/ 26 August 2011

Reimagining power

Reimagining Power

This July Rhodes University hosted two thought-provoking events.

The first, organised by the Thinking Africa project team of the Rhodes department of political and international studies, was a colloquium on the work of activist-intellectual Frantz Fanon, whose writings on the colonial and postcolonial condition continue to stimulate much debate 50 years after his untimely death.

The second was a round table on race and higher education in South Africa organised by Rhodes philosopher Pedro Alexis Tabensky under the auspices of Rhodes’s Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning.

Both events raised challenging issues and invited those present to think carefully and deeply about key issues currently defining life in South Africa.

During the opening discussion of the “Fanon: 50 Years Later” colloquium challenging questions were raised when a participant asked: “What would have happened if Frantz Fanon had lived to see the demise of colonial rule?” What if Steve Biko — who was deeply influenced by Fanon — had not met an untimely death but, today, as with many former Black Consciousness activists, occupied a position of influence in government, education or civil society?

It was suggested that perhaps Biko and Fanon were “lucky” (in some sense, at least) to have died young and so did not have the opportunity to betray their ideals. This comment is related to another concern raised during the colloquium.

Is our post-liberation situation so disappointing because of who is ruling or would the kinds of compromises and betrayals we lament today also have been made by others, even, perhaps, Fanon or Biko?

Reading Fanon 50 years later, one is struck by the way in which parts of The Wretched of the Earth seem to speak to the current South African condition. But, as emphasised by some participants, a number of those who are the architects of this condition were themselves at some point inspired by Fanon.

What does this mean for those inspired by Fanon today?

The difficult questions continued during the race and higher-education round table when, on the first day, Black Consciousness writer Andile Mngxitama raised some hard questions about the way in which black academics in positions of leadership at former white institutions are used to “police” other black ­academics and black students. In turn, he was confronted with difficult questions from his audience.

In response to his insistence that the black bourgeoisie were not his friends, someone asked: “But who are Andile Mngxitama’s friends?” Many in the audience, including Rhodes vice-chancellor Saleem Badat and humanities dean Fred Hendricks, are black academics who are trying to “work in the system”: Are they always to be excluded from possible alliances with more stringent critics of “the system” like Mngxitama?

A central question at both the Fanon colloquium and the round table was: How do we proceed? If the transformation of former colonial institutions is thus far not successful, is this the time to revisit Fanon’s invitation in The Wretched of the Earth that “perhaps everything needs to be started over again”? Is South Africa finding itself in the dilemma Fanon perceived at the dawn of the post-colonial period in that, although “the country finds itself under new management — in actual fact everything has to be started over from scratch, everything has to be rethought”?

Badat insisted that it is not possible to rethink everything. Instead, as Guinea-Bissauan revolutionary Amilcar Cabral argued, we must “proceed with our feet firmly on the ground, from what is, what exists”.

In the same vein Barney Pityana — a close friend of Biko and one of the founding members of the Black Consciousness Movement — argued that the church and university exist in a dialectical tension between being conservative and allowing space for creative work. Therefore these institutions are neither conservative nor liberal because their agendas continue to be shaped by the individuals within them.

Thus the black academics “who work in the system” have a chance of succeeding in the transformational project just as the activists of Black Consciousness managed to reimagine the objective of higher education and the church in the 1970s.

As a way to proceed, the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Rozena Maart suggested that Black Consciousness remains a useful tool of engagement in higher education to encourage white students to develop a politics of refusal instead of being perpetual beneficiaries of colonisation.

However, some participants insisted that not all black students necessarily identify as black and the use of Black Consciousness language might alienate white students. Some then suggested that perhaps this generation of young people must find a new language for themselves in thinking about how to address inequality in their society.

As Fanon also insisted, each generation “must discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it”. Perhaps the answer to the question of what it means to be inspired by Fanon today lies in Abahlali base-Mjondolo president S’bu Zikode’s assertion during the Fanon colloquium that Fanon’s writings are “an invitation to reimagine power”. This includes an invitation to reimagine the role of the university.

As Tabensky asserted, it is often assumed that intellectuals who are embedded within their community’s social struggles are doing their community a favour by engaging them. However, he continued, in reimagining higher education we realise that a university that is not engaged is one that is not committed to the defining ethical and epistemic ideals of the academy.

Siphokazi Magadla and Sally Matthews lecture in the department of political and international ­studies, Rhodes University, and are part of the department’s Thinking Africa project

This article originally appeared in the Mail & Guardian newspaper as a sponsored supplement by Rhodes University