2016 Scholars' Conference: Keynote Address

We enjoyed a show-stopping keynote address from the brilliant Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng at our 2016 Scholars’ Conference in Cape Town.

Professor Phakeng, who is Vice Principal of Research and Innovation at Unisa, spoke of the importance of decommodifying and transforming higher education, while recognising that true transformation must go deeper than merely transferring power from one group of elites to another. She called on Canon Collins scholars to be radical in their pursuit of social reform, favouring the exploration of ideas over compliance.

The full speech is published below:

It is really a pleasure to speak at this conference focusing on academic activism. Of course, Canon John Collins was an activist of his own generation, declaring ‘war on want’ to fight discrimination and global poverty. His campaign to end inequality and support the education of refugees and oppressed youth speaks directly to the issues that we face today. Activism has exploded – student exclusions reach unacceptable proportions and are not based on justice and fairness. More than 30% of students leave higher education each year because of financial or academic exclusion. Access is obviously inextricably linked to privilege. And privilege today is, in my view, not only white. Collins understood that financial exclusion hugely distorted apartheid university education and his Fund still recognises the deficits that characterise the ‘coloniality’ of our universities.

New activism, which is what I want to talk about today, tackles these deficits head-on and the #mustfall protests exemplify this new activism. It is true that we didn’t see them coming, but with hindsight Higher Education was out of touch with students and with broader civil society, especially the poor. And that’s exactly how privilege works! We had our heads in metrics and compliance, bogged down by policy, audits, performance and corporatism. This is, of course, an easy generalisation, but university management has been in the thrall of neoliberal ideas, both in terms of how we run our institutions and what we teach in our lecture rooms. Little wonder then, that we now contend with #RhodesMustFall in the intellectual and symbolic space, #FeesMustFall in the material and admissions space, and #OutsourcingMustFall in the employment space.

It is what I call the triple helix of ‘new activism’. And it is fundamentally about inequality and a contest for ownership of knowledge and the economy. The political formations on campus have focused our attention on these serious threats to democracy. The methods have been rough and ready, involving vandalism but the intractable issues still have to be faced.

It seems to me, therefore, that new activism’s power rests on how it has harnessed populism, political tactics and intellectual exclusion to marshal an effective challenge to the marketised university that has lost itself in international rankings, fund-raising, publication inflation and an untransformed faculty and curriculum. In many ways, while we as South African universities argued that our research is relevant and the education that we offer is Africa focused, we had our eye on the outside world more than we did on our context.

Populism has drawn on the relative strengths of student and labour movements to take the lead in changing higher education. Sometimes it has adopted a slash-and-burn approach and at other times it is a carefully calculated pact, based on mutual identification. It has taken on the mantle of guardian of the poor and marginalised, to challenge the heartlessness of government and capital. In this sense it is consistent with student movements across time and continents, especially at moments of political and economic flux. I can recall the 1980s struggles, but some may also remember the struggles of 1968 and 1976.

Another feature of new activism is political expedience and opportunism, which has fragmented the student movement that began in solidarity at the end of 2015 with the Feesmustfall march to the Union buildings. Rivalries have crept in and grandstanding has led to violence and arson. It is also apparent that labour has paid dearly as outsourced workers have lost their jobs and universities consider ways of stretching their already over-extended budgets. The calls for free education are also not handled adequately. Of course no education can be free but what is at the heart of this is an ideological debate on the decomodification of higher education rather than just affordability. Somehow nobody wants to talk about this ideological debate, all they want to do is focus on making higher education accessible by making it affordable through sourcing funding for students from low socio-economic backgrounds. While this approach may be seen as reasonable, it comes across as the generosity of the oppressor who is only interested in protecting his position of power. The reason why the #accessmustrise movement has not gained traction is because it is detracting attention from the real debate on decomodification.

New activism is profoundly about political change. It is part of a larger challenge to the ruling elite, confronting constitutional agnosticism, corruption and privilege – all of which confront inequality. But the political is clearly about rethinking institutions and questioning their lack of transformation. Democracy has not changed the apparatus of the state, nor has it re-thought the idea of the university. While 1994 provided a political solution to end apartheid, it did not reconstruct society in profound economic and structural ways. The contestation around neoliberal economic policies and the National Development Plan is growing and champions of economic liberation are not only flexing their revolutionary muscles in political formations; there is also a swelling tide of civil unrest.

Student formations have channelled these social forces to become political game-changers in ‘democratising democracy’.
New activism has torn at the colonial edifice of the university whose globalising discourses have thinly camouflaged their Northern ramparts. Debates around decolonising higher education have rapidly assembled scholarly ammunition to mount the attack on epistemic fortresses that epitomise 19th and 20th century university curricula. Students are attacking the conventional colonial canons of knowledge by marshalling African philosophy, indigenous knowledges and research methodologies of the Global South as an arsenal to disrupt chauvinist traditions of research and innovation, and narrow, exclusive curricular.

The untransformed academy has also galvanised marginalised black academics who describe the university in South Africa as a ‘European greenhouse under African skies’ (Nyamnjoh in Morreira, 2015: 1). The university has not responded spontaneously to the vast opening up of knowledges that has followed the end of the Cold War, and in Mignolo’s words the ‘colonial matrix of power’ is still in control (Morreira, 2015: 6).

Of course, I am aware of the flaws in decolonial thinking that plays down complexity, sometimes even falling into the ideological trap of substituting Eurocentrism with Afrocentrism, but in the conflicted environment of inequality on most campuses, students and academic staff naturally take up hard positions. We should not shy away from the contest. We should acknowledge that #RhodesMustFall and its progeny represent ‘a Black intellectual rage against the ideological superstructure of South African higher education and its whiteness…’ (Luescher, 2016: 23).

The inclusiveness that is preached in democratic discourse glosses the entrenched inequality of the professoriate and the intellectual apartheid that denies humanity, maintains hierarchies of knowledge, and authorises influential scholarship. Students are summoning the wisdom of continental theorists and diasporan thinkers to engage academics in an epistemic battle. Populism and political tactics are strategically linked to a serious intellectual project to re-think the idea of the university – towards a ‘multiversity’. I think the multiversity enlarges reservoirs of knowledge, enhances epistemic competition, fosters diversity as inclusiveness not simply tolerance, and advocates anti-racism, so that the academic project can flourish.

The fact that South African academics and university executives are now in 2016 forced to debate what a transformed higher education institution should look like shows the influence of the new activism. And of course the question is why is it that 21 years after the dawn of our democracy we are still dealing with this debate of transformation as if we never started? My view is that transformation has untill the #MustFall movement been dealt with as a matter of compliance rather than a matter of change in structures, ways of doing, ways of knowing and ways of being. Transformation is not just about the transfer of power from one elite to another – our experience here shows that if we only focus on the transfer of power then the people will continue to feel powerless, marginalised and disillusioned as it is happening now. While changing the social composition of power is important, we have to realise that it is not sufficient – we also need to transform the structures as well as ways of doing, knowing and being.

How universities respond to the ongoing challenge of transformation is likely to determine their relevance and importance in changing the economic and labour prospects of our country.

A notable aspect of new activism has been its Twitter dimension. It is a social movement mobilised via social media to become what Tanja Bosch (2016: 2) has described as ‘a collective project of resistance to normative memory production, creating a new landscape of ‘minority’ memory and bringing to the fore the memory of groups who have been rendered invisible in the landscape, thus speaking to an alternative interpretation of historical events.’ She argues that the Twitter activism that lubricated this counter memory shows the politics and practices involved in “listening across difference, or political listening, which… can undo oppression that happens partly through not hearing certain kinds of expression from certain kinds of people.”

Taking the struggle into an international arena is another aspect of new activism, even to contesting the symbolic universe of imperial power at the University of Oxford as the pre-eminent locus of colonial knowledge and its reach into globalised higher education. It has produced credible resistance to modernity and its current manifestation in the corporate university which has built its performance on notions of academic quality, without the same commitment to equality, and its measures. Compliance has trumped change in higher education and the #MustFall movements are as a result in rebellion.

What, then, does new activism mean today?

  • First it helps us to understand and make sense of the deep anger in society – violently expressed in the burning of buildings and destruction of anachronistic symbols;
  • Secondly, it explains the vandalism that has accompanied its more thoughtful interventions. There is no denying that in the current economic system the poor have figured out that they have very little to lose. While vandalism is unacceptable, and in the end will affect the poor more harshly. Rather than just condemning it, we need to understand why it is happening.
  • Thirdly, new activism calls for a complete rejection of the systemic, symbolic and intellectual ‘worlds’, which are inhospitable. Students don’t feel at home in our universities. They do not recognise themselves in what they are forced to learn, and they have to learn disciplinary languages that have no roots in African contexts, apart from also having to study in a language that is not their own.
  • Finally, we have to free ourselves politically, culturally, economically and intellectually to realise proper academic freedom. This will link academic freedom with accountability.

The elephant in the room is how do different universities Vice Chancellors deal with this new activism? Some take a high hand, others choose a more negotiated approach and yet others hope its energy will evaporate so they put their heads in the sand. Although all of these tactics are problematic, many believe that proactive negotiation is the most effective. New activism however, is deeply suspicious of leadership that overrides the transformational intents of students’ protest similarly to how black consciousness traditions rejected the liberal formulas of the 1970s and 80s. There is a sense in which such action is seen as supremely colonial, relying on entrenched authority to determine the nature of the transformed university. This silences the students’ voice because the oppressor still sets the agenda.

All this reminds me of Paolo Freire’s pronouncement in Pedagogy of the Oppressed . He wrote and I quote: “This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. The oppressors who oppress, exploit and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both. Any attempt to “soften” the power of the oppressor in deference to the weakness of the oppressed almost always manifests itself in the form of false generosity; indeed, the attempt never goes beyond this. In order to have the continued opportunity to express their “generosity”, the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well. An unjust social order is the permanent fount of this “generosity”, which is nourished by death, despair, and poverty. That is why the dispensers of false generosity become desperate at the slightest threat to its source.”

So what do we need to do? Some say we must emphasis. Well, empathy is important but not sufficient; we need radicalism – the kind that can reimagine the university, its role in our society and has clarity about what the academic project should be about. We need a radicalism that does not use the American or British university as a model of what our higher education system should be. Please understand what I am saying: Radicalism is not anarchy; it is fundamentally to critique what was never critiqued. We must stop modifying, reforming or revising the old, it is time to be radical.

In conclusion:

I always say a good university education should at minimum give you three things: knowledge, vision and courage.

  • Knowledge, is not just an understanding of what is written in books, but also an understanding of the intrinsic value of education.
  • Vision, not only to know the world as it is but also to imagine the world as it might be. Because without vision of what might be and of what must be we will be condemned to inhabit a world that is dull, anonymous and fateful.
  • And Courage: to believe that YOU matter and that YOUR response to the challenges that we face will make a difference to our country and the world. You must have the courage to respect YOUR own considerable capacities, because that is what will inspire you to act, whenever action is needed.

This is the reason why I am encouraged by new activism, with all its problems and complexities, it suggests that we have endowed our students with the vision to see the pain that comes with our hard-won democracy, and some of them have acquired the internal conviction that things must change for the better. And they are not going to wait for anyone to make things better, they are going to do it themselves. I think it is exciting and so I remain hopeful. All I can say to you, Canon Collins scholars, is get involved, get involved as Canon John Collins did. You are among the very few who are privileged and with privilege and the great knowledge that you have comes great responsibility. So don’t be a spectator! You will not only make society, your local community or the world better; you will infinitely make yourself better. Don’t opt out, be part of changing the world. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Thank you.

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