Wits whitey in the woodpile

Professor Charles van Onselen, Wits University historian, in THE MARK GEVISSER PROFILE

PERHAPS the problem Charles van Onselen has, I think as we sit together on a Sunday afternoon, is that he looks — ; and sometimes sounds — like the enemy: bulging eyes beneath a balding pate, ware-ding khaki shorts, blustering physicality, bombast and belligerence. He talks with the overdramatised stress of a 19th century Shakespearean actor; his discourse is filled with the building crescendoes of rhetorical interrrogatives, with hammed stage-whispers and sneering mimicry; verbal capes he flourishes over his earthy features. As he talks, I imagine him playing a platteland Lear.

But it is all too easy to miss the ironies and perpetual self-deprecations and qualifications embedded in his bombast; to tune, instead, into the crackle of righteous indignation that has made him one of the most contentious figures in current South African academia. Here, for example, is a classic torrent, in response to the allegation that he has irrevocably torn Wits University apart with the tome of allegations of fraud and incompetence he has compiled against Wits deputy vice-chancellor William Makgoba:

“According to your newspaper and everyone else, the university is bleeding to death anyhow! Here, at last, is the opportunity for an operation which might save it. The patient might die! I’m saying, ‘Christ, I acknowledge that!’ But what do I do? Do I sit back and say, ‘I know I’ve got an incompetent fraud in senior office who’s in with a good chance of running it, but I’ll tell you what, I’ll be your good white South African teaboy and keep quiet about it? I’ll roll over? I’ll behave politely?’

His vision of Wits is millenerian; the scenarios he paints are all-or-nothing ones. Makgoba reciprocates in kind with rhetoric of “the firing squad” for coup-plotters who fail. Van Onselen is an academic street-fighter, a campus tough who towers over the Wits Senate, where he pulls fellow academics onto his side with his rough-hewn eloquence, or alienates them with his frequent extremism. His sneering refusal to become, in his words, “a client” of the liberation movement in the 1980s has earned him the undying antipathy of many of his fellow left-wing academics. Academic reputations were made and lost in the African Studies seminar over which he presided: he was ruthless and brutal in his criticism, particularly of people who cut their academic coats to suit the political cloth.

As June Sinclair’s primary adviser when she was acting vice-chancellor in 1993, Van Onselen advocated the hard line against rioting students. Characteristically, he fought extremism with extremism, vigorously opposing mediation, and laying himself and Sinclair open to charges of “liberal fascism” by calling the security forces onto campus.

And yet this is the man who writes with a subtlety and sophistication unparalleled in South African historiography. His account of black banditry on the reef at the turn of the century, The Small Matter of a Horse is a masterpiece; one of the greatest works of literature — let alone scholarship — to emerge from South Africa. This is the man who has spent the last 14 years on the monumental biography of an illiterate black sharecropper. The result, a 600-page volume entitled The Seed Is Mine, to be published next year, is one of the most moving re-inscriptions of black dignity onto a landscape scorched by colonialism and apartheid I have ever encountered.

He tells me he chose his sharecropper — an old man called Kas Maine whom his researchers found in a Pilanesberg resettlement camp — deliberately to upturn the stereotype of “black people as totally deracinated victims”. He talks, with passion, about the shared skills, shared languages and values, between black sharecroppers and white farmers: “I want to convey that not everyone here is an oppressor or victim, that there’s a whole middle terrain here where our interactions are a lot more complicated, and our loves run a lot deeper than people think; as do our hates … you peel away the racial thing and you say, Jeez the crossover here, the cultural osmosis, is quite extraordinary!”

Peel away the bombast of Van Onselen and you see that, Jeez, this guy who has been branded an unreconstructed Marxist by some liberals and a “liberal fascist” by students is, in fact, a romantic at heart who is seeking universality with black people and who is deeply hurt when they won’t reciprocate.

Van Onselen has built an academic reputation on his attention to detail and on the advocacy of absolute and unassailable principle. He cannot stomach expediency, but, notes a colleague who knows him well, “while expediency is the mark of poor academic work, it is absolutely essential to politics. The very things that make Charles a good scholar make him an ineffective politician. He will not negotiate, he will not concede, he just sallies forward with the blazing guns!”

The dossier of evidence Van Onselen has compiled against Makgoba is compelling, but critics and supporters alike say that the way he has gone about attacking and isolating the highest-ranking black academic at Wits has had the opposite effect to that intended. Most damaging was his attempt to disguise an inquiry into Makgoba’s record at the University of Natal as an “esoteric piece of social history”. Even though this instance of what one of his supporters calls “typical Charles irony” in no way compares with the alleged level of fraudulence in the Makgoba dossier, it weakens the campaign to remove Makgoba by shifting the allegations away from Makgoba onto the process of how he was

Several Wits players note that Van Onselen’s sine qua non is academic independence, and that he worries that the state, having designs on Wits’ independence, is using Makgoba as its can opener: the irony, though, is that the current crisis might force state intervention. Likewise, if the intention was to bump Makgoba out of the race for the vice-chancellorship, it has failed miserably: the “Save Willy” campaign has apparently filtered up to the highest levels of government, and Makgoba’s political future is guaranteed. He has become our OJ, the lightning-rod for all the complex and painful racial politics of our times: black upliftment pitched against reactionary racism on the one hand; the maintenance of standards pitched against fraudulent black nationalism on the other.

Van Onselen sets himself up against — and apart from — ; what he calls “rollover liberals”, whites so dominated by guilt that “they are prepared to just roll over in the face of this new breed of African nationalist, because it’s just too painful for them to engage with the fact that a black man might be a fraud!” He will not, he says, “have a set of double standards for black South Africans”, and he will not shy away from his path, which is to ensure that “black South Africans inherit their birthright — a first class institution at Wits.”

Although he denies that he is a “rightwing liberal” (as claimed by Makgoba), he quotes Jill Wentzel’s Liberal Slideaway — the new bible of right-wing liberalism — ; approvingly. When you define a position in absolute terms, anyone who disagrees with you is sliding away, rolling over.

Makgoba and Van Onselen were doomed to conflict from the start: “Most of my colleagues,” he says, “are softer, gentlemanly liberals” who didn’t fight back when the new deputy vice-chancellor attacked them as “sheeps and goats”, as “inbred” and “mentally deficient”, as “juntas” plotting “coups”. “But I sure as hell am not gonna take shit from someone else, and so early on Makgoba singled me out as a problem, and quite rightly so.”

On top of that the historian is, in his own words, “totally allergic to nationalism. I’m in a constant rash from it. I spent my whole family life reacting to Afrikaner nationalism, and I react in the same way to African nationalism. It’s bad stuff.” Van Onselen’s own family was a victim of nationalism — after his father was expelled from the police force in the early 1950s for being a bloedsap, the family lived an unsettled, migratory existence.

He was an outsider from the wrong side of the tracks who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and made it — with a PhD from Oxford — into the very heart of the academic elite. His attitude towards contemporary black students — whom he often caricatures, in conversation and in print, as the “young, noisy, frustrated, illiterate, poorly cultured victims of a racist and oppressive society” — seems to be informed by his own experiences: if he could buckle down, why can’t they?

His analysis of nationalism as a scourge is spot on. The bad politics come in when he refuses to acknowledge that it might mean something to others: you cannot dismiss a political force just because you think it is wrong-headed. One veteran player in Wits politics accuses Van Onselen of a “lack of sensitivity to racism; a denial that racism exists at Wits. Not only is his wilful insistence on non-racialism often interpreted by blacks to be a covert form of racism, but people with explicit racial agendas attach themselves to him. And so Charles has a lot of supporters on campus whose motives are truly racist. Whether he intends it or not, he has become something of a reactionary hero on campus.”

Many of his detractors believe Van Onselen is driven by bitterness: for years, his generation of Wits academics have been fighting conservatism from above and preparing themselves to take over the running of the institution according to their non-racial principles and model of transformation. Now, at the very moment they should be given their chance, the vagaries of history mean that black people must be at the helm. Others feel that if Makgoba is a dud, then Van Onselen and the other academics who selected him must be held accountable: they went out of their way to find what they believed was an “apolitical” scientist unconnected to the African National Congress. When they thought they found one, they jumped at him. The result was that they didn’t vet their candidate carefully enough, and they were landed with someone who still believes in a retro Africanism that went out with Kwame Nkrumah.

Charles van Onselen ends his new book with the suggestion that, had his subject lived to see South Africa’s transition to democracy, Kas Maine would have treated the current dispensation with the same measured peasant caution as he had all the others he had survived. He then concludes with a quote from Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s brilliant novel, The Leopard: “I belong to an unlucky generation, swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both.” It is not clear whether Van Onselen is talking about Kas Maine or himself.

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