The parallels between the US presidential elections and the racial politics at our universities are almost irresistible, writes Xolela Mangcu.
Cape Town - The parallels between the American presidential elections and the racial politics at our universities are almost irresistible, an observation that may not be as far-fetched as it may at first seem.
After all, as Edward Said noted in Orientalism, “political society ... reaches into such realms of civil society as the academy and saturates them with significance of direct concern to it”.
Drawing on the work of Clayton Alderfer, Harvard Business School Professor Robin Ely and her colleagues have described this saturation of organisational culture by broader social attitudes as “embedded intergroup dynamics”.
Our universities are dominated by self-designated Donald Trumps who have taken it upon themselves to protect the “family silver” from the “barbarians at the gate”. These people question our intelligence and attack our integrity with reckless abandon and impunity.
While their style is the supercharged rambunctiousness of a Trump, their ideology is as old as the times.
Historian Terence Ranger described it as follows: “For most Europeans the favoured image of their relationship with Africans was that of paternal master and loyal servant. It was an image readily transformed to industrial employment.”
Ranger might as well have extended the imagery to our university departments, which operate in the image of the British imperial monarchy.
Even as a full black professor at the University of Cape Town I have to deal with such personal slights as being mistaken for a “delivery boy” or being told to look for students’ toilets or having my intelligence and integrity questioned by my colleagues in full view of everyone.
No action is taken against these individuals because they are “untouchables” who sustain themselves by selling fellow white colleagues a false sense of security.
Some years ago I warned the UCT council not to be swayed by right-wing attacks on affirmative action. My warnings were dismissed as alarmist. That only fed into the subterranean anger among students.
The rest is history.
Now we have come perilously close to religious conflict being brought on to our campus by an Academic Freedom Committee that has invented its own version of academic freedom.
Its absolutist conception of academic freedom would mean inviting an Adolf Hitler or Hendrik Verwoerd to our campus. It invited the editor of a magazine that has been publishing degrading cartoons of Prophet Muhammad to deliver UCT’s prestigious TB Davie Academic Freedom Lecture.
Can someone really tell me that of all the people in the world this is the only individual they could have chosen? What is that, if not tone-deafness, arrogance and provocation all rolled in one?
In Europe this freedom of speech fundamentalism invited a religious fundamentalism that would make our racial conflicts at UCT over the past year look like a walk in the park. Academic freedom is too important to be left in the hands of provocateurs.
But then again this faux pas is the logical and unavoidable outcome of the imperial model of the university, where disrespect for racial and religious communities is de rigueur. The imperial model is not only broken, it is suicidal, except none of us will escape unscathed.
God only knows what next this model will produce to imperil our lives. The university then disingenuously argued that the TB Davie lecture had been cancelled because #RhodesMustFall students would not have allowed the speaker on campus.
Does UCT really mean that, were it not for the students, it would be happy to have this religious hate-monger on our campus? I don’t know who sits on that Academic Freedom Committee, but I would be curious to know if there are any black people or Muslims on it, and if they went along with the invitation. This is why diversity is such an important foundational principle of any university.
What I am asking for is a public inquiry into the governance and decision processes of our universities.
It breaks my heart to see young black academics leaving UCT because it could not accommodate their projects, and yet see white academics being accommodated through special deals that are not entirely transparent.
The public inquiry I am calling for should not be left to the universities. They can barely recognise basic principles such as conflict of interest, and yet still call themselves liberal.
Our constitution and our laws demand public accountability because we pay the taxes that fund the universities. In the 1980s we launched the “one city, one tax base” campaign in protest that black expenditure was subsidising services in the white suburbs.
Similarly, our taxes cannot subsidise a few, well-connected white academics. It is wrong.
Now they are done with victimising the students the Trumps in our midst are training their guns on me. They will not succeed because we now live in a country of laws.
They will not succeed because of a home-grown truth I learnt as a little boy from my mother. When my well-educated eldest brother was being victimised by the homeland ruler, Lennox Sebe, my mother said to him: “My son, I did not educate you to be a supplicant to anybody, however powerful.”
I’ll be damned if I’ll give up that principle because of “British imperial monarchs” who are taking us back to the “master and servant” framework.
What irks these folks is something Michelle Obama alluded to at the Democratic convention: it is unacceptable to Trump and his followers that descendants of slaves wake up at the White House.
Ditto at UCT: our presence is a shock to some of our colleagues. But here we are - black, unafraid, unapologetic and qualified.
I would suggest drawing inspiration from the model of interracial respect on display at the Democratic convention between Barack and Michelle Obama, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton.
I will be voting for Bantu Holomisa as usual. Of all the opposition leaders he seems to have the steadiest hand and temperament.
The ANC must lose before it gets better.
* Mangcu is professor of sociology at the University of Cape Town and Harry Oppenheimer Fellow at Harvard University.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
The Sunday Independent