home Black Opinion, News An Open letter to Professor Anthony Butler: HOD Politics Department

An Open letter to Professor Anthony Butler: HOD Politics Department

By Lwazi Lushaba

Below is an open letter written by Dr Lwazi Lushaba to Professor Anthony Butler: HOD Politics Department, where he teaches at the University of Cape Town.

In the afternoon of the 24th August 2016, the HoD of Politics at UCT addressed to me a letter, whose contents we shall in a moment discourse about. He opens the letter with the following salutation; Dear Lwazi. He could as well have written; Dear Dr. Lwazi Lushaba. It would not have made any difference. For, I cannot say with certainty what I, in his modern imaginary, represent. Accordingly, I have permitted myself the liberty of leading him to the abyss wherein dwells the shattered fragments of my being so he may recognise me for what and who I am. I am of those whose skin colour makes them objects of scorn and disregard. I am one with the black children of Masiphumelele, Imizamo Yethu, Gugulethu, and other black slums who with their tender bare black bodies play all day long in stagnant pools of discarded bathing water, urine, menstrual blood, vomit of drunken black souls, and perhaps discharge from a backyard abortion performed on a body too young to bear life. I am one with those in this country who grow up certain that success is destined to elude them because they are black. For us it remains dark even though the day should have started.

We are of a race that has no knowledge to offer modern South Africa. Our forms of cognising, modes of being-in-the-world, our weltanschauungen cannot be admitted to credence. They fall outside the bounds of modern disciplinary knowledges. More precisely our forms of knowledge are incomprehensible to the ideological sciences of man. Because we epitomise unreason and irrationality and perhaps all things in-human for centuries our physical presence in institutions of knowledge production like UCT was decreed undesirable by whiteness. As such today we find ourselves in institutions of higher learning whose material, cultural, aesthetic, symbolic and intellectual production are pointed in a direction away from us. Worse still we bear the burden of calling these – ‘our institutions’ – while fully aware that these institutions despise us. It matters not that we give all our productive lives as black people cleaning them, cleaning their toilets, securing them, serving them coffee and tending to their gardens – their hatred of black people remains firm.

Because all those who are black in this country make it possible for me to say ‘I am’, my success as an individual black person means nothing when they continue to be excluded from post-graduate studies at UCT, when they continue to wallow in poverty and ignorance, when their souls remain crushed under the weight of whiteness. Until they succeed until we succeed together only then can I claim to be successful. For I have no possibility of attaining any form of self-consciousness and self-recognition away from them. The white world cannot offer me recognition – in fact it cannot recognise me – for as Fanon tells us the ontology of a black person is impossible in the modern necessarily racist world. I must then always when you see me be who black people are. In that way you shall know me for who I am. I am of those who because of their race were denied access to universities in the land of their birth. I am of those who precisely because of centuries of exclusion are today condescendingly described as lazy, incapable of successfully pursuing post-graduate studies. The monstrosity of the pain we as black people in this land have been made to go through by white people impels me to weep, every time I reminisce about it. Pain even when it is past, leaves the same marks on the individual when recalled, tell us that Senegalese savant Miriama Ba. I shall now consider myself, those who make my being possible, and those who can lay claim neither to dignity nor honour knowable even if as fleeting and evanescent.

For the benefit of the reader, I shall now summarise what happened in the said lecture of the 15th August 2016, which supposedly triggered the HoD’s letter to me. In the week prior to the 15th I had diligently taken students through the compound thematic of colonialism, coloniality and decolonisation. Later in the week of the 15th I was to take students through Political Culture and Political Socialisation. I had reasoned, in my black mind that one of the defining features of South Africa’s political culture is the culture of protest. So in order to breathe life to these themes, viz. culture of political protest and decolonisation, I decided to invite #RMF activists to class. They enlightened us through political songs of protest and in turn gave political speeches on the how #RMF begun, on what decolonising the university means to/for them, mapped for us how the protest last year unfolded, told us of their experience of state violence, criminalisation and suspension by the university. These were not secondary accounts from a lecturer who has never been part of the historic student protest at UCT. Rather they came from key #RMF dramatis personae. I found them revealing – of course I also encountered new struggle songs, which revealed a complex that was at once of political meaning making as well as making of a collective black political subject of emancipation. The activists were nothing but walking archives of the struggle to both Africanise and decolonise knowledge in a supposedly South African university in 2015. Their speeches made vivid their genuine love for themselves, for black people and for the country. History at an appropriate moment shall thank them most profoundly for their selflessness and sacred love for the land. It bears stating that, I had earlier been approached by Anthropology students taking my course for assistance regarding a task they had. They had been asked to write a project on the #RMF. One cannot say how beneficial that class was to them – only they can. I do however remain convinced that I had in no small measure contributed to making their process of learning far more enlightening – if not exciting.

I have been long. Accordingly, I plead for the reader’s indulgence as I now turn to the HoD’s letter whose essence can be summed in the three following claims. Firstly, the letters opens by asserting that the HoD is writing ‘as promised in follow up to our conversation…’ Since we are both enlightened enough, I implore the HoD to be candid and earnest enough to acknowledge that there was never a conversation between us. He called me into his office – like he had done on the 6th of June 2016, when he behind a closed door threatened to write me off from my first year teaching responsibilities – to instil in me fear of whiteness, fear of his bureaucratic and/or Occidental Authority. In any conversation two human beings exchange views and ideas and where they disagree grope towards a workable arrangement. On that occasion, as it was on the 6th of June, I did not see two colleagues, one senior another junior, conversing as people who both have views that equally matter. What I saw was Prospero communing with Caliban. But we must not be astounded by this turn of events for we had learnt long ago from Chabani Manganyi that blacks and whites in South Africa “talk down and up to each other…what seems to do the talking in the white person is the master and what does the responding in the black man is the servant. In practical terms this has meant that white people always experience themselves as communicating instructions…the black person has tended to communicate an apology not for any conceivable palpable reason. One instructs, the other apologises”. I had admittedly become accustomed to this behaviour in departmental meetings where every of my suggestions and viewpoints are rudely and dismissively suppressed by the HoD using his position as chair.

Secondly, the HoD claims in his letter to be writing me because he had received complaints from “students and parents who believed the POL 1005S lecture on 15 August was ‘disrupted’. They were confused about the purpose of the proceedings. They were uncertain about the educational value of the singing and stomping of feet” (italics mine). There are a few points to ponder here. For the students concerned wouldn’t it have made sense for them to ask their lecturer who was present in class throughout what exactly was happening? As for the so-called parents, I challenge the HOD to bring to a departmental meeting evidence of parents indeed complaining about what a lecturer employed by the university had decided to be an appropriate learning material for the day. At that point, we shall be sure to inquire whether parents of all races have the same access to the HOD. Do all parents of all races and social status, parents from Makhaza, e Cofimvamba, e Ngangelizwe, eMfuleni, etc., also get to contact the HOD and express their feelings? When does it become necessary to balance the views of those white parents privileged enough to live in the same white suburbs and belong to the same social circles with the HOD against those of black parents who lack the necessary cultural capital to interact with a white HOD, at that moment we dare not fail to ask the question.
Earlier, I made the point that our forms of cognising, our modes of being, our cultures, our songs, and our heritage as black people do not constitute knowledge. They are bereft of any educational value – they disrupt learning. Such is true that even those who do not know our struggle songs of protest can conclude on their meaninglessness. Because they are songs of black people, the culturally decrepit they hold no educational value.

Thirdly, the HoD insinuates that in the lecture of the 15th August, I was involved in political mobilisation rather than lecturing. And therefore did not perform my duties as expected. Why did he not ask me what I was doing rather than reach a predetermined conclusion? I may be an object of anthropological curiosity but surely after five degrees, I can speak for myself. But there is a larger issue at play here and for it to become comprehensible, I want to re-read very closely the last line of the said letter; “Please feel free to consult the convenor or me in future if you need to talk through what might or might not be appropriate in a lecture”. Re-reading this, I concluded that, I must be a super qualified field Negro or garden boy who unsure of his competencies, at every turn runs to the Master’s office, hands clasped together and dirty cap crumpled in those hands, to seek approval for every method to be used in tending to the plants in the Master’s garden.

But here is the larger and more fundamental question I want to foreground; when and for whom does the university preserve autonomy for deciding what is the appropriate material for the classroom? Have we not heard, one too many times, universities when called upon by government to transform their curriculum, respond by asserting that the classroom material is to be determined solely by those appointed to teach? Academic freedom, institutional and classroom autonomy are signposts under which this argument is made. One then suspects, if this particular case is to be an indicator that it is only when white lecturers are concerned that classroom autonomy is considered sacrosanct. The right to decide what material and how that material is to be taught, I have long thought belongs to all those who teach in South African universities black and white. The HoD may wish to tell me that I have for long laboured under an illusion!

When the university employed me, I assumed that it had confidence in my exceptional teaching abilities, including an ability to decipher what constitutes an appropriate material for the classroom. If however the department employed me as a diversity candidate, who brings nothing else but his skin colour so that transformation requirements may be met, it omitted to make that clear to me. The consequence of that elision is that, I on the other hand, took it as my responsibility to the country to bring into the classroom not just my skin colour but new knowledges hitherto not part of the learning experience, new unconventional forms of teaching which do not exteriorise knowledge from the knower. Decolonised teaching – if you wish. And for that, students in the said course POL1005S have unequivocally expressed their excitement and appreciation. I offered to them with the earnestness of heart, with every sense of commitment and responsibility a learning experience that will remain etched in their memories for years to come – they tell me. May I, then like all other academics, despite my being a young black lecturer in a white institution be trusted to have the requisite emotional and intellectual maturity called for in a learning environment? If that is allowed, it will mean that, I have the autonomy to decide what to teach and how to teach it. The political naivety on my part for which I am ready to bear full responsibility is not to have anticipated the question; could decolonising knowledge and decolonised teaching hope for automatic approval from a university (and those who preserve its institutional culture) whose institutional culture is colonial?

Hopefully the reader has been patient enough for we needed to get this far for us to rid the HOD’s letter of its verisimilitude. Read carefully the letter styles itself into a warning letter. However once its bureaucratic pretences are unmasked the letter it becomes transparently obvious is intended to weaken my resolve, to defeat my spirit, to whip me into line – to instil in me fear of whiteness – Occidental Authority if you prefer. It is intended to make manifest the insidious power of whiteness – ultimately to silence me. When read against the backdrop of the encounter of the 6th of June 2016, the dismissive suppression of every viewpoint I volunteer at departmental meetings, it is meant to implant in me like repeated abuse does in a victim of domestic violence, self-doubt. Could there be something wrong with my views, my intellectual orientation and perhaps offending with my political mien that warrants the bullying – I am expected to question myself? Could the victimization be warranted? Or could it be of my own invitation? These subtle manoeuvres it is hoped will in the ultimate erode my self-confidence, it is hoped that by these tactics, I shall be corralled to submission. As such the HoD’s letter must be considered for what it is; an affront, an attempt to bully me in my own country. But together with and alongside other self-respecting blacks, I long came to a conclusion that I can no longer keep the silence. I owe it to myself, to fellow black people and to the country to speak out against anti-black racism. Duty and responsibility calls me forth as a citizen of the land to speak in its defence. Consequences be damned!!! To be black in the Politics Department at UCT is already a heavy burden. I can no longer carry it alone in silence. Why you may ask – because racism of the worst kind prevails in the department. I have no other word to characterise the following state of affairs – about which I have refused to keep quiet. Consider this for reality in a country that has been independent for over twenty years – in a country where black people constitute 86% of the population. Between, 2010-2014, the department has graduated only two (2) black South Africans at MA level. In the year 2015, 97% of black applicants were denied entrance to the Masters programme. In the year 2016, 64% of black applicants were denied admission into the Masters programme. In 2016, 67% of these black South African applicants were from UCT itself. To-date there is not a single black South African enrolled for a Masters degree in the department.
Thus the real impetus for the letter of warning from the HoD is not the lecture of the 15th August. It lies elsewhere – in my disagreement with him at departmental meetings about the above state of affairs. A fact he has refused to reconcile himself to, is that for me raising with every sense of firmness my discomfiture about this state of affairs does constitute performance. Rather it is an act responsibility and service to my country. Responsibility calls on those of us who love the land, those of us who love ourselves and love fellow black people to have audacity to insist on a department and an institution that does not despise black success.

A related question I have been raising at departmental meetings, that is the source of my problems is the following; if UCT is not producing the next generation of black South African academics – who will or who bears the responsibility to? Institutions that are sustained through the public purse, like UCT, ought not they to respond to obvious societal exigencies – one of which is the lack of black South African intellectuals. Or has this exclusion become a way of carving out the task of thinking and intellectual production as an exclusive white preserve? So each time an academic appointment is to be made we hear white voices in unison proclaim – there are no black South Africans applying!!! What these voices conveniently sidestep is a corollary question; where are these academics to come from? South Africa as a consequence is a country with twenty three universities but in twenty two years of independence has failed to train just fifty black South African political scientists – a number just enough to teach in these institutions!!! What a country!!!!

I ask at this instance fellow black academics to ponder with me the following question: if we as black South Africans continue to be absent or to be exceptions in these departments, who will write about us as they know us? Who will write our history – the history of the land? Who will write the story of Hintsa? Who will teach university students how to write stories and literary works in our indigenous languages? Who will undertake the necessary and creative task of thinking from our cultures? Better put who will transform our cultures into a legitimate philosophical locus of enunciation? Who will write about the black miners we lost in Marikana, not as the working class but as black people whose crime was to be black in a country that is anti-black. Who will write a befitting biography of Brenda Fasie, of Mkabayi ka Jama, of Mgcineni ‘mambush’ Noki? Who will teach about the writings of Don Mattera. Who write about the gumboots dance black miners perform(ed) each time they come to the surface from twelve hours of entombment, in order to re-humanise themselves? Who will analyse not from a western philosophical locus the cultural and political repertoire in the songs of Bra Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Victor Ntoni, Zim Ngqawana, Mankunku Ngozi, Ringo Madlingozi, Stompie Mavi, etc. Who will write the social and cultural histories of our clans? Who will teach about the politics, life and times of Gerard Sekoto? Who will write about our cultural practices not as anthropological curiosities, not as anachronisms or unvanquished remnants of the past erupting on to the continuing present of progress?

I am inclined at this juncture to ask; who then should society call to account between myself and a white HoD who has presided over this racist exclusion of black people (and their knowledges) in their own country? Surely it has to be me because we live in a country where injustice seems less disturbing to the public conscience when suffered by black people.
The second key source of tension between myself and the HoD is about the kind of intellectual citizens we are called upon to produce. Formulated into a question the challenge is: what is the responsibility of political science in a recently decolonised country? Coming face to face with the question; what is the ethical responsibility of political science will I have argued elsewhere allow the discipline acknowledge its complicity in the dehumanisation of black people in South Africa. It will allow the discipline attend to the modernist sensibilities that led practitioners in the field to justify apartheid as a democracy of one form or the other. Perhaps it will also allow the discipline ask what is the life of these sensibilities today?

Proceeding from the above the department can then attend to the corollary question of whether its responsibility is to produce bourgeois social science professionals armed with disciplinary qualifications and with an a historical, presentist, technicist and hence anti-intellectual orientation as a bonus. Surely these professional social scientists sell in the liberal market. However that does not negate the question; are these qualified professional social scientists sufficiently equipped to help society reason through and resolve the many problems that afflict black communities and the country at large? The answer has to be an emphatic NO! The education we offer to them does not have value in and of itself. The value of the education we offer to them is realisable only as a commodity, which enables them in turn consume other commodities. In simpler language professionalization of political studies at UCT is the bane of the problem. It is precisely this professionalization that enables the Political Science dept at UCT to sit comfortably with a curriculum that allows students to go through the discipline from first year right up to M.A. level without a course on the Politics of Gender, Race/Racism, without a course on the Politics of Difference. University of Cape Town is an African university – I suppose – but it does not offer a single course in African Politics at an undergrad level. That is why we produce students who are ‘highly qualified’ but know nothing about their continent. Is this not a clear statement about which knowledges matter?

These in earnest are reasons for my disagreement with the HoD. The warning letter does not make sense outside of these. I should not consider them insurmountable. There is nothing so startling that it cannot be faced by human beings. But it will require that there be a realisation by the HoD and white academics generally that individual success does not make sense to us black academics if those from whom we have emerge cannot from kwa Dukuza (la kwafela khona Inkosi u Shaka), kwa Ndokwenza, e Giyani, e Madadeni, kwa Nongoma, e Gcuwa, e Ngcobo, e Alexander, e Dipsloot, e Thembisa, e Lusikisiki, e Bizana, walk into the politics department with ease and make a success of their lives – be appointed tutors and teaching assistants like the white students who fly in from other climes or glide in, in their cars from the white suburbs of Cape Town.

As I rest my pen allow me to make clear the following:

– One to resolve this disagreement is a matter not for law because if we are not to delegitimize law, we should exempt it from the need to give an opinion on problems in which so many political considerations are at issue.

– Two, departmental meetings in Political Studies must cease being choreographed non-events where like a British overlord the HoD comes to make his announcements for a good part of the hour and then non-issues like who has to go to Spar to buy milk and coffee for the department are discussed at length. When serious issues about post-grad admissions, course/teaching allocations, VZS visiting scholars, etc are to be discussed and decisions taken about them we are then told the hour allotted to the meeting has run out. This has institutionalised a culture in the department where crucial decisions are not democratically arrived at in departmental meetings but made behind the closed door of the HOD’s office.

– Three, to resolve this impasse I suggest the department holds a public debate and/or closed workshop facilitated by a reputable scholar so the department may emerge from it with a roadmap agreed upon by all, which will allow it become a department of political studies in South Africa that mirrors society and is conscious of the responsibilities it owes to those who sustain it with their taxes.

– Four, I wish to declare unequivocally that in so far as the HoD’s letter is meant to bully me in my own country it means nothing to me. Further, I declare for those who still possess in them conscientious minds that I have done nothing wrong but instead have been and will continue to be of service to my country driven by my unconditional love for black people.

Lwazi Siyabonga Lushaba, PhD.

‘I am sure of Allah’s favour on us’

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