EDITORIAL | Hurtful utterances do nothing but reverse SA’s gains

Ideas

EDITORIAL | Hurtful utterances do nothing but reverse SA’s gains

Academics should not shy away from controversial debate, but they must avoid upsetting remarks

Editorial

Four SA thought leaders have curiously come out in support of former Wits university vice-chancellor Adam Habib, suspended for using the “N-word” in a discussion with students. Their article was published in the same week reports emerged of University of Cape Town (UCT) lecturer Lwazi Lushaba telling first-year political science students that “Hitler committed no crime”. Both highly offensive actions by two academics. Though uttered in different contexts, both appeared to have been equally deaf to the hurt their words would cause.

Habib, director of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SAOS), has been asked to step aside pending the outcome of an investigation. The argument that the context of Habib’s comment should be taken into account as extenuating circumstances adds a layer of depth to the debate, but the fact remains: the word should not have been used. 

A piece penned by Justice Malala, Thuli Madonsela, Barney Pityana and Palesa Morudu delves into another aspect though — personal attacks against Habib. One student said he is not allowed to use the word because he is not black and has not “suffered 500 years of oppression that black bodies go through every day”. The vitriol towards Habib, who has since apologised, must have been hurtful to him. In response, the authors argue: “Sadly, this incident reflects a global trend in which much of the discourse on racism is reduced to identifying the pecking order of historic oppression.” Madonsela, Malala, Pityana and Morudu point out that Habib suffered racial oppression in his home country and was an activist against apartheid in his youth. ..

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