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‘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.


  • Senior Anthropologist at the University of Johannesburg and Researcher at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), Oxford University. Co-author of the "Anti-Racist Teaching Practices and Learning Strategies Workbook" with Warren Chalklen, PhD. Available:


  1. Paul Bluewater Paul Bluewater 22 February 2016

    I hear you, but I had a student loan and then sold horrid paintings and avocados on the street on weekends to pay for my B.Sc. (hons.). I really think that one builds character in earning achievements in life, achievements of all sorts.

    Nothing can really be given to anyone, nothing of any worth.

    And while I’m being unpopular, whatever we do decide to do, we should not pay for BA’s at all!!
    We need maths, science, engineering, accounting and medical grads, and we need plumbers, electricians, mechanics, welders, fitters, and all sorts of technicians….if we’re seriously going to build this country.

  2. SmilingElephant SmilingElephant 22 February 2016

    There are many first (and second) year students of all sizes, shapes and hues who were / are completely overwhelmed by the library and its machinations. Why is this somehow now related to “blackness”?

    In 1976, students, let alone the majority of the SA population, were not allowed to vote. Frustration and violent protest were the (understandable) outcome. However, today, SA is in fact a constitutional democracy, with free and fair election procedures for all, in case you hadnt realised. If you dont like the inaction of the ruling party, the rainbow nation, “hetero-patriarchal whiteness” etc. ad infinitum, then you and your cohorts have the power to change the policies by voting, or standing for election yourselves and getting voted in.

  3. Pieter Schoombee Pieter Schoombee 23 February 2016

    You are right and everybody else is wrong. Crime is not crime when you like it. On a knife-edge becomes “being held at knife point by black students”. ANC failure is white racism. And everybody must give their money to you.

  4. Rory Short Rory Short 23 February 2016

    “Nothing can really be given to anyone, nothing of any worth.”

    I Agree 100%.

    The ANC has unknowingly absorbed an Apartheid mindset. From its policies one can see that it does not have ANY faith at all in the agency of black individuals. Just one example: Why has the land held in trust, by the tribal chiefs, for the people in the ex-homelands not been parceled out as a freehold to the people? This single action would set off a firestorm of economic development in the least developed areas of our country.

  5. RodB RodB 24 February 2016

    Bear in mind that the universities’ funding crisis is very largely the work of your ANC government, which has forced universities to take ever-increasing numbers of students, while simultaneously cutting funding. That means extra staff, extra upkeep, etc on less money to pay for it all.

    So, put the blame where most of it lies and thank Blade et al for being on a ‘knife-edge’.

    By the way, in passing, a T-shirt with ‘Fuck Whites’ scrawled across it doesn’t exactly help lower tensions and in fact confirms for all to see that racism and racist behaviour is colour-blind… there are racist whites – and also racist blacks, and I am sure racist Coloureds and Asians. But if you fail to see that, then I am afraid you need to remove your blindfold and open your mind so some unpleasant truths.

  6. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 25 February 2016

    “our country, our higher education system, our economy and our collective futures are on a knife-edge” … It is indeed a metaphor. It means that the situation is precipitous and that the line that is being walked is very thin (like a knife edge). The metaphor explains that keeping the status quo is just about impossible and that there is a danger that the system will lose its balance and fall. It does not mean that there is a literal knife or that anyone is threatening anyone else. It once again makes my point about mother tongue education being so very important.

  7. ian shaw ian shaw 25 February 2016

    Paul, your comments should be posted on university walls, even if no one wants to listen to reason.

  8. Sifiso Xolile Ndlovu Zgwanyanw Sifiso Xolile Ndlovu Zgwanyanw 25 February 2016

    What is the ‘your ANC government’ part about? I don’t understand what you mean by that. Do you care to explain, please? In my opinion, the government of the day is the government of all of South Africa representing all South Africans, regardless of how well or bad it performs or whether or not you voted for it. Let me explain the reason of my asking you to clarify: As unhappy as I am about the government at the moment and regardless of my criticizing it while debating with mostly white folks, I find it disturbing how they are obsessed by using the ‘your government’ line, seeing how I am in agreement with them on many issues to do with bad governance in South Africa. To them, I am a black man and they are white so the government is my government and its failings are my responsibility. How idiotic is that?

  9. RodB RodB 26 February 2016

    You have a good point. Consider me rightly chastised. It’s ‘the ANC government’ then… from now on.

  10. Rusty Bedsprings Rusty Bedsprings 29 February 2016

    I dont mean to be funny, but a quick internet search would have given the author the information required about what the term actually means. Surely one needs to understand the phrase before claiming foul.

  11. Isabella vd Westhuizen Isabella vd Westhuizen 1 March 2016

    Smashing the place does not help your cause

  12. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 5 March 2016

    It seems that people wake up angry and go looking for reasons to be more angry – no matter how obscure or irrational that source of ire may be – just as long as the anger scale can be ramped up a few notches :-(

  13. divvie divvie 9 March 2016

    The general tenor of your article infers that a university education is an absolute right for everyone….an absolute entitlement, with no exceptions, such as affordability, etc. Bear in mind, also, that the black middle class, who can afford tertiary education, outnumber the entire white population of South Africa.

  14. ian shaw ian shaw 10 March 2016

    Sifiso: The government’s failings are not your responsibility indeed, but you are nevertheless suffering the consequences thereof. The lack of sufficient funding of your studies are the consequence of the government cutting the universities’ subsidies and at the same time, taking on more students. For example, To buy more equipment for labs for an increasing number of students while coping with decreasing subsidies is an impossible task. You should ask: why is the government cutting subsidies to universities? Because such funds are being redirected to other purposes considered more important or more worthwhile. Actually, such questions should have been asked by Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education who should have fought against such acts. Let us not generalize on “bad governance”, and make it a racial issue, this government is for all South Africans.

  15. ian shaw ian shaw 10 March 2016

    One “qualification” which we don’t need is more political science graduates.

  16. ian shaw ian shaw 10 March 2016

    Where will our small market, small manufacturing industry, small economy come up with enough job opportunities for hundreds of thousands of new university graduates?

  17. Ken Bot Ken Bot 11 March 2016

    The universities administrators must not be blamed for governments’ failure.

  18. Ken Bot Ken Bot 11 March 2016

    The dedicated universities are taking the brunt of governments’ failure.

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