Habib slams violence and tactics of student activists

Goals are good, strategies need serious deliberation

Posted by Fatiema Haron Masoet on Thursday, 1 October 2015

Members of the Cape Town community gathered at the Elijah Lozah Hall in Salt River on the last day of September to listen to Vice Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand, Prof Adam Habib deliver the 8th annual Imam Haron Memorial Lecture.

The lecture, organised by the Imam Abdullah Haron Education Trust (IAHET), was held in honour of the late Imam Abdullah Haron, former Imam of Stegman Rd Mosque Claremont, who died in police detention on 27 September 1969.

Professor Habib last week challenged transformation activists who believe violence was a legitimate means of engagement to achieve change in higher education.

Delivering the 8th Annual Imam Haron Memorial lecture, Habib said there was a need for serious deliberation about the tactics and strategies used to pursue these goals.

“This is all the more urgent given what we witnessed at UKZN where there were violent altercations with police and security personnel, the administration block and vehicles were set alight leading to millions of rands worth of damage, and the university had to be closed,” he said.

Missing the mark on Biko and Fanon

In his paper entitled: Transcending the Past and Reimagining the Future of the South African University, he pulled no punches. He argued that the activists claim to draw inspiration from Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko, who were both under the yoke of colonial subjugation, but they have missed the mark of their cause.

“They misappropriate the words and intents of these activist intellectuals to justify violence in the post-colony. Profanity and threats on social media replace reasoned debate. Principled politics get replaced by theatrics. Civil liberties are seen as a ‘bourgeois’ distraction. Little is understood about the fact that lives were lost for the pursuit of these liberties and that they should not be so easily traded for short term political gain,” he said.

He added that these activists do not realise that the memory of Fanon and Biko cannot be honoured by becoming their ideological zealots.

“Their philosophy has to be critically engaged, debated and understood and applied within the contexts of our time. The irony of course is that the victims of this violence are not the ‘colonialist’, but the other poor students with whom they disagree, or who now no longer have access to the very infrastructure that has been destroyed.”

He was concerned that the culture of violence was given impetus by the appeasement of some within the university who mistakenly confuse the right to protest with the right to violence and the violations of the rights of others. “It is also given credence by the nonsensical application of the notion of the ‘just war’. But war can only be just when all other avenues are closed down. It can never be legitimate in the democratic society, however much the socio-economic outcomes of the democracy are compromised,” he said.

Vanguardist politics

Professor Habib said the culture of violence was accompanied by vanguardist politics suggesting that the activist cohort represented an intellectual and political elite with an advanced state of consciousness. “ All others are seen to have a false consciousness, a lack of understanding of the needs of the historical moment, he said. “This is very dangerous politics for there is an assumption that the monopoly of truth is held by the minority of insiders. It is a politics that bred the Stalinism of old or the religious fundamentalism of the present.”

He cautioned that if not intellectually challenged, it could become pervasive and create a culture within the insiders that justifies their violation of the rights of others. “Where these insiders become dominant within society as occurred during the Cultural Revolution in China or under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, it leads to the murder of millions of outsiders,” he said.
 
He said it was imperative to hold the line at the point of violence or the violation of the rights of others. “To be sanguine about violence or the violation of the rights of others is to give up on what the university is meant to be.

“It is to give up on the university being a free space for ideas. Instead it entails capitulating to the might of force; to the university becoming a place where gangsters and tsotsis reign supreme. And if we give up on the university, sooner or later we will do the same for society.”

Habib’s address followed a series of high profile personalities who have delivered the Imam Haron Memorial Lecture in previous years including the late Prof Neville Alexander, Minister Ebrahim Patel, Justice Albie Sachs, Prof Jonathan Jansen, Minister Naledi Pandor and former cabinet minister Trevor Manuel who delivered last year’s lecture.

Photo of Prof Adam Habib by John Valentine

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