Challenge/Response On #OPENSTELLENBOSCH.

Since the Association of Commonwealth Language and Literary Studies (which, although an Association, has not much to do with the Commonwealth and deals to only a limited extent with language) invited two former members (an interesting fact in itself) of #OPENSTELLENBOSCH to address it, the least one can do is respond to this address, which took the form of a challenge to the academics of ACLALS to uncritically support the organisation (although it no longer actually exists).

The organisation deserves attention. It was set up to make Stellenbosch University a more hospitable place for non-Afrikaans-speaking and particularly black students (including both coloured and african in the mixture). As such it deserved support, insofar as this agenda is indeed followed and its tactics and strategy are worth following. On the other hand, if there were major problems, it wouldn’t deserve support until it had reformed itself — so the call for uncritical support was itself problematic.

The address consisted of two elements: a video with parts which the presenters didn’t like omitted, and a rather long and jargon-laden talk by one of the members.

The video, oddly enough, was not by students, but by the Johannesburg-based film-maker Aryan Kaganof, whose films tend to depict the received ideas of the white Johannesburg media elite. The problem with this is that although Kaganof has some talent (though much less than is claimed for him) as a film-maker, he has no original political ideas, nor any commitment to the movement which the students had constructed — so it might be expected, and so it proved, that the video would provide little context or useful information.

Nevertheless there were a few interesting points. It was claimed that the movement at Stellenbosch had been initiated by a sympathetic white lecturer, who was later hounded out of the movement because she was white; the lecturer seemed aggrieved about this, as liberal-minded whites usually are, but she really should have anticipated it. Certainly the representatives from #RHODESMUSTFALL, addressing the camera or clowning for audiences, came across as bombastic, self-glorifying and largely delusional, and appeared to offer nothing for their Stellenbosch colleagues except racist rhetoric and power-fantasies.

Of course it is understandable that young people engaged in their first political action over-dramatise themselves. All the same, someone solemnly proclaiming that in Stellenbosch he shares Steve Biko’s feelings about black oppression as expressed in I Write What I Like is going too far. Biko was living in an overtly racist, exploitative society dominated by white people who wanted to kill those who refused to be crushed; Stellenbosch is a mildly racist (but deracialising) university dominated by white people who want to teach students under the overall supervision of black people. There is no reality underpinning this extravagant metaphor.

The insertion of some footage from the prelude to the Marikana massacre was not, of course, the fault of the students; it was Kaganof, following on a little group who sprayed “Remember Marikana” around the University of Cape Town one day. Over the footage Kaganof superimposes tachistoscopic flashes of various words which supposedly give meaning. In fact they do not, and the footage itself is empty, because there has never been any real debate about Marikana or any serious attempt to understand what happened there — it has simply been appropriated without debate, a tactic which ultimately has only benefited the same ruling class which was responsible for the Rustenberg unrest and the massacre in the first place. It would seem that Kaganof is appropriating #OPENSTELLENBOSCH in the same way that he is appropriating Marikana, and it also seems that the students in the movement have no objection to this. This latter is the problem.

It relates to the immense valorisation of the removal of the statue of Rhodes from the plinth at the foot of Jameson Steps at Cape Town; while the statue has been removed, the steps remain with the same name, that of an odious British imperialist agent. This scene is the only one in the video which depicts a large group of people, although the vast majority are simply looking on. But furthermore, it is a scene which leads nowhere, since unless one manages to turn Rhodes into a symbol of American neoliberal imperialism — a difficult task — it is a symbol without a referent, given that “colonialism” is not now undertaken by Britain (at least not independently so). At least the attack on the statue of Rhodes at Oxford had some meaning as an attack on the existing British ruling class; condemning Rhodes means nothing to the modern South African ruling class, and no effort was made to inject meaning into it by the students. It was simply a carnival of forcing management to do something they did not wish to do, but which, in itself, meant nothing.

The great accomplishment of #OPENSTELLENBOSCH, at least according to Kaganof’s video, was to disrupt a class taught by a young coloured junior lecturer, an event excitedly framed by the legend “HIDDEN CAMERA”, suggesting that something outrageous and hitherto secret is being revealed. In fact, it is simply cellphone footage of students bullying a young woman and preventing her from doing her job. No doubt they feel justified in doing so, and if the consequences had been significantly positive, perhaps this would have been fair. As it is, however, the footage shows the potentially ugly side of the movement. It also shows — with the chant of “I can’t breathe!” — its reliance on American iconography. There is nothing automatically invalid about this — although it should be viewed with suspicion — but the appropriation of the slogan of Black Lives Matter seems a little problematic given that the American protest related to a black man murdered by white police; the implication is that this young coloured woman, by performing her duties, is murdering the students.

After this presentation came a speech by one Mohammed Shabangu. He said all the things which one expects to be said under such circumstances; the protests were revolutionary, according to him, because they struck at the university’s residue of racism, hence represented a program to transform the university into an institution serving the people, hence represented a blow at the oppressive government, a blow at neoliberalism, a blow at capitalism, a strike against apartheid and colonialism as well. What a lot of walloping, with very little actual effort displayed!

But unpacking these claims reveals a lot of ill-justified conflation. It is natural that there is a residue of racism at Stellenbosch, but the evidence that this is monolithically imposed by management is absent, and the way in which this racism manifests itself was not clearly identified (the use of Afrikaans is not evidence — and, incidentally, Stellenbosch was unusually multilingual in its policies). This, again, is not clearly an attack on the corporatisation of the institution, which was hardly mentioned in the video and for which attack no evidence was led in the talk. (Apart from the campaign to insource functions in the institution, which seems to have collapsed, there seems to be no such attack.)

Then again, although universities are state institutions, they are autonomous, and attacks on them are not exactly attacks on the state, which can use such attacks to gain more authority over universities (and hence drive more neoliberal corporatisation). The state itself is neoliberal in orientation, but its orientation is partly driven by the corporate sector, which is not only in South Africa, but global. Hence lumping all these things together, when they are rather ill-fitting portions of an immense and ill-directed machine, is problematic if one wishes to do something effective to change the functioning of the machine. Neoliberalism is highly adaptive and manipulative, and is also extremely powerful and seductive. So a blind denunciation of everything one does not like as “neoliberal” and a claim to be fighting against neoliberalism regardless of what one is doing, looks like telling lies and claiming easy victories when these are not actually victories.

Apart from these intellectual failures (which may just be Shabangu’s, but in fact they look suspiciously similar to the rhetoric of most of the student protesters) Shabangu and his colleague Greer Valley displayed some uncomfortable attitudes. Shabangu admitted that he had only spent a year at Stellenbosch, and had hated it. So he had left. For another South African university more attuned to his cultural concerns? No. For an African university more sympathetic to his identity? No, he had gone to Germany to study (a common destination for graduates of Afrikaans universities, incidentally).

For a professed anti-colonialist to go back to the metropole to further his studies is a little problematic, but Shabangu went further, declaring that Germany was a much better country than South Africa, much less racist, much more caring about immigrants, and compared himself with the refugees from Syria. The fact that this speech was not followed by the sound of hundreds of academics slapping themselves in the face in shame and embarrassment at sitting through such horrible subaltern subordination suggests rather that his audience was waiting for everything to be over rather than that they were endorsing it.

One question asked was what about other institutions. Significantly the students did not mention the feminist protests at Rhodes or the homosexual protests at Cape Town; some have suggested that these protests are extremely problematic, and even that they were created to derail and undermine the more substantive student protests, but at least they should have been mentioned, but weren’t. Shabangu went so far as to claim that nobody knew about the protests at black institutions because the racist media did not cover them; in reality, there was some coverage, but Shabangu had obviously not bothered to find out what had happened in preparing for his talk. Had he provided substantive information about the Stellenbosch protests this might have been justified; instead, his generalisations would have been buttressed by such research (and therefore he appeared either ill-prepared or unconcerned about anything happening beyond the Grape Curtain).

He was also asked, since he hadn’t spoken about this in his talk, what the consequences, the “bitter fruits and sweet fruits” had been of the protests. His primary response was to point out that the movement appeared to have collapsed. He argued that this was partly due to repression — the deployment of more security guards on campus — which is probably true, although the burning or otherwise destruction of various buildings on various campuses certainly provided a useful pretext for such security guards without doing anything to further the objectives of the movement. However, he admitted that it was also due to “identity politics” — that is, racism — which had led him and Valley to leave the movement.

So what had the accomplishments been? Taking down Verwoerd’s plaque, apparently — which seems rather insignificant in comparison with the claimed objectives. So no sustainable movement was built, and no substantive accomplishments were gained, and the movement, by its determination to attack sympathetic academics and alienate supportive students on racial grounds, rendered itself undeserving of support, meaning that it could not be reformed or transformed into something more efficacious.

It didn’t seem to occur to either Shabangu or Valley that this was not really an advertisement for academics to join the movement. Obviously it is desirable for academics to join a struggle to change universities into something more like what academics would want to see happening. Obviously it is unfortunate that many academics are unwilling to recognise that this is important. But it is particularly unfortunate that students at the moment are not capable of putting together a movement deserving of academic support, nor of presenting an image of that movement which would create the illusion that it deserved academic support.

Perhaps something is wrong here.



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