In the last two weeks, students belonging to the #RhodesMustFall collective have rechristened and remade of one of University of Cape Town’s key administrative building as ‘Azania House.’ They have been occupying the building since March 20and it has become a nodal point for the student led collective. At the end of one of the first teach-ins at Azania House, a UCT student and member of the collective, Ru Slayen, half-jokingly and half-seriously suggested instituting teach-ins like the one we had just had in a new summer school to be named the Post-colonial School of Cape Town.

Ru’s words might have been half-serious and half-joking but they also, as I grasp them, iterated a desire to institute and inhabit a university that in the first instance enables an understanding of the after-effects of colonialism and then reflects on how to ‘go beyond’ them, as Stuart Hall argued in 1996. Cecil John Rhodes’ statue is one such manifest symbol of colonialism and the students’ passionate calls for its removal are a reminder of the visceral ways in which history is experienced. But the visceral sting of colonial inheritances can be felt repeatedly and in many places. At Azania House students remind us of that experience through the posters that they have put up on its walls. Amongst the many that have come up in in the last two weeks, one announced that, “we are no longer at ease.” Several others bear printed copies of the many racist Facebook responses that the #RhodesMustFall page has received; these Facebook comments appear intent on hurting and demeaning the students who are part of the movement. Some of these racist comments are from fellow students, and others perhaps from members of the wider Cape Town and South African citizenry who disagree with the #RhodesMustFall collective’s cause and dispute its members’ position. On its part, the university administration has also had to deal with vicious outpourings. It had put up writing boards around the statue to invite comments from the university community on transformation issues but had to remove them because, according to a university missive, many of the comments penned there constituted ‘hate speech.’

At the university wide assembly on March 25, 2015, many black student speakers angrily, indignantly and poignantly called out such hurtful commentary and hateful speech. They gave the audience a taste of what they have been at the receiving end of in the last few weeks. Furthermore they drew attention to the hurtful milieu they live and study in—replete not just with colonial era statues and symbols but also with pedagogical and conversational modes that regard black students as deficient, necessarily lagging in the civilizational race, and with course content that tells their history and describes their African present as above all a site of failure and lack. 

Descriptions of this milieu and the complaints against it were articulated with passion and pain. Several students insisted that the symbolic redress of that pain through the removal of Rhodes statue could not be a matter of rational deliberation, discussion and debate. Their words complimented the remarks my colleague Xolela Mangcu’s made at the assembly and penned in a Cape Times article the day before. Passionate words articulated to signal profound desires are also a sign of dangerous politics for some (see for instance here and here; see Xolela Mangcu’s reaction to these here).

The humiliated possess the power to pollute the privileged and to horrify them. The political theorist Gopal Guru discusses the nature of that power while writing about Dalit politics and the so-called untouchables of India. At UCT all of us—students, faculty and staff members—had arrived at the large assembly in the wake of a movement triggered by Chumani Maxwele’s act of flinging excreta at the Rhodes statue; that act undermined and polluted historical privilege, and now perhaps some members of the university assembly and its public sphere were also horrified.

This is not the place to rehearse frequently analyzed blind spots of the Habermasian public sphere and the well-known critiques of the deliberative democracy model. But it is important to recall and understand the nature of prestige accorded to, what another social theorist Michael Warner calls, the “ideology of rational-critical discussion” or “parliamentary forensics” (2002:82). In a post-colonial university like the one I believe Ru asked for, social science disciplines will help students historicize this ideology, understand how parliamentary forensics emerged in the metropole and how they became reified as the normative democratic form. The university will help students understand how such democratic forms have determined their past and might determine the future of their societies.

Such a post-colonial university might indeed have to emerge from the ashes of what brand managers call a “world-class” one. But it might be one where the dominant “hierarchy of faculties” (on the top – reason; on the bottom – passion; Warner 2002: 84) and attendant political practices is questioned. Furthermore, to draw on Warner again, it might be one where we know our students not only through the practices of arguing, opining, discussing and deliberating but by putting ourselves in the line of their “corporeal expressivity” (2002: 82). To paraphrase Warner, what our students say to us might then be really sensible to us if we pay attention to not only to what they say but also to how they say it (2002: 83).

Students who passionately asked for Rhodes’ fall grounded their demands in history, in the description of their present context, and in a well-spring of historical and lived experience of hurt and pain caused by attempts to humiliate them. Coming from India where majoritarian enactments of such passions have been the source of grievous harm especially to minorities and to the very idea of a democratic, secular India, I am only too familiar with the dangers of such political practices. Hope of reasoned legislative and judicial deliberation has sometimes been the only recourse available to minorities and others under siege from majoritarian passions.

But then I am reminded of another formative post-colonial thinker, Stuart Hall, whose words are worth quoting at length here. Writing about the crisis that left politics has found itself in for the last few decades, Hall wrote

… isn’t the ubiquitous, the soul-searching, lesson of our times the fact that political binaries do not (do not any longer? Did they ever?) (reason and passion come to mind – my words) either stabilize the field of political antagonism in any permanent way or render it transparently intelligible? …. political positionalities are not fixed and do not repeat themselves for one historical situation to the next or from one theater of antagonism to another, ever ‘in place,’ in an endless iteration. Isn’t that the shift from politics as a ‘war of manoeuvre’ to politics as a ‘war of position,’ which Gramsci long ago and decisively charted?  And are we not all, in different ways, and through different conceptual spaces desperately trying to understand what making an ethical political choice and taking a political position in a necessarily open and contingent political field is like, what sort of ‘politics’ adds up to?(1996: 244)

The choice I believe black students at the university assembly made was not to enact a public that would abide by the ideology of parliamentary forensics, but what Warner and others have hailed as a counterpublic that literally speaks in many languages (note for instance the use of isiXhosa and Afrikaans by some students and speakers), switches codes, is impolite, conflictual, conscious of its minor and marginal location, and sets itself up against the dominant public genres and forces. In other instances, in their own meetings, meetings with Senate and other assemblies, the same students have and might chose the rational deliberative mode as the ethical political choice of the hour.  It is then perhaps the sign of an emerging post-colonial university that the #RhodesMustFall students are not beholden to one way of doing politics or the other. Instead they have been crafting what an ethical political position in a contingent field might be; they deliberate upon the choices available to them and act upon that choice—passionately and reflexively—to change the place we all work and live in.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.