A FAMOUS GROUSE
SIX years have passed since professional politics student Chumani Maxwele tossed the chemically treated contents of a portable toilet over the statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town. It was a carefully planned publicity stunt and the moment was captured on camera by the press; frozen in mid-air, an arc of soupy matter inadvertently symbolised the umbilical cord between colonised and coloniser.
That shower of shit made an enormous splash. The tsunami of consequences is with us still. Witness, for example, this week’s chaos and violence as protesting students once again threaten to shut down the universities. Par for the course, you could say; nothing to see here, folks, just the start of another academic year in South Africa.
Back in 2015, though, the Fallist agenda startled observers with the scale of its self-destructive ambition. These guys weren’t just targeting campus statuary and student debt, they were gunning for learning itself; the whole granite edifice of higher education was deemed too imperialist by half, serving only the interests of age-old power structures.
Perversely, the movement gained seismic traction. Tectonic plates shifted in critical theory. New orthodoxies emerged at home and abroad. The onslaught against Eurocentrism and the traditionally assigned authority in the academies gained pace.
An alternative “thinking” rose from the rabble: standpoint theory, or the conviction that knowledge comes from the lived experience of different identity groups, and different groups regard things differently. Simply put, the postcolonial scholar is compelled to decolonise everything according to just two criteria — national origin and race.
Now, that may be a sweeping generalisation. But it’s fit for purpose and it springs to mind when considering the row between the former Wits university vice-chancellor, Professor Adam Habib, and his students at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
Habib took up his post as SOAS director in January this year. It could be that, new to the job, he has yet to acquaint himself with the loftier, more refined discourse that is the hallmark of academic life at Russell Square. The University of London, after all, is not some dusty mining college on the other side of the world.
But, anyway, there he is, in this video circulating on social media, responding to a charge that a staffer had been called the “n-word”. While he is unaware of the incident, Habib stresses that those responsible for such abuse should be disciplined: “If someone used the word ‘nigger’ against another staff member, then it would violate our policy and action would be taken.”
As a rule, the term “snowflake” is also to be discouraged. It is a disparagement favoured by bigots who seek to mock and bully others. However, such is the students’ shock and disbelief at Habib’s language that talk of a blizzard is not out of order.
Habib is aware his audience is upset. He apologises if they are offended, but pleads for understanding of the “context” of what he has said. His reasoning appears to be this: he believes he is not guilty of an offence as he has not used the n-word to demean or insult another person; he merely verbalised the term in his reiteration of institutional policy that the use of the word against others was unacceptable and indeed actionable.
One black student was having none of this. “You are not a black man,” he tells Habib. “You cannot use the word, regardless of your lived experience. You have not faced the trauma and the oppression of black bodies, what we go through 24-seven for the last 500 years. You do not embody our history, therefore you cannot use the word.”
My lived experience suggests this is f-word ridiculous. But then my lived experience counts for zip. It is one that is white and privileged and sullied by the sins of forefathers and thus cannot in any way be compared with the lived experience of a black British student, especially one who claims to suffer on a daily basis the pain of subjugation that has endured for five centuries or thereabouts.
Such a lived experience is indeed a heavy load. Far heavier, it would seem, than the lived experience of someone like Habiib who has actually lived as an officially designated second class citizen in the apartheid state. Thus the colonial irony: an English student, one who talks glibly of history, informing a learned South African scholar, a man of colour, that he is not black enough. It’s a bit like calling Nelson Mandela a sellout. Which, of course, is not unheard of in these circles.
Habib touched on this in a Twitter thread in which he offered a critique of “identitarian” politics. “I don’t identify with this political tradition,” he said. “I grew up in a political tradition that is more cosmopolitan oriented and more focused on the class dimensions of structural problems.”
While he was not dismissing identity per se, he felt that identity politics, through the targeting and labelling of individuals, effectively silenced critics.
“Daily people complain about how self-appointed activists determine what is acceptable or not and how intolerant they are of alternative views,” he tweeted. “This is particularly destructive in a university which is meant to enable competing ideas. But it also creates a fertile ground for political forces on the right to mobilise on, as we have seen when conservative political actors demand academic freedom and the right to speak.”
This, naturally, is catnip to the industrial cancel culture complex. The grinding gears of its machines are remorseless and, by the time Habib had formally issued an unreserved apology to SOAS staff and students, a petition was circulating for his dismissal. It read in part: “For us as a black student body, we shall not accept leadership from a director who is racist and does not understand the African condition, African history and why there are black Africans in the diaspora.”
Unsurprisingly, and not wanting to lose their place on the arrogance-ignorance continuum, the Economic Freedom Fighters have also called for the removal of “the racist and idiotic liar known as Adam Habib”.
Now, I am aware that some readers are dismayed at seeing the redshirts getting space to air their views in print. They believe, like the late Margaret Thatcher, that the little fascists should be denied the so-called oxygen of publicity; ignore them, the thinking goes, and they’ll simply disappear. That may be. However, given their diarrhetic use of jargon and bumper sticker slogans splattered across their statements, it would be remiss not to include a glimpse of their unusual slurry in this space. To wit:
“In a typical display of racist arrogance, and a disregard for being called into order which was his trademark in his shameful tenure at the University of Witwatersrand, Habib refused to be corrected on his positionality and how it was historically and politically wrong for him to use the word ‘nigger’ when he does not have the social and cultural experience of the word. Instead of withdrawing his remarks, he went on a maniacal rage, raising his voice to defend the indefensible. Worse to that, Habib goes on to lie and suggest that the derogatory word is used commonly in South Africa, a blatant and filthy lie.”
Unfortunately, the term is, in fact, commonly used by EFF members and their supporters against their political opponents, particularly on Twitter.
The MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi is a frequent offender. Consider this from an October 2020 tweet directed at former public protector Thuli Madonsela: “The EFF Senekal protests touched your house nigger nerve … as a house nigger it is normal to experience nerves when field niggers burn the house of the master because you have a ‘nervous condition’ which may possibly never heal!”
It may well be that Ndlozi, whose slave name is Quinton, is entitled to dish out this sort of abuse because he has the necessary social and cultural experience of the word. But there’s no doubting the smell. This sort of spew is beyond chemical treatment.
Resting in pieces
Further to last week’s comments on obituaries, I notice in several pieces on the late King Goodwill Zwelithini a marked reluctance to make mention of this notorious feudal landlord’s loathing of foreigners. Not so the New York Times, which reported:
“At times his utterances caused upheaval, as in 2015, when his remarks about ‘foreign nationals’ led to xenophobic violence in which at least seven people were killed. ‘We ask foreign nationals to pack their belongings and go back to their countries,’ the king said at a rally in Durban. He later condemned the violence, saying his comments about migrant workers and joblessness among South Africans had been taken out of context.”
This, I feel, would form the basis of an excellent epitaph: “He was taken out of context. Finally.”
At the time of writing, there was some confusion regarding Zwelithini’s burial arrangements. But his people may still be able to tap out a few words on a decent slab of marble.
The obits did point out he was the longest serving Zulu king, and reigned for almost 50 years. Intriguingly, he was able to simultaneously fulfil his royal duties in both the 19th and 21st centuries.
For instance, Zwelithini reintroduced into tribal culture the anachronistic practice of virginity testing and dressed like an explosion at the taxidermist’s. At the same time, he was wholly at ease in his role as a modern monarch, enjoying expensive motor cars, a handsome income and other lavish trimmings care of the taxpayer, exorbitant rentals from“loyal subjects” and, of course, absolute impunity in pretty much everything he said and did.
Good work when you can get it. And we look forward to the unseemly behaviour and squabbling that will come with choosing a successor.
More from the passing lane
I am not a motor racing fan. Unlike many of the regulars at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), I do not regard this activity as proper sport. It fails to qualify as such for the following reasons: there’s no ball; one team of players does not compete against another; and the spectator experience is not enhanced by beer.
One can understand, for example, why I find women’s beach volleyball more rewarding than watching rich men drive fast cars in circles.
That said, I must confess to some sadness at the passing recently of 97-year-old Murray Walker, the legendary Formula One TV commentator. Although he officially retired back in 2001, he will forever be remembered for his “Murrayisms”, the malapropisms that defined his commentary. They were uniquely daft:
“And here comes Damon Hill in the Williams. This car is absolutely unique — except for the one behind it, which is exactly the same,” “With half the race gone, there is half the race still to go,” “And now excuse me while I interrupt myself,” and “There’s nothing wrong with the car except that it’s on fire.”
That last one, a personal favourite, makes me wonder how Murray would have fared had he been a political commentator. How would he have reacted upon learning, let’s just say, that revolutionary numpty Carl Niehaus has drafted an eight-page document on radical economic transformation in support of Ace Magashule’s plans to lead the ANC? Or that Duduzane Zuma, the clever one, wants to run for president as well?
“And here comes another party presidential candidate. This one is absolutely unique — except for the next candidate. Who is exactly the same. Same goes for the candidate after that. And the next one … Nothing wrong with any of them. Except they’re all rotten.”
It’s almost as boring as motor racing.