The Consumerist Revolutionary
Democracy is under threat by the Zuma warriors of South Africa and their game of state capture, but also by South Africa’s radical students. Student collusion with Zuma has been acknowledged in the press leading to the question of terms of alliance. What do student revolutionaries have in common with Jacob Zuma? To risk an answer demands a fresh, and indeed globalized look at student radical activities.
What began as a call to dismantle colonial legacies at universities and then became a battle over financial issues has also morphed into a demand for safe educational spaces in which students may learn behind closed doors, banishing all influences and people they believe are historically offensive and anachronistic. These student politics are global. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign catalysed events in America and the UK. In turn, the call for safe educational spaces here in South Africa is partly imported from America, and in a corrupted, consumerist version that needs to be carefully understood.
The idea of a safe space has a long history in Europe and the United States, beginning with Virginia Woolf’s famous room of one’s own, in which she wrote of the need for women, and especially women writers (or otherwise creative people) to find a place of retreat from the demoralizing pressures of men.
First generation feminism in the United States picked up this thread, and from the 1960s through the 1980s a great deal of talk about—and making of--women’s rooms, spaces, retreats and the like took place. Not without just cause. Anyone who has sat through dinner parties, or public meetings in either America or South Africa knows how often men talk only to other men, how women cannot get a word in edgewise, and when they do the men respond without looking at them, as if their voices were anonymous and unworthy of identification.
Women chronically endure this in a state of exasperation or, more usually, boredom--hence the attraction of an all-woman space from which men are excluded. Identity politics seeks safe spaces with locked doors where people often at the margins can speak front and centre to each other, especially about their marginality. These spaces can be confidence building and create solidarity. They are almost always the result of genuine offence taken by those who have been marginalized and a way of shutting the door of the safe space to lock out the offensive parties.
However to grasp the depth of South African revolutionary confusion one needs a background understanding what is happening at American universities where a consumerist stance has come into play. Colleges and universities are scrambling to hire the best sushi chefs, offer all night “room service”, and dormitories that resemble hotels in Dubai to satisfy students who have come to believe university is like being on a cruise, it should be comfortable, pleasant and full of staff to wait on you hand and foot.
As tuitions skyrocket (many colleges and universities in America cost more than fifty thousand dollars a year), the desire to attract the richest students has turned universities away from deploying money for scholarships in the name of equity and towards travel and beautification programs. New York University advertises itself as a place where students can sail down the Amazon, visit museums in China and spend semesters abroad in France or Cameroon while studying climate change or public health.
Many universities have instituted a program of “triggers”, requiring teachers to warn students of any materials that might prove offensive or discomforting. Offence is one thing; discomfort another. In any democracy consisting of diverse populations there will be variability in offence: what offends one person will not offend another. One is obliged to take genuine offence seriously wherever it may be found. However students in America have largely lost the distinction between offence and discomfort, believing their rights or privileges, as student consumers ought to preclude anything in the classroom that makes them feel uncomfortable. This is the ‘I’m-on-a-cruise’ mentality. Don’t teach me anything I don’t like, after all I’m the consumer, I paid for this cruise.
This attitude is of course totally destructive to the learning process. A core function of universities to teach students the art of discomfort: how hard it is to attain even the slightest degree of real knowledge about anything, how often one must fail to succeed even a little. Without incorporating the idea of failure there is no way to develop self-critical mechanisms, learn the rigors of intellectual training, become expert at recognizing the multi-perspectival, complex nature of reality, learn to respect the ineluctability of fact.
To acquire the art of learning demands students also achieve a clear distinction in their own minds between what truly offends (them or others), and what merely makes them uncomfortable (however porous the line between offense and discomfort may sometimes be). The student must learn how to bear discomfort and turn it to their advantage in order to take knowledge seriously.
The student consumer is by nature grandiose: I will believe what I feel like believing and little else. Everything is a matter of how it feels when I try it on for size. Americans have become consumers of fact, of truth. If I don’t like the facts I’ll ignore them or go with “alternative facts”. Anyone who seeks to contradict these is perforce the enemy.
It is this consumerist position that South African students have imported from my country. Don’t you tell us anything about history, race, literature or language, students at University of Cape Town shouted at one of the key players in the history of decolonization, Kenyan writer and intellectual Ngugi wa Thiong'o when he spoke, or tried to speak, there. You are hereby barred from entry into our safe world. Why: because we don’t like what you’re saying old black man (or white woman, or worst of all white man). You have nothing to offer us. Meaning we know the truth already, it’s all sown up in our minds. You simply make us uncomfortable by forcing us to listen to something we don’t wish to hear so get out.
These students are unwilling to tolerate discomfort from others who might challenge their entrenched positions. But they are also offended by Ngugi and just about everyone else. They are offended by the university, which to them reeks of colonialism, and by most of the people in it. Their offence is ramped up, Achille Mbembe has written eloquently in a number of places, by their misreadings of postcolonial theorist Frantz Fanon, whose brilliant story of colonial wretchedness they read entirely in terms of their own pain--in terms of their own pain and discomfort I would add.
Which really means they cannot tell the difference between discomfort and offence. It all slides together in their brains. They believe themselves revolutionaries but they are more like consumers of revolution. They purchase revolution in virtue of their pain, as if their identities as black Africans were a currency they could spend on whatever they want, and use it in whatever way they want.
Once they buy into revolution it is theirs to own and use as they wish, like a laptop or mansion in Johannesburg. And so in spite of obvious differences, they share with their American counterparts the ‘I’m-on-a-cruise’ mentality. Except their cruise liner is a battle ship steering them through the violent waters of the Cape of Storms, rather than a pleasure cruise full of Americans gliding through the pacific waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
If this battleship smacks of the communalism of the old National Party I mean it to. For these students ironically recapitulate the National Party’s belief that anyone outside the circle of Ox Wagons is the enemy. The Laager is the container for those who believe the community inside is the only source of truth, and all others are offensive. Indeed the National Party explicitly thought of the Laager as a safe space. Safe spaces are in such contexts the conduits for anti-democratic, virulent nationalism.
This is what student radicals share with Zuma: the closure of the state (or university) into a Laager in the name of consumption. What is happening at universities is part of a larger attack on the culture of democracy and should be taken absolutely seriously for it is sowing the seeds of the authoritarian state.
Daniel Herwitz is Fredric Huetwell Professor at the University of Michigan and was until recently Honorary Research Associate at the University of Cape Town. During the 1990s he was Chair in Philosophy at the then the University of Natal.