For UCT's pretend radicals, here's a Steve Biko refresher
The mean-spiritedness behind the 'blacks-only' dinner could not be further from Biko’s beliefs
You could easily have missed it. At the end of each day of the Decolonial Winter School programme of the University of Cape Town, there was a single line: “18:00-19:00 SUPPER BREAK (POC ONLY).”
Somebody must have told the university management that POC stood for “persons of colour” and all hell broke loose. A blacks-only dinner this side of apartheid? A racially exclusive gathering on a public university campus?
The university’s leadership made the rather mild point initially that “entrance to UCT events may not be restricted on the basis of race”. But then, perhaps because of the growing outrage, the vice-chancellor followed up with an “executive statement” to condemn some of the inflammatory language used by those running the event.
In the meantime the organisers relented to a change of wording but not without unleashing a barrage of self-justificatory statements. Blacks need “a safe space” – from threatening whites presumably. Blacks need to “decompress” without the burden of “the white gaze”. Blacks need to talk without having to deal with “white guilt” or “white tears” or “white fragility”.When whites are present in these sessions, “blacks are forced to censor themselves”. The whites can attend the seminars and workshops, but the dinner is for blacks.
I am not sure where to begin. With the intellectual shallowness of arguments (let alone the sloppy use of critical concepts) for racial exclusion that has no solid foundation in the social sciences?
With the political recklessness of pursuing racial separation in the aftermath of apartheid? With the disingenuous position of allowing whites to attend the school but disallowing them from eating with other attendees?
Or with the astounding claim that the group was following “Biko’s decol theory”?
For starters, since when do South Africans enter public debates with a concern about the “fragility” of another social grouping? Just five minutes of viewing a televised parliamentary debate will put an end to this kind of pseudo-intellectual posturing.We scream and shout at each other. We burn, we insult, we threaten and we demean. Fragility? Give me a break. Incivility is us.
When a group of postgraduate students dresses up racism with faux academic language, beware. In an article on the controversy one of the students signs off as “a radical tea drinker … interested [sic] issues of justice, change and decoloniality; and aligns with black consciousness, pan Africanism and libertarian socialism”. As I said, posturing.
This kind of reactive racism reared its ugly head before on the UCT campus. In early March 2017 the famed Kenyan intellectual, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, had his lecture interrupted when a few black voices in the audience requested him to ask whites to leave the venue before he spoke.
Ngugi wisely refused to entertain such racism and asked the pertinent question: Why could they not voice their criticism with whites present? When a white person dared to ask a question during Q&A he was heckled and shut up. It’s called racism, pure and simple.
The perturbing thing about such pretend radicalism is that it has transmogrified powerful concepts such as pan-Africanism and black consciousness into a latter-day racism that ironically uses apartheid definitions of race based on the colour of one’s skin.
It was Steve Biko who said that “being black is not a matter of pigmentation; it is a reflection of a mental attitude”.
The group therefore not only misinterprets Steve Biko – he was no racist, either in his choice of friendships or in his understanding of black consciousness – they also read the man out of context.To begin with, Biko did not have “a decol theory”. But in the context of apartheid Biko was indeed against the kind of integration where “whites do all the talking and the blacks the listening”. That was the 1970s. From the list of speakers on the 2018 Decolonial Winter School programme it could be said that blacks were doing all the talking.
Biko wanted a genuine integration but, he asks, “does this mean that I am against integration?” No, says the man who was killed for his ideas. “If by integration you mean there shall be free participation by all members of a society … then I am with you.”
The conditions Biko envisaged for “free participation by all” was a democracy where persons could freely express themselves in a changing society.
Make no mistake, this “blacks only” invitation has nothing to do with progressive thought of any kind. It is a nakedly chauvinistic and vindictive act meant to return the humiliation of race on a group that comprises a mere 9% of the population.The official Twitter account of the Winter School betrayed its intentions: “It is time what whites get used to being excluded.”
This mean-spiritedness could not be further from Biko’s understanding of our endeavours to build a more just society where “in time we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift – a more human face”.
I leave the final word on this exclusionary dinner to Joanna Flanders, a friend diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and whose life was dedicated to fighting racism from every quarter: You can never get to inclusion through exclusion.