University Turmoil: Beginning of A Social Movement

Saleem Badat looks “behind and beyond the everyday”

Saleem Badat is Programme Director of International Higher Education and Strategic Projects at the Andrew W Mellon Foundation of New York. He is former vice-chancellor of Rhodes University. This is an edited version of his address at the commerce faculty graduation ceremony on the award of an honorary doctorate by Rhodes University.

My discipline is historical sociology. Sociology looks behind and beyond everyday appearances. It tries to discover the deeper processes at work in society that maintain and reproduce, and or erode and transform social relations, institutions, and everyday practices. The historical dimension ensures that there is a keen awareness of the past and the present, how they intermesh, and create both constraints and possibilities for human actions and social change.

Alberto Melucci, the great theorist of social movements, conceptualises social movements as “a form of collective action” that is “based on solidarity,” that expresses the existence of “a conflict,” and that requires “the system in which (its) action occurs” to alter its structure.

To imagine that we are a ‘rainbow nation’ is to seriously confuse aspirations with realities.

Saleem Badat

The recent developments at the University of Cape Town and at Rhodes mark the beginnings of a social movement. It comprises students and academics, mainly black, but some white. This social movement is likely to extend to other universities, expand, and strengthen over time.

Those who constitute the movement are exasperated and angry at the slow pace of change in the institutional cultures, in the academic staff body, and in important aspects of the academic programmes of the historically white universities. Invoking the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and higher education policies, they are demanding greater social justice in higher education.

Intellectual Colonisation & Racialisation

The renowned political theorist, Andre Du Toit, draws attention to what he calls the historical “legacies of intellectual colonisation and racialisation” at South African universities. He warns that colonial and racial discourses (and we can add patriarchy) stand in the way of “empowering intellectual discourse communities,” and that “ongoing transformation of the institutional culture” is critical.

In this view, social justice requires systematically decolonising, deracialising, demasculanising, and degendering our universities. This means that we have to engage very seriously with research, scholarship, learning and teaching, curriculum, pedagogy, and a host of other issues and their meanings in a society that must overcome its apartheid past and ensure human rights and justice for all.

While there has been some progress over the past 21 years in social justice at historically white universities, for example in access and success for historically disadvantaged social groups, the plain truth is that much has not changed in important areas and the pace of change has been very slow.

The historically white universities continue to be suffused by historical, class, racial, and gender privilege, and by images, symbols, names, traditions, customs, and norms associated with their colonial, cultural, religious, and linguistic origins.

Injustice Continues to Exist

Injustice rooted in beliefs, prejudice, and stereotypes, and chauvinism, and intolerance of people who are different in terms of colour, class, sex, gender, sexual orientation, culture, religion, language, nationality, and geographical origins continues to exist on campuses.

The historically white universities remain the tramping grounds of mainly those from privileged white and wealthy and middle-class black families, and comprise largely white and male academics. Despite the presence of many more black and women students, they lack a critical mass of black and women academic role-models, especially in senior positions.

On the one hand, those who are white and from privileged backgrounds experience the environments and cultures of the historically white universities as natural, feel very much at home, don’t see or feel any problems, and generally blossom.

These social groups are largely oblivious to the association of the current cultures with power, privilege, and advantage and how they disadvantage blacks and women in myriad ways, affront their dignity, and cause bitterness, anger, pain, hurt, worries, and anxieties.

On the other hand, those who are black and come from disadvantaged backgrounds experience the environments and cultures of the historically white universities as discomforting, alienating, disempowering, and exclusionary.

Diminishing Higher Education

These cultures exact a significant personal, psychological, emotional, and academic toll on black students and staff, compromise equality of opportunity and outcomes, and diminish the idea of higher education as an enriching and liberating adventure. They also impede the forging of tolerance, more fluid and new identities, reconciliation, non-racialism, non-sexism, and social cohesion.

It is painfully clear that the greater presence of black students and staff does not automatically translate into genuine respect for difference, appreciation for diversity, and meaningful social and educational inclusion, whether social, linguistic, cultural, or academic. As under apartheid, inclusion tends to be of a subordinate nature, with simultaneous exclusion in a variety of ways.

Blacks, women, gay and lesbians, and other historically disadvantaged or marginalised groups are expected to accept, integrate and assimilate into the discomforting institutional cultural norms.

Consistent, concerted, comprehensive, and sustained efforts to change what exists, to forge new inclusive cultures, and build universities that are genuine ‘homes for all’ have been lacking for one or other reason.

Long Overdue Changes

Some social groups and individuals have been content with the existing institutional cultures, unwilling or slow to appreciate how and what they are comfortable with and consider to be natural could be discomforting for others, and to embrace necessary and long overdue changes.

The responses to the movements at UCT and Rhodes are all too familiar and no less disturbing: the spewing of racist invective, patronising efforts to teach black people about the benefits of colonialism, and generally avoidance of the real issues.

‘Rhodes must fall,’ ‘Rhodes too white’, and the demand for changing the name of Rhodes University are metaphors for much larger and deeper issues. They are a reminder that there is unfinished business, that there can be no reconciliation or peace without social justice at universities and in the economy and society more widely.

Pretending that there are not major problems at the historically white universities won’t make them go away. Not addressing the problems diligently means that they will fester and undoubtedly explode in the future.

The students of UCT and Rhodes are to be commended for bringing sharply into focus the question of social justice at our universities. They do so not just for themselves, but so that future generations may have a richer, fuller, and better quality higher education experience.

The Rhodes students embody magnificently the university’s motto – Truth, Virtue, and Strength – and its slogan: “Where Leaders Learn!” They personify the Jewish sage Hillel dictum: “If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”

A Time to Listen & Learn

It is a great mistake to treat the expressions of very visible anger on the part of black students and staff as ‘irrational’, as some white students and staff have been wont to do. This is a time to listen, and to learn about what causes the bitterness, pain and anger.

Those who are privileged are, unfortunately, not very good at listening. They do not recognise that their privilege is “an invisible weightless backpack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” that they “can count on cashing in each day.”

They assume it is their birthright to enjoy opportunities that others do not have, to exercise leadership, to set the agenda, define what are and are not problems, to propose the solutions, and to dominate in meetings and conversations.

It is time, in Martha Nussbaum’s words, for people so inclined “to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story, and to understand the emotions and wishes and desires that someone so placed might have.”

Rainbow Nation, Aspiration Only

Telling black students and staff at UCT and Rhodes to ‘stop living in the past,’ that ‘apartheid is over,’ and to ‘forget the past’ when racism, sexism, prejudice, and intolerance continue to rear their ugly heads and undermine their dignity is not helpful. To imagine that we are a ‘rainbow nation’ is to seriously confuse aspirations with realities.

It is also an error for counselling personnel to think that therapy can overcome the pain and hurt that black students and staff feel. These will only come to an end when we eliminate the institutional conditions that cause the hurt and pain.

We displayed wonderful imagination, ingenuity, and courage to embrace democracy in 1994. Yet, we appear to blithely assume that the advent of this democracy would miraculously erase centuries of inequality and domination and other nasty legacies.

We seem to be unwilling to vigorously, honestly, and sensitively confront issues of privilege and disadvantage, of race, gender, culture, identity and language, and the fractures, wounds, hurt, and pain that exist at our universities and in our society. I greatly fear that if we continue in this vein we will hugely regret our reluctance to do so.