Over the last few months students in South Africa have called for the decolonisation of institutions of higher learning. While much of the focus has been on the experiences of students on campuses, there have also been attempts to articulate how the failures of transformation at universities can be linked to broader struggles against social injustice. Much of this has taken the form of imagining different universities, spaces that are not exclusionary, and that seek to truly engage with the contexts in which they are situated.
Confronting white supremacy and challenging it in the form of changing the curriculum is a critical step in bringing about transformation at universities, but it will hardly revolutionise South African society. Through more or less spontaneous organising, students have become sensitized to a range of issues, and have drawn attention to a range of issues, such as the outsourcing of workers on campus (something the UCT students of the Left movement have been doing for several years now). The question of how to bring about social justice beyond campus borders has not been at the centre of debates so far, partly because many of the students involved in these movements are deeply invested in what one activist named ‘economic liberation’. By this she did not mean freedom from the exploitative ravages of capitalism, but the rather the right to participate equally within the capitalist economy and to benefit from it, much as white people did under apartheid.
What is the relation between ideological replication, educational institutions (particularly universities) and the persistence of inequality and violence in the post-apartheid order? Framing the debate in this way brings a phrase like ‘economic liberation’ to a crisis point in that it forces us to confront the forms of collusion and betrayal that are necessary to attain ‘liberation’ of this sort. If we are to realise social justice, there is a great deal about how we think about knowledge reproduction and the uses to which it is put that needs to be radically transformed. Working towards social justice requires contesting and uprooting the structural legacy of apartheid, during which time the white minority accrued massive economic, military and cultural power. That power did not evaporate as a result of the legislative end of apartheid, and is evident, for instance, in an analysis of the socio-spatial geography of the town of Stellenbosch, where the wealthy elite have created spaces that resemble ethnically cleansed European cities and black people move cautiously around the edges, and work as security guards, cleaning staff and as administrators. Those who hold the power in the university and the town are the same people who held power under apartheid. These continuities extend from the Chancellor of the University, Johann Rupert, whose family amassed their fortune through the exploitative labour practices that began with slavery and continue into the present, to those who form part of the university establishment who previously held positions in the South African Defence Force or the so-called Civil Co-operation Bureau, an ominous misnomer for the apartheid regime’s death squads.
In 2009 the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation was commissioned by the post-apartheid state to conduct a study on the question of why South Africa has such high levels of violence. The researchers note that “South Africa has been distinguished by high levels of violence for most of the last century” and, drawing on the work of Gary Kynoch on colonial cities, trace the “serious problem of violent crime [to]… as early as the 1920s”. Kynoch argues that colonial and apartheid-era oppressive state practices and policies created “conditions, unique to South Africa, [that] nurtured a culture of violence that has reproduced itself ever since” (6). Critical here is the question of how such a culture ‘reproduces’ itself. What are the modes and mechanisms of such reproduction?
One answer to this question lies in the way universities and the knowledge they produced has historically been directed in the service of the apartheid state. It is no secret that university workers played a key part in the development of ideology under apartheid and provided the pseudo-science to support theories of white racial superiority. We also know that humanities scholars provided justifications for the banning and censorship of books and through their teaching shaped generations of young people who saw no wrong in apartheid. There were, of course, also those thinkers, students and faculty, who sought to resist the violence of the apartheid regime, just as there are those who have stood with the students calling for the decolonisation of universities in the present. To change what we are taught and how we are taught it is a critical step in bringing about transformation. Unless this is linked to a radical transformation of the structures which finally seize upon the knowledge we produce and either neutralise it or use it for iniquitous ends, nothing will really change. This is to recognise that university councils, such as that which governs Stellenbosch University, remain impervious to the presence of post-colonial, intersectional feminist and critical race scholars and their carefully argued critiques. The dismissive response of Stellenbosch University to the demands of students who are refusing to be taught in Afrikaans is a telling sign of just how sure the university management is of their intractable hold over the institution. The arrogant positions of the white men who continue to rule the university may have been forged under apartheid, but it is how that power remains unquestioned that continues to protect them in the present.
It is necessary to ask why the list of members of the Stellenbosch University Council largely consists of an old boy’s network of billionaire business associates and why these are the people who decide how the university is run. It is also important to ask why so many council members are on the boards of companies that are linked to Reunert, and its Stellenbosch-based subsidiary, Reutech, one of the largest air, sea and land defence companies in South Africa. Incidentally, Reutech was founded by council member and extraordinary Professor of Engineering at Stellenbosch University, PW van der Walt, and is named as one of the companies that benefited from the Strategic Defence Procurement Packages, better known as the arms deal. We know that throughout its history the university has been used to generate income for a small minority. The fact that this wealth has been amassed through the production and sale of arms and other forms of military technology that have been used to commit human rights abuses makes this all the more reprehensible.
It would be naïve to think, in the age of capitalist hegemony and the corporatisation of universities, and in the aftermath of apartheid, that corruption would not be a feature of institutions of higher learning. But to those who wish to argue that this is just the way things work and that we have to accept the status quo, there is a new generation of young people who are rising up and refusing what too many people have considered inevitable and impossible to change. There is a way in which the new student movements can be understood as having arisen in the aftermath of the Marikana massacre, and as a result of the widespread disillusion with the post-apartheid state. These movements represent great potential and at the same time they face an enormous challenge in identifying exactly what it is that needs to be changed. Some of the work that has to be done may entail giving up on aspirations for excessive material wealth that we have for too long been taught to think of as freedom.
Here are some images by Nigel Zhuwaki from a demonstration calling for the dissolution of the Stellenbosch University council, held by Open Stellenbosch yesterday: