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  • Shattering the Myth of a Post-Racial Consensus in South African Higher Education"Rhodes Must Fall" and the Struggle for Transformation at the University of Cape Town

This article argues that the University of Cape Town's decision to downgrade the relevance of race in student admissions set off a series of events and discourses that culminated in the "Rhodes Must Fall" protest movement. While the protest movement was ostensibly about the removal of Cecil John Rhodes's statue from the grounds of the university grounds, the campaign galvanized other sectors of the Black community on campus to demand transformation of the curriculum and the hiring of Black professors. The ensuing racial fault lines among students, members of staff, and the administration debunked the notion that class mattered more than race in South African politics. This article argues for an approach that views race as a set of historical experiences that should be reflected in the curriculum and the hiring of more Black professors at UCT and other predominantly white universities.


Rhodes Must Fall, University of Cape Town, Black consciousness, post-racialism, affirmative action, higher education

[End Page 243]

I wish to propose that a way to understand transformation might be through the study of critical incidents. The argument presented is that one understands transformation better when someone throws the proverbial 'spanner in the works'. An institution provoked through crisis tells us much more about the nature and extent of transformation than any official documents or quantified outputs. For it is in the response of the institution to such critical incidents that important clues are given away about how far that institution has gone in the direction of what it may call transformation.

jonathan jansen, Social Dynamics 24, no. 2 (1998): 106–16


On March 9, 2015, I received an e-mail request from one of the leaders of what would soon become known as the Rhodes Must Fall movement at the University of Cape Town (UCT). The request was for me to cochair a mass rally that the students were organizing to demand the removal of the statue of arch-imperialist Cecil John Rhodes from the campus. I declined the invitation because as a member of staff I was wary of being seen to be unduly influencing students. However, the student leader persisted, referring to the public role I have been playing in the debates about the need for racial transformation of UCT: "Your words and writings are what inspire many students about their race on campus. It is because of that, that I still believe you are someone who should be co-chairing a discussion such as this one."1 The compromise we reached was that I would come and say a word in support of the campaign.

Over the next few months the Rhodes Must Fall movement captured the imagination of university students throughout South Africa, and around the world-reaching all the way to Rhodes's alma mater at Oxford University. The movement was successfully resisted at Oxford where Rhodes statue still stands proudly. The students linked their demands to broader questions about the racial transformation of the professoriate and the decolonization of the curriculum. [End Page 244]

A question that has often been subsequently asked is why the student protests have taken place only now—given that Cecil John Rhodes's statue has been there for decades. What was the trigger?

In the first section of this article I trace the underlying causes to a long standing alienation of Black students and staff from the dominant white culture at the university. Social and political movements undertake some form of dramatization to draw attention to their demands. The Rhodes statue stood as a visible symbol of that white dominance and an inspiration for the progressive actors on campus to come together. While the media plays a big role in the processes of dramatization, the invention of social media has vastly improved the ability of social movements to self-dramatize. As Manuel Castells (1997) has argued, the power of social movements-from the Zapatistas in Mexico to the Green movement in Europe—"has come from their media presence and from their effective use of technology" (106).

The power of social media was evident in the emergence of the Arab Spring in North Africa. The Rhodes Must Fall website similarly played a crucial role in garnering support for the movement worldwide. Even though the calls for transformation by different actors on campus—individual academics, trade unions and student organizations—preceded this particular movement, this was the first time they would all act in unity. These actors also saw this as an opportunity to link the removal of the statue to the broader but more difficult questions of labor outsourcing, curriculum and staff transformation. As we shall see the movement petered out after its symbolic victory, and very little momentum has gathered around these broader goals. Institutionalization is less easily amenable to dramatization.

Another question that has often been asked about Rhodes Must Fall is, why did it emerge at the University of Cape Town? This question arises out of the fact that many of the Black students at UCT come from middle-class families. However, the emergence of the movement is one of the clearest rebuttals of the argument that class trumps race in contemporary South Africa, which is the argument on whose strength the decision to do away with race-based affirmative action was taken. However, Chumani Maxwele, the student leader who sparked the protest action, described the Black student experience of racism as follows: "Every day we face two kinds of racism. Personal and institutional racism."2 The first section of the paper is a survey of the discussions that [End Page 245] preceded the emergence of Rhodes Must Fall, specifically the debates about whether UCT should do away with race-based affirmative action. These debates took place on campus as well as in the local newspaper, The Cape Times.

The second section of this article critically examines the theoretical foundations of the post-racial consensus that has emerged among liberal and Marxist scholars at the university. I argue that this consensus is based on a profound ignorance about the Black experience among the mostly, though not exclusively, white academics who led the charge against race-based affirmative action.

Unless these universities understand the ways that Black people have historically theorized race they will not be able to prepare their students for a race conscious world. Neither will they be able to understand the cultural alienation of Black students and staff in these institutions. The third section is thus a discussion of the ways in which Black people have historically thought about race, with particular attention to the historical definition of race provided by the Black Consciousness movement.

In the fourth section I argue for the rejection of the concept of the "disadvantaged student", as if the oppression of Black people was similar to a game in which the rules were stacked against them. Change the rules and everyone would have a fair shot, the logic seems to suggest. The concept is also both patronizing and narrow in its conception of the Black experience as purely economic. The noted educationist and head of the University of Free State Jonathan Jansen (1998), has attributed the idea of the "disadvantaged student" to white and English academics who sought to avoid reference to 'the more appropriate label, black student" (106–16). Njabulo Ndebele (2010) similarly argues that he has always been uncomfortable with concepts such as "disadvantaged communities and underprepared students" (2010:21). In place of the disadvantaged student we should have the Black student who brings into the classroom the historical perspectives that would otherwise be missing. Drawing on Black Consciousness I argue for a curriculum that is reflective of the social and cultural experiences of Black students.

In the fifth and concluding section, I reflect on the subsequent emergence of #Fees Must Fall at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, which spread throughout the country. I finish with a reflection on the subsequent splintering of the movement and the emergence of violence as the language of politics in the movement. [End Page 246]

Why Now, Why UCT?

In the few years before the emergence of Rhodes Must Fall the UCT community was divided over a recommendation by a university-mandated task team to reduce the role of race in admissions policies. As Vice Chancellor Max Price noted, "The basis for affirmative action in admissions should be disadvantage, rather than reliance on 'race' as the proxy for disadvantage."3 The scare quotes around the word "race" were a signal of what the university leadership thought about the validity of the race concept. Administration officials rejected arguments that this would reduce the number of Black students at the university. They argued that most economically disadvantaged students would be Black anyway. In any event, they said, the university would still retain 25 percent of places for Black students. The vice chancellor, Max Price, articulated this new thinking in an address to the university community in August 2013: "Most poor people are black. And most black people are poor. Race is a measure of disadvantage. It is not irrelevant, therefore, to include race as one of the factors."4 This formulation signaled a shift from racial identity as the main consideration to making it only one among many other factors, as part and parcel of a broader liberal discourse that delegitimized the concept of "race" as the sole basis of real social identities.

The Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA)—a campus network of student organizations aligned to the ruling African National Congress—immediately expressed its displeasure at the mooted policy shift. The Alliance demanded that the University Council, the university's highest decision making body, should convene a special session to consider its objections. The Student Representative Council had also called a student assembly in which the proposed changes were overwhelmingly rejected—by both Black and white students.

The students made their opposition clear at a Council meeting in which I was also present. I had been invited because of my public opposition to the changes. More specifically, I had written a newspaper article arguing that an overwhelmingly white Senate should not be entrusted with the responsibility of voting on racial transformation: "the process raises serious ethical questions about whether a structure (the Senate) made up of predominantly white professors is in a position to decide on a policy of racial redress in higher education in South Africa. It's a bit like wolves inviting lambs for dinner."5 [End Page 247]

The article elicited a long letter to the newspaper from UCT vice chancellor Max Price, in which he argued that I had insulted the Senate with a "presumption that intelligent, educated people, cannot make ethical and rational decisions because they are overwhelmingly interested in preserving the interests of those of the same skin colour."6 To clarify my arguments I wrote another op-ed article in which I provided the sociological reasoning behind my assertion. I pointed to an observation made by the famed anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1973), which is that the everyday systems in which members of any community move, their taken for granted field of social action, is populated not by anybodies without qualities but by somebodies, concrete classes of determinate persons positively characterized and appropriately labelled" (363). Geertz argued that the symbol systems that define the class are not given in the nature of things—they are "historically constructed, socially maintained and individually maintained" (363–64). In South Africa those "concrete classes of determinate persons" were symbolically and materially defined by race.

At the council meeting I warned that while the university's action would appease the strong white lobby against the use of race, the university also risked inviting a Black backlash, including possible government interference in its affairs. It was my view that race-based affirmative action was a small price to pay to avoid such an eventuality. However, the university was irreversibly sold on the post-racial consensus of certain influential liberal and Marxist voices on and off campus. I now turn to a discussion of this consensus as articulated by liberals and Marxists, respectively.

The Post-Racial Consensus and Its Discontents

The Liberal Argument

The debates at UCT are a reflection of long-standing debates in the history of countries where race has been the defining fault-line between advocates of color consciousness and color blindness. Gary Peller (1995) has said of the symmetric logic that informed the dominant ideology of integrationism that

the boundaries of today's dominant rhetoric about race were set in the late 1960's and early 1970s, in the context of an intense cultural clash between black nationalists on one side, and integrationists (white and black) on the other. Current mainstream race discourse reflects the [End Page 248] resolution of that conflict through a tacit, enlightened consensus that integrationism is the proper way to conceive justice and that the price of the national commitment to suppress white supremacists would be the rejection of race consciousness among African Americans.


The resolution of a similar, long-standing tension between integrationists and Black nationalists took place in South Africa only in the 1980's. The former were represented by the ANC of Nelson Mandela and the latter by the Black Consciousness movement of Steve Biko. It is now common cause that the nonracial vision of Mandela has been on the ascendancy since the 1980's. In the post-1994 era non-racialism was usurped by powerful liberal constituencies in the media and within universities to resist racial transformation.

At UCT the legal philosopher Anton Fagan argued that because race has no biological foundations students should not have to identify themselves by any of the labels required in the enforcement of affirmative action. Nonetheless Fagan also described himself as a "realist" who would not completely do away with racial categories. He just would prefer that students were not forced into a Faustian pact in which their admission depended on accepting apartheid classifications as true. Instead of asking students to self-identify according to apartheid categories, Fagan suggested that they should instead be asked to indicate which category they would have been placed in by the apartheid government.7

However, this practical compromise notwithstanding, Fagan wanted it known that he viewed race no different from the way he viewed witchcraft:

Both the idea that a person is of some race and the idea that a person is a witch are both "illusions or fictions" created and sustained by social practices. Now suppose that a university was to provide redress for those who were victimized on the ground that they were witches. It would be odd for the university to pursue that redress by asking every applicant to the university this question: "are you a witch or are you not" and then to make the provision of the redress conditional upon the person answering: "Yes I am a witch."8

Fagan's analogy left me wondering why Black students would put themselves at risk of being burned at the stake—that's what happens to witches—by openly identifying as Black. Fagan's analogy was not only offensive but it [End Page 249] suggested the difference between Black and white scholars on race. While racial identity is an existential issue for Black scholars, some white academics treated it as an exercise in academic solipsism. But as one letter writer to the Cape Times put it, "to say I am Coloured is not equivalent to saying I am a witch."9

The argument that race is a dangerous fiction has also been made by Gerhard Mare (2014) in a suggestively titled book, Declassified. The title seeks to indicate Mare's own personal journey trying to break out of the straight-jacket of being defined as white under apartheid. He laments the preservation of racial categories in post-apartheid South Africa, "despite the trashing the term 'race' has received; despite the moral and reasoned rejection of the notion through international agreements; despite knowledge of the horrors inflicted by some on other human beings, because they had been grouped as despised races" (29).

Mare describes race as something that "wounds all those who are forced to live within its categories. These are deep psychological scars that need to be acknowledged in ways that address the past, as it continues to be experienced in the present." However, Mare cannot risk the process of acknowledgment going unguided: "But the acknowledgement must be accompanied by a clear view of a future in which such categories are no longer present, and their absence rewarded by another perspective of social being" (34).

The Marxist Critique

In an odd and ironic development, the Marxist scholar Neville Alexander emerged as a folk hero for liberals and conservatives alike at UCT because of his rejection of race-based affirmative action. Alexander' s major critique of race-thinking was in the seminal book One Azania, One Nation, which he published under the pseudonym No Sizwe in 1978. He argued that race was a manifestation of false consciousness: "We must remember, however, that even though they are constructed, social identities seem to have a primordial validity for most individuals, precisely because they are not aware of the historical, social and political ways in which their identities have been constructed" (Alexander 1978, 135).

I must say I have found Alexander's position on race quite perplexing over the years. I worked with him as a young Black Consciousness activist in the 1980's when he advocated the idea of the Black working class, [End Page 250] because of his recognition of the different racial experiences of Black and white workers. It might be tempting to say he evolved from this view toward a more non-racialist position. The only difficulty with that defense is that his advocacy of the Black working class came years after he had critiqued race thinking in One Azania, One Nation. The evolution was in the other direction—toward race. Only a biography of Alexander will explain some of his contradictory positions on race. Suffice to say the nonracial position was the one on which the opponents to affirmative action held on.

Within the university administration the Marxist critique of race thinking was articulated by Crain Soudien, the deputy vice chancellor for Transformation. Soudien (2015) also invoked Alexander in his rejection of race-based affirmative action: "Neville Alexander makes the argument that a focus on racial demographics is dangerous insofar as it perpetuates apartheid's racial identities. 'There is no need, he argues, to use the racial categories of the past in order to undertake affirmative action policies'" (160). Soudien also makes the point that advocates of "race" hardly tell us what its empirical material base is:

Even when the realist argument is made that race exists, insufficient attention is paid to the hegemonic social and political modalities through which the idea of race has been constructed. Its constitutedness is elided and effectively naturalized. Even where its effects—through racism—are invoked to prove and demonstrate its materiality, what its empirical substance by itself consists of is never explained.


Soudien's strong position against race thinking leaves unanswered the question of how he could possibly deliver on his office's mandate for racial transformation at the university.

These Marxist critiques notwithstanding, not all Marxists are convinced by the dogma that the proletariat is the sum total or even the most important constituent of a revolutionary alliance. For example, Michael Denning (1996) argues that what differentiated Soviet Marxism with its emphasis on economic actors from Western Marxism was the development of mass education in countries such as the United States. Stuart Hall (1996) observed that at other times a national working-class alliance was prevented from coming together by race as "the way, for example, in which in South Africa the state is sustained by the forging of alliances [End Page 251] between white ruling-class interests and the interests of white workers against blacks" (426).

The post-racial consensus is also not universally shared by even those scholars operating within the liberal philosophical framework. Kwame Anthony Appiah (2005) acknowledges that there is a disjuncture between the empirical reality of our "irrational" identities and our normative aspiration toward more rational identities. He uses a religious example to make the point: "Where religious observance involves the affirmation of creeds, what may ultimately matter isn't the epistemic content of the sentences ('I believe in one God, the Father Almighty . . .') but the practice of uttering them. By Protestant habit we're declined to describe the devout as believers, rather than practitioners; yet the emphasis is likely misplaced" (188).

While hard rationalists would insist on scientific verification of social phenomena, Appiah counsels a prudent soft rationalism that operates on the assumption that people experience the world as racial precisely because they are treated as racial beings—even if their own reaction to such racialization is not as crude as that of their oppressors. Appiah thus argues that the result of banishing "would be to prevent the government from being able to assess the presence of discrimination and to attempt countermeasures" (192). The alternative is neither to accept racial identities as unproblematic nor to abolish them but to refashion them in a way that restores to those who have been the victims of discrimination. This is the process of soul making that the state must undertake to ensure that all citizens are treated in ways that enable them to pursue ethically successful lives: "and for identities that have, historically, been wrongly derogated such soul making can be one of the duties of a state that cares equally for all its citizens" (198).

In some ways this interpretive approach is the point of departure of the jurisprudence on affirmative action in South Africa—that progressive racial consciousness will be necessary in defeating abhorrent racial consciousness. In their wisdom the crafters of the South African constitution accepted that racial consciousness is not an abstract phenomenon but manifests itself in concrete circumstances. The Constitutional Court of South Africa has thus rejected the notion of pure, procedural formal equality in favor of a substantive interpretation of equality that seeks to give access to the country's resources all those who were previously denied such. Section 9(2) of the constitution authorizes affirmative action on the basis of race, gender, language, etc., while section 9(3) prohibits unfair [End Page 252] discrimination on those same grounds. This is all aimed at making sure that affirmative action programs are guided by the rule of law and protected from opportunistic elements who would want to willy-nilly lay claim to past discrimination as a means to corruptly obtain public resources. Each case of affirmative action must thus meet the standards of section 9 of the constitution: "So understood, the section leaves no doubt that the more snugly a race-based measure fits into Section 9(2) the more difficult it will be to challenge its constitutionality. Conversely, the less comfortable the fit, the less impervious the measure will be to attack. It is not a question of all or nothing, but one of context, purpose and degree." Sachs thus rejects "categorical, definitional reasoning" in favour of an interpretive, context-dependent approach" (Sachs 2007, 11–13).

However, the hard rationalists at UCT would have none of this interpretive, contextualized discussion of race. Once they had reached a consensus that race has no biological basis they forced through a majority decision to remove it as the primary consideration in the university's affirmative action policies. Because of the political dominance of the idea of non-racialism at liberal universities, the conceptualization of race from within the Black community is occluded from the discussions. Black Consciousness philosophy provides an alternative theorization of race that could, in turn, provide a framework for a new way of thinking about affirmative action.

Black Consciousness and the Signification of Affirmative Action

The liberal and Marxist injunction that Black people must find scientific ways to validate their experience or stop talking about race is a negation of the fact that human beings are social beings always in the process of making and remaking their identities depending on the context in which they find themselves and the challenges they face. This interpretive, contextual approach to the making of identities is key to understanding the history of race in Black political thought. Each generation has had to define itself, while drawing on long pre-existing traditions of racial thought, or what Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls a "shared text of blackness" (Gates 2014, 140). This does not mean that there is one uniform Black identity—just as there is no singular Jewish or Afrikaner or any other identity.

Gates argues that in order to survive Black people had to disrupt the meaning-making process among their oppressors. But they also had [End Page 253] to devise means of communications that would be inscrutable to whites but also enable them to undermine the system of oppression. Hence the shift from signification as standard meaning making to Signification as a form of "guerilla action" among Black people. Through these modes of Signification Black people literally created their own language. According to Mitchell (2014), one of Gates's major achievements was the way in which he managed to show that "racial identity was not a matter of biological essences and not a fixed, immutable set of character traits, but a dynamic historical tradition mediated by songs, stories, jokes, proverbs and riddles-in short by an unfolding body of literature and language, both written and spoken" (282).

One of the best examples of the political signification of race in South Africa took place when Steve Biko and fellow Black university students formed the Black Consciousness movement in the late 1960s. While the movement was initially formed because of the frustration of Black students within the majority white National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), Biko and his colleagues presented themselves as a social organization whose aim was to facilitate social activities among Black students at the universities.

It was only much later that the government awakened to the danger the movement presented. This was after the movement had made inroads into the Black community and played a leading role in the creation of the Black People's Convention, the first above board political organization since the banning of the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress in 1960. The movement's criticism of Bantustan leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi as a stooge of the apartheid government and their expulsion of Temba Sono for advocating cooperation with the homeland governments alerted the government to the danger of the movement. The government swiftly imposed banning orders on the first generation of SASO leaders including Steve Biko, Barney Pityana, Jerry Modisane, Strini Moodley, and Harry Nengwekhulu. As we now know Biko was killed by the apartheid police in September 1977 and the movement was banned a month later.

By the time of its banning the movement had succeeded in giving a new definition to Blackness as a political identity. Biko (2004) wrote that Blacks are "those who are by law and tradition, politically, economically and socially discriminated against as a group in the South African society and identifying [sic] as a unit towards their aspirations." He also pronounced, that "Blackness is an attitude of mind . . . skin pigmentation [End Page 254] has nothing to do with it" (52). The movement had also gone beyond the biological definition of Blackness as referring only to the African population but now also included Coloured and Indians. As Aelred Stubbs (2004) put it, "I am not sure that the importance of this achievement, in the given social structures of South Africa, has been emphasized . . . but the way in which SASO managed to overcome traditional barriers between Africans and Coloureds . . . was not only indicative of a new mood in the Coloured community, but a significant achievement of non-ethnic solidarity" (220).

Biko's definition of Blackness is not technically accurate in contemporary South Africa because no one can possibly compare life under apartheid with life in a democratic society. The society is still ravaged by poverty, inequality and a resurgent racism but that is a world apart from the legal subjugation of Black people under apartheid. The constitution now outlaws racism. The Constitutional Court, which is the highest court in the land, has been presided over by mostly Black judges who are themselves respected veterans of the liberation movement, including Albie Sachs of the ANC and Dikgang Moseneke, the former deputy president of the Pan Africanist Congress. Without minimizing their experiences of racism, poverty and inequality, young people should find definitions of Blackness that speak more accurately to the present historical moment. I have argued elsewhere for a conception of Blackness that is not dependent on the existence of political oppression for its validity. Blackness would now be consciousness of a shared experience of racism and using the memory of that experience to build a new cultural patrimony for the country as a whole. This approach does not suggest post-Blackness or that racism belongs in the past. It suggests that knowledge of past struggles is crucial in combating present-day racism. But even more importantly, Blackness must be more than a reactive identity. To paraphrase Biko, Blackness must make its new appearance as a consciousness of the past that is linked to the creation of new anti-racist futures (Mangcu 2014). Needless to say that whatever shape or meaning Blackness takes, it is likely to be based on newer forms of identification. Already the students of Rhodes Must Fall have embarked on their own interpretation of Black Consciousness. One of the movement's women leaders, Mbali Matandane articulated this vision of Black Consciousness as follows:

What I hope for is that people will look back at this movement one day and see how a small group of black feminists changed the politics [End Page 255] of a black consciousness space-a space that has previously excluded these populations. They will remember how black women and members of the LGBTQIA (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual] community became valued members of one of the most important movements in the university's history.10

Affirmative Action as Recognition of the Black Historical Experience

Rethinking the Curriculum

During the course of the controversy surrounding the university's decision to downgrade race as a factor in affirmative action, I suggested an alternative model that sees race along the lines suggested in the Black Consciousness view of race as historical experience and consciousness. To be sure the Black Consciousness definition of Black that would include the identity categories described by the women leaders of Rhodes Must Fall. We could begin an admissions process that goes beyond just academic scores and skin color but also an explanation of what it is about being Black that should make anyone eligible to qualify for race-based affirmative action. This can be done by requiring students to write their own letters of motivation as well as getting letters of recommendation from teachers and community leaders about their potential to make a difference to the life of the university. What difference would having them in the classroom actually make in terms of diversity of the learning experience?

One of the main criticisms of affirmative action has been that it brings ill-prepared students into a competitive environment with white students, and that it ends up hurting Black students. This is the so-called mismatch theory. My experience with Black students in my social theory class confounds this theory. And that is because I place Black intellectual history at the center of the syllabus. I introduce students to the classical sociological works of Karl Marx Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, etc. And then I follow with a section on African intellectuals—Tiyo Soga, S. E. K. Mqhayi, Sol Plaatje, Phyllis Ntantala, Steve Biko, etc. This changes classroom dynamics. Black students take on a leadership role in the classroom because the material is socially and culturally familiar.

However, the great beneficiaries of this have thus far been white students. One of the most inspiring outcomes is the enthusiasm with which white students have embraced this curriculum. One of those students just [End Page 256] enrolled for a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago on the basis of his master's thesis on the writings of S. E. K. Mqhayi.

In The Shape of the River, William G. Bowen and Derek Bok (2000) confound the mismatch theory beloved of critics of affirmative action. They argue that carefully selected "minority students have not suffered from attending colleges heavily populated by white and Asian American classmates with higher standardized scores. On the contrary they have fared better in such settings. These students do not appear to have been over-matched academically by their colleges and universities" (88).

I am arguing that the mismatch theory is even weaker when the curriculum is reflective of the social and cultural experiences of Black students. The next frontier is language—the performance of Black students will most likely improve even more when they do not have to express themselves in a second language and when they are evaluated in that language.

But these curriculum changes would entail a loss of power for white professors at the predominantly white universities in South Africa. Once you start talking about changing the curriculum then you also have to start thinking about whom to appoint to teach the new materials. Many of our professors are much happier and comfortable teaching ancient Greek history than the history of their own countries. Steven Friedman (2006) captured this sense of apprehension:

affirmative action . . . sits alongside crime as the chief trigger for white apprehensions of doom . . . for most of the critics the issue is simple: the new elite is looking after its own, pushing whites out of the economy, denuding business and government of skills and destroying standards as the competent give way to the politically favoured. Talk shows and dinner tables may be awash with stories of talented whites being driven out of the country by racial preference.11

This discourse of doom could be seen in reactions to calls for more Black professors.

Nurturing a New Black Professoriate

In July 2014 I raised the hornet's nest with an article in the Sunday Times that revealed shocking statistics about the near-absence of Black professors at UCT. The article revealed that there are only 5 African professors [End Page 257] out of 174 South African professors (i.e. 2.8%); 6 Coloured males (3.4%) and 2 Coloured females (1%); 10 Indian male full professors (5.7%) and only 1 Indian woman (0.5%). UCT also has no African woman from South Africa who is a full professor.

The inequality is likely to reproduce itself at UCT because of the dominance of whites at the associate professor level. While there are 11 Associate Professors, 17 Coloureds and 13 Indians, the number of whites was 12 or 75% of the poor from which the next generation of full professors will be selected.

Vice Chancellor Max Price responded with an article of his own in the same newspaper. He wrote that " it was a superficial argument that blames historic endemic racism at UCT as the root cause particularly given much greater degrees of racism and collusion at most other universities and technikons."12

Price's other standard response was to argue that it takes twenty years to become a full professor. This meant that someone who finished his Ph.D. in 1994 would have qualified only in 2014 to become a professor. This argument did not convince anyone because many of the white professors at the university took far less than twenty years to become professors. As William Worger (2014) put it, "in part his statement is true. It does indeed take a while to move up the ranks in academia . . . but Price's benchmark of twenty years is incorrect. None of the professors in the UCT history department took that long from award of the Ph.D. to promotion to full professor" (209).

The absence of university professors has also meant that the governing structures, particularly the Senate, which is the highest decision making body on academic policy, remain overwhelmingly white, "even as the structure of South Africa's politics has completely transformed" (Worger 2014, 210). That aptly captures the continued powerlessness of Black academics in South Africa's university system, twenty years after the birth of democracy.

Conclusion: Crisis and Opportunity

On October 14, 2015, exactly nine months after Rhodes Must Fall had rocked the University of Cape Town, students at the University of the Witwatersrand occupied the administrative building demanding an end to [End Page 258] fee increases at the universities. To his credit, the vice chancellor, Adam Habib, flew back from a conference on higher education in Durban, to receive the student demands. The students then detained Habib, saying they would not let him go until he agreed to a moratorium on fee hikes. The controversial former head of the Student Representative Council, Mcebo Dlamini, said, "we are fighting against a system that is brutal. This is not a protest. This is a complete shutdown." The SRC president noted that "this is our institution and it is important that we stand together and fight."13 Three days later, on October 17, the Wits University Council signed an agreement with the SRC suspending fee hikes. immediately responded by announcing a moratorium on fees.

On October 21 students at the University of Cape Town were joined by those from other universities in the Western Cape in a march on parliament to demand a moratorium on fee hikes. When the minister of higher education tried to address them the students booed him and demanded to get inside parliament itself, at which point the police used stun grenades to disperse them. Two days later, students at the University of Witwatersrand led an even bigger march on the seat of government in Pretoria, calling on President Jacob Zuma to address them about their demand for a moratorium on fee increases. Fearing that he might be booed by the students, Zuma announced the moratorium on national television. If Zuma thought his strategy would undercut the protest action, then he badly miscalculated. The students now called for a nationwide strike in all the universities in support of their demand for free higher education. UCT student leader, Athabile Nonxuba, put it this way, "too many things have been done for us without us and we are saying no more. The end goal is free socialist education and a decolonized institution."14

At the University of Cape Town, the student struggles were tied to demands for an end to outsourcing of workers. Students and workers vowed to bring the university and the catering services to a halt until the university agreed to the demands. Finally, the UCT management agreed to end outsourcing.

Signs of an intemperate political culture surfaced at UCT when students disrupted a University Council meeting and insulted the much respected Archbishop Ndungane. To be sure, the students who displayed that abhorrent conduct had gone against a specific and explicit resolution by the #RhodesMustFall collective not to disrupt the council meeting. They subsequently apologized to Ndungane for their action. However, it was [End Page 259] only at the #FeesMustFall march on government that there was a violent outbreak. Clashes also broke out when the time for registration came in February 2016, with the more radical students at Wits University stopping other students from registering until the issue of fees had been settled. In South Africa universities still retain their own police force The Wits campus police were completely overwhelmed by the situation and the university brought the South African police onto the campus. More recently there was an attempt to burn the law library of Wits University. Unfortunately, a successful effort was made at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg.

At the beginning of the 2016 academic year Black students at the University of Cape Town raised the problem of accommodation. They argued that preferential treatment was given to foreign students. UCT vice chancellor Max Price responded by saying that it was not true that Black students were not being accommodated. He pointed that the university only had 6,600 beds, and that 75% of them went to Black students. While this is true, the issue of accommodation was more complex than that and was bound to blow in the university's face because of the administration's own failure to build enough accommodation over the years. If the university claims that half of the 27,000-strong student population is Black (i.e. 13,500), then another 6900 students would be left without accommodation. The more likely figure of Black students is closer to 30% (8,100), which means that another 2,000 students would be without accommodation. The issue of accommodation was particularly acute for Black students. Many of them came from distant parts of the country, and either could not afford Cape Town's expensive rentals or break through the notoriously racist practices of rental agencies. Suffice to say it does not take a lot of students to create the kind of havoc that followed.

The students then erected a shack in the middle of the campus to register their protest. The university asked the students to move their shack so as to allow traffic to go through. The students refused and the campus security moved in to demolish the shack. In the ensuing melee, students ransacked a nearby student residence. They emerged with some of the university's most valuable artworks, which they set alight. A university bus was also set alight.15 UCT subsequently obtained a court order barring the leaders behind the protests from ever entering its campus, which is an effective expulsion from the university.

The turn toward violence culture in the student movement is cause for concern. Various campuses across the country have had their buildings [End Page 260] put alight. Ironically, this has been more the case at the historically Black universities such as the University of Western Cape and at the University of Fort Hare. The University of Western Cape was widely known as the University of the Left under its legendary vice chancellor Jakes Gerwel. To see students burning down the investments Gerwel and his team had made was quite heartbreaking for me. I was even more heartbroken by the burning of buildings at the University of Fort Hare-the first Black university and the alma mater of people such as Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Robert Mugabe, Joshua Nkomo, Ntsu Mokhele, Sir Seretse Khama. I objected to this turn to violence in a newspaper article.

I was appalled to see the disruption of a University of Cape Town (UCT) senate meeting by students, and to learn that a bus had been set alight or bombed. This kind of violence has no place at a university. The students should know the power of their own actions when they are peaceful. It was their peaceful protest that brought down the statue of Cecil John Rhodes and it was peaceful protests led by students at my alma mater, the University of the Witwatersrand, that forced government to impose a moratorium on fee increases for 2016. With such achievements, why would anyone resort to violent attacks on university property and management? Does this not strengthen the hand and voice of the critics of the student movement? Is this perhaps not the time for the leadership of the student movement to stand up and give direction, or have they also been defeated?16

My objection to the violence earned me the wrath of an organization called Black First, Land First. They alleged that my advocacy for transformation was so that I could get my full professorship. Now that I had succeeded in that goal I was happy to criticize them.17 The hostility from this group came to a head at a panel discussion at the University of Western Cape in May 2016. The students objected to the fact that the panel of Judith Butler and Wendy Brown of the University of California, Berkeley, David Theo Goldberg of the University of California at Irvine and Achille Mbembe of the University of Witwatersrand was mainly white. These scholars had all given papers critiquing the financialization of universities around the world, and the fact that universities were being turned into securocracies in which students are viewed as "enemy combatants on domestic soil." Achille Mbembe called for the recapitalization of the [End Page 261] university, pointing out that expenditure on universities was only 0.7% of GDP in South Africa.

When I objected to the students conduct they shouted me down and labeled me a "house nigger." I shared my experience in a newspaper column, asking whether I had perhaps romanticized the student movement.18 They responded in what can only be described as a disingenuous representation of their actions. They wrote that "as discussions unfolded, we listened very attentively, disagreeing and agreeing with a number of the points rendered by the panelists . . ." but that as they "welcomed the inputs" they also felt the panel had taken on "a posture of neocolonialism wherein the black is the perpetual student and the the white being the perpetual student." Finally, the students claimed to have been the victims of a violent space in which they were "spoken over, dismissed and undermined" by the largely white audience. They argued that white people, particularly white academics, tend to dominate discussions and provide solutions for black people, as if black people could not generate such solutions themselves. They described my interjection as a typical self-indulgence in order to appease the largely white audience:

Mangcu's uncontrollable desire to address the event as though he carries the single manuscript to decolonisation is proof of an academic with an exaggerated sense of self-importance. Academics like him often assume the role of parenthood using African notions of community, but are silent when "their" very children are brutalised by the state apparatus. For instance, as a figure "who has walked with the students," what has he done, written or said about the UCT students who have been systematically expelled from the university?

This of course went against my record of publicly calling for the re-instatement of those students who have been expelled from UCT. I should hasten to add that the conduct on display that evening is growing, but it is still not representative of the broader student movement, or of my relationship with it While it is satisfying that this movement has brought Steve Biko's ideas back into circulation, it is vitally important that they stay true to the letter and spirit of Biko's philosophy and method.

With respect to the philosophy I would suggest that Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness movement never defined race on biological rounds. As Biko (2004) put it, "Blackness is an attitude of mind . . . skin pigmentation [End Page 262] has nothing to do with it" (52). He was not entirely dismissing skin colour but arguing that much more than that biological fact was required for a politics of racial solidarity against the apartheid government to emerge. Hence his political description of Blacks as "those who are by law and tradition, politically, socially and economically discriminated against as a group in South African society and identify as a unit towards the realization of their aspirations" (52). The Black Consciousness movement was built on a strong and strategic alliance with Basil Moore and Colin Collins the University Christian Movement, and with funding from the International University Exchange Fund in Sweden. Biko worked closely with Aelred Stubbs, Donald Woods, David Russell, Francis Wilson and many other white people, even though they were not allowed to join the movement for strategic political reasons (Mangcu 2012).

The misrepresentation of Biko by some in the movement goes along with the wholesale adoption and misrepresentation of Frantz Fanon. As Paul Gilroy has recently observed, "Fanon has had a third or a fourth coming in all this, even though he is woefully misread."19 However, the uncritical, wholesale adoption of Fanon misses the point that we are not in a colonial situation-just as we do not live under apartheid by any stretch of the imagination, unless we really do not know what those experiences were like. To say we do not live in a colonial and apartheid situation is not to deny the continuities with those experiences. it is simply to say there are also discontinuities that can be a source of strategic opportunities for students living in a democratic society that were simply not available under colonialism and apartheid. However disastrous the present government's policies have been, from Thabo Mbeki's HIV/AIDS policies to Jacob Zuma's corruption ridden regime, it remains a democratically elected government. Gilroy expresses a wish that I share: "Let's hope that that violence is not the type we are acquainted with, the kind that requires warm fresh blood as the medium for marking out the boundaries of political community as it comes into being. Let's hope it is just burning paintings."20

Of all the things that Biko took from Frantz Fanon, violence was not one of them. He explicitly eschewed violence as an instrument of struggle for the movement that he led. This was in part because he was cautious about the political and legal implications of embracing violence, but there was an even deeper principle involved. He truly believed in the power of organization building as the basis of collective power. He expressed his approach to violence as follows: "The line BPC [Black People's Convention] [End Page 263] adopts is to explore as much as possible nonviolent means within the country, and that is why we exist . . . there are people—there are many people—who have despaired of the efficacy of nonviolence as a method . . . I don't believe for a moment that we are going to willingly drop our belief in the non-violent stance—as of now. But I can't predict what will happen in the future, inasmuch as I can't predict what the enemy is going to do in the future" (2004, 169).

At the time of writing, the situation in the universities seems only to have worsened. The punitive responses to protest action have been met with even great protest action, which has unfortunately descended into violence. This is to be regretted. Students should be urged to regain their moral and political capital by using the forms of protest action that have enabled them to bring about changes in both policy and public discourse at the universities. South African universities have never been readier for re-invention. And as Antonio Gramsci (1931) said, the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear" (276). The question is whether the students will become the midwives for the new-born South African university, or its undertakers.

Xolela Mangcu
University of Cape Town
Xolela Mangcu

xolela mangcu is professor of sociology at the University of Cape Town and is the Emeka Anyaoku Visiting Chair at the Institute for Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. He has held fellowships at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Studies at Harvard University, Brookings Institution, M.I.T, and the Rockefeller Foundation. He holds a Ph.D. in city and regional planning from Cornell University as well as degrees in sociology from Wits University, Johannesburg.


1. E-mail from Kgotsi Chikane, March 9, 2015

3. Michelle Jones, "UCT Pledges to Revise Admissions Based on Race," The Mercury, February 14, 2013.

4. Michelle Jones, "UCT Needs More Students," Cape Times, August 21, 2013.

5. Xolela Mangcu, "UCT's Senate Is the problem." Cape Times, February 20, 2013.

6. Max Price, "Dr. Mangcu Has Insulted Senate with his Presumption," Cape Times, February 23, 2013. [End Page 264]

7. Michelle Jones, "Don't Base University Admissions on Race, Says UCT Law Professor," Cape Times, November 8, 2013.

8. Anton Fagan, "There Is No Such Thing as Race," Cape Times, November 8, 2013.

9. Irma Liberty, "Race May Not Be Biological but Its Part of My Life," November 20, 2013.

10. Mbali Matandane, "Rhodes Must Fall: How Black Women Claimed Their Place," Mail & Guardian, March 30, 2015,

11. Steven Friedman, "Foes of Affirmative Action Fail to See It's Not All Black and White," Business Day, October 18, 2006.

12. Max Price, "Nothing Sinister About Paucity of Black Professors at UCT," Sunday Times, July 13, 2014.

13. Makgatho, Lesego. "#WitsFeesMustFall Shuts Down Campus," October 14, 2016,

16. Xolela Mangcu, "Don't Let Violent Extremism Defeat the Student Cause," City Press News, November 17, 2015,

18. Xolela Mangcu, "Students Shouted Me Down," Sunday Independent, May 29, 2016.

20. Ibid.

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