Structural and colonial violence at universities remain uninterrupted

By Sarah Malotane Henkeman

We are a country in denial. In a post-democractic setting, there is the continued impact of colonial violence, structural violence remains uninterrupted and there is growing inequality all of which continue the criminalisation of blackness. Sarah Malotane Henkeman takes a hard look at our society and universities.

Our seeming inability to deal with South Africa’s culture of violence suggests that we are a society in denial. This culture of denial is discernible when manifestations and patterns of violence are analysed in transhistorical and transnational contexts. For example, we are all ‘aware’ that the continuity of growing inequality along racial lines (the intersection of transhistorical and transnational structural violence) is at the root of protests in society and at universities. At the same time we are ‘unaware’ that individuals who employ counter-strategies, should morally not be held solely accountable for violence and turmoil without examining how and why the impact of past/present, micro-macro and cross-cutting structural violence continue to bear down on the oppressed. This was argued in more detail in a research based article.

We manifest denial when we do not question why only individual community protestors and students are criminally charged, while those who manifest and/or maintain symbolic-structural violence are neither identified nor charged. Another example of this double standard is the recent incident where the Deputy vice chancellor of UCT complained that she was the target of a smear tactic in which her qualifications were questioned in an email thread between about 40 senior people, approximately six of whom were black.

This constitutes symbolic violence because it implied that the writers positioned themselves as superior and deemed her inferior. It is structural violence, because it is a racialised and gendered attack that is socially patterned. It is psychological violence because it constitutes psychological cruelty, not only against the individual, but also the oppressed in general due to the patterned nature of this invisible violence that is routinely denied.

This becomes significant when we realise that descendants of colonised, oppressed and enslaved people are over-and disproportionately represented in all stigmatised institutions (generally the criminal justice system, and specifically prisons)

As argued in this research many in the ‘helping professions’ who imagine that we are advancing concrete social justice, suffer from trained blindness, selective deafness and complicit silence. We do not have the conceptual tools to bring structural and individual factors that produce invisible and visible violence, into our frame of analysis and action.

This can be laid squarely at the door of the colonial academy.

After 1994, knowledge (the authorised domain of scholars) and political boundaries (the domain of the state) were conflated. South Africa was defined as a post conflict society. This definition is in line with one size fit all ‘global solutions’ crafted by ‘Western lawyers, legal academics, economists and political scientists’. Zineida Miller describes this as a ‘coherence of blindness’ in which apartheid becomes ‘contextual background rather than central issues’ in contemporary conflicts. The continued impact of colonial violence is completely erased, and uninterrupted structural violence evidenced by growing inequality during market democracy is not taken into account in a way that arrests continued criminalisation of blackness. One key example is criminal law that holds oppressed individuals accountable for manifesting violence, but leaves cultural, structural and psychological violence that produce visible violence and interpersonalised conflicts, intact.

Knowledge from the standpoint of the oppressed (based on daily experiences of a still conflictual, unequal and racially divided society) is generally not taken into account as a counterpoint to knowledge produced in a Eurocentric mould. The impact of this marginalisation and omission has far reaching consequences on a day to day basis and plays out in seemingly unrelated ways in society and its institutions.

By illustration, I initiated more than a year long dialogic process which reached to the top of the hierarchy at my alma mater. I discovered how it is possible for the status quo to be maintained 23 years after apartheid, and the process by which blackness is pathologised and/or criminalised for resisting systemic failure. In short, I experienced recurring patterns of racial discrimination and approached the university’s conflict resolution apparatus. I engaged a total of 12 bureaucrats and scholars whose mandates or job descriptions prevent them from dealing with complaints about racism in its invisible/visible structure. Save for an acknowledgement that I and others ‘experienced institutional racism’; there was no ‘one’ who was in a ‘position to attribute blame’ and thus to take steps to remove the structure. This is in line with the neoliberal university’s definition of ‘institutional racism’ which holds that the ‘entrenched group’ do not ‘intend’ the racism that oppressed people ‘experience’ as argued here. Yet this same university militarises against the counter strategies of the oppressed.

Pervasive denial is similarly replicated throughout this ‘post-conflict’ society in which the invisibilised harms perpetrated against us cannot be eliminated because of (i) the academy’s seemingly unfettered power and scholarship that defines out and limits concrete social justice, (ii) the systemic nature of our dehumanisation which is both conceptually semi-acknowledged, and concretely denied via inaction, and (iii) the endless number of graduates who saturate society with ‘professionally blind’ repertoires that favour the status quo by filtering out dissonant information – exactly as the colonial academy does.

This ‘self-propelling metaphysical dance of capital’ runs the show and ‘provides the key to real-life developments and catastrophes’ that are ‘no longer attributable to concrete individuals and their evil intentions, but [are regarded as] purely objective, systemic and anonymous’.

This article is part of awareness and consciousness-raising to strategise against our three monkeys of denial to ‘see’, ‘hear’ and ‘break complicit silence’ about the basic structure of violence discernible in intersecting oppressions which continue to decimate oppressed lives in invisible and visible ways. Read more about It here.

More stories in Issue 93

Contributors

Sarah Malotane Henkeman

Dr Sarah Henkeman is an independent conflict and social justice researcher and practitioner. Prior to, during and after the end of apartheid, she worked for public interest, human rights, community safety and conflict resolution organisations while studying part and full-time over several years. She is a trans-disciplinary practitioner/scholar with a research focus on invisible and […]

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