So many stories, so much neglect
Robert Sobukwe's letters lie in a library waiting for someone to write them up into a thesis, writes Xolela Mangcu.
Johannesburg - June 16, 1976 was the moment of my political baptismal. I was in Standard Four at Charles Morgan Primary School in our township. I don’t know why that school is still called Charles Morgan when it was started by one George Mayile Mangcu, the most influential man in the community by a mile.
Charles Morgan’s only claim to fame was that he was the local inspector of schools at a time “when affirmative action was white”, to borrow a phrase from Ira Katznelson.
The jazz musician Miles Davis once illustrated the difference between achievement and unearned privilege. He recalled a dinner in Ronald Reagan’s White House.
The mostly white guests were irritated by the presence of this black man around the table - only Miles can describe his complexion as “midnight black”.
Unable to hold back any longer, one of them asked: “What have you done that’s so important in your life. Why are you here?” Miles responded: “Well I have changed music five or six times, so I guess that’s what I’ve done, and I guess I don’t believe in playing just white compositions.
“Now tell me what have you done of any importance other than be white, and that ain’t important to me, so tell me what your claim to fame is?”
Reagan was embarrassed by both the woman’s question and the rebuke it elicited. As Miles put it: “There was a silence so thick you could cut it with a knife and the president was looking around to see how to act. I felt sorry for him. Reagan was embarrassed.”
Miles could have been describing the experience of black academics in South Africa’s still predominantly white university departments.
To survive you have to be unapologetic about your place around the table. Muhammad Ali told white America that he was not going anywhere as follows: “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. Get used to me. Black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own. Get used to me.”
But I still don’t think many of our black leaders are ready for that, which is why Charles Morgan remains the beneficiary of something he did not do.
The renaming brigade in our township reckoned they would rather stick with the white inspector than the original black founder because any such change would make me happy - as if I was there when the school was established in 1941.
My sin was to belong to the Black Consciousness movement. The renaming brigade was turning on its head the saying that “the sins of the fathers would be visited on their children”. Now the sins of the children were being visited on the parents.
Let’s just call it retrospective retribution against the dead.
Ok, this is a national newspaper. I should find a local newspaper to vent my gripes about who gets honoured in my tiny little world. Fair enough, except we don’t seem to be faring any better at the national level. Forty years after the June 16 uprising there is still no full-length biography of Tsietsi Mashinini, the leader of the students. Last week I read a beautiful homage to Tsietsi by my good friend and venerable critic, Sandile Memela. I hope he is writing a biography of Tsietsi. And there are so many other potential subjects of biography.
Has anyone thought of writing a biography of Nthatho Motlana or Kaizer Motaung or Irvin Khoza or Ria Ledwaba (the last one is still my dream project, of course)? But I can also already hear the responses: “Who is going to pay the bills, Xolela, while we are busy burrowing in the archives”? It’s always the bills or the history.
I once challenged a roomful of students to write an index for Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like, as an honours or master’s thesis.
That was two years ago and I have not heard from anyone since. That is too important a book not to have an index.
While we’re at it, Robert Sobukwe’s letters lie idle at Wits University’s William Cullen Library waiting for someone to write them up into a thesis or a book. So many stories, so much neglect.
And then you gonna blame the white academic who comes along to do these things?
Earlier I said Sandile Memela was one of my critics. He even called me a coconut intellectual for criticising the now defunct Thabo Mbeki-inspired Native Club. I suppose that’s what happens to intellectual projects that hang on the coattails of presidents - their fortunes rise and fall with them.
But on one issue Memela was right. He said that I rarely wrote about racism. The truth is I had been living in a bubble. That all changed when I moved to Cape Town. Here they say: “We are going to show you your place”.
The stories of racism I have shared since my arrival here are enough to write a book. Let’s just call it Cape Town Blues or UCT Blues. But the white academy could still take a lesson from white business. When white business discovered that apartheid hindered capital accumulation they called for its demise.
I hope the academy will soon discover that racism hinders academic productivity in the long run. Black academics spend so much time fending off racism that it’s a miracle we get any work done. Be that as it may, we walk with our backs a little more straightened now because of the actions of students, which is why I support initiatives to forgive those who have been kicked out of the university.
My support for student amnesty earned me the wrath of a colleague who fired off an email accusing me of endorsing student violence. I almost fell off my chair.
I have publicly denounced the violence, and earned the wrath of some of the students.
But of course “I did it my way”, as Frank Sinatra would say. I refused to denounce the violence on the platforms of white academics who would not also denounce the racism on campus.
My colleague would not be dissuaded by my explanation - any forgiveness is an endorsement of violence.
By this logic I would also expect him to say that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was endorsing apartheid when it forgave apartheid perpetrators.
It is indeed ironic that this punitive attitude towards black students comes from people who are all too happy to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s spirit of forgiveness. It really makes you wonder. Anyone who is genuinely against violence can never give up on negotiated settlements. Banning student leaders only kicks the can down the road.
I don’t expect hard-hearted professors to be softened by religious appeals but I would urge them to reflect on the biblical saying that “to whom much is given, much will be required”. And that includes forgiveness. Unless, of course, they believe that only white perpetrators of violence deserve forgiveness.
If that were the case, then I would rather have Penny Sparrow for a colleague than those who love our kids too much to forgive them.
* Mangcu is Professor of Sociology at the University of Cape Town and the 2015 Harry Oppenheimer Fellow.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
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