Professor Achille Mbembe’s analysis of the state of South African political life responds to the political movements of students at South African universities who are actively and loudly challenging the status quo at their institutions. Mbembe is correct to view the ongoing student movements of 2015 within the national political discourse. But his analysis and critique is limited on two counts. Firstly, his insight is generated from the outside looking in, and secondly, there is a conflation or confusion of different student movements and student politics into a single “politics”.
These two failings have characterised the representation of South African student movements of 2015 since their emergence. South African student activists have had to contend not only with their intractable and sometimes repressive universities, but also with a range of presumptuous public commentary that either intentionally delegitimises their actions and purpose (which Mbembe does not do), or which can be manipulated to this purpose.
Mbembe identifies a politics of “impatience” that seeks to “radically overturn” the interests of white privilege. This is true of student movements throughout the country. He also recognises the trend of narcissistic fixation on personal suffering through whiteness, which bears on identity to the point that political communication from different perspectives becomes almost impossible. He asserts that such “self-enclosure” cannot be the foundation of more livable futures.
The terrain of student struggles is certainly contested, and students have had to and will continue to confront ideas from across the political spectrum, among them political narcissism. No political moment is free of dispute or of self-interested opportunism. Still, ostensibly in response to Mbembe but directed at commentators generally, two things about the student struggles require immediate clarification: student movements are all different, and students are the authorities on student politics.
On the first point, it should be noted that one student movement has been elided in most analyses despite the frequent journalistic presence of its members and the fraught struggle in which they have been involved. This is the Black Student Movement (BSM) at the university currently known as Rhodes in Grahamstown. Generally, Rhodes Must Fall at the University of Cape Town, Open Stellenbosch, and Transform Wits have been more recognised.
It is not surprising, then, that the BSM is absent from Rhoda Kadalie’s recent contemptuous, rather incoherent and clichéd attack on student politics. Her piece joins a growing catalog of recent opinion that makes no attempt to engage with the students’ struggles, with the realities of their circumstances, or with their politics. She is a self-professed observer from a distance. On that count alone, we might discount her analysis and opinion. But her opinions are not hers alone. They epitomise the sort of inanity and attacks that have been levelled at students all year, including at the BSM.
Calling them “politically ignorant”, Kadalie chastises students for criticising authorities with credentials won in past struggles. Students have been scolded in this way all year, in the press and in person. They have been told what problems they should focus on and the proper methods they should employ; they have been told that they aren’t able to articulate themselves. They have been accused of misreading the revolutionaries and thinkers who inspire them; they have had these names – Frantz Fanon, Steve Biko – invoked against them. They have been told they lack sophistication; they have been told to respect their elders. They have been told to go back to their studies. According to everyone doing nothing to achieve change, the students are all wrong.
Unfortunately, given its twofold impairment – the vantage point of an outsider and its failure to distinguish alternative political strands – Mbembe’s sophisticated critique of a specific politics does not dispel this negative portrayal of student politics. He promotes one strand of political expression as being definitive of “the state” of politics in South Africa.
It is dangerous to take the loudest voice on its word (unless one’s project is to identify and condemn narcissism). The self-absorbed bourgeois politics Mbembe condemns is definitely real and it is loudly present today. But the alternative politics that Mbembe would see thought about and practiced – “the capacity to resume a human life in the aftermath of irreparable loss” – exists. Activists and thinking people with quieter voices (in and out of the media) are making arguments that challenge contemporary whiteness in both self- and other-affirming ways. Some of these activists and thinkers are students involved in the struggles of this year, including in the BSM, which was founded on an inclusive politics dedicated to fighting racist, classist and intellectual oppression, exclusion, and alienation at its university.
The problem is that inclusive – in fact, anti-exclusionary – forms of politics do not have the “trendy” expedience of protestations of personal victimisation or suffering. Suffering is legitimate, but it can also be politicised in many ways; and the media, both professional and social, is likely implicated in setting divisive trends and giving space for their expression. Those intent on delegitimising student movements also find a handy tool available in a certain politics of self (that Mbembe is right to disavow), and are guilty of manipulating that trend. It becomes difficult from the outside, for Mbembe for example, to identify anything else as the politics du jour.
Neither does Nomalanga Mkhize’s response to Mbembe concede alternatives to such politics. She refers to the “students’ shortcomings” and argues that these are inculcated by university academic staff. While the language and attitudes of academic staff certainly affect students, they do not ultimately determine which direction the students choose to take. If that were the case and students adopted the generally complacent or reactionary attitudes of many staff, there would have been no student activism this year. Mkhize’s argument does not make allowance for students to develop an affirmative and universal politics on and of their own. She represents the issue as a top-down technical problem: with better teachers, students would have a better politics. Sophisticating student political expression becomes another item on the checklist of transformation.
Like Mbembe, Mkhize does not attend to the fact that, at times this year, students have gone beyond selfish politics to practice a humanising and anti-exclusionary politics that does not count difference among its tenets.
Neglecting this strand of student politics is damaging. Neglect allows for detractors and reactionaries such as Kadalie, both in and out of universities, to insist without question that “what [the students] want is not really clear”. Students have faced this nonsensical retort to their demands all year. Let us set that record straight.
On 30 September, the same day Kadalie’s article appeared, after a month-long occupation, after eight months of protest and struggle against dogged defense of the status quo (in spite of rhetoric to the contrary) during which student activists faced threats of violence from other students and criminalisation by the university, the BSM claimed a victory. The Rhodes University senate accepted a plan to resolve the problem of short vacation accommodation. (The university currently charges students to stay in residences, but some can afford neither the fees nor the costs of travelling home for a week.)
The vacation accommodation problem would not have been dealt with had the BSM not engaged in protest action. Until the occupation, which began on 26 August, the issue was not treated with any urgency by the university administration. On 28 August, a first attempt by the BSM to meet with the senate regarding the issue resulted in a lockout and intervention by police, and campus and private security. The negotiated victory notwithstanding, there is no indication that other issues will be taken seriously or attended to without student protest.
At a recent student body meeting organised by the Rhodes student representative council, a “report on transformation” by the vice-chancellor (VC) revealed, through his determined lack of answers to pointed and important questions from students, that there is no tangible plan for any change at the university on any issue the students find important.
For some examples: The VC’s “plan” for making Rhodes more accessible to students from Grahamstown did not extend beyond a feeble call for student mentors to visit local high schools. The VC’s “plan” for curriculum change was to advise students to speak to their lecturers about including different material. Students presented compelling evidence that academic staff had not and would not listen to them on this score. The VC did not accept such arguments. When students commented that the university was placing the burden of transformation upon students, the VC denied it. Whenever challenged, the status quo beat a quick retreat into the safe haven of bureaucracy.
Students consistently and clearly articulated precisely what they want. They want the university to take seriously the experience and struggle of working class students. They want members of the university community to be held accountable for acts of racism. They want the university to address with urgency the problem of a culture of sexual violence. They want their languages to be taken seriously as languages of intellectual value. They want a curriculum with which they can identify. They want a university no longer named after an arch-imperialist and racist. Student activists want an apology for criminalisation by the university. They want an authentic commitment to concrete change on the part of the university’s administration.
Acknowledged or not, the BSM’s objective is a university in which alienation and oppression – racist, classist and intellectual – are not built into university life. They have peacefully protested against such alienation. They recently marched in solidarity with the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union to protest the ill treatment of workers at their university, and with the Unemployed Peoples’ Movement against municipal corruption.
So much for what Kadalie describes as anti-intellectual, egoistic “havoc”.
The issues and demands are not obscure or abstract. They are consistently rooted in and expressed through the lived experiences of students. Despite the exhausting contempt with which student activists have been treated by universities and in the press, they are managing to effect change.
Still, many people refuse to listen, and many people are determined to break the student movements. It is time to stop giving ear to those who would undermine them. Proponents of institutional transformation such as Mbembe and Mkhize, though within their right to be critical, should take better care not to furnish fodder to the ravenous Kadalies of the press.
Enough people say the students have the wrong politics. Anyone offering insight on student politics in South Africa must begin with the knowledge that there is more than one student politics, from the assumption that students are perfectly able to articulate themselves, and under the certainty that commentary that does not accept this can be valuable only to cynics.
Main Pic: BSM member Thenjiwe Mswane is caught between the bars of the gate during a protest on August 28 this year: By Kate Janse van Rensburg