Dr Mbembe goes to Potchefstroom

On Monday I spent the afternoon at the Potchefstroom campus of the University of the North-West.

I was invited by a group of colleagues in the Humanities to give a public lecture on the question of the ‘decolonization’ of knowledge. A little more than 100 people showed up and the exchange was very fruitful. The lecture was followed by four structured responses from faculty staff and the usual question and answer session.

The University of the North-West has three main campuses – Mafikeng, Potchefstroom and Vaal Triangle. For the time being, Potchefstroom campus is relatively insulated from the ongoing turmoil in some of the main South African campuses. It is predominantly white and recruits most of it students from Afrikaner urban communities in Gauteng and the Western Cape. The current Vice Chancellor is black.

From what I was told and the little I could see, the campus is the epitome of the apparently intractable contradictions that saddle South African higher education twenty years or so after the end of Apartheid. On this mostly white enclave fenced off by color and privilege, many black students are made to feel as interlopers. The perennial issues of language, white ethnicity and identity are ripe. How they will be dealt with is not clear.

As I was leaving campus at around 8pm, I was taken to the main square, in front of the Administration Building, where a sizeable group of young white students were protecting a colonial statue – that of an Afrikaner poet-cum-theologian known for his justification of Apartheid on divine grounds. Apparently during the day, some black students had gathered around that statue and engaged in toyi-toying (a renowned protest dance familiar to those who have followed the cultural history of this country). In response, these young white students had now come to gather around the statue, shielding it and hoping thereby to protect it from the kind of desecration Cecil Rhodes had been subjected to at UCT recently. We know what followed.

A small group of enlightened staff from the Humanities is trying to carve out a space for a criical reflection on how to ‘decolonize’ knowledge in such a setting. I was invited to contribute to that effort and was thoroughly impressed by what I heard.

Otherwise, in today media, there are more comments and opinion pieces on the students uprising. Most political parties, including the ANC, have now openly declared their support for the movement. The last two days have been marked by scenes of extraordinary police brutality and intimidation against black students in the Western Cape. Some have been arrested, taken to police stations, then released.

The big question (and fear) in the ANC is whether, in what is going on, one might identify the seeds of an “Arab Spring”. Thus ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe’s warning against those he calls the “pseudo-revolutionaries” in the movement.

Achille Mbembe

Achille Mbembe is a philosopher, political scientist, and public intellectual.

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