Letters to the editor: March 17 to 23 2017

Change agents? Students protest against fees last year. A reader writes that in South Africa’s neoliberal, corporatised society, university staff and students have no say in almost anything. (Daylin Paul)

Change agents? Students protest against fees last year. A reader writes that in South Africa’s neoliberal, corporatised society, university staff and students have no say in almost anything. (Daylin Paul)

A cosmetic insult to the notion of struggle

Corporate control of universities, which has become ubiquitous in the past few decades, is hostile to critical thought. If you are merely paid to say what business wants to hear, you are not an academic, no matter what the colour of your gown or the size of your emolument.

In Favour rigorous debate, not security, Professor Kelly Gillespie’s concern is that intensified electronic surveillance, restricted public access and the presence of guards and police on campus are damaging or destroying the “liberal university” and preventing free debate.

Yet the bulk of what Gillespie talks about has little to do with the desirable function of the university. It is possible, if undesirable, to conduct research and even teaching under such conditions.
With a little fortitude, it is also possible to debate the future of the institution. One can also debate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, for in this neoliberal, corporatised society, university staff and students have no say in almost anything. This is the actual problem; everything else, including almost everything said in the 2015-2016 student protests, is trivial.

What does prevent the functioning of universities is when people deliberately set out to prevent that functioning. When they say, “There must be no teaching or research, and we shall use force to prevent people from teaching or learning, and drive them from their offices or classrooms,” the institution cannot function. This is a more serious threat than police on campus.

Gillespie says there must be reasoned debate. But what if your interlocutor is unwilling to debate, instead saying: “Do what I tell you, or I’ll start burning buildings and beating people up”? What if your interlocutor denies the need for debate?

Gillespie says: “Libraries have been burning in townships for years … political forms … borrowing from anti-apartheid protest … they bring ongoing black protest into middle-class, historically white space. No amount of security can hold back an inevitable demand for a fundamental change.”

So it’s okay to burn books, because some black people do it. One must not fetishise books; many anthropology textbooks are far more useful as firelighters than as conveyors of knowledge. Destroying knowledge randomly to apply political pressure is legitimated by the race and class of the people performing the destruction. This is to abandon all integrity and intellectualism.

Apartheid, it must be repeated, was a repressive racist system that systematically denied people’s rights, including their right to peaceful protest. Still, though there were occasions when uncontrollable rage took over (as in 1976, when the University of Zululand’s library was burned down and the chief librarian murdered), anti-apartheid activists sought to restrain such behaviour.

You did not hear Steve Biko or Oliver Tambo calling for the burning of universities; they wanted people to study, all the better to serve the movement. So Gillespie’s effort to legitimate intimidatory violence (under current circumstances) by false parallels with actions taken under apartheid is historically invalid and politically corrupt. It is spurious to represent disruption of education as anti-racist and anti-capitalist.

The 2015-2016 student demands amount to a wish to study in a comfortable environment with lower intellectual expectations and easier access to qualifications, for which someone else should pay. (Some specific demands, such as – ironically, in view of Gillespie’s stance – a wish for improved security so that fewer students get raped, are more clearly legitimate.)

Calling such demands “inevitable” is the same rhetorical strategy as that of proponents of neoliberal globalisation: “You can’t stop it, so you should surrender to it” – which suppresses all intellectual debate on the subject. Calling such demands “fundamental”, when they are basically a demand for additional privileges for the children of the middle class, is improper.

Wholly reversing the neoliberalisation of society would be fundamental. Abolishing the privileges of the corporate elite (if no alternative elite took their place) would be fundamental. But tinkering with the circumstances of people at posh institutions – or changing the names of some buildings – is a cosmetic insult to the notion of political struggle.

It seems that Gillespie’s intervention is not the action of an intellectual seeking to clarify debates and use them to facilitate concrete change in the circumstances of the populace, but that of a political hack seeking to suppress debates to railroad an agenda through without consideration of consequences. This resembles the behaviour of Wits management, except that, for all the faults of vice-chancellor Adam Habib and Wits’s crew, they are actually addressing serious problems, whereas Gillespie is floating in a fantasy universe. – Mathew Blatchford, University of Fort Hare

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