Philosophy and SA's "battle against colonialism"

David Benatar writes on the familiar but fictional narrative peddled by Olivia Goldhill in Quartz

A familiar but fictional narrative: Philosophy and South Africa’s “battle against colonialism”

The narrative is familiar: Fragile racist “whites”, oblivious to their own purported privilege, creating a hostile environment for long-suffering oppressed “black” students. If there is some truth in that narrative, there is none in Olivia Goldhill’s version of it, “Philosophy is the new battleground in South Africa’s fight against colonialismQuartz 30 September 2018, or in the situation she purports to describe.

Ms Goldhill focuses on two “black” South African postgraduate philosophy students who, she reports, are dismayed not to find more African philosophy in their curriculum. The situation is said to be especially bad in the Philosophy Department at the University of Cape Town (UCT), where I work.

The article begins inauspiciously with the claim that to “study philosophy in South Africa today is to study a series of pronouncements from white, European men”. If one knows anything about academic philosophy, and especially its analytic branch, one knows that it is not the study of anybody’s “pronouncements”. Instead it is the critical evaluation of arguments. This and other features of the opening paragraph set the tone for her entire piece, which is replete with factual errors, as well as spin.

For example, we are told that Olerato Mogomotsi is the only black postgraduate student in the Philosophy Department at the University of Cape Town (false), that he took the Department’s Philosophy of Race course (false), that “the vast majority of students in the class of 40 were … white” (false), and that “they quickly came to a consensus that race was inconsequential” (also false).

These are not inconsequential mistakes. Once they are corrected, Ms Goldhill’s entire thesis collapses. She would have her readers believe that our curriculum is entirely “Eurocentric” and indifferent to the interests of “black” students in matters of race. For example, she quotes Mr Mogomotsi – whether accurately or not, I do not know – as saying that “he doesn’t think about race within his field of philosophy; everyone around him ignores the subject, and so he feels he has no choice but to do the same”. She quotes him as saying that he is “on autopilot mode” and that his “black experience is increasingly detached from the discipline”.

The very existence of the Philosophy of Race course refutes the suggestion that everybody around him ignores the subject. Nor is the existence of this course the only refutation of the suggestion that everybody around him ignores the subject. There are other courses in the Department that also touch on these issues, as well as on African thinkers. Contrary to the impression conveyed in Ms Goldhill’s article, some curricular attention is paid to what we should think about philosophers who held abhorrent – including racist – views.

Ms Goldhill not only gets the demonstrable facts wrong. She also misrepresents and spins things to fit her narrative. For example, she says that the situation at the University of Cape Town “reflects the broader racism of the city”. Cape Town’s purported racism is an old canard, which she swallows whole and then regurgitates in order to frame her depiction of the city’s university and its Philosophy Department.

Similarly, she says that Professor Thaddeus Metz, an exponent of African philosophy at the University of Johannesburg, “faced some dismissal from colleagues who seemed to devalue African philosophy”. Ms Goldhill then immediately refers to an occasion when “he gave a talk at UCT, drawing on ideas in the African tradition”.

The clear implication here is that Professor Metz attempted to talk about African philosophy to the UCT Philosophy Department, only to be met with dismissal of the very idea of African Philosophy. In fact, his talk was part of a series, “Philosophy in Africa, Africa in Philosophy”, co-convened by the Philosophy Department and the Centre for African Studies at UCT. Professor Metz’s arguments met with robust challenges, which is just what one would and should expect. The criticisms did not take the form of rejecting the very idea of African philosophy.

Ms Goldhill also spins her narrative by contrasting her sympathetic portrayals of the students with an uncharitable portrayal of me. She says of Tony Shabangu that he has “none of the pretension or buttoned-up demeanor typical of academics. When he’s not smiling, he looks on the verge of a grin, the corners of his mouth tugging upwards in easy humor”. Olerato Mogomotisi is said to have “a gentle demeanor” and that his face is “slightly reminiscent of a wise, calm owl”.

In her depiction of me, on the other hand, she speaks of my “steady gaze” and says that “he’s convinced by the validity of his arguments” – are the two students not? – and “repeatedly emphasizes ways in which he feels he has been oppressed or slighted”.

Oppressed and slighted” are her words, not mine. She seems dismissive of my claim that the environment at the University of Cape Town has become toxic. I shall leave it for readers to peruse my account of this toxicity – an account that makes no mention of my own personal experiences – to decide whether the environment is indeed toxic.

Suffice it to say here that one Dean, mentioned anonymously in my account, has subsequently and recently taken his own life. He was accused of being a “coconut” and “sell-out” by protesting students who shut down the university for weeks and who objected to his insufficient fealty to their cause. His family, among others, have attributed his descent into depression and eventually suicide to this sort of treatment.

Ms Goldhill opines that I show “great concern for those who wish to resist aspects of decolonization” but that I show “comparatively little empathy for those who feel oppressed by the existing system”. In fact, I show great concern for those who are silenced and much less for those who are either doing the silencing or abetting it. And I have great empathy for students with real problems, which is why we have introduced so much support for students, especially disadvantaged ones.

My care for students is one reason why I am resistant to the insatiable appetite for “de-colonization”, which I take to be not merely misguided but self-crippling. I have argued elsewhere for such claims and responded to other critics who have misrepresented my views. I shall not rehearse those arguments here.

However, it should be noted that the complaints continually shift. To the extent that African philosophy is not taught, the curriculum is said to be “colonised”. If one teaches some African philosophy, one is not teaching enough, and if one teaches it while “white”, one risks other charges, including that of cultural appropriation, as Professor Metz has found. Similarly, students say that they want more philosophy of race and African philosophy but then do not avail themselves of the opportunities to engage these areas when they are offered.

This is entirely consistent with experience elsewhere at the University of Cape Town. Consider, for example, the African Languages section in the School of Languages and Literatures. Only about twenty-two students take first language Xhosa in first year. The numbers drop to about eleven in second year and only five in third year. The enrolments are somewhat better for second-language Xhosa, which is taken by about 100 students in first year. The enrolments slip to about 15 in second year and five in third year.

About 100 students take second-language Sotho in first year, but only 18 in the second year. These numbers are a negligible proportion – less than 0.04% – of the approximately 6600 students enrolled in the Humanities Faculty in a given year. For all the student talk about wanting more African content, very few of them are actually drawn to it when it is offered. That, however, does not fit the narrative Ms Goldhill eagerly advances.


Before writing my response to Olivia Goldhill’s article, I wrote to the editor at Quartz to point out that it contained “a number of factual errors as well as features that I believe violate Quartz’s professed values”. I asked for an opportunity to reply. In response I was asked to advise them of the factual errors, which they would then review. I was told that they “don't typically publish letters to the editor or pieces that function as direct responses to stories”, but that if I were to submit an opinion piece it would be reviewed.

I responded as follows:

“I agreed to an interview with Olivia Goldhill in good faith, largely because her earlier essays suggested to me that she would be fair and willing to consider an unpopular view. I told her as much. The piece she has produced has broken that trust. The entire thesis of the piece comes crashing down if the serious factual errors are corrected. However, I now have no confidence that if I were to point out the factual errors, the article’s thesis would be revised accordingly. I’m thus reluctant to help you fix the most demonstrable errors while more insidious ones remain. I wish that I could have more confidence. Since you don’t allow direct responses, I may have to publish my response elsewhere.”

The reply I received did not reassure me, as it only repeated the request to provide the factual errors, and provided no undertaking to revise the narrative if that is what the facts warranted.

Accordingly, I sent my response piece to Politicsweb. Subsequent to its publication, Quartz corrected some of the clear factual errors, not all of which are explicitly noted in the correction notice appended at the end of Olivia Goldhill’s piece. Unsurprisingly, the central narrative of the piece has not been altered. This supports my contention that the narrative preceded the facts and was not rooted in them.

David Benatar

10 October 2018