/ 24 August 2015

Habib defends suspension of Wits EFF

Unhelpful: Sweeping claims and simplistic solutions hinder transformation at universities
Unhelpful: Sweeping claims and simplistic solutions hinder transformation at universities

The decision to suspend the University of Witwatersrand Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command (Wits EFF) and seven other students, came after the Student Representative Council (SRC) election debate ended in physical altercations between members of Wits EFF and Project W – a non-politically affiliated student representative group – last Tuesday.

“We suspended violent students and de-recognised a society only after it broke electoral rules and provoked violence. How is this wrong?” asked Wits Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib. He said Wits EFF was welcome to return to campus if it reconstituted, committed to peaceful engagement and respected the code of conduct. 

However, EFF’s national spokesperson and Wits PhD candidate Mbuyiseni Ndlozi said Habib and the Wits council’s decision to suspend Wits EFF was an attempt to shut down new ideas. “You will never shut down any varsity against an idea whose time has come. EFF is here to stay and there is nothing you can do,” said Ndlozi.

This incident played itself out on social media platforms where the conversation soon changed from political parties being banned at public institutions to a lack of transformation at former white universities, especially with regards to the treatment of black students.

Wits PhD candidate Lwazi Lushaba, left with only two months to graduate, was also suspended by the university.

Lushaba said he received a letter from Habib two days after the SRC election debate debacle. The letter said that Lushaba had participated in activities that were not conducive to free and fair elections and were intolerant to a democratic society. 

“The University has received reports of various statements made under the auspices of the Wits EFF, the thrust of which indicates a propensity to interfere with proper governance of the University. I attach copies of some of these statements as Annexure A. It appears that you have associated yourself with these statements,” read the letter.

According to Lushaba, the associations made between him and Wits EFF are based on tweets he posted about constructing an alternative discourse and suggesting different motifs with regards to debates about decolonising, the black lived experience and memory-making. He had argued (on Twitter) that these issues should lead the debate in contemporary South Africa, a conversation that was joined by some Wits EFF members.

The issue contested on these platforms is that the curriculum in former white institutions should change.  Lushaba also aired his frustrations on Facebook.

“I teach to part-time students a second year course in Politics: POLS 2012 – South Africa Politics and Governance. In the first part of the course, I am expected to read together with the students a number of texts by white doyens of South African Studies. These scholars basically compete with each other in their defence of apartheid as having been a democracy of one form or the other,” said Lushaba.

He said it must chill the spine of every black person to hear such a claim, worse still as it is stated under the cloak of scholarly knowledge.  Lushaba said such views indicated that the lived experience of the black colonised in South Africa did not matter in white scholarly circuits. “This is what we teach black students in 2015,” he said.

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian, Wits politics professor Darryl Glaser said transformation of the institution was the biggest agenda over the last two years. He said there has been a radical stance in which issues relating to new cultural politics and demographics of staff are being dealt with. 

“The main issues are the transformation of the syllabus, personnel and the introduction to black thought,” he said. The M&G also spoke to political studies master’s student and ANC Youth League member Tasneem Essop (23). Essop was also a secretary general of the Wits SRC in 2012 and 2013.

She said Wits and other former white institutions of learning haven’t changed. Essop said there is a lack of black staff and the curriculum needed to transform.

“They give us silly reasons as to why there are no black lecturers. We need to develop young black academics for the future. There are no courses on black political thought and what we learn is extremely eurocentric,” she said.

Essop said black South African academics were also less preferred to their African counterparts.

“These white supremacists would rather hear about black consciousness from a Kenyan perspective and not from a South African. It is fine for an African scholar to talk about Kenya but not a black South African to talk about the current oppression in all institutions. Our institutions of learning are anti-black,” she said.

As a result of these contested issues at institutions of higher learning, Lushaba said the commotion expressed by Wits EFF and other student organisations was “fairly proportionate to the intensity or pulse of the political contestation [that] erupted on the stage of the Great Hall, aborting what was supposed to be an SRC Election debate among different contending parties”.

However, according to Habib the suspensions were warranted. “This is not about ideas,” he said, “It is about violence and not being willing to commit to peaceful engagement.”