/ 7 February 2017

​Demise of philosophical society not black and white

Statues of ancient Greek philosophers Plato
Statues of ancient Greek philosophers Plato

The Philosophical Society of Southern Africa (PSSA) is on the brink of collapse over allegations of racism after a heated meeting in January that ended with the resignation of its president and several black philosophers.

“At this stage, it is unclear whether or not the PSSA will continue to exist … This question would be revisited at a special, mid-year AGM,” PSSA secretary Anthony Oyowe told the Mail & Guardian this week.

At the start of the annual general meeting, Unisa professor Michael Cloete asked: “Does the PSSA have the moral legitimacy to take us into the future? Given where we find ourselves right now. Given its history of complicity in everything that’s gone wrong [for] black people in this country over many, many years.”

At the core of the black philosophers’ gripe is the apparent supremacy of European philosophy over African philosophy. This was put directly to the society during a panel discussion calling for the dissolution of the society as a result of its racism.

Unisa professor Ndumiso Dladla told the gathering at Rhodes University that African philosophy has been marginalised. “African philosophy is not simply an exotic option that should be included in a menu of an assortment of things,” he said.

“We are in Africa. If you study philosophy in Germany, German philosophy is the very basis of philosophical training. But when you come to Africa, we have this anomalous situation where African philosophy is an exotic option which is offered to justify the complaints of some irritating little Oompa Loompas.”

The society is a collective of philosophers from across the Southern African Development Community, mostly white and mostly employed by universities in South Africa.

The PSSA constitution dates back 140 years to 1877 during colonial rule. The academics’ approach centred on the policies of the time.

January’s meeting was an ideological battle between those opposed to the reform of the society and those who have called for its dissolution. The black professors quoted Black Consciousness Movement leader Steve Biko and writer Frantz Fanon when they said the PSSA should be consigned to the dustbins of history.

They said the society — described by its members as “in crisis” — failed to recognise the philosophical prowess of African thinkers before 1994 and into the democratic dispensation, and that there was blatant racism in the classroom and among colleagues.

The meeting was heralded as a crossroads. But the signs that a resolution would be elusive were there two months earlier, in an acrimonious email exchange between professors planning to attend the conference.

After a back-and-forth over who should chair the panel discussion on racism and whether to allow University of Johannesburg philosophy student Thabang Dladla to take part, UJ professor Thaddeus Metz said he would not attend.

Dladla had planned the meeting and eventually told it that Metz had sidelined him after he suggested that the professor refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of African philosophy and tried to impose a “European way of thinking”.

In response, Metz said: “I naturally will not participate in any event that’s intended simply to humiliate me, let alone one where I’m not given an opportunity to reply. I hope that my colleagues will understand why I will not be coming to this event,” Metz wrote in an email.

UJ spokesperson Kaamini Reddy said the dispute with Dladla “became personal” after he did not do research “at the appropriate time and was kicked off the programme”.

Reddy said: “Professor Metz is an A-rated research professor and we are proud of his academic excellence at UJ.” She said the accusation against Metz was a “personal view from the student”.

“We cannot extend the deadlines. There are investigations being made into his claims but it will follow the normal course of UJ disciplinary hearings.”

After the AGM’s conclusion, PSSA president and professor of philosophy at Stellenbosch University Vasti Roodt tendered her resignation.

“I had hoped that the recent AGM would provide an opportunity for constructive discussion about racial marginalisation and exclusion in the PSSA. The ensuing debate brought many things into the open, but also made me realise that there are others who are better able to facilitate these necessary discussions and devise a way forward. Hence my decision to step down,” Roodt said.

John Lamola, long-time member and senior professor at the University of Fort Hare, followed Roodt. In an emotional resignation letter he described feelings of betrayal. He said it was a “shock” to “observe that there is still a dominant inclination among members of the PSSA to protect and nurture their racially defined and class-defined position of privilege as both controllers of the producers of philosophical knowledge and dispensers of economic largesse to the ‘under-privileged’,” Lamola wrote.

He said the society had revealed itself to be a body “self-insulated from the cries and pain of poor and oppressed members of the academy”.

Abraham Olivier, Lamola’s colleague and one of the country’s most senior philosophers, agreed: “I cannot with any good conscience stay in a society that black colleagues and friends experience/d as racist to the extent that they see no other way than to leave it,” he wrote in his resignation letter.

Despite the robust debate and tempers flaring, the society said not all its members were convinced of the black philosophers’ assertions. In a letter after the meeting, Oyowe made a plea to those who did not agree with the claims of racism in the PSSA to leave.

“We have encouraged those PSSA members who are unwilling to seriously consider the possibility that there is racism amongst us and that they might unwittingly — but nevertheless negligently — have contributed to it, to consider leaving our society,” Oyowe said, before lamenting the responses by some white members of the society.

“While some colleagues have written notes of support, others continue to display a profound lack of sensitivity, with one colleague describing the letter as ‘nauseating’. Our community is clearly divided on the question of whether or not racism exists amongst us at all,” he said.

Pieter Duvenage, a professor at the University of the Free State, was hopeful the tension could be decreased. “The PSSA has often in the past faced serious divisions, including of a political nature, and every time the society has overcome these differences through honest discussions. I’m hopeful and confident that this will happen again in the present situation.”

But the black professors who resigned said they have already made significant progress in setting up an alternative body, which will champion African philosophy.