power’ entrenched at Wits
South Africa has a gender commission, a minorities commission, a human rights commission, but not a race commission.
Could it be that the framers of the Constitution presumed that majority rule would necessarily be majority race rule, and so there would be no need for a commission to offset the effects of racial oppression? Or could the point of these commissions be to mitigate the negative effects of a post-apartheid majority government, rather than to redress the effects of apartheid? If so, are not those eager to leave the past behind and build a future forgetting that one can not do so without building a bridge between the two?
Bridge-building requires one to confront the past, but without becoming chained to it. Is it not because of the fear of being trapped in the world of race that many make light of the legacy of race? Could not the same fear also explain why even those who confront the question of race shy away from the fact that racial domination in South Africa was a form of colonial domination?
To recognise the colonial context of racial domination is to acknowledge that we can learn something from other colonies on this continent. That experience has a double relevance. The first is to recognise that a colonial power does not easily tolerate the development of a native intelligentsia, for such an intelligentsia would challenge the claim to tutelage that is central to every form of colonial rule. And yet, a native intelligentsia comes to be in every colony. Kept out of institutions of higher learning, it mushrooms elsewhere: in the church and the mosque, as in the party and the union.
The second tendency that obtained in every colony was the irresistable pressure towards deracialisation. Everywhere, decolonisation began with deracialisation. The difference was in form: deracialisation happened through either privatisation (Africanisation) or state control (nationalisation). At the time, many progressives lamented Africanisation as a form of corruption, and romanticised nationalisation as a step to socialism. In retrospect, though, one needs to recognise that the historical force that propelled both trajectories forward was anti- colonialism.
Post-apartheid South Africa has these birthmarks of a colonised society. It has a vibrant native intelligentsia, but that intelligentsia is, in the main, not to be found in the academy. Conversely, the university is one of the most racialised institutions in South African society – as racialised as big business. The only difference is that while big business is sensitive to this fact, universities are not. The university is proud of its exclusivity, considering it an inevitable consequence of the pursuit of excellence.
That universities are about the pursuit of excellence cannot be doubted. What does strike a newcomer to the South African academy as curious, and eventually suspicious, is the frequency with which this refrain is chanted, ceremonially and officially. At which point does the claim to be pursuing excellence turn into a claim of being excellent? What happens when seekers of knowledge turn around and claim to be custodians of knowledge? Knowledge seeking is a profoundly humble and a profoundly subversive activity. Its starting point, Socrates-fashion, is both the admission of ignorance in self and the questioning of truth. Knowledge-custody, on the other hand, is more of a self-appointed priestly affair, both arrogant and conservative.
It is this pernicious turn-around from knowledge-seeking to knowledge-custody that you witness as you read through Mokoko: The Makgoba Affair, Professor William Makgoba’s reflection on transformation at Wits. There is almost a tragi-comedy about the events as Makgoba recalls them. He is set to chair his first selection committee as deputy vice-chancellor, academic, when he is called by the vice chancellor to intervene in a crisis in which an administrator has been taken hostage by striking students and workers. When the VC asks Makgoba to go down and negotiate with the hostage-takers because, he says, they will surely trust him more than they will any other member of the administration, you know that the VC could not possibly be referring to anything else but Makgoba’s complexion as reason for that trust.
But when Makgoba does go down, the same hostage-takers wonder why the administration should have chosen to send one so new that he surely knew nothing about the facts of the matter. They wonder whether Makgoba is a coconut, and Makgoba senses it. When the hostage is released but decides to press charges, and Makgoba testifies as a labour-friendly witness, the administration is stunned.
None of this actually prepares you for the nature of the campaign 13 deans and dons will launch against Makgoba, for everything that has happened before has been about power and its exercise. Suddenly, the academic machine will change gear, from power to knowledge. Makgoba is accused, not of breaking managerial ranks, but of claiming knowledge that he does not have, of trespassing in the sacred temple of knowledge. You know that this charge is being labelled at Makgoba, not as an insubordinate manager, but as an ungrateful native. Excellence, you sense, does, after all, have a complexion: can anyone miss the insinuation?
As you read through the next set of events – the cabal of 13 deans and dons compile a dossier of some 400 pages, purporting to detail the lapses in Makgoba’s CV, claiming that this man is actually intellectually dishonest, nothing less than an intellectual hoax – you feel nothing less than outrage at this attempt to discredit and humiliate by hitting below the belt. It allows you to glimpse, for once, the institutionalised link between (racialised) power and (racialised?) knowledge. But it does not quite prepare you for the most painful part of the book: you read through an entire chapter (some 40 pages) in which Makgoba gives a detailed account of his CV, a defence of a career so illustrious that it should need no defence. Face-to-face with a victim of racialised power, you realise you have just witnessed a modern version of a Salem witch trial.
But this is where comparisons end, for Makgoba refuses to remain a victim. This rather unworldly-seeming intellectual grasps the dictum of the guerrilla – fight with the means at hand – and David-fashion, manages to wrestle the 13-headed Goliath. Taking custody of their 13 CVs, he begins to release juicy bits to the press, giving the 13 a taste of their own medicine. The ground is laid for a truce.
Amazingly enough, Makgoba emerges from this outrageous affair neither timid nor resentful. The case he puts before a wider audience is worth hearing on at least two counts.
The more polemical part is best summed up in a series of questions. To what extent is the regime of excellence in South Africa’s most affluent universities masking a regime of white privilege? Has the institutional collusion between knowledge and power reached a point that the very pursuit of excellence requires that power masquerading as knowledge be unmasked? For is not the regime of white privilege in the knowledge industry leading to mediocrity, to imitative production from both white and black academics, the former because of their continuing but infantile romance with the European motherland, and the latter because of their victim-bred lack of confidence in self?
Makgoba’s second move is more forward- looking. His alternative to a regime of white privilege is not a demand for black power. It is neither a vindictive turning of the tables, nor a wishy-washy version where anything goes. To the regime of knowledge-custodians, he offers knowledge- seeking as an antidote. The difference is summed up by two claims. You can’t fish in a pool that excludes the vast majority of the population and claim that your harvest represents overall excellence. To be upheld, the claim to excellence requires openness, inclusion and competition.
Secondly, excellence has to be contextualised and knowledge made relevant. Shed this mimicry of the West that continues to parade as universal excellence and take on the challenge to produce knowledge that takes the African condition as its central problem.
The African condition is historical, not biological. If we have come to recognise the historical nature of institutional identity, why can we not accept the historical character of individual identity? If institutions can be rethought as historically white and historically black, why can’t individuals also be considered historically white and historically black? Then individuals, like institutions, may also undergo a process of transformation and change their historical identity.
Deracialisation is crucial to that transformation. For deracialisation is more than just changing the complexion of individual holders of positions; it is about changing their politics. Deracialisation is not just affirmative action, though it is not possible without affirmative action. To deracialise institutions is to transcend their hitherto racialised identity.
In this view of things, deracialisation is actually a prerequisite to non-racialism. Once we realise that non-racialism and Africanism can mask contradictory practices, they cease to be simple slogans. When does non-racialism turn into a posture, an excuse for letting things slide, and when does it become a rallying cry for transforming institutions and individuals?
Similarly, Africanism too comes in two types. One is a reverse racism, a turning of tables by a racialised majority that has yet to break out of the world of colour. This brand of Africanism seeks no more than that victims trade places with perpetrators.
But there is a second type of Africanism, one that repudiates and transcends racism. It heralds an African identity more inclusive than exclusive. Rather than a birthmark, African identity becomes a mark of belonging to a common political community, a commitment to forging a common future. It is this Africanism that Makgoba writes about, patiently and proudly.
While Makgoba expresses no desire for revenge, those of us in the academy will do well to realise the difference between justice and revenge. It was scandalous that a question of administrative discipline was turned into an intellectual witch-hunt, with strong racist undertones. But it is perhaps even more scandalous that those who initiated the witch-hunt – the 13 self- appointed knowledge-priests who include eight deans and a registrar – have yet to be held accountable by their peers.
— Mahmood Mamdani is head of the centre for African studies at the University of Cape Town