THE ROLE OF THE SOCIALLY ENGAGED ACADEMIC IN TIMES OF STUDENT STRUGGLE
SESSION 2: 18 November 2016
CHAIR: Brendon Gray
REPORT: Razia Mayet
|Nyasha Mboti and Tariq Toffa gave the key inputs|
Nyasha Mboti was the first speaker. He opened by stating that he is fascinated by the long overdue transformation in the educational landscape. As a mentor and HOD of Communication Studies, he has attended many brainstorming and discussion sessions with students. They students have reached the point where they feel they need to move away from the cathartic complaining about their demarginalized status within the agenda of the greater South African political and educational landscape. They realize the need to start looking at scenarios and solutions for the future. Nyasha invited students to offer suggestions and solutions as a reflection on the ideas put forth by MEC’s and the minister of Education and Vice Chancellors. He questions whether we as academics and members of Senate are the best placed to offer suggestions and solutions, given our vested interests. The real question for the students is how to move from the ‘self-righteous pontification of the elite who benefit but are out of touch with the reality’. The students felt that their feelings and ideas were being hijacked and in fact they were presented as malcontents and othered as terrorists. This was disturbingly reminiscent of the Apartheid era where the struggle activists were labelled during struggle protests and problematized as a ‘a few malcontents‘ or as ‘communists and perpetrators’. The narrative is going back to the same old ‘Swartgevaar /red threat’ narrative of the apartheid era, thus creating the notion that the majority of students are fine and content with the status quo, but that a few agitators are the enemy and have to be dealt with.
Nyasha shared the details of one of the scenarios that students discussed:
If we decolonize the curriculum or if protests continue, all the white students and rich kids will leave the university and attend private universities that will be set up as businesses. The brilliant professors and lecturers will be poached and head-hunted to private universities and the whole system will be replicated with the rich /white kids being favored. But say the students, the system is rigged to benefit them anyway. It’s the intellectual property that matters and South Africa belongs to the black people who are in larger numbers.
A second scenario is, ‘how can we protect our universities?’ Many other such scenarios are being problematized and discussed by the students.
The main thing is to keep identifying the problem and prompting the students to find the way forward. Students need the engaged academics to come in and help them to identify the readings and offer expertise to help them to decolonize the curriculum. It’s not as impossible as it seems. In UKZN the decision was taken, with much dissent from whites and Indians, to introduce isiZulu as a first year subject. A year into that decision it seems to be going forward and working out.
Tariq Toffa was the second speaker. His reflection was about looking at decoloniality anew through the medium of both prose and poetry. For Tariq the decolonization movement was a tremendous learning experience with many new insights and critiques having been gained by everyone, including in the way the media is reporting about the debate. “We are all stumbling around as no one really knows”, he said reflecting on his own engagement. He has supported the protests and student action from the start but along the way some of his views have changed. Here he cited Malcolm X as an iconic example. People remember the early years and militancy of Malcolm X, but in the last period of his life many of his views changed drastically. He was often misunderstood as he rethought everything and was much more universal in his outlook near the end of his life. So in times of crisis change is a useful touchstone. In this regard Tariq observed three distinct engagements since the decolonization debate started. The first he calls the clarion call (of a new umbrella and intersections of the disenfranchised); the second courage and criticisms (of activists) and the third period is the coming confusions and challenges. He shared three beautiful and very moving poems that he has written, each inspired by and indicative of each of the periods:
1. Clarion Call
(from Oct to Nov 2015)
When did joining democratisation and education become so objectionable?
When did separating profit and knowledge become so unimaginable?
So mobilise equals criminalise?
Rights equals fights?
And the militarisation of public space so common place?
The money, the power and the ivory towers;
The tactical management of any dissent.
A long list of Modern crises,
We must add to it now, the very idea of 'universities'.
2. Courage and Criticism
(from Nov 2015 to Oct 2016)
When technology and space is mobilised.
When the call to justice is villianised.
To protect a system from those it disenfranchised?
The end of the civilised.
3. Coming Confusions
(from Oct 2016)
There is a great sadness, in this madness.
There is great madness, in this sadness.
Is this the time for revolution?
With new visions, persecutions?
Was this rising inevitable?
Is its fall predictable?
Have ideals now all soured?
Have young futures now floundered?
While they count rands not bullets?
And all of this left poetry wordless.
Some said, 'choose: injustice, or anarchy?'
I said, 'no, humanity, humanity'.
O soul unconsoled, this heaven is yet faraway.
Here the means is also the goal.
Tariq concluded with reflections on the current ‘third period’ and the last of the three poems. ‘The ‘decolonial turn’ according to Tariq is totally new. It has no precedence, or flavor, no refinement or modalities. It is all being created as it unfolds. Whereas in pre-modern frameworks methods could unfold from larger ontologies, here the methods are creating the ontologies: “the decolonization movement is built upon in situ in the moment”. Thus while he adds that he was initially critical of the university authorities’ emphasis on decolonizing the curriculum at the expense of other pressing and more immediate issues, he believes that now the time is right to also work toward long term plans for the future of the project – that the shorter and longer term need to develop alongside each other. Many people who identify as allies of the movement for example say something to the effect ‘we agree with the ideals but not the methods’ shows that we need to think of means and ends not as separate things. Rather one is embedded in the other and each impacts upon the other.
Tariq believes that decolonization therefore is not only about economics and material redress. It must also mean the restoration of marginalized histories, narratives and discourses, as well as the undertaking of what those very things have to teach us about how we should think and act ‘decolonially’. If not then we may be objectifying the scope of the project. Though students need each other’s strength and support, we also need to take those kinds of criticisms seriously.
Tariq mentioned a recent conversation he had with Dr Sikhumbuzo Mngadi from the UJ Department of English, one of a number of scholars he regards as emerging critical decolonial thinkers, where the latter called such long-term questions ‘post-war questions. Tariq believes this is a fair assessment of the current situation, but nonetheless believes that one of the roles of the socially engaged academic now is precisely to do that work. The critical scholar/ the socially engaged academic cannot be neutral. It is the students who forced us to bring these issues to the table. It is reciprocal that we should be talking about it and developing the discourse. We must bring marginalized groups, histories, ideas and notions into focus. In the end it’s for a more humane and just world. Without these different kinds of work in both ‘scholarly’ and ‘activist’ forms, he believes the movement will be soured and distorted, and undone almost inevitably.
The first point raised was about the subversive victimization of staff members who are seen to be supporting the student struggle. A staff member felt that this was already underway and that line managers were being fed distorted information, like that students who are involved in Fees Must Fall are the poorly performing students. The media is also attempting to sensationalize and highlight negative issues, an example being an article headlined Professors of protest. A speaker was concerned about the role of middle management. There are no conversations within departments. Are managers afraid of getting implicated? Reporters are fueling the ‘Profs of Protest’ notion and so positions get entrenched leading to a refusal to engage.
A point was made about the increasing language of militarization used in communiques and meetings at senate level. There is talk of “our intelligence reports…..we need to be ready for preemptive strikes….armed security …. “.
Nyasha reminded us that #FMF has forced to the surface issues that were never resolved due to the heady post-apartheid rainbow nation days. He quoted Professor Bawa who said at the decolonization debate at Resolution Circle: “We must thank the students for bringing this to the fore. These issues were parked for over twenty years. But people live these issues daily….”
These impasse’s will always be there lying dormant. But the hidden apartheid within us and the structures we serve will always resurface. It was good for the contradictions to surface so that they can be seen and dealt with.
There are very real tensions that exist and in the face of that there is value in ‘staying with the trouble’. If we’re constantly looking away or looking forward it means that we are not looking at the current space where the trouble exists. We must engage with the past and present and deal with addressing the underlying issues. None of this is easy or lends itself to finding solutions within the trouble. To be academics who are engaged in times of student struggle means to teach in a way that opens the way for critical thinking and engagement. To a large extent the curriculum seems not to lend itself to finding the solutions within the troubles.
The meeting ended with a look at the way forward.
Attendees all agreed that another session in the New Year was vital but invitations and venue details need to be sent out to all staff so more staff can attend and contribute.
In preparing for the ‘COMING CONFUSION’ (Tariq’s third era) Amira Osman offered 4 points from her experience of revolution in Sudan.
· Revolution in a void has to be avoided at all costs.
· Academics and students need to interrogate the notion that the end justifies the means
· Language issues had to be dealt with. Beware of Sloganeering. Words used can cause grave disruption. Examples from the Sudan were ‘authenticization’, ‘Arabization, ‘Africanisation’. These must be clearly interrogated and defined.
· Finally she warned that the decolonization debate /issue should not only be looked at as a black vs white issue. If it is looked at in that way it lacks the depth of humanity and history. In Africa one cannot ignore the Arabs, Indians, Chinese and other people for whom this is home.
Brendon concluded by offering the following as the way forward:
· That an archive of information needs to be created by writing reports on the meetings and debates.
· We need to agree on the discourse of decolonization
· We need further discussions on the role of the socially engaged academic
· We need to broaden the discussion to include “what’s the purpose of the university?”