Students at Stellenbosch University gather on the steps of the admin building to submit a memo of demands. Picture: Henk Kruger

Black students recognise that after 21 years of so-called freedom the rainbow project has failed, writes Athinangamso Esther Nkopo.

Johannesburg - The past few weeks in our universities have given expression to black suffering and our continued disillusionment with the reconciliation and new South Africa project.

At the heart of this expression is a desire to construct an alternative discourse in academia.

It’s also to suggest a different design towards memory-making, decolonisation and the portrayal of the black lived experience as the trajectory for the debate on contemporary South African society.

What each of the student movements face – whether at Stellenbosch, University of Cape Town (UCT), Rhodes, or Wits – is making coherent the problem of black suffering in a society constituted by black suffering. The people whom white supremacy has sanctioned in its envisaged “progress” ought to give us pause to reflect on the kind of transformation we can hope to see in institutions of higher learning.

If it is done in good faith, the process of decolonising ought to be consistent with the ideals of free idea exchange, with the aim of equipping young minds to uplift their societies. But, like others involved in a fight for power, it seems former white colonial universities are not prepared to exercise good faith; they, in fact, resist decolonisation. Their position is not that of an innocent, altruistic defence of excellent academics, but a political one grounded in an ideology of supremacy.

It is for this reason that, before a debate can be had on how decolonisation ought to take place, universities in this country have predetermined what ideas are allowed legitimacy – and, by extension, which lived experiences are of value.

What is at stake for them is the preservation of a symbolic order that makes all things white and right, and casts a shadow of doubt on the intellectual and thus academic capacity of blackness and black thought. This means that a genuine decolonising project laid bare for all in our country to see, faces not only a conflict of ideas but an irreconcilable antagonism.

Some of the students who were suspended at Wits expressed the essence of the decolonisation project in a tweet on August 18. Some argued the tweet spelt the destruction of the university, with the curriculum and institutional culture of the university something to be valued and upheld. This has been suggested as something which black students must view with gratitude: they are black and inside.

But students for decolonisation see there is something to be destroyed in favour of an academic environment that is home even for them. In terms of how it is construed in the modern world, race is what has made for this antagonism.

White lives are real lives and matter because black lives don’t. White thought and academia are real and supreme as black thought is not academic; it is “indigenous knowledge” with all the condescending connotations that accompany the term.

Black students now recognise, after 21 years of so-called freedom, that the rainbow project has been a failure. Black suppression continues in the symbolic power of academia and in their lived experience.

“You don’t belong here!” has not only been the mantra of overtly racist formerly Afrikaans institutions like Stellenbosch, University of Pretoria (UP), University of the Free State (UFS) and so on, but also of the institutional culture of even the self-proclaimed liberal English universities like Wits. Thus students are now moving for the essence of whiteness, its intrinsic link to domination and privilege, to be destroyed and its structural superiority in academia to end. For black students and academics, there can be no lesser demand if we are ever to call these universities our own. It is a demand that will not even be considered in universities like Wits where, in apartheid style, students can be summarily suspended over unsubstantiated accusations of associating with ideas which are undesirable to the university.

It is unimaginable that in universities such as Stellenbosch, where students have had to resort to actions similar to the youth of 1976 over Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, black thought could ever form a substantial part of the curriculum.

The very questioning of white sensibility in what ought to be African universities has resulted in retaliation and threats to end academic careers at Rhodes, UCT, Stellenbosch and, more recently, with the seven students who were suspended at Wits. The more liberal white sentiment has responded with its power to take up space in the media and in institutional discussions. Nonetheless, this is a demand we should put into effect by any means necessary. Black political and academic interest cannot bow to the heavy-handed officialdom of critically unthinking gatekeepers like Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib or even the moral persuasions of white students against acts of racism in Stellenbosch. These don’t resolve or disrupt the symbolic order of white supremacy or transform the curriculum.

The genius of the university in this country has been to portray young black students as the problem in the same terms as WEB du Bois’s 1903 treatise, The Souls of Black Folks.

Students are told to use the very channels vice-chancellors like Stellenbosch’s Wim de Villiers use to undermine students and in fact intimidate them.

They’ve used the anxieties of the black middle class and the desperation of our working-class families to hold students to ransom when these very colonial and apartheid institutions are the problem.

What young students like the seven at Wits discovered is that the conventional round tables and long papers of abstract commitments drawn up by these universities over the past 20 years have only been a means of pacifying students against change. The naming of our territories after apartheid heroes is a problem.

There isn’t a single black South African female full professor at Wits. That’s also a problem. That there are more senior professors named Johan in Stellenbosch than there are black academics is the problem.

That we are still teaching young South Africans that colonialism was the best thing for Africa in international relations is the problem. That our political studies teach that apartheid was a good democracy because black people agreed to oppression and death, is the problem. That the canals of black thought do not form a substantive part of our education is the problem. That poor students can be thrown out onto the street because they recognise these problems and approach alternative discourse and agitate for change is the problem.

Because we can’t breathe, is the problem. After all, racism, colonialism and apartheid were never the creation of young black students but of all-white councils, senates and academic staff.

When we see young black students face blatant, sanctioned racism at our institutions of higher learning, we wonder how, after forgiving over 500 years of brutalisation and dehumanisation, we have been betrayed so transparently.


It is not, as I imagine he insists is the case, that Habib was left without a choice in dealing with what he considered to be unbecoming behaviour of students. Consider how vice-chancellors like UFS’s Jonathan Jansen have responded to even worse actions of assault by young white students. Consider how the vice-chancellors of UP and Stellenbosch responded to politically charged and outright anti-black racist actions by white students. Those vice-chancellors thought it wiser to protect and rehabilitate those students, but Habib chose to suspend before investigation several final-year students and a PhD student less than two months from graduation.

The Constitutional Court deemed his actions unconstitutional, but, like so many of us, their lives hang by a thread in these anti-black institutions.

The officialdom employed by Habib is without critical thought. This is because the demands of these students don’t only hurt the flesh or bruise emotions, but are a perceived threat to the symbolic order of the very society that gives him power. His response is more than official. It is political and an abuse of the faith we rest in his office to defend our society.


Black students and black people at large are dispensable to these anti-black institutions. Black students in South Africa do not matter. We still don’t belong here.

* Athinangamso Esther Nkopo is an MA Political Studies student at Wits and is soon to start an MSc at Oxford University.

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

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