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James de Villiers: Let’s make the playing field equal first

November 29, 2016

I was there when a group of 60 students occupied the University of Stellenbosch’s Admin B building in the Spring of 2015. I was there seated on the ground next to the staircase when the Men in Black stormed in through the building’s back doors, singing Senzenina while black comrades were being dragged out and walked over by private security. I was there as I was trying, and believed, that I was helping to build a better South Africa.

It is then difficult to answer the question “what must rise?” without disregarding a prolific movement in South Africa’s modern history. We all heard the elitist talk of taxes that should rise, the overall broken education system and the frustration from several commentators who said that #FeesMustFall was directed towards the wrong people. We listened to these hours of debate and, while I certainly don’t agree with the vandalism within the movement, I believe we still failed to really hear the pleas of our students.

With that in mind, I want to start off by saying that the very issue surrounding the Fallist movement is born out of a country that has failed to address past inequalities and speaks to both apartheid’s legacy and our current government’s inadequacy. Twenty years of democracy has done little to improve the lives of the majority, while the wealthy are “secure in comfort”, much like our president.

The #FeesMustFall question and the increasing popular call for “the land” are not agendas against white capitalism, but instead quite reasonable remarks that the current status quo cannot continue. For South Africa to survive, radical reforms “must rise” to equal the playing field. I say this with a sense of frustration, as I’ve seen no political movement or party providing any sign of a roadmap to achieve the required reforms (something even the National Development Plan has failed to achieve).

Modern capitalism, which was sold as a beacon of hope to broken nations ruined by colonialism, has created unprecedented inequality, immense wealth for the West and gross human rights abuses in the East as Asian countries struggle to gain an edge. And no, this does not mean I advocate for the removal of capitalism, nor am I close to suggesting communism, but I do argue that we as a South African society need to do immense introspection about whether the current pathway will provide the gateway towards opportunity for all. A new economic system “must rise” to replace the current one stuck in apartheid nostalgia.

Furthermore, an African bias “must rise” in both our academic and economic spheres as we reject Africa’s dependence on the West. Our global outlook should always be formed by how we can advantage our own continent first, strengthening partnerships and networks along the way. A divided West, stuck in a perpetual leadership crisis, provides the global south with the pristine opportunity to realign the centres of power. Now is the time to invest in the African Union, invest in an African investment bank and empower our BRICS partnership, as we have a very real opportunity to exit a Western-centred economic climate.

Carrying over this African bias to our academia, African independent thought “must rise”. It is simply impossible for any university to argue that it can succeed in fulfilling both the needs of being African, while succumbing to the requirements of the international community. South Africa, and indeed Africa, should come to grips with the reality that the cards are stacked against us. Global rankings are not designed to create a fair comparison for the world’s universities, but are rather carefully curated according to European ideals. If we truly wanted to be “rooted in Africa”, as the newly created international centre at Stellenbosch University claims, we should reject global rankings as Eurocentric in nature and rather judge ourselves based on our African mandate of producing African excellence.

Years of colonialism and foreign aid has created an immense dependence on the West for our economic and academic survival. Our curriculum should, in the overwhelming majority, feature African voices while we invest heavily in the development of home-grown literature for the use in our education system. The very idea of a university should be reconsidered, transforming these institutions from structures that resemble those in Europe to spaces that are distinctly African with an innovative approach to education.

With this said, I find the current rhetoric in many South African households that the transformation and Africanisation of our institutions will lead to a demise in academic standards extremely offensive. This is a slap the face of African intellect and I would go so far as to call it racist in nature. The call for Africanisation is not a call for the removal of excellence, but rather a call for imagining an alternative Africa-first curriculum instead of the current Western one. We should not be disillusioned by #ScienceMustFall YouTube videos that happen in a context that we have no understanding of, but we should rather ask ourselves how it is possible that our economic classes still only use American examples in teaching.

Finally, as South Africa has proven itself capable of the past few weeks, citizen activism “must rise” as we keep our institutions and government accountable. When last did we utilise our constitutionally provided right to comment on municipal policies and budgets? It is certainly not love for your country when you just page past the advertisements for public comment in newspapers. Furthermore, as we have successfully done with the likes of Penny Sparrow, our society should continue to silence those racist voices as we truly smother the longing for the return to apartheid in the hearts of our people.

This is what I believe should “rise” to create a better South Africa. These beliefs of being African first are part of my own personal journey of trying and trying again to find solutions. It is my way, just as I sat next to the stairs of Admin B singing Senzenina in an effort to cross the divide, to risk it all in an attempt to listen and understand. To achieve change asks bravery for mistakes made, in the same way I’ve made many in the past year, all in the best interest of this great nation.

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5 Comments

  1. MS
    November 29, 2016 - 9:40 pm

    Again so stifled by political correctness. Let us start at the end: Penny Sparrow’s comments came from a person who has no influence, no prominence and no following, unlike the CIC, who does not call for the slaughter of whites “for now”. However, she is the racist example everybody has to return to. She is a poor old woman who probably regrets what she posted, even though only she knows if there is real remorse there. Let her be.

    I have not detected that the criticism of the decolonisation of education and its subsequent Africanisation implies anything about the intellect of the African, merely that no such decolonised curriculum exists and immediate decolonisation will definitely imply a drop in standards. There is no need to develop home-grown literature. We have a plethora of South African writers, in all of the indigenous languages, including Afrikaans. But then again, you want to be taught in English as I recall. Nobody should be allowed to be taught in their mother tongue, they may actually excel. Except the English of course. As far as academic writing is concerned: I can not think of any of the humanities in which local authors could not be sourced. They may not all be black, but they are South African. In Law, South African cases are studied as I recall. At formerly Afrikaans universities anyway. In engineering, science and medicine, you would probably want to use the latest textbooks and they may not necessarily be South African. But that would probably not interest many of the Fallists.

    I sincerely doubt if the Fallists support any independent thought, even if it is African. If you support independent thought, you would probably debate more and shout less. You would persuade through conversation instead of intimidate through violence, which you do not approve of, but silently condone, because it has greater impact.

    The cards are not “stacked against us”. By the way, I think the cards are only dealt, but the deck may be stacked. Except it is not. If I learnt anything in life it is that in universities, everybody among the academic staff want the students to succeed academically. The same can be said for academics all over the world. Why else would top overseas universities offer bursaries and accommodate academically deserving students from this country, especially those from previously disadvantaged communities (Is it still politically correct? The language has probably changed in my absence). I am almost certain that if a South African University approached any of the top universities in the world for assistance in anything, they would receive it. O, you can’t do that. That would not be decolonising.

    Economically, unfortunately, we are probably more dependent on what happens in China than the West. They buy more of our commodities you see. The reason for our recession is the fact that our good brics buddies have decided to unglobalise a bit and concentrate on changing more to a service economy that serves its own population. So, we missed the boat, because we prevented investment into our commodity driven economy by non-Africans. If we had cultivated our mining sector a bit more, we would have been able to benefit from Trumponomics as he invests a trillion dollars into infrastructure, exactly what China did. By the way Brics is a dead duck. Have you noticed Brazil and Russia’s growth rates of late. Putin is so hell bent on annoying the West that he will never get growth going again (and by the way, both these countries rival us or beat us in the inequality index). India is very protectionist and probably beats us in inequality as well.

    How are we going to advantage Africa. Just about everybody who had invested in Nigeria had to walk away from their investments. MTN probably wish they could. In the rest of Africa, you will not be allowed to own the land you build your factory on. Unless you feel charitable, I would not advise an investment there.

    The Fallist movement is definitely anti white. Whether you would like to delude yourself into thinking that you will have a future here if they succeed or not.

    The aim of “free education” is not a laudable cause as everybody keeps insisting. It is selfish. Any additional funds allocated to education should be used to give access to more disadvantaged students, not to unburden the elite that is there now. If you want education and can borrow money to fund it, you should pay your own way and pay back the money when you graduate. If not, you will be no better than the freeloaders that currently govern this country.

    Reply
    • Pieter
      November 30, 2016 - 10:41 am

      Much better than the joke article.

      Reply
    • Ruan van Jaarsveld
      November 30, 2016 - 1:25 pm

      All across the spectrum, from friends in America who eat up the Breitbarts and alt-right falsehoods to friends in the UK who love joining in the populist rhetoric, there is one common vein:
      The almost comical knee-jerk reaction to criticise any movements they don’t agree with.

      MS has done a classical “conservative butt hurt” move to try attack one tiny part of the article about his take on BRICS, after an intro defending a Penny Sparrow (who called black people monkeys) and then talking about him “not detecting” the mood around the criticism of decolonisation.

      People are so scared to go talk to real people about real issues, and join the fight against problems in this country, they would rather join the chorus of chants against movements trying to do just that.

      I’m tired of people like Milo Yiannopoulos writing about his critique of his own BS out-of-touch version of what he thinks feminism is. Go read about and talk to feminists – and then if you’re really smart enough to solve all women’s problems on your own, then by all means, start fighting! But this critique of feminism, BLM, and FMF and decolonisation in South African is so regressive it’s depressing. It’s also weirdly out of touch with what the people of these movements are saying in their countless peaceful conferences, speeches, colloquiams and workshops. Suddenly when they protest (like humans have done for centuries to wake people up from racist/sexist/genocidal/elite governments/systems) then suddenly people are like: “But if you had just talked, I would’ve been there to listen?”

      With echo chambers, logical fallacies, confirmation bias combined with lack of empathy and blissful ignorance, people like MS and Pieter are more comfortable shooting other people down than trying to listen. Ironic given their grievances about FMF.

      Welgedaan James. Moenie jouself aan hierdie mense steur nie. Jy is die een wat eintlik moite doen om die land te bou.

      Groete
      Nie Ruan van Jaarsveld nie

      Reply
      • MS
        November 30, 2016 - 8:06 pm

        So kleinserig Ruan. I did not defend Penny Sparrow, I merely pointed out that it is counterproductive and probably disingenuous to make her the poster person for racism. She had no sphere of influence until someone found a post by an obscure ex estate agent in her late sixties and made it the crime of the century. Yes, she embarrassed all of us. Probably mostly the older generation of white people in the country who may or may not have harboured similar feelings at some time or another. That was not what it was about. It is about the fact that according to the new order and definitions, Julius Malema’s racism is excusable or possibly non-existent, even though his influence on young black minds is far greater.

        Yes, the Fallists are angry, probably mostly because so many of them will not succeed. And I do have empathy with that and I understand the desperation. If they succeed and obtain that degree, hopefully not in administration of philosophy, the world will be their oyster. They will have a 94% chance of finding employment. They will have the hope of drawing their whole family out of poverty. I just think that the movement has lost its way. You can open education to everybody, but nothing will change in terms of success, because the dice is loaded against them. I was fortunate to be taught in my mother tongue, which makes it all so much easier. If something must rise, it has to be that. Mother tongue education for all. I will take to the streets for that.

        Imagine being a Xhosa speaking student who lands up at Stellenbosch. Unless he or she is one of the brilliant few, who’s mastery of English is very good (above-average is not good enough), he will probably not make it. It does not mean that he is less deserving of success or less intelligent than his white English or Afrikaans speaking counterpart. He failed because he did not understand the language. Place a Afrikaans speaking coloured student from Riversdal or Ladysmith, where even the English don’t understand English, at UCT. He does not have a prayer. This is the key to success. This is what the movement should have been about. Yes, decolonise the curriculum over time. Africans should be taught about Africa and view the world from an African perspective. Being taught in English does not open any avenues to the future if you are barely conversant in that language. It just puts an additional stumbling block in an already treacherous road to success.

        Do not turn away from the West. Brics really is a dead duck and we are really too insignificant to be important there. In the West, there are still pockets of real liberal thought. Turn to them for assistance. This decolonisation of everything at all costs is no better than Trump’s nationalism and isolationism. Africa for Africans. America for Americans. Brittain for Britons (which is nonsensical, because they are actually mostly Saxons and Angels, with a smattering of Viking. The Britons live in Wales and Scotland). Does it sound familiar. A small country like ours needs to be open to the world, not just to Africa. If Africa is only for Africans, there is no place for white people. You can argue the born and bred route, but in the end, when all the cookies have been distributed and yours is the only cookie left, you will lose it.

        I poked fun at James, because his focus is in the wrong place. He aims to please. Do not try to please anybody. Do the right thing.

        Reply
  2. Piperno
    December 8, 2016 - 9:58 am

    What if you article is a mistake as you have done in the past, the following generation will sit with the problem.

    Reply

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