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An Open Letter to the University community

By Thobani Zikalala

I send revolutionary greetings to all.

I, like many of you, am a child of the dispossessed masses of Black people in Occupied Azania – the so called “rainbow nation” South Africa! As such, I feel obliged to write this letter to you today, which will be made permanent not with the ink of this pen, but with the collective tears and hardships that are shed by all of us: our parents who work hard to get us here, our grandparents’ pensions which, for too many, end up being our transport money to get to school daily, and all the rest who are in class full of hope wanting to learn, but on empty stomachs.

I am pained by the experiences of what a Black university student in South Africa has to go through.

Many of our academic counterparts the world over do not go through what has become common place and accepted in our country. What pains me particularly are the events that unfolded in the wake of the 2015 student protests. What we witnessed was the landless children of our people asking a very important question: “How is it that after 23 years of ‘freedom’ the history of our people still finds no manifestation in our corridors of knowledge?”

What we have is a university which says it is committed to “African Scholarship”, but instead we find that there is very little which is truly indigenous about it. Changing the name of the institution to make it more palatable to the architects and selected bourgeoisie-beneficiaries of this democratic dispensation does not mean very much if there is little of substance to support that change.

I call your attention to the #RhodesMustFall movement, for there are pertinent lessons therein which we need to understand.

In essence this movement picked on a thorny issue which is embedded in the make-up of our society. It called foul on accepting the façade which we are constantly fed with and expected to be accept without question. This movement started a conversation and questioned that which was left largely unattended with the stroke of the pen that was 1994.

The #RhodesMustFall movement raised painful but important issues, such as:
• The current curriculums that are taught in university spaces, which are heavily biased toward Eurocentric and Western values and the demonization of African values.
• The University space itself, which still remains a bastion of white supremacy.
• The celebration and expressions of the colonial history of this country in our University spaces.
• The importance of the entire decolonization project as a whole, and the role that students have to play to make that a reality in the country (outside of the university space).

All of these issues actually point to a much larger mission, something which touches all Black South Africans – not just university students. It speaks to the feasibility of having a decolonized university in a colonized country. This is why I am an revolutionary activist in the Black First Land first movement. I say this not to promote any sort of factionalism, but to point out that if we meet our objectives, it will benefit every single Black person in this country. You do not have to be a member of any organisation to identify with the call of the return of land- this is one of the few things which will remain universal in Black spaces. We only ask that you do not stand in our way when we go out to achieve this end.

In order to fully grasp this, we also need to understand the place of a university in any society.

Generally speaking, universities are meant to be a bridge between learners who have exited high school and the working world which they hope to enter as accredited and qualified ‘professionals’. The university space not only acts as a bridge, but serves to equip the individual with the mind set of being a financially contributing member of society. It demands the utmost from the student: it requires you to invest a great deal of time, effort and hard work as you pursue your individual courses, in exchange, the university promises to equip you with knowledge and skills that cannot be attained anywhere else in our society.

This is what makes it so valuable, and in theory, this should attract various entities in society to employ all of its graduates.

The university space is also a reflection of the community in which it is situated. It should be the pride and joy of the community, for those who pass through its halls emerge as teachers, scientists, community developers, nurses, artists, technicians and the like.

The current reality of our country however speaks of a very different story.

For instance, in the province of KwaZulu-Natal we have the Durban University of Technology (DUT), University of Zululand (UniZulu) and of course, the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). Would you say that any of these spaces are in any way representative of dispossessed Blacks in townships such as Umlazi, KwaMashu, Lamontville, KwaNyuswa, iNanda and KwaDukuza, who are need of what universities have to offer, more than most?

Even though KwaZulu-Natal has a proud and rich heritage and culture, and serves as the primary home base of the Zulu nation, we see instead King George being honoured and given prominence, we see a building being named after Dennis Shepstone, despite the fact that he was a colonial administrator of the Natal Colony, not to mention the Memorial Tower Building, which honours colonial soldiers who fought in World War II. This is only on the façade. Literally!

What of the changing of the curriculum where Western values are worshipped and our own indigenous knowledge is either overlooked, scorned or completely ignored? This is where the bulk of decolonization should take place. This is where we need to put all of our attention. This is why the #RhodesMustFall movement transformed into a general “fallist movement”.

This was largely inspired by the collective philosophies of Black Consciousness, Pan Afrikanism and Black Radical Feminism. This allowed us as landless Blacks to discover our mission and our utter obscurity in Occupied Azania. These Fallists were defined by defiance and resistance, necessary elements needed to push back on an oppressive society. This in reality is not a new struggle, but an extension of the struggle of our forebears. It calls on an issue that I’ve already touched on: Is a decolonised university possible in a colonial society? The answer to this question is a resounding no!

Student wars are in fact wars that are faced by labourers. Student wars are in fact wars that are faced by working class Black people. Student wars are in fact wars that are faced by landless Blacks. Therefore, they (the fallists) went on to ask even further questions relating to the set-up of the economy of this country. How is it that black children cannot afford fees, or find residences, or have to assimilate to whiteness in order to achieve. I mean, the fact that I need to write this in English so that everyone can understand me should be an indicator of how problematic and deep the situation is.

We are colonized bodies in a colonised state. We are colonised students who are taught by colonial administrators. Brothers and sisters: WE ARE NOT FREE!

This is precisely why we had the situation where 5 top achieving black scholars and professors were suspended from the University of KwaZulu-Natal with impunity. Their transformative ideas and practises were not welcome because they would upset the delicate balance of the institutionalised racism that is embedded within the university.

The time for mourning has passed. We need to organise. We need to mobilise. We shall not fear anything, except the betrayal of our generation’s moral obligation to do what is right. It has long been said that we are the ones that we have been waiting for. We should remember that amidst all the noise and chaos, only ideas remain clear and resolute. Those ideas need to be put into practice so that we can achieve our mission.

We shall move in unity: ever principled and disciplined!

We must guard against those who say they are with us, but are in fact trying to disorganize and destabilize us.

In conclusion, we need to remember that before you are anything in this world you are first and foremost Black! You may pretend otherwise and want to forget this hard fact, but you best believe that the world in which we live in will always remind you of this. Blackness is the collective struggle, and we need to resolve it first, before anything else.

We can no longer be silent when we continue to be pushed in the side-lines. We need to reassess our situation. This is a call for black students and young people to revolt against the status quo. Frantz Fanon reminds us that the most essential value for a colonised people is the land which gives us bread, and above all dignity. We must revolt to bring back the dignity of our people.

Black students face a particular struggle in that they can’t afford university because they are born black. That is their crime. They have to resort to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), which is a loan scheme that further enslaves black bodies in the form of debt and interest rates – not to mention that we have banks that are actively stealing from the masses of South Africa, even going so far as to alter our economy to benefit them.

There is the added curse of the black tax, which sees the black child having to not only pay their student debt the moment they graduate, but also have to look after and provide for their families back home, all the while trying to carve out a future for themselves. We have to battle exclusions of every kind, both financial and academic.

We shall and should soldier to liberated Azania from the shackles of white supremacy which continues to pillage our resources while rendering our people as non-beings in their own country. Ours is a quest for true humanity as Bantu Biko teaches. Ours is a just cause, we are not criminals but we are soldiers for the liberation of our people.

Thobani Zikalala is a Student Representative Council (SRC) deployee of the Black First Land First student movement (BLF-SM) at the University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN) Howard College.

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