Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE


@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Current Events’ Category

The use of ‘the K-word’ indicates a ‘a thoroughbred racist character at work’ – Eusebius McKaiser

Run Racist RunEusebius McKaiser’s most recent column for the Cape Times is titled: “The k-word leaves no room for doubt”, and looks at Matthew Theunissen’s recent letter of apology.

Theunissen rose to infamy after posting a racist rant on Facebook, referring to Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula’s ban on South African sports associations from hosting major international events and calling the government “a bunch of k****rs” and “black f***ing c***s”.

The 26-year-old Cape Town resident has since offered a public apology.

McKaiser, however, does not altogether buy it.

Read his column, as shared on his Facebook page:

* * * * *

The k-word leaves no room for doubt

Matthew Theunissen – he of k****r infamy – has penned an open letter of apology addressed to the universe.

Apologies for racism are now as popular as racism itself, so what do we make of this latest attempt by a racist to cover up their naked parading of their true self?

Well, I am not convinced by this apology. Theunissen insists in this open letter that he is not a racist, as he did also a few days earlier in a radio interview with CapeTalk’s John Maytham.

I can think of few things as hard and humbling as accepting that you are racist, let alone admitting to this stain on your character. But when you have just gone viral for calling blacks k****rs, then you have no room to hide. It makes nonsense of the open-letter apology if you insist that all is well with you.

Besides a deep sense of shame blocking one from seeing such stains on one’s character, another reason for the denial that one is racist is an embedded belief that you are decent. White South Africans in particular – in the context of the histories of colonialism and apartheid and anti-black racism which these histories are in service of – want to think of themselves as decent people.

And that is understandable. Who wants to be indecent or seen to be such? But no journey out of the heart of racism can begin with any prospect of success unless we are willing to face up to what the mirror reveals. And the casual hurling of the word “k****r” reveals a thoroughbred racist character at work.

Theunissen’s unwillingness or inability to plainly see what lies in his heart means that the apology solely serves the functional purpose of minimising the social backlash he is receiving. Not until Theunissen comes to grips with being in fact a racist is there a chance in hell that he may yet become an anti-racist.

I am always careful about character ascriptions on the basis of one speech act. After all, one might not be a bigot and still do or say something on occasion that smacks of bigotry. That is why we have the phrase “out of character” in the English language.

For Theunissen, however, this defence isn’t available. Firstly, the internet doesn’t forget. Social media postings from him going as far back as 2012 show that he has been racist towards other groups, too, like Asians and, for good measure, Islamophobic. In other words, the posting about k****rs is part of a pattern of racism rather than a rare incident.

And whatever you do as a matter of habit cannot be excused as being “out of character”. Your character is precisely a reference to your behavioural disposition over a period of time in varying contexts. It is revealed through your habits.

But at any rate, I have long wondered about the word “k****r”. It is such a singularly poisonous word that when someone uses it, once off even, with intention to hurt those the word is thrown at, I think there is no room for further investigation into their past.

The word k****r simply doesn’t allow for innocent non-racist usage. If you casually say something like, “Black people love their chicken”, we can reasonably disagree whether that kind of stereotype constitutes unambiguous racism, let alone definitively reveals racism at the heart of your character. It is a borderline example.
And that is why we cannot routinely make easy judgements about character based on thin evidence. The word “k****r”, I am afraid, is so uniquely loaded with derision, malice, hatred and viciousness that no one who is not a racist would use it.

You could quote the word for purposes of discussing it or use it in a song to evoke its poison in an artistic attempt to open up a discussion about racism, perhaps, but that is not what Theunissen did. He hurled the word at black people with the same force and intent as a violent criminal pinning down their victim, viciously assaulting their dignity.

So, how can Theunissen possibly have any room for being unsure as to whether he is a racist? That lack of certainty is pathetic. And it finds expression in another part of his open-letter apology, too, when he pretends that his intentions and actions do not match.

His intentions are pure, and his actions accidentally do not track them. No one of anti-racist intent accidentally shreds the dignity of black people by calling them k****r. Theunissen’s racist intention was revealed to him and to us. By continuing to try to drive a wedge between intention and action, he shows his apology to be mere survival instinct at work.

You can only begin to chip away at your racist character if you accept that you are racist.

Book details

» read article

DA Joburg mayoral candidate Herman Mashaba urges the youth to vote

Capitalist CrusaderHerman Mashaba has written a piece for Daily Maverick about the relevance of the term “democratic deficit” to South African and encouraging the youth to vote in the upcoming local government elections.

Mashaba is the founder of the Black Like Me empire and the author of the bestselling memoir Black Like You and, most recently, Capitalist Crusader: Fighting Poverty Through Economic Growth. In December, Mashaba announced that he was making himself available as a mayoral candidate for the Democratic Alliance for the City of Joburg in 2016.

In the article, Mashaba points out that only 59 percent of young South Africans voted in 2014: ie “Four in 10 young people chose not to vote.”

He continues: “It’s a hard truth to swallow, but, as Thomas Jefferson said; voters – especially those who choose not to vote – get the government they deserve.”

Read the article:

A few years ago The Economist surmised that “perhaps the most depressing explanation is simply that in many places, young people do not feel that there is anyone worth voting for”. What is certain, though, is that South Africa is afflicted with a democratic deficit that affects our young people worst of all. The democratic deficit is a political science term coined to explain the gap between European citizens and the institutions of the European Union. The term applies so perfectly to South Africa because there is an ever bigger and increasing gap here between the potential electoral voting bloc and the democratic institutions that are voted for. Its roots lie in a government that abuses the trust of its voters, yet still appeals to them along divided lines, with little to offer.

Related stories:

Book details

» read article

There is a looming education crisis in PE – Jonathan Jansen asks why nobody cares

How to Fix South Africa's SchoolsWe Need to ActLetters to My ChildrenGreat South African TeachersWe Need to Talk


Why is there no public outcry about the fact that since the school year started more than 50 schools had not started classes?

This is the important question asked by renowned academic and author Jonathan Jansen in a recent column for The Times.

In the article entitled “The real education calamity” Jansen why what is going on with schools in Port Elizabeth – or rather what is not going on – is not a national concern.

“I have long discovered that what makes a local concern a national problem depends on whose children it is. Just like a fire in Khayelitsha or Kayamandi does not grab the same public attention and resolve as when flames threaten homes in Fish Hoek or Lakeside, so, too, this crisis in a neglected area of Port Elizabeth barely makes headlines,” the author of How to Fix South Africa’s Schools: Lessons from Schools that Work writes.

Read the article:

If you live in the northern areas of Port Elizabeth, your life chances as a young black child are already slim.

The familiar blights of drugs, gangs and unemployment make for a lethal cocktail of problems from which few youth escape. Which raises the question: Why is there no public outcry about the fact that since the school year started more than 50 schools in the area had not started classes? If there is a slim chance of escaping the daily, deadening churn of existence in this part of the country, it is education. Worse, the parents seem to conspire with the dysfunction of the education department to keep these poor children out of school. Activist parents want more teachers at a ratio of about one teacher to 30 children. The department either does not want to provide that level of staffing and/or it cannot afford additional personnel against a straining compensation bill. It does not matter – the children’s slim life chances are now reduced to less than zero.

Also read:


Book details

» read article

Eusebius McKaiser analyses Jacob Zuma’s ‘week of horror’

Run Racist RunCould I Vote DA?A Bantu in My Bathroom

Eusebius McKaiser’s latest column for the Cape Times examines the events that took place last Tuesday at the Constitutional Court, when President Jacob Zuma, via his counsel, advocate Jeremy Gauntlett, agreed that the recommendations of the public protector on Nkandla are binding.

McKaiser calls the week as a whole Zuma’s “week of horror”, and says after the events of Tuesday “even the State of the Nation Address … was a total anti-climax”.

He quotes Richard Poplak’s “immortal words”: “it was a ‘Zombie Apocalypse’”.

Read the article:

The court had been called to determine the status of the remedial actions recommended by the public protector in the Nkandla matter. And, boy, what an exciting day of constitutional activity it was. The judges were in fine form, asking excellent questions. Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng was particularly razor sharp throughout, presiding authoritatively. Constitutional supremacy was entrenched, and that’s good for our democracy.

Perhaps the most newsworthy moment was the concession by President Zuma, via his counsel, advocate Jeremy Gauntlett, that the recommendations of the public protector are binding. He accepted that in this case – though not necessarily in all instances of public protector work – the recommendations constitute administrative action and, since there was no judicial review that had set these aside, that Zuma is bound by the recommendations as a matter of administrative justice.

What happened next, given the torturous legal minefield that Zuma has tiptoed through for the last two years, was spectacular: he threw the minister of police under the Gautrain.

Related stories:

Book details

  • A Bantu in My Bathroom: Debating Race, Sexuality and Other Uncomfortable South African Topics by Eusebius McKaiser
    EAN: 9781920434373
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!

» read article

Whites need to sort out their racism among themselves – Trevor Jennings agrees with Eusebius McKaiser

Run Racist RunEusebius McKaiser’s new book Run Racist Run: Journeys Into The Heart Of Racism recently inspired Trevor Jennings, who is from the Transformation Christian Network and the former President of the Eastern Province Rugby Union, to take some action where racist views are concerned.

In an article for BizNews, Jennings says that his eyes were opened by Run Racist Run as well as Ferial Haffajee’s What If There Were No Whites In South Africa. “I don’t agree with everything they say but I cannot deny their experience. It’s a perspective that – if I listen closely – challenges who I am and my place in this country,” he writes.

It was McKaiser’s suggestion that “whites should stop relying on their black brothers and sisters to solve their racial problems” that really affected Jennings. He has resolved to take up the challenge set by McKaiser’s comment that “whites need to sort this out among themselves”.

Read the article:

During the Christmas recess I read two very interesting books: “What if there were NO WHITES in South Africa” by Ferial Haffajee and “Run racist run: journeys into the heart of racism” by Eusebius McKaiser. It opened my eyes. I don’t agree with everything they say but I cannot deny their experience. It’s a perspective that – if I listen closely – challenges who I am and my place in this country.

I was struck by Markus Trengove’s comment as quoted by Haffajee in her book (page 167 – Trengove was one of the white students arrested at the UCT #FEESMUSTFALL campaign in 2015). On social media he said the following: “I benefitted from the injustices of apartheid. Although I did not choose it, my race, my gender and language have allowed me to inherit certain privileges. The right response is no longer to bury my head in shame. The right response is not to try to guard these privileges. The right reaction is to admit that there is an enormous injustice, but that my privilege has put me in a good position to remedy it. That is my privilege. That is my duty.”

Also read:


Book details

» read article

Black tax and non-bloody racism: Eusebius McKaiser talks about his book Run Racist Run (Podcast)

Cover Reveal: The New Book from Eusebius McKaiser

If ever there was an important book to read to stay in tune with the spirit of the time, and what is going on in South Africa, it would be Run Racist Run: Journeys Into The Heart Of Racism by Eusebius McKaiser.

Run Racist RunHe recently spoke to The Voice of the Cape’s Drivetime host Shafiq Morton (author of Imtiaz Sooliman and the Gift of the Givers) to introduce potential readers to this new work of non-fiction. “This certainly is a book that addresses all the issues that sometimes people are too scared to talk about – sometimes they might just whisper about them. In this particular book,” Morton says, “Eusebius gets in your head and scratches your eyeballs from behind.”

During the interview, McKaiser explains what sets his book apart from other books on racism and why he focuses on what he calls “non-bloody forms of racism”. He breaks down the concept referred to as “black tax” and explains why he does not believe in equal opportunity on principle.

McKaiser also addresses white liberals “who think that because they hate someone like Steve Hofmeyr that that means they are not capable of the spectrum of racist attitudes” and shares with Morton why he used Max du Preez as an example to illustrate his point. To end the conversation, McKaiser breaks down the matter of “literary apartheid” which blew up last year after an event moderated by him at the Franschhoek Literary Festival.

Listen to the fascinating interview:

For a taste of Run Racist Run: Journeys Into The Heart Of Racism, read an excerpt from the first chapter:


Related links:


Book details

» read article

“I Understand that I may be Seeing You Soon”: Watch Al-Qaeda Hostage Stephen McGown’s Hopeful Video

Imtiaz Sooliman and the Gift of the GiversEarlier this week a video of Stephen McGown was released by his captors.

McGown was captured 4 years ago while visiting Mali, and has since been held captive by al-Qaeda. The video shows that he is alive and healthy, and hopeful that he will be released soon.

In the video, McGown thanks the South African government for its continued efforts to negotiate his release and also gives thanks to Gift of the Givers for their involvement. He says: “I hope you are all well back home. I understand that I may be seeing you soon. I believe that there is an organisation involved now, a South African organisation, brokering the release”.

Watch the video:

YouTube Preview Image

Following the release of the hostage video, eNCA interviewed Malcolm McGown, Stephen’s father. McGown senior says he is in constant contact with Imtiaz Sooliman, founder and head of Gift of the Givers, who has kept him updated on the hostage negotiation. The organisation’s work is cause for great hope for the family.

Watch the video:

YouTube Preview Image

Related stories:

Book details

» read article

3 Things to Expect from the Anonymous Cyber War against Isis, According to Arthur Goldstuck

Tech-Savvy ParentingArthur Goldstuck, MD of World Wide Worx and co-author of Tech-Savvy Parenting: A Guide to Raising Safe Children in a Digital World, spoke to IT Web recently about hacktivist group Anonymous declaring cyber war on ISIS.

Anonymous announced their move in a video released on Sunday night, and according to Goldstuck: “Collective cheers were heard around the world.”

Watch the video:

YouTube Preview Image

Goldstuck says there are three things we can expect to come out of Anonymous attacks:

  • 1. Tremendous vigilance of Web sites created by ISIS and sustained attacks on them.
  • 2. Attempts to compromise ISIS’ anonymity.
  • 3. A divergence of ISIS resources as the group will have to invest more in cyber security to keep Anonymous out.

Read the article:

Goldstuck says Anonymous attacks are specifically targeted, with less chance of collateral damage.

“The video was very symbolically powerful because it used the same techniques as ISIS. People do not realise how technology- and Internet-savvy ISIS is. Anonymous has met them on their battleground with this video.

“The terrorist group is powerless to retaliate as Anonymous are what they are: anonymous,” says Goldstuck.

Book details

» read article

“Monumentally Stupid” – Eusebius McKaiser on the DA’s Stellenbosch Language Policy Statement

Run Racist RunCould I Vote DA?Eusebius McKaiser, who has just published his third book Run Racist Run, has written an article on the DA’s terse response to Stellenbosch University’s announcement of the proposed change to English the main language of instruction.

The DA criticised the university’s decision on the basis that it seems to be “in contravention of the constitutional principle that every person has the right to be taught in the official language of their choice”.

McKaiser believes that this premise is flawed in a number of ways – it demonstrates a lack of regard for the way black students are affected by Afrikaans teaching; it implicitly assumes Stellenbosch should serve the Afrikaans community; it misunderstands the decision; and, most importantly, it shows an inability to comprehend the task of transformation.

Read the article:

It is unbelievable how monumentally stupid the DA’s statement this past weekend was about the proposed changes in Stellenbosch University’s language policy.

If you missed it, here are the salient facts before we examine the DA’s own goals. Stellenbosch is on the brink of making English officially its main language of instruction, and presumably the main language of the administration of the university.

Afrikaans and isiXhosa are also explicitly proposed to be developed as key supporting languages in the institution, in acknowledgement of the fact that many of the students on campus speak one of these supporting languages at home.

Enters the DA with a gift for its political opponents. The party’s shadow minister of Higher Education, Belinda Bozzoli, released a terse statement telling the university that its new language policy proposal “appears to be in contravention of the constitutional principle that every person has the right to be taught in the official language of their choice… the constitutional rights of Afrikaans-speaking students, therefore, need to be upheld, while those of other students of different backgrounds are also met.”

Let me cut to the chase and state four fatal weaknesses of this DA statement.

First, there is no regard – none whatsoever – in this statement for the way in which the current language policy disadvantages black students at Stellenbosch. The effect of the status quo is that non-Afrikaans students feel less at home at Stellies than Afrikaans students.

This isn’t just a feature of an exclusionary institutional culture in terms of social life at the institution, it is also a form of pedagogical violence because Afrikaans and non-Afrikaans students consequently enjoy different kinds and qualities of education at Stellenbosch.

The DA statement shows no insight into what motivated the proposed new policy. In my new book Run, Racist, Run, I expand an earlier account of what racism consists of. If you show systematic disregard for the interests of other race groups, you are racist, even if the behaviour is not intentional. The DA statement reinforces institutional racism.

Second, the DA shadow minister implicitly assumes that Stellenbosch exists to serve the Afrikaans community. That’s false. It’s a public institution that should be as inclusive as possible rather than privileging any one linguistic group.

The point here being that the DA perpetuates the historical anachronism that Stellenbosch belongs to the Afrikaners. That is a telling subtext that one can read into the foregrounding of Afrikaans students’ constitutional rights and only a waspish reference to other students’ rights.

Third, the DA’s statement is simply wrong in its understanding of the new proposals. Afrikaans is not going to be sidelined. It will simply not be privileged at the expense of the educational needs of thousands of university students not conversant in the language.

The DA’s statement shamefully feeds a false perception that Afrikaans’s very existence depends on Stellenbosch maintaining it as its main language. No language group should be that insecure. Afrikaans will flourish for as long as the language is spoken, read and lived in many other ways by the millions of Afrikaans-speakers in the country.

Lastly, the DA statement sadly betrays an inability to truly get what transformation of our society requires of all of us. Not only is the new language policy proposal not a violation of the rights of Afrikaans students, it can, in fact, enhance the reputation and status of Afrikaans, and the Afrikaans community.

Afrikaans has a horrible history in our country, still labelled as the language of the oppressor by many people – even though it is the mother tongue of some of us who are black. Afrikaans needs to occupy a more comfortable space in multilingual, democratic South Africa.

That place is not one of superiority to other local languages. It should be one of linguistic equality. This new language policy for Stellenbosch truly opens up the possibility of Afrikaans liberating itself from an odious socio-linguistic and political history.

The proposed new language policy is the institutional equivalent of a washing of the feet of victims of apartheid. Or, if you will, the equivalent of Afrikaans coming down from its imagined higher ground, and being made to sit on the floor with other languages as equals, rather than as the baas. It could be much-needed catharsis.

The only people who are mortally upset by the proposed new language policy are people who are not interested in a more just and, therefore, a more inclusive, South Africa.

Let them cry their privileged tears. Let those tears flow from wells of linguistic chauvinism. Do not wipe them. Do not placate the criers. We should rather continue, full steam ahead, with the project of wholly decolonising all spaces in South Africa that remain – structurally and institutionally – poisonously unjust.

The DA should get with the programme, or forget about their dream of capturing significant numbers among black voters.

Related stories

Book details

» read article

“Gangsterism Masquerading as Progressive Politics”: Jonathan Jansen on the “New Anger” at SA Universities

How to Fix South Africa's SchoolsWe Need to ActJonathan Jansen recently delivered the Inaugural Stephen Ellis Memorial Lecture at the Netherlands Embassy in Pretoria.

The lecture is titled “A quiet contemplation on the new anger: The state of transformation in South African universities”.

Jansen is Vice-Chancellor and Rector at the University of the Free State and author of How to Fix South Africa’s Schools: Lessons from Schools that Work and We Need to Act.

Jansen believes that “at the core of many of the disruptions at the former white English universities is a kind of gangsterism masquerading as progressive politics”.

Read the lecture:

The Inaugural Stephen Ellis Memorial Lecture
Netherlands Embassy
Brooklyn, Pretoria
Friday 9th October 2015
A quiet contemplation on the new anger: The state of transformation in South African universities
Jonathan D Jansen
University of the Free State


From the time of our first meeting Stephen Ellis struck me as a fine English gentleman, a generous human being and a meticulous scholar. I was not surprised that he would be invited to share the honour of Desmond Tutu Professor, an association he always carried with great pride. It was only later, however, that I would come to appreciate the stature of this Oxford-trained historian in the academic world not only as Editor of two prestigious publications, Africa Confidential and African Affairs, but also as author or co-author of a collection of truly outstanding books on the African condition alongside his towering presence in leading world journals concerned with African Studies.

It was however his book External Mission which would behoorlik set the political cat among the self-adulatory pigeons of the ruling party by demonstrating the continuity of behaviours—corruption, racial and ethnic strife, paranoia and excess—before and after 1994. The seamless, unreflective, one-dimensional and heroic accounts of struggle and conquest were shaken by this remarkable work of scholarship which, I am proud to say, had some of its origins in the archives of the University of the Free State. Yet while I do not share Stephen’s preoccupation with the influence of the Communist Party within the ANC—there were hard realities shaping this co-dependency over a century—I know of no other historical work that better explains the state we are in by taking 1994 as a marker of not only change but continuity with the fractured past of the liberation movements, principally the ANC.

I therefore take my courage this evening from the work of Stephen Ellis as I reflect on the present moment, the turmoil on some prominent university campuses, and what it says about our past and future as a young democracy.

In doing so I thank Professor Gerrie te Haar Stephen’s wife and partner, for considering me to do this Lecture, and your unusually charismatic Ambassador, Marisa Gerards, for the invitation and the platform for honouring Stephen in this way.

The new anger

There is a disturbing vignette somewhere in the middle pages of Memoirs of a Born Free, a book by the young black activist Malaika Mahlatsi who renamed herself Malaika wa Azania. As a learner in a middle class white school, she stumbles on the fact that her teacher’s precious dog died. Looking around at the teary group of fellow learners and the heartbroken teacher, Malaika bursts out laughing. “In Soweto, dogs die all the time,” she writes. The school calls the young Malaika on her heartlessness but for the Earth Sciences student at Rhodes University—also a pristine white institution of her choice—the first-time book author would carry that memory of the dismissal of the pain of others as a badge of pride.

I have studied the somewhat unexpected emergence of this new black anger with a mixture of intrigue and concern. Intrigue, because of who the voices are raising this strident critique of post-apartheid society. The critics are mainly middle class black students (or those aspiring to such status) who attended white schools and white universities in South Africa. In other words, they are for the most part children of privilege as far as their educational aspirations are concerned, and unlike the vast majority of young people who enjoyed access to premium institutions and made that experience work for them, their families and communities—this group of disaffected graduates are angry, and appear very angry. The argument of the newly angry is very simple:

Thank you ANC for what you may have done in the struggle, but no thank you. We reject your closed and circular narrative of freedom—that you came, saw, and conquered. That is your narrative, not ours. We are still not free.

Hence Malaika’s sarcastic title, Memoirs of a Born Free. There is an attempt here at a generational break—the old timers with their warm, fuzzy accounts of struggle and victory, and the new generation which does not feel free in the daily grind of forging a living in a white-dominated economy and grasping for learning in untransformed universities. The older generation should stand back and shut up, and allow the next generation to speak unimpeded and express anger unapologetically. In a refrain often heard on the anger platforms: there is an unyielding assault by whiteness on the black body whether in white university classrooms or at white literary festivals or in everyday life.

But I am drawn to the new anger not only by intrigue but also by a deep concern that once again, as Stephen might have put it, the continuity of destructive behaviours from the past show up in the character of student protests now. There was without any doubt a glorious element to student and indeed community protests which helped set us free. But it is time to acknowledge that there was also the dark side which made us like the perpetrators of that crime against humanity. I speak of unbridled anger, intolerance of dissent and violent confrontation which while understandable, to some extent, in the heat of apartheid, cannot possibly define the content and contours of protests after apartheid. That dark side sometimes included complete disregard for the humanity of others such as in the horrific “necklacing” episodes and the torture, even death, of suspects in camps. It included the emphatic dismissal of education—liberation now—and the loss of status for teachers and teaching from which the post-apartheid school system has never recovered. There is that anger and intolerance that still runs in our veins and shows up all too frequently in the way we protest on the streets, on campuses and, dare I say, in Parliament. That behaviour comes from our violent past and continues into the present.

We have not learnt, in other words, how to conduct ourselves in the context of a democratic state. We have lost the dignity of protest exemplified in the behaviours of people like Walter Sisulu and Beyers Naude and Neville Alexander. In other words, there are left unexplored radical forms of protests that are not reducible to violence and insult and the degradation of things we do not like. Too many influential persons who should know better applaud this dehumanising behaviour that comes with the new anger and it is already clear that the long-term costs will be devastating to school and society.

“Fuck-off whites”—the repeated, shocking words of a young man following the presentation of one especially angry black Ruth First Fellow at Wits—might have unsettled the chairman (and the handful of whites and blacks in the audience) but it carried much support among young blacks in the crowded Great Hall of this chronically unsettled campus. The chairman was at pains to condemn this vile behaviour through a conceptual distinction long lost among this class of youth, between anger and hatred. I have sat in enough of these kinds of outbursts to have felt the heat of this native hatred among young people who had not spent a day living under apartheid or a night in the cells of the white regime; but the anti-white sentiment is undisguised.

By the time the Rhodes Must Fall (RFM) moment came along there was at hand a massive, monumental symbol against which this rage could be levelled—the Rhodes statue on the UCT campus. First the image was doused in human excrement and made the subject of daily mockery until finally the statue was pulled down, Saddam Hussein-like, to the cheers of middle class students, some whites in their number, and consigned to a covered destination off the campus. Rhodes just happened to be in the way, a handy target for a collective anger against the institution. A few weeks later, and things had largely died down. The RFM moment was never going to become a movement; anger alone never sustains anything despite sporadic attempts at revival.

But what exactly is the grievance? At first glance, it is hard to tell. As one astute black scholar observes, “there’s a lot of finger pointing in no particular direction.” Looking closer, the institutional critique is much clearer—the anger seems to be levelled against the lack of transformation: too few black professors, a neo-colonial curriculum, an unwelcoming institutional culture, everyday racism on campus. On that score, there can be little disagreement, and most university leaders will show scorecards of progress while acknowledging complexity in overcoming these problems as quickly as we all wish it could be done.

The grievance becomes a little more complex, however, when it moves away from the straightforward target of university transformation (more black professors) to anger in the realm of black/white relationships. This was what the Ruth First lecture promised to bring to light—the complexity of interracial friendships. At this point the anger becomes intense, even threatening for what then happens is a public baring of the soul of something long suppressed—an unrequited love from white friends. We must pause here.

Not all young people struggle with interracial friendships. In fact, it is my observation across schools and universities that most young black and white South Africans eventually “find each other” through the constant negotiation of social and cultural relations that accommodate difference and accentuate sameness. The earlier such friendships start, the better and many such black/white relations blossom into intimate relations and even marriage. How that happens is the subject of my latest book Leading for Change: race, intimacy and leadership on divided university campuses (Routledge 2015) and my forthcoming book Race, Romance and Reprisal (2016). In other words, the angry voices of a minority do not represent the totality of experiences of interracial friendships among youth in post-apartheid society. The volume of angry noise, however, is out of proportion to the breadth of intimate experiences binding black and white youth.

Still, among the disaffected there are nuances in these bouts of anger. Some believe these interracial friendships carry no value and should be stopped. Others castigate whites for entering these friendships on social and cultural terms which favour them, the privileged: to hell with these kinds of friendships. The complaint goes something like this—

“We have to speak their language and suppress our own; they make no effort to learn our languages. We are tired of smiling in friendships which actually demean us, make us feel less. We become like them, except white on the outside even though our essence, the inside, remains black. We are tired of living these two lives, the one representing our poor mothers and families, the other cavorting with whites in the realm of privilege. We are coconuts no more.”

What does this mean? It is important, first of all, to pay attention to this strain of disaffection among black youth. In one sense, it is nothing new. Some time ago Ellis Close made similar points in The Rage of the Privileged Class wherein he described the experiences of African Americans inside the hostile world of corporate America. Notes Close,

“[S]enior corporate executives and senior partners in law firms are … expected to conform to a certain image. And though their positions may not require golden hair and blue eyes, they do require the ability to look like–and be accepted as–the ultimate authority

In other words, even though black students (or executives) more and more enjoy access to white organisations, their presence and progress requires conforming with white standards of achievement. Being physically present, for those who rage, is not enough; being recognised and accepted on their own terms, matters. Close’s problem in capitalist America is much more difficult to resolve than those of the newly angry in South Africa—he lives in a country where black people are a minority and no longer the most important minority in a nation where the growth in the Latino population has recast politics and economics on that side of the Atlantic. And for Close it is about being successful within the capital accumulation model of neoliberal America; for many black South Africans it is about equity, opportunity and recognition.

The problem of social, cultural and intellectual recognition and not only physical access is a common lament expressed very powerfully in segments of student life on the former white campuses in South Africa. Put bluntly, the lament could be described as “we are physically present but in every other way invisible—socially, culturally, intellectually, materially and even symbolically.” In other words, simply adding more black professors to the Senate or broadening the curriculum to include African Studies (or perspectives) or commissioning more studies on institutional culture, will not only do little to pacify this rage; it could make matters worse.

In this respect it is important to distinguish patterns of institutional recalcitrance among different South African universities. Some of the former white Afrikaans universities still have a major problem with the first order of business, and that is physical access. In this respect Stellenbosch University and the Potchefstroom Campus of North West University find themselves in the eye of the transformation storm.

The Open Stellies Movement was long overdue and the Luister video-documentary is merely the start of what will become an extended campaign to open-up undergraduate studies to many more African students. In this respect it is worth noting that OSM is a much better organised and more mature student organisation than RFM at UCT and its spin-off moment at Rhodes University; it is therefore likely to sustain itself through constructive engagements with the university leadership for some time to come.

It is nevertheless sad that the transformation of this otherwise top academic university was held back by decades-old, refractory language crusades to “protect Afrikaans” which, whether intentionally or not, had the happy consequence (for many) of keeping the institution predominantly white and especially non-African in its main protectorate, the undergraduate class.

In the same way the ugly and repeated assaults on the first black Vice-Chancellor of the North West University by the white defenders of the Potchefstroom campus is—once all the flimsy excuses are exhausted—nothing more than protecting white dominance in language, culture and demographics on what used to be called by the explosive code-name of the Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education.

The white English universities such as Rhodes, UCT and Wits have a different problem—black student numbers have grown steadily in the past two decades of democracy to a comfortable majority in some instances. The usual complaints apply—more black professors, and so on—but the problem in these institutions is more elusive and complex, as any student of transformation among the English would attest. In fact for many researchers, the difficulty is “putting your finger on the problem.” The Vice-Chancellors boldly speak the language of transformation; they have senior colleagues driving these change programmes; their curricula are in many cases open, progressive and critical of their own foundations; there are any number of funded initiatives to recruit older and promote young black scholars. So what’s the problem?

In the first instance, these institutions still convey an overwhelming sense of whiteness from the complexion of the professoriate to the cultural rituals and symbols of everyday life. But there is more: the places impose an English whiteness on newcomers that is hard to describe. So over the years I have asked my most accomplished black scholars at UCT why they were so angry. The answer was the same time and again, normally conveyed with deep emotion: “It’s the way they make you feel.” Since I have been at the receiving end of a few of those withering white putdowns by prominent UCT academics, I know exactly how that must feel if you lived inside that institutional culture day after day at the mercy of a professor, head of department or dean.

At the Afrikaans universities the racism is often blatant; you see it coming as in the Nazi salute on the Potchefstroom campus or the urinating into food for black workers on the UFS campus or the Blackface episodes on the University of Pretoria and Stellenbosch campuses. At the English universities the racism is much more subtle. It is the snub in the hallway; the put-down remark about your promotion; the sense of cultural superiority; the clipped, foreign-sounding accent; the Oxbridge referencing; the biting criticism of your manuscript; the coldness in relationships; the patronising comment; the talk behind your back; the fear of reprisal if you speak out; the weak-wristed handshake; the inability to hug or deliver an unconditional compliment; and the constant reminder that you are not part of the club, literally.

It is for this reason that black academics at places like UCT quickly found common cause with the RFM students even if they disagreed with their tactics; for many years they too had waited to exhale.

That said, at the core of many of the disruptions at the former white English universities is a kind of gangsterism masquerading as progressive politics. It is a vile, in-your-face hooliganism that conjures up the language of radical politics but is, in fact, nothing less than a tsotsi element that one Vice-Chancellor called this behaviour. By conflating the comtsotsi element with the progressive element in scholarship or journalism or everyday observation, we give recognition to bad behaviour and undermine the seeds of what could become a very powerful movement in student protests. This is a crucial point.

Where does this hooligan behaviour come from—that beats up other students, violently disrupts university meetings, assaults members of staff, spews forth anti-Semitic and anti-white froth, and gratuitously attacks the dignity and integrity of leaders? There is no question that the on-campus behaviour seeks to mimic the off-campus behaviour of political parties, to begin with. The ongoing fracas in Parliament, broadcast for all to see, is the model on which some of these youth base their on-campus tactics. Often the students involved in the more violent confrontations come from political movements and community contexts where intellectual disagreement and tough debates are not enough—it must escalate into physical confrontation and verbal abuse.

Needless to say, this is worrying in terms of our country’s future. If the next generation of leaders resolve their conflicts through hate speech and violence, we sustain the very conditions that apartheid and colonialism embedded in our society. The role of leadership is to change that behaviour and the role of education is to tame those passions. The failure to discipline this particular version of the angry mob is a failure of education and leadership at home, in schools, in community organisations and in our universities.

But to simply dismiss all of this violent rage as irrational is not very helpful either in its resolution. The new anger feeds off unresolved inequalities in school and society. The angry student is hungry on campus, struggling to find finances for tuition, hustles to secure cheap accommodation, and then with a dodgy quality of school education that reflects in his poor academic results, finds himself in a laboratory or lecture hall where whites are in charge and continues therefore to make a direct connection between his miserable state and the race of the lecturer. In former white institutions with their cold, clinical and alienating institutional cultures which fail to recognise this student and his estrangement, fire and oil meet.

In this tight and twisted bundle of raw emotions, what appears as anger is not always clearly articulated and there is no particular enemy, so everyone is—the Vice-Chancellors, the white university, white staff, all whites, unsympathetic blacks etc.

The political philosophy of the critique is similarly dense and confusing, ranging from a broad pan-Africanism to a narrow black ethnic nationalism with more than a hint of a poisonous anti-white racism. And the language of critique is straight out of an introductory social science course, repeatedly referencing harm done to “the black body”—for example, by being a minority in a largely white literary festival—with a fair amount of exaggeration, to put it mildly. Simply to go to classes at Rhodes or UCT is to “subject the black body” to an unrelenting oppression.

All kinds of figures are therefore invoked in these angry flashes from Biko to Fanon to Cornell West but unsurprisingly not King or Ghandi or Mandela. If Mandela gets any mention at all, it is as a sell-out, the man who led South Africa into a soft transition that left white privilege undisturbed and black poverty undiminished. It is this instant re-interpretation, and dismissal, of Nelson Mandela that is the most marked feature of the new anger.

There is no ideology or memory or history here, only a hodge podge of pro-black/anti-white sentiment on the tip of an angry tongue that finds expression in the lashing out at public gatherings and memorial lectures, in newspaper columns of especially the Sunday Independent though with more balance in City Press, and in the occasional book production.

It is an anger that is particularly vicious of its critics. In its milder forms of dismissal the critics are old, representing a bygone generation that simply by virtue of age is out of touch and irrelevant to the struggles of youth. They should allow the space for political articulation to be occupied by those who really know, the newly angry young activists. In its harsher version, the older critics of the new anger are trounced as everything from right-wing reactionaries to white-loving establishment figures who have done nothing to advance black professors in the academy or decolonise the curriculum or change institutional cultures.

It is worth repeating that what we are witnessing at the moment is a segmented anger, by which I mean not all universities are affected by the new disaffection and that English and Afrikaans universities are affected differently. For example, none of this upsurge of anger has expressed itself in the bureaucratic solidity of the University of Pretoria; it has been for the most part the experience of the old English universities—UCT, Wits and Rhodes. Despite efforts to make RFM a movement rather than an English moment—such as evidenced in the letters from UCT student leaders to SRC leaders on all campuses—the new anger as described has not ventured beyond these privileged sites.

None of this particular brand of criticism, for example, has emerged at the historically black universities where, in some instances, such as TUT, the old struggles of funding access rolls over with predictable regularity in the form of violent protests, and nothing has happened at places like the University of Venda or in institutions where simply meeting the monthly salary bill is the immediate preoccupation.

These basic struggles are light years removed from the new anger that drives the transformation moment at the liberal English universities or that seeks to repel the crude racism and underrepresentation of black youth in the conservative Afrikaans universities.

So in summary, campus struggles are not the same from the English to the Afrikaans to the historically black universities; and the genuine moments of student activism for either access or equity or transformation are often undercut but a destructive violence that threaten to keep our universities in states of turmoil well into the foreseeable future with serious consequences for the academic project.

So what of the future?

There must be a reason the President would set aside time to meet with executive leadership of university councils and university principals. It must be awareness of the fact that if this turmoil continues all universities are at risk. Just as investors do not invest their money in chronically unstable societies, so too top academics do not spend their time on serially disruptive campuses. Parents who have choices send their children elsewhere for higher education, including out of the country, leaving behind moribund institutions where the only students and academics left are those who cannot move. Major foundations and private sector funders of universities and their projects change their investment destinations. The government then becomes involved in trying to shore up these universities and to take control of governance and even management under crisis conditions.

A very good example of how promising universities decline slowly over time as a result of chronic instability is the University of Zimbabwe—they met their “transformation” targets quickly, one could say, but they failed to sustain and build the kind of cultural and intellectual capital necessary for creating top class African universities.

These problems are not insoluble. They can be solved through a different kind of leadership than what the present offers at all levels of our society including government and universities. The students are not the problem; it is how we lead that matters.

In this respect, the white English universities received a necessary wake-up call from their academic smugness reinforced by overseas ranking systems that did not measure institutions on equally important metrics such as social justice and racial integration. The historically Afrikaans universities now realise that they can no longer use this beautiful language as a bulwark against the penetration of black African students in their undergraduate classes—which is the real “site of struggle” in this class of universities.

An important question remains—will the leadership of top universities like Stellenbosch and UCT truly accelerate the deep transformation of their institutions in ways that satisfy the demands of justice? If the leadership of these institutions retreat into their pre-RMF or pre-OSM slumbers, those universities themselves—including councils and senates—threaten the future stability and academic standing of higher education in South Africa. To blame the students, in this case, would be disingenuous.

Which raises the question of the historically black universities in this equation. Here we need to be frank. There has to be a radical new financing model that effectively makes university education free and accessible to all poor students for purposes of undergraduate studies. Until this happens, the chronic violence that keeps so many campuses in turmoil is not going to go away; it is as simple as that. To resolve this matter, governmental leadership is paramount. Simply appealing to students to not be violent, given our history, is not going to make this problem go away. The longer government takes to resolve this matter, the longer black universities will remain mired in sometimes very violent protest cultures.

In the meantime, the historically black universities need courageous leaders who with government support can steer back these institutions into stability so that students are no longer short-changed in the depth and quality of training required for their degrees. Some of these universities are under threat of losing accreditation for some of their qualifications in part a result of the lack of concentrated focus on the academic project. This means disrupting some of the regressive union ‘activism’ on these campuses which with singe-minded salary agendas push universities into financial ruin by holding the academic project and academic leaders to ransom. It also means appointing leaders who can manage with strong, disciplined management teams which can turn around endemic crises within these universities. It means recruiting leaders with political savvy who can anticipate and redirect crises towards positive resolution of staff and student demands.

And it means finding leaders who can win the confidence of students and student leaders by demonstrating through personal example and visible actions that they have gone to the wire for students when it comes to financial, academic and emotional support. Then, and only then, is it possible to require a discipline of student organisation and politics—when an ethic of care and compassion is thread through the management of everyday student life.

Let me say this clearly: in the absence of solving the leadership problem in these universities large injections of state bail-out funding would be a waste of official resources that could have been deployed elsewhere.

If we fail to do this, the South African universities will remain a mirror of the national school system—a small, elite group of functioning institutions which produce the top graduates in the system and a large, chronically dysfunctional set of institutions which remain in a state of stable crisis, surviving from one month to the next without being able to give attention to the academic project. In time, that small elite group of universities will also unthread under the constant stress of student and staff and governmental demands, until they too lose their shine in the international academy and become simply part of an all too familiar post-colonial tale.

It is this felt sense of a present past that Stephen Ellis wrote about and whose warnings we dare not ignore when it comes to the continuities that mark destructive student behaviours on campuses then and now.

Book details

» read article