/ 14 March 2009

The world according to ‘Nyayo’

Barney Pityana
Barney Pityana

In his book, Problems of Knowledge and Freedom, acclaimed American writer Noam Chomsky laments: ”The attempt to convert the universities into liberal and open institutions faces many obstacles. In the last year there has been a rash of firings, mostly at smaller colleges and universities, on what appear to be strictly political grounds.”

In South Africa Buti Manamela recently made a public call for Professor Barney Pityana, vice-chancellor of Unisa, to be fired. Indeed, serious readers will immediately protest: why do you evoke as renowned a scholar as Chomsky to write about the behaviour of as insignificant a young man as Manamela?

For us to better appreciate the dangers facing South Africa today, we must imagine Manamela represents some important people in our society who believe that vice-chancellors should be fired easily.

Given that Manamela is a leader of a youth wing of a political organisation, which is a member of a ruling tripartite alliance, it would not be far-fetched to conclude some within the alliance share his beliefs.

In Kenya, during the reign of Daniel arap Moi, everything about their society was tied to the ruling party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU). In this dictatorship citizens were obliged to follow in the footsteps of Moi. To entrench his despotism, Moi introduced a philosophy called Nyayo (footstep), projecting himself as a pathfinder and the rest of society as followers.

Political commentators who dared not to follow in Moi’s footsteps faced one of two hard realities: you disappear or flee to exile.

So serious was Moi about his Nyayo philosophy that he could replace a vice-chancellor of any university with someone prepared to follow in the correct political footsteps. However, unlike Manamela, Moi neither organised a toyi-toyi nor called for a vice-chancellor’s resignation over the radio. Moi simply issued an instruction and, before sunset, everything would be according to Nyayo.

How many of us would like to live in a society based on the Nyayo philosophy, seemingly preferred by Manamela? In such a system if you dare express an opinion that is contrary to the ruling party, you will be hounded like a wild animal in a hunter-gatherer society.

But what are the sins committed by Pityana to deserve such brutal Nyayo treatment? The main crime is the professor’s agreement to sit on an advisory committee of Cope, but the pretext is that Pityana has failed to transform Unisa.

The pretext must be dismissed out of hand since Manamela failed to produce any evidence to support his claim. Upon conducting research, he will realise that Unisa is among the leading universities in our country on all indices of transformation. He will also learn that the university launched a satellite campus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as part of Pityana’s vision of Africanisation.

But Manamela should be given credit for unwittingly raising an important question: should academics/intellectuals be allowed to advise political parties? In this regard we would assume that Manamela would say ”No”. If our assumption is correct, we would then be forced to wonder why he does not call for the resignation of all academics who have and continue to advise political parties, including those who advise the ruling party.

Those who think like Manamela might argue that academics who lead universities should not be allowed to advise political parties. But why veer into the domain of governance structures of universities? If he respected institutional autonomy, Manamela would have asked the Council of Unisa to consider amending the university’s statutes to be in line with his footsteps. That he has not referred to the statutes could be a sign that Manamela has either not read Unisa statutes or he has no respect for the council of that university.

To protect himself from the accusation that he has a political agenda against Pityana, Manamela should also have written to the councils of all South African universities requesting them to amend their own statutes so as not to allow their vice-chancellors to advise political parties.

In his seminal book, Critique of Dialectical Reason (Volume Two), philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre writes about a boxing match: ”For informed spectators, it is not just a question of seeing two men trading punches — it is a question of being present at an individual episode of an ascent, and at a moment which may begin or accelerate a decline.”

We all celebrated 1994 as ”an individual episode of an ascent” to a higher plane of freedom of thought and expression; we thought apartheid’s silencing tactics were gone forever. Why do our intellectuals keep quiet when Manamela, through his actions, announces the beginning of a decline.

Could it be that academics in South Africa see our new situation merely as a boxing match of two men trading punches — Manamela and Pityana? Who will be next if Manamela is allowed to knock Pityana down.

Manamela is not as insignificant as some might think. He was recently nominated to be one of those who are poised to become legislators after April 22 this year. Entrusted with the authority to make laws, Manamela is likely to simply pass legislation to remove all vice-chancellors who choose to exercise their intellectual freedom.

Is this the kind of society and intellectual space many freedom fighters died for? Was the liberation struggle waged to convert us into followers in the footsteps of Manamela? In other words, did many shed their blood merely to give rise to Nyayo, a concept introduced by Moi?

If we do not take Manamela seriously, it will not be long before we begin to lament, just as Chomsky did.

Prince Mashele is head of the crime, justice and politics programme at the Institute for Security Studies. He writes in his personal capacity