Robbing Peter to pay Peter

Defunding institutions will entrench “toxic whiteness”

It has recently been reported that President Jacob Zuma is contemplating defunding the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS). Established in 2013, the NIHSS’s mandate is to “advance and co-ordinate scholarship, research and ethical practice in the fields of Humanities and the Social Sciences (HSS)”. Thus far the institute has funded over 400 PhD students, 45 of whom recently graduated. Clearly, the organisation is having the kind of impact it was created to have, particularly for black students. But the government is now considering raiding its budget. It is believed that this is in a bid to raise the funds to finance the beginnings of a tuition-free higher education. This is a deeply worrying development.

Tuition-free higher education is a noble goal and the right thing for any government and student body to work towards, as I have written in the past. But defunding the NIHSS in order to achieve this is wrong and counterproductive. It would be a classic case not of ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’, but of ‘robbing Peter to pay Peter’. It would be tantamount to giving with one hand, and snatching away with the other. Such course of action is bound to further entrench not only the ‘whiteness’ of our universities, but the toxic ‘whiteness’ of those institutions which make them unfriendly to black lives and prospects.

Hardly anyone in touch with the facts could disagree that the academic staff cohort at South African universities is still largely white. Whites make up around 49% of academics in South Africa, while blacks make up just 35%. And, since it has historically been the role of academics to lay out the landscape of knowledge in our universities, and through them to the wider society, the landscape of knowledge in South Africa has remained overwhelmingly white all this years, even after the dawn of black rule.

The effects of this are perverse. For one, the mentality, which some have decried as the ‘unbearable whiteness’ of white academics, where they view themselves as purveyors of ‘authority’ remains widespread. It is this mentality that allows them to put on the garb of authority to teach black people about our own identities and experiences of the world.

Nyasha Mboti opines, ‘in our context, authority and identity emerge from the histories of the so-called “native question”: the regulation of the “native’s” life, and the imposition of white spokespersons over the native…it was whites who had the authority to know and speak on behalf of the “Bantu”’.

Second, ‘white’ environments are unfriendly to black lives. By white environments I mean environments where the ‘normal’ way of being is the white way of being (no essentialism is implied here). Being black in such environment is viewed as ‘abnormal’; something to be corrected, repaired. This is, of course, almost never explicitly stated, but the examples of subtle racism are unending: in the words people use, their posture toward actions viewed as culturally African, etc., ‘whiteness’ is treated as something to aspire to, or be punished for eschewing.

Everything, from the language black students are forced to learn in, to the kinds of examples lecturers draw on to explain points in class; from being considered ‘unruly’ for being expressive in your manner of speaking and gesticulation, to being seen as ‘unkempt’ for having an afro or dreadlocks; from being taught the ideas of long-dead white men as though there aren’t black African thinkers of eminence whose thoughts are more insightful for our time and place, to being sanctioned (sometimes failed) for questioning received disciplinary dogma which have their source in the West.

This is the toxicity of ‘whiteness’. All these conspire to produce an environment in which the black African student is not at home; where they are also not primed to succeed. It’s surely no surprise then that black students fare badly at universities. According to a recent study, only about 5% of black students who enroll for degrees at South African universities graduate. To be sure, there are other factors, but this is undoubtedly one of the key ones.

The desire for more black professors (and black academics, generally) is, therefore, not simply a numbers game (although that too is important). It is a desire to produce more black role models for young black students, people in whom they can truly see themselves. It will also precipitate an academic environment where black students see ‘whiteness’ challenged, both in its ‘the white male teacher’ iteration and as imbued in the norms of knowledge production and dissemination. The desire to produce more black academics is a desire to remake the South African university in the image of the black students who learn therein.

Defunding the NIHSS, virtually guarantees another generation of anti-black ‘whiteness’ in our universities, and doing so under the pretext of funding free tertiary education (which satisfies a different kind of need black students have), is robbing Peter to pay Peter. Besides, there are other ways to find the funds. In 2003, South Africa’s corporate tax rate was 37.78%. Today it is 28.00%. But large corporations rarely even pay that. The Recent leaks of the Paradise Papers show that many of South Africa’s largest firms are guilty of not just tax evasion but also wage evasion. Why not chase the tax evaders to fund black students at our universities?

Moreover, who does the ANC think the students funded by the NIHSS are? Rich black kids? An NIHSS-funded PhD student is, most likely, a student who could not have afforded to enter a first- year undergraduate course unaided, in the first place. In the context of South Africa, it is most likely a black student. Defunding the NIHSS to fund free tertiary education is equal to opening the gate at the entrance, but shutting them out halfway through the journey. Free education is absolutely necessary. But so is the project of producing more black academics.

The government could raise taxes if it wanted. It could crack down on evasion, if it wanted. But, like on all the difficult issues that face South Africa, they almost always instinctively opt for the easy way out, heaping the consequences on the poor, powerless and the voiceless.