonise Economics, Disability for Justice and the Trans Collective the one thing I have observed consistently is the immense intellectual contributions of the Black law students who very clearly were rebelling against an institutional culture that they felt did not value contributions of African thought and consequentially failed to give access to the tools to form emancipatory pathways through a notoriously conservative discipline.
The use of the call for “respect” by Prof Andrews is simultaneously interesting and unsurprising from a Dean of Faculty whose very authority is called into question by uprisings of students who form part of the subaltern class in the hierarchical didactic university structure. “Respect” while meaning different things to different people also undoubtedly carries a different character in the presence of power relations. Who has the power to demand “respect”? Who has the power to punish on the basis of decorum, tone and other dimensions of expression that might offend our dignified authorities – I mean educators? The invocation for “respect” and “love” together strikes me as emotionally abusive when pitted solely against “rebellious students” though that by communicating in these comfortable, authority defined, modes of expression our entrenched material inequalities and identity antagonism will dissolve into a warm glowing haze of “democracy”.
In Prof Andrews’ protracted call for debate she points to a couple of examples of attempts at “dialogue” arranged by her faculty as if to suggest that the faculty debates openly and the students can learn from their example. One wonders how she can so confidently frame this assertion when she was not even present for the majority of debates that marked the very period she’s responding to in her piece having only joined her faculty at a late stage in the 2015/16 rebellion. For the record Prof Andrews, for every attempt at dialogue the Faculties have hosted, I’ll happily wager the students can demonstrate 10 or more documented examples within the same period. One wonders whose participation is then required for an event to be considered “open and inclusive”? Who has the authority to define what dialogue is and what it isn’t?
Without denying the past and existing failings of the student movement with respect to achieving its intended horizontal dialogue aspirations and its (our) failure to consistently achieve internal accountability we cannot forgo the entire narrative, and with it the claim to dialogue and politicised invocation of silence, to the powerful within the institution who know full well that the university itself is not even designed to be a democratic structure itself. There has visibly been a difficulty (and often a betrayal) in the direct democracy approach by the movements but to center it on fly by night academics like Achille Mbembe who have national and international platforms is disingenuous and intellectually shallow. Of course the most affected by our failings at direct democracy are the most marginalised within the movements – not reactionary bourgeois academics hoping to helicopter in to the center and translate to their audience what the pathologically misguided black youth are up to.
This ironic sting in the tail of the call for dialogue from the upper echelons of the academy is reinforced by publishing platforms like “The Conversation” which have opened up a space for certain academics to write “expertly” about the student movements knowing full well that the site only publishes pieces from authors with “PHD’s” or who are “subject experts”. One could wonder, as I did, whether this renewed emphasis on “returning to dialogue and rigorous debate” is a smokescreen for academics at UCT to get back to a place where their conversations and public opinions would benefit their careers and be less burdened by the nuisance of the consequences of actual difficult engagement with the people they write about.
The use of “reconciliation” in this piece is interesting in our context being 20 years since the now infamous Truth and Reconciliation commission of inquiry for South Africa. In the case of a faculty boasting many white male academics that very evidently hold a considerable amount of power in the institution how should one read Prof Andrews’ depoliticised reading of the “disagreements” taking place within the campus spaces? In a country visibly unreconciled my reading is that she indirectly demands that certain antagonisms and contradictions be suspended, all respectively and lovingly of course. This use of “reconciliation” is especially provocative in the context of the ShackvilleTRC campaign that called for restorative justice (http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2016-06-08-shackvilletrc-an-opportunity-to-turn-the-page/) for the aftermath of the political violence at UCT involving the burning of paintings and other items. Prof Andrews’ law faculty was the only one in the university to issue a statement condemning the acts and endorsing the use of the courts and expulsions and have remained awkwardly silent on the possibility for dialogue and restorative justice. Such an example, in my view, is indicative of whom “reconciliation” is for and who it is not, who it protects and who it glibly ignores.
On one thing Prof Andrews and I can agree, the lack of sustain dialogue, in particular intergenerationally sans paternalism, on our campus space is concerning however much we may differ on the contributing factors. With that said I am consistently disillusioned by the present leaders in institutional power who have been at pains to lay blame to students as they visibly appear uninterested in deviating from the celebratory bible tomes of the South Africa rainbow gospels. Now that the universities have expelled and intimidated “problem students” and quelled the protests for the moment we shall hope to witness the glorious debates our celebrated academics have claimed to have been stifled from having.
Note: This piece is published here as the site “The Conversation”, where Prof Andrews’ piece is housed, informed me that their policy only allows them to publish PHD’s and “subject experts” and this I found to be incredibly ironic given the content of the article in question. Perhaps this is finally one of the spaces academics can use as a platform to avoid those pesky public student rebuttals? Who knows.