More raceballs at UCT

Jeremy Gordin on Dr Lwazi Lushaba’s extraordinary attack on Professor Anthony Butler HOD

I generally try to follow the advice of Sandy Svetlov, columnist of the Odessa News, who, in Isaac Babel’s Karl-Yankel, sends this note to Prosecutor Orlov: “Don’t be a goat, Simon, slay him with irony, it’s only what’s funny that’s fatal.”

Sometimes however there appears in/on the blogosphere a document that is such arrant, malicious, and possibly dangerous, codswallop – a document so magisterially moronic – that even I am gob-smacked and must attend to it with such seriousness as an aging Parkviewian scholar, still struggling to get his Ph.D., can muster. First, though, three declarations of interest and (what I believe is called) a trigger warning.

DoI (1): I do know Anthony Butler; actually at Wits we were, I suppose, “colleagues”; whether we could be called “friends” is his call; what is certain is that we have not communicated for several months.

DoI (2): I do not hold any shares in UCT but estimate I have paid sufficient fees in the past 48 months to keep, for a few years, Vice-Chancellor Max Price and others in the style to which they are presumably accustomed, to fund Minister Blade Nzimande’s oenology research, and to provide coffee and milk for the politics department.

DoI (3): I am a honky, a whitey, a Caucasian, a white person, a mlungu; as such, if I understand correctly a prevalent mode of thinking in Seffrica right now, I am ipso facto incapable of understanding many things. So be it. As my namesake Jeremiah once asked rhetorically (13:23), can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? (Jeremiah might have been a colonialist, you realize; why did he not say “a Judean”?)

The trigger warning: the document to which I am about to refer you is, I calculate, 4 150 words long. Read ‘em and weep, as the proverbial poker player said. Alternatively, reach for your Methylphenidate or whatever Speed you favour for maintaining alertness, combating fatigue, and improving attention.

Alternatively, hum – and keep humming, baby. I want to take the liberty of suggesting to you the chorus to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ ditty We Call upon the Author: “Prolix! Prolix! / Nothing a pair of scissors can’t fix.”  

Right. The document is an open letter addressed to Prof Anthony Butler, (apparently still) head of the politics department at UCT, by one Lwazi Siyabonga Lushaba, PhD, a lecturer in the department. You can find the letter on a website called Black Opinion (here). It was posted on the site on September 1.

What facts can we cull from this massive missive, notwithstanding the possibility, if I understand correctly, that facts have become monumentally irrelevant in discussions of this sort in present-day Seffrica?

Apparently Dr Lushaba – having taken his first year political “science” [sic] students (learners?) through what he terms “the compound thematic” of “colonialism, coloniality and decolonization” – wished to enlighten them about Political Culture and Political Socialization. This being the case, Dr Lushaba decided to invite #RMF [Rhodes Must Fall] activists to class.

“They enlightened [sic] us,” writes Dr Lushaba, “through political songs of protest and in turn gave political speeches on how #RMF begun [sic], on what decolonising the university means to/for them, mapped [sic] for us how the protest last year unfolded, told us of their experience of state violence [sic], criminalisation and suspension by the university.”

However, it seems that the HOD (Butler) received complaints from “students and parents who believed the POL1005S lecture on 15 August was ‘disrupted’. They were confused about the purpose of the proceedings. They were uncertain about the educational value of the singing and stomping of feet.”

At this point Dr Lushaba avers that Prof Butler is lying – that there were probably not any such complaints but that Butler was merely trying “to instill in me [Dr Lushaba] a fear of whiteness [sic]” and behaving “like a British overlord” to get his own way. (I do believe Butler is, for his sins, an English citizen and wondered whether Dr Lushaba has studied the debating techniques of Donald Trump, amlungu if ever there was one. – You know, the Obama place of birth canard.)

As a result, Butler apparently wrote to Dr Lushaba and told him, to cut a long story a bit shorter, that Dr Lushaba should desist from such pedagogical aids. Dr Lushaba was deeply aggrieved – hence his open letter which you have been, for your sins, studying.

Now then, I could, as intimated earlier, try to make fun of Dr Lushaba. For example, he does, as noted, write a prolix species of gobbledygook. Instead of writing “we’ll talk” about X or Y, Dr Lushaba has to “discourse” about it. Instead of writing “imagination,” he writes “imaginary” (though this particular example could be a typing error). He writes about “modern disciplinary knowledges [sic]”. He mentions having taken his students through “the compound thematic” – I think he means “various, inter-related themes”. And so on.

But hey, he’s an academic – and this is, I’m afraid, what most academics do, even the few good ones sometimes. With a little effort, Dr Lushaba could have thrown off his colonial shackles and opted to discourse by means of a brief, clear, jargon-free narrative. He could have written: “Prof Butler seems to think it inappropriate that I had my students listen to RMF protest songs and RMF demagoguery. But here, friends, is my argument for why having RMP people present in a politics lecture is useful and valuable.” (And his argument might have been persuasive, who knows?)

But Dr Lushaba did not do that. So what? I hear you cry. The local media, web sites, etc. are full of such prolix, mawkish, quasi-literate, illogical, racist, over-emotional, and risible diatribes. They have become de rigueur, it seems. If Dr Lushaba wants to mask his obvious feelings of inadequacy, anger, impotence and (perhaps genuine) feelings of woe about “the black children of Masiphumelele, Imizamo Yethu, [and] Gugulethu,” if he wants to think of himself as Caliban (not Othello or Aaron [Titus Andronicus]), hey, let him do so. Why am I wasting your time with this? Why am bothering to give it attention?

Aware that I have crossed the 1 000-word mark and that by now your Methylphenidate is probably wearing off (you had the previous 4 000-odd words to get through), I’ll be as brief as possible.

First, it seems Dr Lushaba’s kind of bilge has indeed become de rigueur in Seffrica these days and, moreover, is being trumpeted and by all kinds of cheer leaders of such rubbish. You know who they are; I know who they are; some even have their own radio programmes; some lead student representative councils. It is horse manure (actually, worse) – and people need to call it what it is and complain about it loudly. Please join me.

Second, the letter is an insult to human rationality and to the written English language – and is consequently an insult to all of us.

Third, it contains nasty racial innuendo, overt and covert. “ ... we shall be sure to inquire whether parents of all races have the same access to the HOD. Do all parents of all races and social status ... also get to contact the HOD and express their feelings?” Well, Dr Lushaba, if I know anything about Butler, I bet they do. If you have proof otherwise, you write and tell Max Price.

Fourth, this is destructive stuff, especially for UCT. As someone said to me: “Ja, I saw this. I don’t know why UCT keeps on insisting on making such appointments.” I rest my case (and wonder whether Butler employed Dr Lushaba, heh-heh).

Fifth, what if, as a result of this letter, Butler gets targeted, especially in the present climate? There’s particular nasty stuff in the letter and the UCT powers-that-be seem rather a pusillanimous bunch. Worse, what if some hero of the RMF movement thinks it would be a hugely brave thing to attack Butler, verbally or physically?

Finally, Dr Lushaba’s letter is offensive. Above all, it’s offensive to those for whom it purports to talk. “I am one with the black children of ... black slums who with their tender bare black bodies play all day long in stagnant pools of discarded bathing water, urine, menstrual blood, vomit of drunken black souls, and perhaps discharge from a backyard abortion performed on a body too young to bear life.” (Dr Lushaba has clearly missed his vocation; he ought to have worked at the Daily Sun – where, inter alia, the late Deon du Plessis and then I would have shown him how to lose the gobbledygook and his colleagues would have laughed the chip off his shoulder.)

Why does Dr Lushaba even begin to think that he speaks on behalf of those children (and adults by the way) – people whose shoes (if they had any) he’s not fit to polish – just because he mentions them so palpably insincerely, in such a clichéd manner, so as to harness their anguish and situation to his petty, personal whine? Appalling stuff. He was bollocked by his boss – though clearly in the kindest, most polite manner – and he just can’t cope. Dr Lushaba should put a sock right up his discourse.