/ 29 April 2011

Lessons in continued oppression

Lessons In Continued Oppression

We write as part of a collective of students who oppose the so-called disestablishment of the Centre for African Studies (CAS) at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

On February 13 this year the collective, Concerned CAS Students, released a statement titled “Does Post-apartheid UCT Need a Centre for African Studies?”. In response, the dean of humanities emailed us a document titled “New Initiatives in the Faculty of Humanities: Discussion Document on Departmental Mergers”. She also scheduled time to meet us and invited us to attend a February 25 faculty forum discussion on the matter.

From the document she sent us, it became apparent that discussions leading to the proposed merger had been under way for more than five years. Because Concerned CAS Students had criticised the administration’s lack of transparency and hoped to gain a stronger grasp of the faculty’s five years of conversation, we decided to be transparent and speak out at the faculty forum, which we did.

Despite this, UCT vice-chancellor Max Price made no mention of the faculty forum or our statements in his response (“No threat to African centre“, March 18) to David Macfarlane’s story on CAS’s disestablishment (“UCT in war over ‘bantu education’“, March 11). Rather, he chose to dismiss us — students, stakeholders and indeed citizens of UCT — as “an anonymous group of students”.

His decision to refer to us in this way speaks volumes. After all, a different approach was available to him. He could have used the questions we raised in the forum and elsewhere as an opportunity to recognise UCT’s complex history.

This could have entailed not only celebrating its interventions against apartheid but also confronting its complicity in the apartheid regime; it could have acknowledged both its struggle against and its perpetuation of racial and gender oppression.

What does it mean when history places an institution in the “right”? Does this suggest it can stop pushing the boundaries, thereby putting its energy into establishing itself in an unjust system that has yet to be structurally dismantled? In the post-apartheid moment in which we live, and given the context of UCT’s history, what does UCT’s failure to recognise us as citizens of this “Afropolitan” university mean? Inspired by this week’s celebration of Freedom Day, we would like to reflect on the “freedom” that UCT offers post-apartheid South Africa.

The freedom experienced on April 27 1994 was one in which we exercised our right to power as citizens of South Africa. By voting we asserted ourselves as fully fledged human beings and denied a systematically institutionalised culture of absence — a culture in which we, as physical beings, were present but as empty signs; we signified nothingness.

Despite our best efforts to extricate ourselves from this power structure, no amount of education or money has been able fully to eradicate the continued denial of our value as human beings. Time and again some of us find that who we are — our histories, pasts, memories — are disavowed.

UCT is no different, for we struggle to find ourselves valued here; we struggle not to become entrenched in particular ways of being and thinking in the world. Are we being educated to deny who we are and where we come from to uphold deep-rooted power structures that oppress us?

How else are we to interpret the deafening inaction from those in positions of power at UCT? Where is the deep historical commitment to the study of Africa and to meaningful transformation? Why do authority figures at UCT dismiss student concerns? And why are they unwilling to inform and engage with us about what we as a community think the study of Africa at UCT should — indeed, could — look like?

Are these well-respected scholars not our role models? If so, is the system they uphold through their silence, their uncommunicativeness and their active unknowing meant to be our aspiration for the new South Africa? What sacrifices are they making to satisfy UCT’s representational democracy? Is this our future? What does it mean to be recognised as an absence at UCT? What other persons and groups are so absented? Whose interests does performing a culture of absence serve?

As students we value our UCT education. We see it as important, but what does a UCT education really mean? Access? Power? Money? Respect? Knowledge? Those of us who are invested in education as a way to access power know that a UCT education is meant to recode us in a way that enables us to assert our value as contributing citizens. However, what happens when the educational institution through which we seek to exert and express our citizenship makes us “anonymous” and absent?

This dismissal of us engenders and perpetuates a deep sense of not belonging: how can one feel at home in a space that denies one’s value as a member of a community that already disavows one’s histories, pasts and memories?

Although UCT confers degrees that are undeniably reflective of hard work and of knowledge gained, students and graduates are left to reconcile their educational accomplishments with the violences perpetrated against us in the name of education. As graduates of an institution that systematically denies its history and refuses to do the necessary hard work, we in turn learn to deny and become complicit in upholding a superstructure in which we can participate only as empty signs.

In this way, UCT produces citizens who think, imagine and exist in ways that reinforce the very dominant power that oppresses us. In doing so, the university fails to take advantage of a unique opportunity to imagine other ways of being in post-apartheid South Africa and the world.

UCT does not offer us lessons in how to exercise our freedom in the new South Africa. Rather, it reaffirms “a deep institutional conservatism” (the vice-chancellor’s phrase) in which power organises itself as “free-dom”: domination and imperial freedom. Our degrees teach us that we are not free at all.

Flawed as it might be, for us CAS is freedom. Learning with and through our histories, the centre challenges us to imagine critically new possibilities and ways of being.

Undergraduate students describe CAS courses as “astonishing”, “eye-opening”, “enlightening”. The courses advocate what one student calls a “different way of thinking” that, as another student explains, “gave me a broader view of the life we live in and the history of what got us to where we are”.

Centralising African voices — the voices of our intellectuals, politicians, artists and activists — CAS confronts a culture of absence, preparing us for the hard work that the new South Africa requires so that we do not repeat history’s mistakes. It is this freedom that we do not want to lose. This is what the disestablishment of CAS means for us.

In our February 25 faculty forum statement we acknowledged the seeming inevitability of the proposed “New School for Critical Enquiry in Africa”, which would merge CAS with the departments of social anthropology and linguistics and, possibly, the African Gender Institute. We urged UCT and the humanities faculty to make its imagined new school the best that it can offer.

We are confident that the best UCT can offer is not an institutional fiat that threatens not only the study of Africa but also established disciplines such as anthropology and linguistics.

Indeed, there is no question that UCT can provide the space — practical, transdisciplinary and disciplinary — that professors require in order to perform the job for which they have been hired. Moreover, in an institution in which 70% of all professors are white men, UCT must do more to offer rigorous support to train, recruit, employ and promote scholars whose expertise and experiences reflect the incredibly varied and heterogeneous spectrum of South African society.

The recently established Institute for Humanities in Africa demonstrates clearly that the university can do better. But why does UCT choose to support this and other new research projects and intellectual spaces seemingly at the expense of others?

UCT needs to do the hard work necessary to re-imagine critically complex scholarly traditions that implicate us in unspeakable violences. As one of the Concerned CAS Students has pointed out, the bar has been set too low; the unspeakable must be spoken for us to be free. A new school dedicated to the study of Africa — the study of us — should be founded on a serious commitment to that deep knowledge of freedom experienced on April 27 1994.

For us, such a school would be housed in a single, well-equipped building that would host ample community space, encouraging consistent day-to-day conversation and overall camaraderie among students, staff and welcomed visitors; it would also have dedicated artistic space for exhibitions, conferences, performances and meetings.

In these spaces, undergraduate and postgraduate students would learn and engage with permanent staff members specialising in the dedicated study of North Africa, West Africa, Central Africa, East Africa, Southern Africa, the Asian diaspora in Africa and the African diaspora.

Centralising African intellectual histories, an undergraduate programme would embrace many disciplines in real ways, training students in issues of representation, history, the arts, culture, society, politics, identity, economics and heritage to address what we are, what we have become and how we live together in difference.

Postgraduate students would engage similarly, but at a deeper, more philosophical level, their skills centred on theorisations of the oppressed, theorisations of our freedom.

This Freedom Day was a day of celebration and concern as South Africa and the continent continued the struggle to acknowledge and celebrate the disavowed. The struggle to imagine what it means to be human must be relentless for, as the past continues to walk in the present, we cannot pay, yet again, for domination to triumph.

It is a day that must ask those difficult questions of what we are and how we live. It is a day of celebration of meaningful difference, of graciousness and of imagining that the seemingly impossible is possible indeed.

Siona O’Connell and Natasha Himmelman are PhD candidates in the University of Cape Town’s Centre for African Studies. For all Concerned CAS Students documents and updates, and to participate in this conversation, please join us on our new blog: http://concernedcasstudents.wordpress.com/