HEARING ALL VOICES: Students on the platform where the Rhodes statue used to stand. Students celebrated their victory after a month of protests to have the statue removed. In order to take up an issue debate must remain open, says the writer.

Crain Soudien

Associate Professor Xolela Mangcu’s article (“Danger of ‘rationalist conceit”, March 25) calls for a response. This article seeks to do many things. For one, it takes aim at the University of Cape Town’s process in determining changes to its admissions policy, then it talks about the nature of the university itself. I briefly comment on these issues in this response.

The policy for admissions process is described by Mangcu as “the grossest form of racial majoritarianism I have seen in this country since 1994”. Aside from it not being true that the issue was not heavily debated – in fact it was the extent of the debate that led the final outcome to be what it was, a compromise in which none of the opposing views on the campus got their way; neither that which said “race” should stay, nor that which wanted it removed altogether – Mangcu provides no evidence in this critique for what makes UCT’s new admissions policy “anti-black”.

The important reality about the new admissions policy is that it continues, in deference to that voice on the campus which said that “race” was important – to use “race” as a way of acknowledging disadvantage. But, more importantly in my view as an anti-racist, it attempts, for the first time in the history of affirmative action policy-making in the country, to give content to the “black experience”.

It seeks to take seriously stories black people tell of their lives, of the schools they go to and the spaces they inhabit. It goes far beyond simple apartheid racial classification as the basis for understanding the nature of that experience. But simply because Mangcu says that classification is not being made the primary basis for determining how affirmative action is to be applied, it is “anti-black”. We need to ask for much more than this.

Worrying as Mangcu’s assessment of the admissions policy is, more disconcerting in some ways is his attack on the university itself and particularly on the idea of the university. As a member of this community, and particularly as one who has come to be recognised for his acknowledgement of the importance of the written word in his frequent references to “famous” scholars and institutions, this attack is surprising.

His argument is an attack on the legitimacy of the very institution on which he, in his own work, depends. But, as in the way he has critiqued UCT’s admissions policy, he has written here without the kind of explanation one would expect. His critique is characterised by assertion and argumentative short cuts.

In this critique of the university, Mangcu makes two moves that are crucial for his argument. The first is to take issue with the idea that “universities are sites of rational deliberation” and the second that its modes of debate are historically flawed.

It is an important reality that there are discussions taking place around the world about, and let us name it, “European” rationality. This discussion has been growing in intensity and has seen the emergence of what are the “post-colonial” and “decolonial” schools of thought. These schools of thought have raised important question marks about the politics of knowledge. They have taken issue with the ways in which European social science has used its own history and social backyard as the ground upon which the human experience should be interpreted. This has stimulated deeply important debates in a whole range of social science, and even natural science fields and disciplines.

Much has been learnt in these discussions, and not least of all here at UCT. Critical about them, however, is that these intellectual interventions have chosen to make their point of departure the university itself. They have chosen to stay within the university, as has, when it comes down to it, Mangcu himself. There are many courses and programmes now running at UCT and elsewhere in the country which work with these positions, and critically so, too, it must be said.

UCT’s PERC initiative, to stimulate a critical engagement with epistemology, is now more than six years old, and is based deliberately on a decolonial awareness. In staying within the university, moreover, these initiatives have stimulated many debates and practical initiatives. Books have appeared. New discussions have been spawned. One such is a deep discussion about what has been called the “European” legacy. Is this legacy, as some have argued, really European when its lineage marches through Africa and the Arab experience? Why call it European? It belongs to all of us.

Discussions such as this are taking place here at UCT and at many other universities around the country. From another angle, we need to know a little more about Professor Mangcu’s suspicion of the “ideal of pure reason” and who the people he is talking about are. Is there nothing redeemable in Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Einstein, Heidegger, Levinas, Arendt, Hawking and Nussbaum?

The line of thinking which lumps all the scholarship together and does not distinguish between different kinds of thinking in the academy, and instead calls the whole of it “rationalist conceit”, is much more dangerous than that which Mangcu is attacking. We have too much to think and talk about, and to flippantly decide that this “rationalist conceit” must simply be set aside is a dangerous moment. If it is to be set aside, what is to follow?

Flowing from this argument, there is then the issue of debate and who should be in it: Professor Mangcu is contemptuous of the idea that universities should be spaces of rational deliberation. Some of the students protesting at UCT, too, say they are impatient with debate and want to see “action” instead. The view is being promoted, including by Professor Mangcu, that there are sections of the UCT community that should not be involved in the matter of this debate.

We should be very careful here. We should be careful of the labels we attach to people and how we then decide, using these labels, that some people are worthy and others less so, and on the basis of this, decide who should be in and who should be out. This is how we came, through apartheid, to find some of us outside and some inside. The basis of that was the arbitrariness of what one looked like which lay behind white supremacy. We should hear all the views, even those we disagree vehemently with. Even if it was the case that institutions in the past, including UCT, failed to listen properly to dissenting voices, and may even have been complicit in ignoring the pain of black people, there is every reason now for us to be struggling to ensure that that approach does not persist. And so the debate must remain open.

In order to take up an issue – at a university in particular – we need to debate it. Debate helps people to see other points of view. In the last few weeks at UCT, and I do not wish to exaggerate the scale and weight of this to experience to excuse UCT in any way for things it may have done incorrectly in the past and even now, or to exonerate where blame is appropriate, the value of debate has been demonstrated repeatedly. To disavow the need for debate is to disavow the lifeblood of the university.

l Professor Soudien is Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Cape Town