Not enough space to address all Mangcu’s mistakes, but here’s a summary
Share this article:
XOLELA Mangcu's "Racially offensive diatribe has no place" (Cape Times, July 2, 2015) says much more about his own piece than it does about my article to which he which he was responding. His response has the hallmarks of his (newspaper) writing in general -intemperate, unduly aggrieved, peppered with reference to books he has read, and thin on actual argument. He begins with the sort of comment that if reversed would trigger the deep offence to which he is prone. He says that "white people are often given credit that is denied to black people of similar or better talent" and that if "David Benatar was black, he would not be enjoying the audience he does at UCT". Professor Mangcu should stop to ask himself how he would respond if somebody made a parallel claim about him. Moreover, it is not clear that I have much of an audience at UCT, where my views on a wide arrange of subjects are typically outvoted. Insofar as there is an audience it is because the views I express are so rarely heard. Professor Mangcu would rather that they were not heard at all, which is why he "poisons the well" by labelling my sedate and carefully qualified argument as "racially offensive" - an "intellectually offensive" response.
A newspaper article does not afford one the space to address fully all the mistakes Professor Mangcu makes - which is why it is a pity that he has now refused to go through with a public debate with me to which he had previously agreed - but I'll summarise them here: First, academics writing in newspapers do nothing for their readers when they attempt to dazzle them with references to an array of scholarly books. They need to present a self-contained argument, not references to one. Professor Mangcu would do us a service if instead of name-dropping and criticising me for failing to do so, he actually explained what he means by "decolonisation". This word has most definitely been sloganised in political discourse in South Africa. I explored some problems with the way the slogan is usually deployed. If he thinks that there is an interpretation of it that withstands these criticisms, he should say what it is. Second, he claims that I "rehash" the "hackneyed argument that affirmative action sets up black students for failure", which "is the so-called 'mismatch theory' ". He then proceeds to cite American arguments that purport to refute this. However, whether or not one supports Africanisation, one must surely be aware that the circumstances in America (where "blacks" are a minority) and South Africa are very different and that data from the former cannot simply "colonise" the local facts. Indeed, "mismatch theory", accurately interpreted, has limited application in South Africa, where our problem is the utter failure of the majority of schools nationwide. Professor Mangcu should take up that important grievance more often. Third, Professor Mangcu has misunderstood the principle of "no taxation without representation", which refers to representation in parliament not in universities. If the injustices of the past had been adequately addressed, our universities would be demographically more representative. However, the duty of universities is not to pretend that the past injustices have indeed been addressed by providing a façade of normalcy. Universities can do some remedial work but, as I said in my original article, we are dependent on the repair of the dysfunctional schooling system. Fourth, there is a dearth of qualified "black" academics. This fact is not altered by calling it a "tired shibboleth". Nobody is trying, as Professor Mangcu claims, to keep "black academics out of the universities". It would be a massive relief if we had plenty of outstanding "black" academics in our staff applicant pools. The history of the country, however, has resulted in our not being so blessed. Again, if "black" students continue to be shortchanged in schools, failing either to matriculate or to attain a university pass, we cannot expect things to change dramatically for many decades to come. Given this, one again wonders why Professor Mangcu spends so little of his energy inveighing against our country's appalling schooling. Despite his own claims, Professor Mangcu seems to recognise that there are too few qualified "black"
academics, which is why he inquires about "incentives to keep black academics at UCT from leaving not only for government and the private sector, but for Wits University". Implicit here is a recognition that we are hardly swimming in suitable "black" academics. Fifth, Professor Mangcu says that I have "chutzpa" to suggest that "Africa must prove that it has something to add to the (academic) world". If he had read what I actually said, he would have seen that I think that the academic requirement to prove that one has something of value to contribute applies to everybody and not only to Africa. I don't want the French, for example, trutting around telling us that they have something French to contribute. I want them to show that they have something valuable to contribute. (I am, by the way, very critical of much "French philosophy".) What would be a "chutzpa" would be to hold Africa to a lower standard than we should hold everybody else to. Professor Mangcu also attributes to me the claim that "Africa equates tradition and Europe modernity". But only an inability or unwillingness to read carefully would lead one to think I had made that claim. What I did say, in the very words Professor Mangcu quotes, is that just as criticism of traditional "European" thinking was and is essential for academic progress, so criticism of traditional "African" thinking is also essential for such progress. Perfect symmetry. It is hard to see how this "is the most racially offensive piece" in my alleged "tirade". Sixth, I never claimed, as Professor Mangcu alleges, that "while the humanities can be Africanised, this is not applicable to philosophy". What I did say is that there are some areas of inquiry - some in the humanities and others not - that lend themselves more to Africanisation. Nor did I claim that philosophy is a science. I said that the methodologies of academic philosophy, like those of the sciences, are imports. Thus, in his subsequent fulminations, Professor Mangcu is posturing against a straw man rather than anything I actually said. He should read and write more carefully. A final word about the caption underneath the photograph accompanying Professor Mangcu's article:
"The idea that black students cannot do well at university is a self-fulfilling myth of professors who do not see it as their mission to nurture their potential, says the writer". That idea does not appear in the published version of Professor Mangcu's article. However, let me make it absolutely clear that my colleagues and I are committed to nurturing all our students, irrespective of their "race" or any other irrelevant consideration.
Ï Benatar is Professor and Headof Philosophy at the University of Cape Town