Gcobani Qambela
Gcobani Qambela

‘On a knife-edge’: Anti-blackness and economic violence at Rhodes University

All around South Africa, this is a time where predominantly young people flock campuses, straight out of high school to begin the next chapter of their lives. At the university currently known as “Rhodes”, this was no different. All one could spot were groups of enthusiastic young people parading through campus attending various activities orientating them into their new life – library tours, introductory lectures, societies sign-up and so on.

I was struck by how easily the external deceives. Externally, indeed, an uncritical look would lead to belief the “rainbow nation” façade is realised. Yet, of course, I was snapped out of this disillusionment quickly when I passed one of these young people asking the head librarian in a timid, almost fearful tone: “How much does it cost to take out a book at the library?” The question struck me, not because of the nature of the question, but what it means.

The past year, and certainly these first two months of 2016 in South Africa have amplified and continued to remind anyone who is willing to pay attention to the realities of many black people who live outside dominant economic structures of privilege that structural and economic violence is a daily intimacy where one’s dignity is continuously subject to both private and public consumption.

Through #FeesMustFall, #Nisixoshelani (at Rhodes) and #Asinamali (at Wits University) two processes of prevailing inequalities in education are evident. The first is inequality at primary and secondary school level, where scholars who attend former (well-resourced) model-C and private schools continue to significantly outperform the majority of public (mostly underfunded) schools. The second process through student movements shows that even when black students from low-income families do somehow transgress and make it to institutions of higher learning, insufficient academic support, economic violence and financial exclusion keeps many such students out.

This intersection between a primary and secondary school system that serves largely the financially well-off, colluding with a higher education system that is designed for the economically well-off shows the ways in which institutional racism comes to collude with capital to perpetuate inequalities that are anti-black, and anti-poor. In this way, black, and poor, students, from Rhodes, Wits, Walter Sisulu University, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Tuks, North-West University, Stellies and many others have to contend with daily encounters at unsympathetic and economically driven institutions that cannot stand or bare that many just do not have the economic capital to pay for the exorbitant fees.

It surprised me to read the distortion, manipulation and erasure by vice-chancellors, Adam Habib (Wits) and Sizwe Mabizela (Rhodes), in their Sunday Times op-ed “Student protests: when fear and loathing trump hope and unity”. It shocked me that Mabizela, who in 2016 has students that are encountering a library for the first time – cannot understand the frustration of the students. In the op-ed, although seeming sympathetic to the protests of 2015, they argue protests this year are “highjacked” by “small groups … using increasingly violent methods of protest to convey what they call the systemic oppression of black people”. They continue that student leaders now “inspire fear and polarisation”, and use this as justification for universities diverting resources to private security.

The highly reckless metaphor of being held at knife point by black students that Habib and Mabizela use in the article stating that “our country, our higher education system, our economy and our collective futures are on a knife-edge” is not an aesthetic mistake when one understands the long colonial history of black bodies that are associated with violence and criminality. What this distorts and erases, is how students even when they were peaceful, particularly at Rhodes, were met by violent security forces on Mabizela’s watch even in 2015.

Mabizela and Habib show that they haven’t been listening to the students. Their primary starting point is that there is a “free and safe space in our universities” which is at threat of being lost; whereas students have long been saying they do not feel safe at higher education institutions as they are because of class, race, race, sexuality etc.

At Rhodes, students have for over a decade been complaining about fee increments and the glorification of violent colonial symbols (such as the university itself), to no avail and arguably much disdain from Mabizela’s leadership, while the affection of affluent white families and funders is valued. Moreover the student activists have noted a dehumanising trend where financially struggling students are required to “perform poverty” in public or to those in power before assistance is rendered.

The Black Student Movement notes that in order to get assistance at Rhodes (when students cannot for instance afford residence accommodation) students are required to “prove” that they are poor — leaving the discretion to determine if one is poor enough at the discretion of the spectator. It is these workings of institutionalised hetero-patriarchal whiteness that academic Danai Mupotsa notes work to keep low-income students in a perpetual condition where they have to live with the “violence of living-in-being-stopped”.

Mabizela and Habib use documented racist tropes based on white fear of protesting blacks by portraying protesting students as not only violent but criminal. They pretend to present a genealogy of the student movement that has somehow moved from a magical rainbow movement to a bunch of criminals from which the “nation” must now defend itself from.

Certainly, historically, many youth movements have had to deal with such detractors. In her autobiography Call Me Woman, Ellen Kuzwayo reflecting on the 1976 uprisings writes that the violence that accompanied the student protests should not have occurred – but that such violence occurred because the government devalued the concerns of the students who only wanted “to learn with the minimum of difficulty and frustration”.

The issue of financial exclusion from education has important implications for the kind of future we will have in South Africa and has the effect of perpetuating intergeneration poverty and economic violence on the poor and structurally excluded, and alarms should go off when VCs like Mabizela do not get it.

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