The panellists at the University of the Western Cape, three of whom were from the University of California, Berkeley. Picture: Wilton Schereka (Centre for Humanities Research, UWC)

I rationalise the incident as a 'teachable moment' to make myself feel better, writes Xolela Mangcu.

Finally, I had my comeuppance. No, this is not about yet another random racist experience in Cape Town. This time the humiliation was at the hands of a group of black students at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). Later I shall rationalise the experience as a “teachable moment”, just to make myself feel a little better.

I was at UWC at the invitation of the Centre for Humanities Research, which has been doing incredible work over the past few years bringing distinguished international scholars into conversation with South African scholars.

This time they convened a panel discussion on the University and Its Worlds with academics from the University of California, Berkeley, - Judith Butler, Wendy Brown, and David Theo Goldberg - and our own leading philosopher, Achille Mbembe.

Brown drew a distinction between privatisation and financialisation of universities. While privatisation is more about extracting short term profit, financialisation is concerned with preserving shareholder value in the long term.

This turns universities into speculative assets. The reason ratings have become so central to universities is that they are an instrument for shareholders to determine value and differentiate among asset classes i.e. different types of universities.

To understand the structural exclusion of poor and black students from universities we need to understand these larger processes. Only a certain type of student and professor is likely to enhance shareholder value in the long run.

Goldberg spoke about the uber-isation of the university. By this he meant that university education was being mapped out in ways that were not only utilitarian but also went against the very notion of the university as a space for exploration.

Butler alerted us to the dangers of universities turning into securocracies in which students are increasingly seen as “enemy combatants on domestic soil”. But she also posed some ethical questions about whether those who fight violence with violence do not risk reproducing the very systems they were fighting.

Mbembe made a plea for the recapitalisation of the university. He noted the irony of complaints by rich people that universities are expensive to maintain when in fact the expenditure on universities in South Africa is a mere 0.7 percent of GDP.

I expected students would be excited by these arguments in their own struggles against university administrations. But that is not what happened. During question time a group of students who presented themselves as Pan Africanists hurled insults at the panellists as white people who were there to tell black people what to do.

I felt really bad for the panellists but also embarrassed. Earlier in the day I had been waxing lyrical to them about how brilliant and sophisticated the students are, despite efforts by the media to portray them as just irrational and violent.

What was on display was of course the very opposite of what I had been saying. So have I really been romanticising the student movement as so many people have been saying? I don’t know but I have faith, and those are two different things.

Towards the end of the discussion I raised my hand to make a contribution. However, this group of students had decided they were going to pass the microphone only among themselves.

They finally agreed that I should speak but then one of them said: “Uthengiwe lo,” which meant I had been bought by these academics. I laugh about it now but it really stung at the time.

Now let me say why I rationalise this experience as a teachable moment for me personally. To put it starkly I assumed a professorial and parental authority that I rudely discovered I do not have.

The other lesson is that those of us who are not primary actors of any given struggle should not take it upon themselves to be its spokespeople.

My own chutzpah had led me to believe that because of the road I have travelled with them, the students would listen to me. And so I attempted to hold a private conversation in public.

I addressed them in isi-Xhosa, stating my displeasure. Of course they would not allow that conversation in isi-Xhosa and replied in English because the exhibition was for the broader audience. They then began toyi-toying in my face. One of them, young enough to be my son, almost lunged at me.

Since then I have been second guessing myself. Maybe I should not have risen to make a contribution. Maybe I should not have reacted when they insulted me, or I should not have been there in the first place.

I could also see the glee on the faces of my critics - his own students are now turning against him, they were saying.

I would urge the students to consider two political and intellectual questions: how does their Pan Africanism reconcile their libertarian freedoms to do and act as they wish and the African values about the dignity of others? What is the relationship between radical anarchism and humanism?

The incident at UWC disrupted my plans to write a tribute to a Pan Africanist of a different order, Dikgang Moseneke. When Moseneke was deputy president of the PAC we were all sure he would give the ANC a run for its money. But he was driven away by the very same kind of violence I have just described.

Fortunately, Moseneke found a way to make a contribution to the country. His contribution to our constitutional jurisprudence has been nothing short of stellar. Thuli Madonsela would be the logical candidate but I doubt Jacob Zuma will nominate her.

My most memorable interaction with Moseneke took place in the early 2000s. I had approached Wits University with a request to honour the founder of the Pan Africanist Congress, Robert Sobukwe, with an honorary doctorate.

The university initially refused saying it had never awarded a posthumous honorary degree before. I said: “What a pity, I had already lined up the keynote speaker.” “Who?” they asked. “Dikgang Moseneke,” I said. And that sealed the deal.

I seem to remember Jacob Zuma being present at that ceremony. They joked about how Moseneke taught Zuma how to read and write. It is so ironic that when he became president, Zuma overlooked Moseneke for the position of chief justice. The moral of the story? Never take anything for granted.

* Mangcu is Professor of Sociology at the University of Cape Town

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent.