/ 10 July 2015

Wits ignores painful black wounds

Wits Ignores Painful Black Wounds
South Africa needs a new kind of political activism to ensure that the defence of our democracy remains at the top of the sociopolitical agenda

The foundation of #TransformWits in March, inspired by and aligned to the #RhodesMustFall campaign, and the Black Student Movement has seen an increasing conscientisation of students at the University of the Witwatersrand.

But there has been much laziness on the part of university management in fulfilling its transformation duties. Its vice-chancellor, Professor Adam Habib, published a communiqué on transformation to set out a vision and invite criticism. But it is littered with oddities. One is that he problematises nonracialism and condemns racial radicalism and essentialism. But, after doing so, he upholds cosmopolitanism, an ideology premised on nonracialism.

The problem with his cosmopolitanism is that it seeks to uphold diversity at the expense of black students. Habib envisages increasing the numbers of white students in mostly black departments, a decision motivated by the view that too many black students in a department contravenes the principle of diversity. But this keeps white privilege safe at the expense of black students.

Habib rejects a moratorium on the hiring of white academics because, he says, Wits would then be denying itself the best scholars and researchers. This shows the double-mindedness of Habib’s transformation. Continuing to hire white professors ensures a longer odyssey to freedom: their number will resume growth, with the numbers of black academics slowly following behind.

Each time Wits students organise to combat acts of racism and classism at Wits, they are silenced by the university’s abuse of court processes. Members of the Wits Workers’ Solidarity Committee occupied the 11th floor of Senate House, where the vice-chancellor and some senior staff work. They left voluntarily after three days of intolerance from Habib and the deputy vice-chancellor, Professor Tawana Kupe.

Thereafter, Wits sought and obtained a court order that prohibits any demonstrations at Wits. Now no one may demonstrate there at any time for any reason. Furthermore, Wits was awarded costs. How are struggling students and the unemployed supposed to fork out tens of thousands for fees Wits can afford? We can only conclude that this act is meant to silence the disgruntled.

This is not transformation. Wits remains heavily colonial and exclusive. Bold rhetoric is used in public, but does not lead to action.

We need an institution that prioritises redress for black people. Where renaming is required and reconfiguring necessary, let us have it. We need a main library named after Zakes Mda, with a sculpture of Nat Nakasa instead of Bernard Shaw. We need an Es’kia Mphahlele school of literature, language and media. Otherwise we are in an alien world; in Mphahlele’s words: “We roam the wilderness.”

Much of our symbolism commemorates white racists. Transformation is decolonisation. We must divorce Wits from its colonial qualities and advocate that it put on a new nature, fashioned after a society with a black majority. We need symbolism that truly reflects the populace of South Africa. We need white people to accept that they are in Africa and that Wits is mostly black.

Anyone opposed to the prioritisation of black people must be shown the way to the sea. There remain gaping wounds of black pain, and the only way to remedy this is by giving the black majority what it deserves.

Decolonisation is the foundation for transformation. It includes decolonising colonial and apartheid symbolism. It requires the decolonising of labour by ridding ourselves of outsourcing. Then we will move with the spirits of Steve Bantu Biko, Robert Sobukwe and Frantz Fanon towards an African revolution.

Mpho W Masuku is the deputy secretary of the School of Literature, Language and Media Students Council