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National Arts Festival’s ‘ThinkFest’ shows how whites still own everything

Featured Image: The logo of the National Arts Festival. Photo: National Arts Festival website

By BO Staff Writer

The 42nd annual National Arts Festival kicked off in Grahamstown last week, with performers and audiences flocking to the colonial town for the festivities. Running parallel to the theater, music and visual art shows is the Think!Fest which hosts a number of panel discussions and debates. This year discussions were predictably centered around the student movement, decolonisation, identity politics and rape & gender-based violence.

On the festival’s website, the convenor of Think!Fest, Professor Anthea Garman, says “this year’s programme is probably the most intertwined arts and politics programme we have produced yet… It reflects the subject matter of the performances on the Festival programme and it draws a host of very interesting people into conversation with each other and audiences.”

While one can comment and critique at length the programme in general, it’s location, the panelists, the subjects discussed, and how these subjects were treated, this article will focus on a panel discussion on the possibility of free higher education in South Africa, titled ‘University Fees: Is Free Higher Education Possible in South Africa?’.

The panel was chaired by Jude For Yourself host, Judge Dennis Denver, a patronising, white liberal racist who kept on speaking on top of the panelists. Later, when the conversation had deteriorated, he forcefully told Prof Garman, “no you are not the chair of this conversation, I am!” causing a black sister to shout, “oooh he is sexist too.”

David Fryer, a white lefty-type economics and economic history lecturer at the University currently known as Rhodes, focused his talk on the possibility of free higher education in SA. He denounced the framing of the conversation under neo-liberal terms and gave examples of countries were government expenditure is channeled towards free education, Cuba being his main example.

Next on the panel was Enver Motala, a researcher at the Nelson Mandela Institute at the University of Fort Hare, which is associated with the Education Policy Consortium, focused his talk on a paper him and his colleagues worked on which highlights the possibility of free higher education and why the only way to move towards some form of social equality is through making education free for all. Motala, a tiny but energetic Indian man emphasised that the possibility of free education was a matter of political will and not a matter of economics.

David Fryer, Lindsay Maasdorp, Judge Dennis Davis, Sizwe Mabizela and Enver Motala.

Sizwe Mabizela, chief house negro and the Vice Chancellor of Rhodes University, based his talk on the difficulty of administering free higher education in SA. His main argument was that the government doesn’t have money for free education and for it to happen, incremental measures need to be taken. He also noted that he didn’t support free education for all because he believes the rich should pay and free education should only be for the poor.

Last to speak was Lindsay Maasdorp, an activist and Black First Land First spokesperson, who started off his talk by asking, “who is in the room?” He further questioned why the panel discussion on ‘free’ education required that people pay R40, amongst other potent questions.

During the question and answer session, a moment occurred where the antagonism between black and white became glaring. A member of the notoriously wealthy white capitalist family, the Oppenheimers, took the microphone and sarcastically said that yes his family had oppressed black people, so what. This resulted in a shouting match where some black members of the audience felt insulted and disrespected, resulting in them heckling Oppenheimer and refusing for him to speak.

The audience at the panel discussion

Interestingly, when this happened, the VC – Sizwe Mabizela, took the microphone and defended the white man, saying that the constitution of the country allowed for freedom of speech. This was reiterated by other white members of the audience who clapped when Mabizela made this point.

To listen to the panel discussion open the soundcloud links below.

This one conversation was a clear indication of how far we still need to go and that when the time for war comes, it will be black people who will stand in front of the white master screaming, “Don’t kill master.”

After such a glaring show of white arrogance and privilege by the Oppenheimer and his subsequent protection by some black, one wonders why this man was not sjamboked (given the fact that other black male students were sjamboked by ‘black’ feminists in the movement), beaten and attacked? When the student movement is faced with spontaneous moments of protest how does it react? Or does a moment that needs student intervention need to happen at the discretion of the students? Or are certain moments so demobilising that some students activists who were in the room felt that they could not act?

These are questions and lessons we need to dissect and think through.

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