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White, male, democrat, African

Robert Morrell

"I write this article as a white man. I write also as a South African and as a democrat. These are identities that are important to me and many other South Africans. They cut across race, gender and generation. They provide a basis for collective work and for bridge building. So why should white men be taken out of the category 'South African' and subjected to special treatment," asks Robert Morrell.

I write this article as a white man. I write also as a South African and as a democrat. These are identities that are important to me and many other South Africans. They cut across race, gender and generation. They provide a basis for collective work and for bridge building. Indeed, these were the goals of Congress supporters in the 1950s and these have been the messages of nation-builders in the post-apartheid period.

So why should white men be taken out of the category “South African” and subjected to special treatment? And why should they be analysed in terms of baboon behaviour? I cannot speculate about Professor Malegapuru Makgoba’s motives (“Wrath of dethroned white males”, March 24), but I do wish to turn to South African universities and the place of white men within them — it is a world I know well and a world I understand differently to the way Makgoba does.

South African universities have existed for more than a century and in this time politics has been ever present in their affairs.

As we are often reminded, South African universities have historically been staffed by whites and, by and large, by white men.

It is well known that Hendrik Verwoerd was a Stellenbosch University sociologist. But equally one can point to a host of white male scholars in the past three decades who have analysed and critiqued apartheid. These academics have also over the years sought to create a climate of open debate, to build democratic institutions accessible to students, rich and poor, black and white.

It was not such a long time ago (but clearly too long to remain in the memory of some who wish to forget the history of the struggle) when many white, male academics (among thousands of other freedom-loving South Africans) committed themselves explicitly to advancing the anti-apartheid struggle. Many academics were members of the African National Congress and the United Democratic Front and many worked tirelessly to broaden resistance to apartheid. Risks were taken in this work and sacrifices made. Neil Aggett and David Webster paid the ultimate price for their commitment but many others were victims in one or other way of state repression.

In Makgoba’s terms, in universities undergoing transformation, it is white males generally who are being explicitly identified as “the enemy”. White men are simply treated as an aggregation, all the same and to be moved aside now that a new era has dawned, regardless of their political commitment and contribution.

Is there a place for white men in South African universities? In some universities they have been explicitly told that leadership positions are not available. They have been told that they need to step back and allow other identified minority groups to move into positions to ensure a demography reflecting the country’s population. But at the same time, these men have collectively contributed a great deal and still have much to offer.

There are, in fact, good reasons to ensure that all sectors of the academic community feel a part of transformation. In a skills-short society it is important optimally to harness all resources. Since white South African men are often the most productive researchers in South African universities, it makes sense to encourage them and to assist them, rather than to ostracise and exclude them. It is also important to get everybody to work for a new, inclusive culture, to develop a human rights framework and to prevent the resurrection or creation of new divisions.

In many universities, it is older white men who contribute the bulk of research and writing.

At the heart of Makgoba’s article is a highly prescriptive but contradictory vision of what it means to be “an African”. While saying that diversity should be celebrated, Makgoba immediately goes on to hector white men about the need to “speak, write and spell in an African language”, to learn kwaito and dance like Lebo. There is no appreciation here of diversity at all.

What being an African means, needs to be debated. Makgoba’s voice needs to be heard, but not so loudly that it drowns out other voices. And it seems to me that this is what Makgoba wants. He wants his views to dominate. Which brings me to two final points.

We may not all agree on the direction and shape of transformation of this country’s universities, but we do believe the process is important and necessary. Many want to debate the vision and participate. Most students and staff that I meet believe that it is important for universities to be democratic, to reflect the values which for five decades attracted the commitment, support and sacrifice of many South Africans.

Universities cannot succeed other than to acknowledge human worth, both in its potential and in its achievement. Universities are about converting potential into achievement. They are about endeavour, success and failure. And it is individuals who do the work. Historically good work has been encouraged, recognised and rewarded. Such a process requires that individuals be evaluated without reference to race, class, gender, religion and so on. Yet we now have a system emerging where such evaluations are occurring that are predicated on the view that white men have something to answer for and are an obstacle to transformation. There is no proof provided and, more worryingly, the individuals who are advocating this pernicious position locate themselves outside the arena of struggle, as though they have nothing to do with high levels of demoralisation among senior white staff.

My question is: Will Makgoba allow debate? He has the institutional power to limit debate at one university and the media profile to disseminate what borders on a racially divisive doctrine around the country. Conversely, he can use his position as vice-chancellor to promote a process of change that genuinely engages with all constituencies (including white men) and he can use his public eminence to begin to build a more harmonious South Africa.

Unfortunately his recent Mail & Guardian article gives little reason for optimism. His claim that more and more white males are “being caught, fingered and revealed” as being racist is likely to encourage others to pursue a witch-hunt under the guise of executive authorisation. If white males are called perjorative names and made to feel that they are obstacles, then they will quite rightfully interpret this as bullying managerial practice. A possible response is to withdraw from active participation in the institution. Since much expertise and institutional memory resides with this group, this would be regrettable. Indeed, this could be seen as the biggest threat to university transformation, rather than the presence of white men.

Robert Morrell is a professor at the faculty of education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal

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