By Dave Steward
Chairman of the FW de Klerk Foundation
In the 10th Annual Helen Joseph Lecture last month, Prof Njabulo Ndebele, the Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, mused about the burning earlier this year by UCT Rhodes-Must-Fall activists of portraits and commemorative objects symbolising the university’s “colonial” past. One of the objects was a plaque honouring Jan Christian Smuts. At first, Ndebele was shocked by this “burning of memory”.
However, after he had ‘mediated’ his thoughts, he saw the incident in a different light. It represented instead a clash between two historic periods – on the one hand “the legacy of the history of conquest” represented by Smuts – and on the other “the nascent moments” of the history that had begun in 1994.
The students, circling the bonfire, complained that they were “suffocating in the legacy of whiteness” that had been imposed upon them by the ‘colonialists’ who had created UCT. This was the onset of a “declared process to decolonise UCT” and rid it of aspects of its legacy that “consigned them to silence… and where they found it impossible to breathe.”
According to Ndebele, “at the heart of the call for the decolonisation of UCT was a more elemental source of disaffection: being ‘black’ in a ‘white’ world. The ‘black body in pain’ needed to be affirmed as human against its dehumanising depreciation as exploited labour over more than a century of captured service to Rhodes’s imperial, capitalist vision…”
One of the RMF activists, Athabile Nonxuba, recently spelled out the decolonisation agenda: he complained that “the current (UCT) curriculum dehumanises black students.” “We study all these dead white men who presided over our oppression… Our own thinking as Africans has been undermined. We must have our own education from our own continent.”
Ndebele asked what was now to be expected of whites? “Is it remorse, guilt, identification as African, adopting Bafana Bafana, moving from the ‘white’ suburbs to the ‘townships’, giving away a portion of their wealth in some way (whose accumulation is fundamentally questionable historically on moral and ethical grounds), adopting African names, learning African languages, ‘transferring their skills’?” However, he did not want to dictate to whites what they should become – except that their “pre-1994 social and personal sensibilities” were no longer achievable in post-1994 South Africa.
At the same time, he was critical of the new generation of black consciousness students and commented that “black pain” in its current manifestations came across to him “more as an attribute of victimhood than of agency”. He felt a dissonance between the black consciousness of his own youth and that of the current generation of black students. “In a country in ‘black’ hands for twenty-three years, I feel far more in a ‘black’ country than in a ‘white’ country.”
What is the relevance of all this for the future of our troubled universities – and for the future of South Africans who are not black?
Universities are called “universities” precisely because they are supposed to be repositories of universal knowledge. They are places where students can imbibe knowledge of the cultures, languages and science produced by civilisations all over the world. Much of this learning has been created by “dead white men”: indeed, it is impossible to understand the world, science, technology, politics and economics without understanding their contribution. Yet true universities have absolutely no interest in the race of the generators of knowledge. They accept no cultural or intellectual boundaries: they avidly gather and disseminate knowledge from all parts of the world – including the rich heritage of Africa.
The racially exclusive “decolonised” curriculum advocated by RMF would, on the other hand, cut students off from the great pool of global knowledge and culture that is essential for the future success of the country. What RMF is advocating is a kind of academic apartheid that would have made Hendrik Verwoerd dance with glee.
Ndebele is dismissive of whites. He ticks virtually all the boxes in the prevalent stereotype of whites to which FW de Klerk referred in a recent speech: whites are inveterate racists; they have not paid for the sins of the past; their wealth is undeserved; they are colonialists – alien interlopers in the African continent.
The stereotype culminates in his statement that it was time “to recognise that the norm of human presence in South Africa is ‘black’. That recognition is central to understanding where real agency for shaping the future of South Africa is overwhelmingly located, and that ‘blackness’ becomes so normal it ceases to exist.”
What he is saying that there is no place for the identities of non-black communities in the overarching identity of South Africa – and he is implying that within the South African context non-black communities are somehow “abnormal”.
This view is irreconcilable with the constitutional values on which our new society has been founded: it impugns the human dignity of non-black communities; it denies their right to equality; and it is the antithesis of non-racialism. Can one imagine the outrage that would quite rightly ensue if anyone were to declare that ‘the norm of human presence’ in the United States or Britain is ‘white’?
However, Ndebele is clearly uneasy about the approach of the new generation of radical black students: he asks “when the portraits of the ‘colonials’ have been burnt, the timeless questions remain: what is the future of the townships – (i.e. the great majority of ordinary black South Africans)?”
The answer is that black South Africans will not be able to avoid the reality that they live – not in a “white” – but in a globalised – world. If they want to improve the lives of ‘the people who live in the townships’ they will have to immerse themselves in the globalised knowledge, science and methodology that have led to unprecedented prosperity, freedom and wellbeing in societies throughout the world wherever they have been implemented.
This will require non-racial universities with curricula that teach and expand universal knowledge – at which all students, black and white, should feel free “to breathe”. We still have such universities – but those who are ‘circling the bonfire’ will destroy them if they succeed with their ‘decolonisation’ programme – and if they continue to burn institutional memory – including the memory of such global figures as Jan Christian Smuts.
The norm of human presence in South Africa should be neither black nor white: it should be our common humanity as articulated in the foundational values of our Constitution.