Our social media and public discourse has become increasingly polarised and polarising; there is little room for nuance, for reflection rather than point-scoring between “us” and “them”. This is the final in a series of three articles, published in an attempt to negotiate this minefield.
They are stand-alone articles, but they need to be read in their totality.
Our recent social media and public discourse has been fraught with the language of decolonisation, white supremacy, racism, white privilege, institutional violence and “must fall” hashtags. During this period too, there have been numerous incidents of overt racism that have reflected the limitations and superficiality of the post-apartheid “reconciliation” and “rainbow nation” narratives.
While the student activism and the incidents of racism have been key discourse-shaping headlines, there are a few hard questions to be asked: Is university transformation and tertiary education access the most important focus for us as a country right now? Is our primary struggle really against racism and white privilege? How liberating is the discourse of “decolonisation”? What does our greater awareness of structural violence mean for transformative strategies and tactics?
Studies have shown that poverty is lowest among South Africans with tertiary education, so that to break the cycle of poverty, students from poorer families should be prioritised in accessing tertiary education. While the students have highlighted issues of access, it is the 2015 matric results that reveal where the major educational challenges lie. Who has access to tertiary education (and thus the best chance of moving out of poverty) is directly related to the quality of schooling received at pre-tertiary levels. Notwithstanding the huge public resources allocated to this sector, hundreds of thousands of learners do not complete matric, and thousands more do not qualify academically to enter tertiary education.
Stats SA indicates that two-thirds of people without education live in poverty, reducing to 55% of those with primary school education and 24% of those who matriculate – 58% of whites enter some form of tertiary education, along with 51% of Indians, 14.3% of coloureds and 12% of Africans.
Surely then, our efforts in the educational sector to deal decisively with poverty need to be expended on ensuring that everyone does indeed have access to decent, quality education at pre-tertiary levels, to offer them the best chance of accessing tertiary education?
Which brings me to the second question: Is our primary struggle really against racism and white privilege?
Doron Isaacs is a young, white man. He helped start Equal Education, a national, community-based advocacy organisation, campaigning for quality education for all. As the only white person in a national council of 19 people, Isaacs employs the benefits of his privilege – his education, networks and access to resources – to be part of addressing one of the key systemic problems inherited from our apartheid past. There are many “woke” white individuals like him, working in trade unions, social movements, community-based structures, advocacy groups and think-tanks who have made life and career choices to help transform our society.
There are other white people who seek to make a difference in the lives of individuals with whom they have some relationship. They pay for decent schooling – and sometimes, tertiary education – of the children of their domestic workers. They assist such workers to purchase a house, paying them well above the paltry minimum rates. Others support charities that address symptoms and organisations that deal with causes of social ills, while still others give away 5% of their gross annual income to address poverty as part of the Five-Plus Project.
Some might dismiss these as conscience-salving and ineffectual with regard to changing the structures from which the privileged continue to benefit, but what would be the point of demanding that people check their privilege if their attempts to employ their “unearned advantages” to help change the lives of others are summarily dismissed? Surely the number and scale of the challenges in our country require the collective efforts of as many as possible, and of those who are privileged in particular, beyond white students being asked to form a barrier between black students and security personnel?
There can be no equivocation about racism being called out, but to say that all whites are racists by virtue of benefiting from systemic racism, is to declare that people have little agency and that they are obliged to act according to the dictates of structural privilege. By the same logic, in our patriarchal society, all men are sexists and given the overwhelming structural bias against gay people, all straight people are homophobic.
While they are just about on par with whites in terms of education levels and income, are Indians less racist than whites, because they have not benefited from structural racism as much as whites? And, are coloureds who share many poverty indicators with black Africans, not racists, because they are more likely to be victims rather than beneficiaries of systemic racism?
Can men be part of a struggle against sexism? Can straight people help advance gay rights? Can white people – and Indians and coloureds – fight racism? Is there a hierarchy of struggles against oppression? Does the struggle against racism take precedence over the struggle against the oppression of women, or over the marginalisation of gay people? Is it possible for a white gay activist to be racist? Can black male leaders against racism be sexists? Could a disability activist be homophobic? Does one have to be passionate about opposing all oppression before one can legitimately engage in opposition to one form of oppression? (If so, many of the leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle might not have been eligible). The nature of our current, polarising discourse is such that while it is of course possible for all of these scenarios to exist, it would be best for individuals not to declare where they stand in relation to a form of oppression about which they are ambivalent.
Rather than begin from a state of theoretical purity, we should be harnessing available and interested expertise, networks and resources to address our key challenges of inequality and poverty. Through collective participation, we could constantly educate ourselves and each other and address our unearned advantages, but always with our efforts geared towards eliminating inequality and poverty.
The third question has to do with the limitations of the discourse of “decolonisation”. There are those who typically respond to this language of decolonisation defensively with statements like “universities are the result of colonisation, so should we take away your university?”. However, I understand the “decolonisation” project to be saying that practices, language, symbols and educational content that resonate with the colonial project of denigrating indigenous knowledge, that preferences one – often non-indigenous – culture above others, and that violates the dignity or undermines the humanity of historically oppressed people, should be revisited, and be contextualised, amended or removed as the specifics may require.
But, while we have been “decolonising” our historically white universities, it is now common cause that our economy is increasingly integrated with that of China, that much of our energy future will be linked to Russia and that a family from India has captured a faction of the ruling party, and with it, has compromised many of our state institutions, purely for the financial gain of some elites. At the same time, our country has itself become a neo-colonising force on the African continent through the tentacles of our corporates, our media organisations, our military capability and our roles in structures such as Brics.
In a globalised world, we need to devise discourses that speak to the overarching narrative that would reflect the needs and interests of our country’s majority, while multiple other narratives are devised and applied to their specific conditions.
Finally, to the issue of structural and systemic violence. We live in a world where economic, political, military/security and cultural power intersect at global, regional, national and even institutional levels to allow those who wield power, to prevail. The irony of our continued human existence is that it is maintained and secured by the threat of its very violent obliteration – the so-called “nuclear deterrent”.
Struggles to change oppressive systems then require strategies that take account of the ways in which power is exercised and maintained, with an evaluation of the balance of forces – the relative strengths and weaknesses of those in power and those seeking change – informing tactics. Given the nature of systemic violence and the ability of those in power to wield coercive force, it is seldom a good tactic simply to “meet violence with violence”. There are indeed times when the use of force and violence to counter violence is necessary and appropriate, and our own struggle against apartheid is replete with lessons in this regard.
Murder in the Cathedral, a play by TS Eliot, tells of the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket, an opponent of the king, perceived to be an unjust authority, in 1170. The archbishop faces four temptations: to seek his physical safety, to serve the king and gain power and riches, to form a coalition with the elites against the king, and finally, to embrace the glory of martyrdom. The play speaks to the temptation to act selfishly, to appear to be acting for the right, moral reasons, but actually, the real motivations are more egotistical, even if they have to do with death and martyrdom.
Sometimes, we are tempted to be revolutionaries, we fall in love with the idea of being a revolutionary, and we act as we believe revolutionaries should act. The goals of the cause take second place to “revolutionary acts”, which for some are best expressed through violence. Others are tempted to be counted among the revolutionaries, with anyone in a position of authority or power, regarded as the enemy, or collaborators with the enemy. In particular contexts, this may very well be the case. In the case of a university in contemporary South Africa, this singular approach is questionable, more particularly when the aims of student activism – affordable access, changes to the university curriculum and public symbols, and the insourcing of vulnerable workers – may generate broad public sympathy and political support. Tactics that employ violence may allow some to feel “revolutionary”, but these tactics more often than not have the effect of alienating public – and even constituency – sympathy, thereby strengthening the position of those in authority.
In conclusion, while it is only right that struggles for progressive change occur on a number of fronts, it is the needs, interests and aspirations of the majority of our citizens who are poor, black, under the age of 35 and mostly women that should primarily inform our transformation narrative. We do not have to be fully evolved in our politics to make a constructive contribution; if we believe in social justice and accept that the dignity of all human beings requires an approach that is anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic and anti-xenophobic, that would be a good start.
A longer version of this article is available here mikevangraan.wordpress.com