Barbarism, Burnings and Beckett 3 by Mike van Graan

07 Mar 2016
Barbarism, Burnings and Beckett 3 by Mike van Graan

By PEN SA Board Member Mike van Graan, originally published on his blog, on 4 March 2016

Read Part One here

Read Part Two here

Beyond “decolonization”: towards an emancipatory discourse and practice

Our social media and public discourse has become increasingly polarised and polarising; there is little room for nuance, for reflection rather than point-scoring between “us” and “them”. This is the final in a series of three articles, published in an attempt to negotiate this minefield. They are stand-alone articles, but they need to be read in their totality.

Our social media and public discourse over the last two years has been fraught with the language of decolonisation, white supremacy, intersectionality, racism, white privilege, institutional and systemic violence, and “must fall” hashtags. It has been a period of unprecedented youth and student activism since 1994, with many new, engaged and impressive voices emerging that have sharpened our insights and debates, highlighted many issues about which society has become complacent and alerted us to generational differences in understanding our history and its impact on our contemporary experience.

During this period too, there have been, and continue to be, numerous incidents of overt racism that have brought latent wounds to the surface, reflecting the limitations and superficiality of the post-apartheid “reconciliation” and “rainbow nation” narratives.

While the student activism and the incidents of racism have been key discourse-shaping headlines, there are a few hard questions that have to be asked: Is the focus on university transformation and tertiary education access the most important focus for us as a country right now? Is our primary struggle really against racism and white privilege? How liberating is the language and discourse of “decolonisation”? What does our greater awareness of systemic and structural violence mean for transformative strategies and tactics?

While there may have been initial hostility towards the struggles of students, there is probably now greater awareness of and support within our broader society for cheaper (and for students from poor families, free) access to tertiary education. Access would include the provision of adequate, affordable accommodation (even free for poorer students). STATS SA studies on poverty have shown that poverty is lowest among the cohort of South Africans with tertiary education and highest where education levels are most basic, so that in order to break the cycle of poverty, students from poorer families should be prioritised in accessing – and being supported in – tertiary education. In alleviating poverty, the effect of achieving employment commensurate with a tertiary education is often felt beyond the individual and her immediate family to include extended family networks.

Students have also alerted public attention to the plight of outsourced workers, and to the cynical way in which the university saves costs by stripping the most vulnerable workers of employment benefits, and placing them at the mercy of profit-driven companies, rather than as employees of a publicly-funded institution.

But while the tertiary student struggles have sustained public awareness, it is the 2015 matric results that revealed where the major educational challenges in our country lie. There is little point in repeating what many analysts have said, but who has access to tertiary education (and thus the best chance of moving out of poverty), is directly related to the quality of schooling received at pre-primary, primary and secondary levels. Notwithstanding the huge amount of public resources allocated to pre-tertiary education, hundreds of thousands of learners do not complete matric, and hundreds of thousands more do not qualify academically to enter tertiary education.

According to Equal Education’s website, STATS SA indicates that two-thirds of people without education live in poverty, reducing to 55% of those with primary school education and 24% of those who matriculate. 58% of whites enter some form of tertiary education, along with 51% of Indians, 14,3% of “coloureds” and 12% of black Africans.

Surely then, our collective efforts – if we are to deal decisively with poverty in our country – need to be expended on ensuring that everyone does indeed have access to decent, quality education at pre-tertiary levels?

Which brings me to the second question: is our primary struggle really against racism and white privilege?

Doron Isaacs is a young, white man. He helped to start Equal Education (EE), a national, community-based advocacy organisation, campaigning for quality education for all, with their campaigns rooted in research and policy analysis. Having initially served as Deputy Secretary General, he is now the treasurer of EE, the only white person in a national council of nineteen people.

Equal Education does outstanding work in seeking to address the systemic problems that plague our education system. Isaacs is using some of the benefits of his privilege – his education, his networks, his access to resources – to be part of addressing one of the key problems inherited from our apartheid past. There are many – privileged, white – “woke” individuals like him, working in trade unions, social movements, community-based structures, advocacy groups and think tanks, who have made life and career choices to help transform our society, in partnership with and under the leadership of black people, to ensure the better life for all that is the stuff of electoral promises. (There are also numerous privileged Indian, black African and “coloured” people who choose to apply their educational, economic and other unearned advantages in this way, so that privileging structures and systems do not have, or do not necessarily have, deterministic outcomes that rob individuals of agency).

There are other white people who may not choose to work in these system-changing organisations but who, with the privileges and benefits they enjoy from the prevailing and historical structures, seek to make a difference in the lives of individuals whom they know or with whom they have some relationship. They do things like pay for the Model-C schooling of the children of their domestic workers, and in some cases, for their tertiary education. They assist their domestic workers to acquire more skills and qualifications to help advance their social and career positions and they may help them to purchase a house, paying them well above the paltry minimum rates. Others support educational funds, charities that address symptoms and organisations that deal with causes of social ills, while still others – generally not those who gripe about paying too much tax that government steals anyway – give away 5% of their gross annual income to address poverty as part of the Five-Plus Project.

Some may dismiss these as “liberal”, conscience-salving and ineffectual with regard to changing the structures from which the privileged continue to benefit, but the beneficiaries of such actions might have quite different perspectives. Besides, what is the point of demanding that people check their privilege and face up to the benefits that they enjoy simply by virtue of their colour, if their attempts – whether genuine or conscience-salving (does it matter?) – to employ their privileges to help change the lives of those who do not enjoy such privileges, are summarily dismissed? Surely the number and scale of the challenges in our country require the collective efforts of as many as possible, and of those who are privileged in particular (who, it may be argued, have a moral responsibility to “give something back”), beyond white students being asked to form a barrier between black students and security personnel?

There can be no equivocation about racism being called out, about conscious or unconscious “white privilege” actions and behaviour that adversely affect others being exposed, but we need to move beyond discourses that disempower progressive action or that are ideologically pessimistic. To say, for example, that all whites are racists by virtue of benefiting from structural and systemic racism, is to declare that people have little agency, and that they are obliged to act in the ways that their structural privilege dictates. By the same logic, in our patriarchal society, all men are sexists and given the overwhelming structural bias against gay people, all straight people are homophobic. Similarly, all South Africans are xenophobic because the employment laws, visa regulations and funding structures favour South African citizens, rather than African nationals from other countries.

While they are just about on par with whites in terms of education levels and income, are Indians less racist – like being less pregnant – than whites, because they have not benefited from structural racism as much as whites? And, are coloureds who share many poverty and education indicators with black Africans, not racists, because they are victims rather than beneficiaries of systemic racism?

Can men be part of a struggle against sexism? Can straight people help to advance gay rights? Can white people – and Indians and coloureds – fight racism? Can able-bodied people actively promote and defend the interests of physically- challenged people?

Is there a hierarchy of struggles against oppression? Does the struggle against racism take precedence over the struggle against the oppression of women, or over the marginalisation of gay people? Theoretical paradigms emerging through the student struggles, particularly from the more resourced tertiary institutions, emphasise intersectionality, the multiplicity and inter-relatedness of oppressions. At UCT, a leading – woman – member of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, faced the wrath of some of her colleagues when she queried gay relationships in terms of her religious beliefs on her Facebook page.

Does one have to be passionate about opposing all oppression before one can legitimately engage in opposition to one form of oppression? Is it possible for a white gay activist to be racist? Can black male leaders against racism be sexists? Could a disability activist be homophobic? The nature of our current discourse is such that while it is of course possible for all of these scenarios to exist, it would be best for individuals not to declare it.

Privilege theory – imported largely from the USA and the UK – has helped to make us more conscious of unearned advantages that inform our actions when our particular race, gender, sexual orientation, etc is dominant within society, but it has also contributed to polarisation that does not always take into account the multiplicity of forms and practices of discrimination and oppression in our country.

The need and goal to change our society into one that is more equitable, that does not discriminate against anyone on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc; a society that reflects the ideals of the Constitution, are clear. However, the process of doing so, is less clear, is less pure, is complex and messy, filled with contradictions and tensions. What does our middle-class discourse and point-scoring about “white privilege” really mean for the non-delivery of school text books in Limpopo, or for the lack of clean water in the North West, or for the poor school facilities in parts of the Eastern Cape?

Rather than attempt to reach a state of theoretical purity, perhaps we should be harnessing available and interested expertise, networks and resources to address our key challenges of inequality and poverty, and the ways in which these violate the dignity of people. Through participating in such struggle, we would constantly educate ourselves and each other about our shortcomings and our failures to face up to, and address our unearned advantages, but always with our efforts geared towards eliminating inequality and poverty.

The third question has to do with the limitations of the discourse of “decolonisation”. There are those who feel under threat and typically respond to this language of decolonisation defensively with statements such as “universities are the result of colonisation, so should we take away your university?”. However, I understand the “decolonisation” project to be saying that practices, language, symbols and educational content that resonate with the colonial project of denigrating indigenous knowledge, that preferences one – often non-indigenous – culture above others, and that violates the dignity or undermines the humanity of historically oppressed people, should be revisited, and be contextualised, amended or removed as the specifics may require.

But while the “decolonisation discourse” has informed student activism on historically white universities in particular, it is now common cause that our economy is increasingly integrated with that of China, that much of our energy future will be linked to Russia and that a family from India has captured a faction of the ruling party, and with it, has compromised many of our state institutions, purely for the financial gain of elites, rather than to improve the lives of the majority of South Africans. At the same time, our country has itself become a neo-colonising force on the African continent through the tentacles of our corporates, our media organisations, our military capability (relative to most other African countries) and our proxy and facilitative roles in structures such as BRICS.

In a globalised world, with capital extending both to and from South Africa and with direct implications for addressing our key inequality, unemployment and poverty challenges, we need to devise new, re-affirm old, or create hybrid discourses that speak to the overarching narrative that would reflect the needs and interests of our country’s majority, while multiple other narratives are devised and applied to their specific conditions.

Finally, to the issue of structural and systemic violence. We live in a world where economic, political, military/security and cultural power intersect at global, regional, national and even institutional levels to allow those who wield, or who best have access to such power, to prevail. The irony of our continued human existence is that it is maintained and secured by the threat of its very violent obliteration – the so-called “nuclear deterrent”.

Struggles to change oppressive systems then require strategies that take account of the ways in which power is exercised and maintained, with an evaluation of the balance of forces – the relative strengths and weaknesses of those in power and those seeking change – informing tactics. Given the nature of systemic violence and the ability of those in power to wield coercive force, it is seldom a good tactic simply to “meet violence with violence”. There are indeed times when the use of force and violence to counter violence is necessary and appropriate, and our own struggle against apartheid is replete with lessons in this regard.

The occupation of Tahrir Square by activists in Cairo ultimately brought about the decline of the thirty-year-long Mubarak dictatorship. Egypt had one of the strongest military forces in the world, so that for the activists to take on the military would have been foolhardy. The sustained occupation of a public space combined with massive national and international media coverage that helped to shift public and political opinion in favour of the activists, eventually contributed to the overthrow of a regime that few would have thought possible. Despite extreme provocation from government security forces, the activists stuck to their tactics in order to win and sustain broad support.

Murder in the Cathedral, a play by T.S. Eliot, tells of the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket, an opponent of the King, perceived to be an unjust authority, in 1170. The Archbishop faces four temptations: to seek his physical safety, to serve the king and gain power and riches, to form a coalition with the elites against the king, and finally, to embrace the glory of martyrdom. The play speaks to the temptation to act selfishly, to appear to be acting for the right, moral reasons, but actually, the real motivations are more egotistical, even if they have to do with death and martyrdom.

Sometimes, we are tempted to be revolutionaries, we fall in love with the idea of being a revolutionary, and we act as we believe revolutionaries should act. The correctness and the goals of the cause take second place to “revolutionary acts” which for some are best expressed through violence. Others are tempted to be counted among the revolutionaries, the self-sacrificing martyrs, the “cool kids” and to stand in solidarity with them, with anyone in a position of authority or power, regarded as the enemy, or collaborators with the enemy. In particular contexts, this may very well be the case; in the case of a university in contemporary South Africa, this singular approach is questionable, more particularly when the aims of student activism – affordable or free access to tertiary education, accommodation for students accepted to study, but who cannot afford such accommodation, changes to the university curriculum and public symbols, and the insourcing of vulnerable workers – may generate (in some cases, reluctant or grudging) broad public sympathy and potential political support.

In conclusion, while it is only right that struggles for progressive change occur on a number of fronts, we should guard against one struggle assuming importance and dictating the overarching struggle narrative, which should be shaped first and foremost by the needs, interests and aspirations of the majority of our citizens who are poor, black, under the age of 35 and mostly (by a slim majority) women. It is a narrative that as many of us as possible should seek to understand, and engage with as contributors to progressive change, not in a happy, clappy “rainbow nation” way, but with rigour and constant self-reflection. We do not have to be fully evolved in our politics to make a constructive contribution; if we believe in social justice and accept that the dignity of all human beings requires an approach that is anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic and anti-xenophobic (even if we have not fully reached these states ourselves yet), that would be a good start.

(Image courtesy of JGU Magazine)