This paper deals with the misrecognition of the Black student in institutions of higher education and their experiences. It will argue that the misrecognition of Black students in higher education and Black people in general, is not a mistake, but a deliberate consequence of the historically-evolved-globalised project of white supremacy, which has its basis in anti-Blackness. And that the Black student activists of today ought to continue the centuries-old fight of extricating Afrika from the talons of foreign domination.
In order to argue this conclusion, there will be an investigation into who exactly Black students are and what are their experiences in today’s South African universities, what defines a South African university and what role the Black student activist ought to play in universities, as part of the Black revolutionary intelligentsia.
The central thesis of this paper is that, to fully understand the misrecognition of the Black student within a university today, we need to first understand the political and economic nature of the South African society and how South Africa’s universities came into being in this society. Today’s South African universities (including the merged ones and the ones built after 1994 included)—are essentially continuations of the Eurocentric-anti-Black-patriarchal—violence that has its genesis in the Jan Van Riebeeck adventure that was consciously calculated to help maintain the place of Europeans as the “dominant” race, in all areas of human endeavour.
It is therefore irrational for Black students to expect South African universities (which are essentially colonial universities) to recognise or accord them any respect. For today’s South African universities, as if I know them, to enjoy any legitimacy in the eyes of Black students and Black people in general, they must be forced into a condition of existential suicide.
This means that, their anti-Black-patriarchal-Eurocentric purpose, content, structure, function, location and spatial arrangement must be totally dismantled. This of course must take place within the broader and total decolonisation of Afrika and this is because Afrika is our base and centre.
The paper further argues that, the decolonisation of the Black mind is a prerequisite to the decolonisation of physical spaces, institutions, structures and processes and therefore, if there is to be meaningful decolonisation within universities, Black students, academics and other Black members of the university community must give priority to the project of decolonising the Black mind. As a project that seeks to realise a totally free self, the decolonisation project cannot be steered by Black people whose bodies are in Afrika, but whose minds are firmly trapped in Europe.
1. Opening remarks
Egameni leqhawe nedelakufa, Inkosazana uYaa Asantewa, ndiyacamagusha maAfrika!
Egameni leqhawe nedelakufa, Inkosazana uMpande Nzinga, ndiyacamagusha maAfrika!
Egameni leqhawe nedelakufa, Inkosazana uMbuya Nehanda, ndiyacamagusha maAfrika!
Egameni leqhawe nedelakufa, Inkosazana uZanyiwe Nomzamo Madikizela, ndiyacamagusha maAfrika!
We invoke the names of these fearless Black Warrior Queens for at least four reasons. One, to remind us where we are. We are in Afrika, not Europe. Afrika is our base. Afrika is our centre. Two, to remind us that, as Black people, we have a unique, complex, profoundly traumatic and continuing history that is incomparable to the histories of other races. Three, to remind us of the central role that was played by the Black woman at various stages of our people’s fight against foreign domination.
And four, to never forget that we live in a time wherein there are some, (both within and outside our race), who would prefer that we be docile, apologetic, acquiesce, equivocate and even be untruthful, in how we reflect on our history and the place we now occupy in the world, as Black people.
We have been requested to speak on the theme “Misrecognitions: Black Students’ Experiences in Higher Education”. First, we must commend the organisers of this event for their intellectual courage and deliberateness in using the Black student as the centre of our discourse here. The general inclination in what is regarded as mainstream political or academic discourses today—is to try as much as possible to avoid the term “Black people” and replace it with sleeping tablets such as “historically-disadvantaged”, “the poorest of the poor”, “students from working class backgrounds” or “needy students.”
In trying to make sense of this intellectual nervousness, in a paper titled “Racism and Power, Non-racialism and Colour-blindness”, we make the point that:
“…when Black people have to think about thinking about their position in the world, racism has a way in which it coerces Blacks to discipline their thoughts so that, when they verbalise them, they come out as well-manicured, polite and don’t offend the inventors and primary beneficiaries of racism, and produce as a response, a type of liberal discourse, which some refer to as the politics of respectability.”
As a consequence of this intellectual nervousness and in response to the legitimate demands of the invisible natives, those who are regarded as the leaders of the Black world, end up having a plethora of highly glorified but monumentally useless conferences, seminars, symposia, colloquia, roundtables or parliamentary road-shows, which purport to be about the interests of Black people, but in truth, are nothing else but sophisticated tools with which the Black academic and political aristocracy manage the righteous rage of the landless Black majority.
In attempting to understand the place of the Black student today and the legitimacy of the South African university, we propose to examine the following questions:
- What the important moments in the month of May in the history of Black radical resistance?
- Who exactly are Black students?
- What are their experiences in today’s universities? and
- As part of the Black revolutionary intelligentsia, what role should the Black student activists of today be playing in universities?
2. Important moments in the month of May in the history of black radical resistance
The conclusions we come to about who we are as Black people, where we are and where we ought to be, depend largely on what we know about our past. The critical study of our past is therefore not only a matter of remembering, but also a matter of our continued survival as, specie both in memory and outside it.
It is therefore worth reminding ourselves that, in the month of May, the Black world marks the 60th of anniversary of what is now known as Africa Day. This day is often used to mark the founding of the Organisation of Africa Unity (OAU) in 1963, in Ethiopia.
Actually, this day is properly referred to as “African Liberation Day”. It was conceived by among others Kwame Nkrumah and Patrice Lumumba. It has its genesis in a historic meeting of independent states and activists, held in Accra, Ghana on 15 of April 1958. At this meeting, it was agreed that, “a day needs to be designated to annually reflect on the progress that Afrika has made in so far as extricating itself from foreign domination is concerned.”
The Ghana meeting then agreed to call the day “African Freedom Day”. Following this meeting, another important decision was taken.1960 was declared the Year of Africa. Then in May 1963, these efforts culminated in another historic meeting in Addis Abba, Ethiopia. At a summit of mainly independent African states, a decision was taken to found a continental body that would pursue the mission of the Ghana meeting: Afrikan liberation.
This was the birth of the OAU, a precursor to today’s African Union (AU). It was this summit that took the decision to change the date of “African Freedom Day” from 15 April to 25 May and renamed it “African Liberation Day”.
Therefore, placed in its proper historically context, Afrikan Liberation Day is not really about once off displays of our beautiful Afrikan attire, cuisine or suddenly remembering we have clan names. Afrikan Liberation Day is actually a sacred moment when we the natives must pause to reflect on our centuries-old history of resistance-against all manner of foreign invaders.
In May, the Black world marks the 100th anniversary of the brutal murder of a Black woman by the name of Mary Turner. In May 1918, 19-year-old Mary Turner of Brooks County, Georgia, United States of America was captured by a white mob, tied and hung upside down by the ankles. Her clothes were soaked with gasoline, and then her body was set alight.
Her stomach was slit open with a knife and when her unborn baby fell out, the baby’s head was crushed by a member of the mob and the crowd shot hundreds of bullets into her mutilated body. Mary was 8 months pregnant. She was lynched for simply pleading her husband’s innocence, who was falsely accused of killing his white slave master.
In May, the Black world marks the 235th anniversary of the birth of arguably one of the most important figures in the history of Black radical resistance, Francois Dominique Toussaint Louverture. He was one of the cardinal leaders of that great Black moment, the Haitian Revolution, born on 20 May1783.
In May, the Black world marks the 93rd anniversary of the birth of one of the most fearless Black figures of the 20th century, El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz or Malcolm X, on 19 May 1925
In May, the Black world marks the 84th anniversary of the birth of the educator and activist, Mama Betty Shabazz, on 28 May 1934.
In May, the Black world remembers a profoundly dark moment for those in the southernmost tip, the 183rd anniversary of the brutal murder of one of our great warrior Kings, Inkosi uHintsa KaKhawuta, on 12 May 1835. He was shot, had his body dismembered and head severed by the British.
In May, the Black world remembers another dark moment, the 108th anniversary of the proclamation of the Union of South Africa, on 31 May 1910. We will explicate this a bit more later.
In May, the Black world also marks the 7th anniversary of the passing of one of the foremost creative geniuses of our time, uBab’uZamasile Nqgawana, on 10 May 2011.
3. Who exactly are Black students?
The question: who exactly are Black students? Is in our view a question of Black ontology and since ontology concerns itself with questions such as what can be said to exist? Into what categories can we classify things that exist? And what are the meanings of being? - It is our view that, if we are to answer this question honestly—it may be useful to situate it within the history of Black people in this part of the world—particularly as it relates to the invasion of this part of the world by the Dutch and the British, how our ancestors responded, and how the polity today known as South Africa, came into being.
After the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902), which was essentially a war among foreign-white-land thieves, the Dutch and British land- thieves came to an agreement, through the Treaty of Vereeniging on 31 May 1902 and later, the 1908 National Convention. This Convention agreed on the terms and constitution of a governmental, legislative, and economic union. Its proposals were conveyed to the British government for approval.
The British Parliament translated these into an Act titled “The Act to Constitute the Union of South Africa of 1909”, which was passed by Parliament on 20 September 1909. Then on the same day, the white supremacist, King Edward VII of the United Kingdom proclaimed that the Union of South Africa would be established on 31 May 1910, which as we know, happened exactly like that.
The cardinal importance of the formation of the Union of South Africa is in the fact that, it essentially meant that the Dutch and British land- thieves had now agreed to co-ordinate their oppression, exploitation and robbery of the indigenous people, us.
This is the deeper meaning of the name South Africa. South Africa is therefore a white-criminal-settler colony that was created by murderers, rapists and land robbers from Europe. And the name “Union Buildings” also carries this anti-Black connotation.
As a physical monument, the Union Buildings symbolically celebrates the robbery and humiliation of Blacks by European land-thieves. By maintaining and legally endorsing the name South Africa, we Blacks have essentially legitimised our own humiliation.
So, when we talk of Black students today, we refer to the grandchildren of Warriors such as Inkosi uHintsa kaKhawuta, igorha uNxele Makhanda, igorha uMavumengwana kaNdlela Ntuli, Inkosi uSekhukhune, Ikumkanikazi uManthatisi, Inkosi uMakhado, Inkosi! uRhudulu! uDavid Stuurman, and many others, who engaged in over 300 years of bloody resistance against the Dutch and British invaders. These are some of the pioneers of decolonisation in this part of Afrika.
They fought against the first recorded formal acts of dispossession that occurred in 1658, when Jan van Riebeeck informed the people who are referred to as the Khoi that they could no longer live west of the Salt and Liesbeek rivers. They fought against the 1884 Native Location Act in the Cape Colony and the 1887 Squatter Laws in the Transvaal. These laws were primarily designed to serve the economic needs of the invaders, more specifically the supply of cheap Black labour.
They fought against the Glen Grey Act of 1894. The Glen Grey Act (which was authored by Cecil John Rhodes and his secretary, William Milton) was inspired by two commissions previously set up by the white supremacist government. The Cape Commission on Native Laws of 1883 and the Glen Grey Commission of 1893.
This law primarily sought to address three issues: land, labour and the franchise.
Rhodes referred to the Glen Grey Act as the “Bill of Africa” because he envisaged that it would be extended to cover not just the Transkeian territories and any district in the Cape Colony occupied by what he called an “aboriginal native”, but he ambitiously saw the Act being extended to other British colonies outside South Africa.
Side note: I suggest you read the speech that Rhodes used to introduce the Glen Grey Bill in Parliament in what the invaders call Cape Town, on 30 July 1894. You will be disgusted by the man’s utter contempt for Black people.
The ancestors of today’s Black students fought against the 1904 Masters and Servants Ordinance that deprived Black tenants of legal protection by defining them as servants instead of wage labourers. This Ordinance established the legal basis for the process of forced removal and eviction of labour tenants and farm workers that continued for almost a century thereafter.
They fought against the Native Land Act of 1913, which was passed by the white supremacist Union government of 1910. This Act effectively dispossessed millions of Blacks and immediately reduced their access to land. Under the Union government, there were of course other complementary anti-Black laws such as the Urban Areas Act of 1923, Natives and Land Trust Act of 1936 and under the National Party, the Group Areas Act of 1950 – all which entrenched the physical and psychological dislocation of Blacks, strengthened land-theft by the invaders and cemented the status of Blacks as the property of the invaders – in the land of their ancestors.
So, when we talk of Black students today, we refer to those students who embrace this history of violent dispossession, dislocation, murder and rape as their own historical memory and recognise our warrior ancestors, as their heroines and heroes. We therefore argue that, to be referred to, as a Black student is not just an anthropological differentiator, but also an ontological signifier.
4. What are the experiences of black students in today’s South African universities?
It is this history of invasion, dispossession, dislocation, spiritual castration and naked violence that should help us understand why Black students on university campuses continue to rebel against the institutional cultures and practices that continue to define universities today. In spite of the formal proclamation of freedom, over 20 years ago, Black students in South Africa continue to live like rats.
In some of South Africa’s “most celebrated” universities, Black students are forced to do all manner of undignified things just to survive. They are forced to risk their lives and sleep in abandoned buildings, across the various cities of South Africa. They had to erect shacks on the premises of the university known as Cape Town, just to draw the country’s attention to the accommodation crisis of Black students.
Not so long ago, we learned of a protest by Black students on this campus and when we investigated why they were protesting, it was said they were protesting for food. Food! Really! Here is a university that is named after a global icon and the Black students of that same university have to protest for food? Why?
South Africa is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and among the top ten in Afrika, if measured by mineral wealth, so there is more than enough wealth in this country to literally feed each and every person. So why do Black students have to periodically suffer the indignity of having to fight to basics such as food?
The answer is simple but not obvious. Black students are landless. Those who own and control the land (the Europeans), do not just own and control the production of food, they also have the economic power that comes with land ownership, which power enables them to have the means to secure their economic survival and that of their children and unborn grandchildren.
Whites in South Africa have consciously used the proceeds of the crime of invasion and land robbery to build a number of institutions, which will ensure that, regardless of how untalented a white young person may be, she or he should still be able to make it in life. And even when she or he doesn’t make it, there must still be another set of institutions that will provide her or him with a second, third, fourth and fifth chance in life.
Put differently, unlike her or his Black counterpart, the white young person is set up for success even before she or he is born. And this is because today’s white young people are essentially beneficiaries of a centuries-old system of institutionalised skin colour based- privilege, properly called: racism or white supremacy. Black students on the other hand, do not have the benefit of such an omnipotent-omnipresent- multifaceted institutional machinery of race-power. They are literally on their own.
So, even after the passing of various pieces of legislation calling for the transformation of higher education and the resultant mergers and incorporations, the appointment of Black and female vice chancellors, the creation of universities of technology and the rebranding of the names, logos and other cosmetics features of some the colonial universities- South African universities continue to be cold- violent-anti-black-patriarchal-Eurocentric spaces.
The totality of the misrecognition, invisibility and absence of the Black student in the South African university can also be understood through the lens of the concept of the coloniality of power. A situation where, even though freedom has been formally proclaimed, the systems of hierarchies, systems of knowledge and cultural systems of the invaders of Afrika- continue to define and dominate the social character of the South African society.
5. As part of the Black revolutionary intelligentsia, what role should the Black student activists of today play in universities?
Over the past 500 years, the colonial violence that white people exported to Afrika, deliberately focused on pulverising the soul of Black people and violently contaminating them with the white man’s concept of the self and the world. In this connection, the mind of the Black person has been the primary target of the white man’s violence.
In explaining how this impacts the Black student in a Eurocentric academic institution, the Kenyan writer and philosopher, Ngugi wa Thiong’o in his masterpiece, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, (1986), observes:
“The African children who encountered literature in colonial schools and universities were thus experiencing the world as defined and reflected in the European experience of history. Their entire way of looking at the world, even the world of immediate environment, was Eurocentric. Europe was the centre of universe. The earth moved around the European intellectually scholarly axis. The images children encountered in literature were reinforced by their study of geography and history, and science and technology where Europe was, once again, the centre.”
The European intellectual scholarly axis wa Thiong’o refers to, continues to be palpable in the character of both the basic and higher education systems in South Africa. This gives both urgency and validity to the decolonisation project. As Black people, we must take a moment and commend the Black student activists of today for reviving the decolonisation project and doing so at a time when the older section of the Black intelligentsia has effectively sold their souls.
The Black student activists of today have rightfully revived the call for the dismantling of the Eurocentric approaches to learning, teaching and research in South Africa’s universities. And in particularly, the continued reliance on the literature of mainly male European scholars and historians. Given our history, we must be extra suspicious of anything that is not produced by us.
The Black students of today must regard it as problematic when the people who teach them philosophy and history don’t tell them that, actually, the revered Greek philosophers like Thales, Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Pythagoras, Zeno, Empedocles, Anaximander, Anaxagoras or Parmenides, where beneficiaries and students of Black philosophers such as Imhotep, Ptahhotep, Khety, Khun-Anup, Duauf, Amenemhat, Amenemope and Akhenaten.
Black students must find it problematic that those who teach them mathematics and science don’t tell them about Afrika’s earliest mathematical instruments such as the Ishango bone calculator of the Congo, the Lebombo bone calculator of the Swazi people or about that multidisciplinary genius from Timbuktu called Ahmed Baba.
Black students must expose the anti-Blackness of the celebrated philosophers of the white world such as George Hegel and Karl Marx. In this Philosophy of History, Hegel says of Afrika:
“At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit…What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History.”
In a letter to his lifelong companion Friedrich Engels, written in 1862, Karl Marx, complains about someone called Lassalle. Of him he says:
“It is now quite clear to me that, as his cranial structure and hair type prove, Lassalle is descended from the Negroes who joined Moses’ flight from Egypt. That is, assuming his mother, or his paternal grandmother, did not cross with a nigger. Now this union of Jewry and Germanism with the negro-like basic substance must necessarily result in a remarkable product. The officiousness of the fellow is also nigger-like. “
Essentially, they must continue the fight for Afrocentric approaches of understanding the self and the world. Afrocentric in this sense, is defined by one of its foremost theoreticians, Molefi Kete Asante as “…a frame of reference wherein phenomena are viewed from the perspective of the African person. The Afrocentric approach seeks in every situation the appropriate centrality of the African person.”
But most importantly, the epistemic and political obligation of today’s Black students is to kill and bury the lie that white people are the discoverers and inventors of almost every place or thing we know.
Side note: Just recently, the South African Broadcasting Corporation was screening a documentary that focused on Inkosi uShaka kaSenzangakhona and there were also white narratives speaking with confidence about uShaka.
Why should the Black students of today challenge all this intellectual violence? There are a number of reasons, but one of the most important is that, no individual or group can do anything meaningful for themselves or contribute meaningfully to the advancement of human civilisation if they are afflicted by an inferiority complex.
By way of conclusion, the misrecognition of Black students in higher education is not a mistake or even a matter of discrimination against Black students. Neither is it something that is exclusively directed at Black students. As we said earlier, it is a question of Black ontology. The misrecognition of the Black body is an experience that is common to any Black person, regardless of their social status, gender, sexual orientation or geographic location.
To understand its roots, the misrecognition of Black students is a conscious outcome of the historically-evolved-globalised project of white supremacy, which has anti-Blackness as its basis. According to Michael Jeffries: “Anti-Blackness more accurately captures the dehumanisation and constant physical danger that black people face. He further says, the ‘anti’ in ‘anti-blackness’ is denial of black people’s right to life.”
Once we situate the misrecognition of Black students in the anti-Black make up of the South African society or that of the world, we will then understand why part of being a Black student at a university means having to constantly fight, even for those things you are entitled to.
Anti-Blackness helps us to understand why in 1810 Sara Baartman was shipped to Europe and in 1904, Ota Benga of Congo, was abducted and both were publicly displayed in various parts of the western world—for the personal amusement of white people and how their dehumanisation was intellectualised as beneficial for the advancement “science.”
Anti-Blackness helps us to understand why in 1968 the university known as Cape Town denied the brilliant thinker and philosopher, Professor Archie Mafeje a post and gave a lukewarm apology, years after he had passed on.
Anti-Blackness helps us to understand why in August 2012, Black people were shot and killed in Marikana for simply demanding to be recognised as humans or why it is that, in October 2015, during a #FeesMustFall protest, just before the overwhelmingly Black police officers could move in, white students decided to form a human chain around the Black students and unsurprisingly influenced the reaction of the police.
Anti-Blackness helps us to understand why, in March this year, on the basis of the misinformation of a white supremacist group called AfriForum, the Australian minister of home affairs, Peter Dutton, publicly declared the Australian government’s willingness to fast track visas for white South African farmers, who are being “persecuted” in South Africa, and are allegedly facing genocide from Black people.
Or why white Australians held public rallies in support of this lie that is being spread by AfriForum. At these rallies, all sorts of anti-Black statements were made against Blacks in South Africa by among others, Australian Member of Parliament, Andrew Laming.
Anti-Blackness also helps us to understand why, in December last year, the council at the university known as Rhodes, took a decision to retain the name “Rhodes” as the name of the university. To help us understand why the Black body occupies this position of fatality and why it automatically attracts violence, Lewis Gordon makes the point that:
“In anti-black societies, to be black is to be without a face. This is because only human beings (and presumed equality of human beings) have faces, and blacks, in such societies, are not fully human beings...”
As faceless objects that exist in what Fanon calls the “zone of non being”, there is absolutely no value in Black students being docile, apologetic, equivocating, acquiescing or being untruthful about their position in the world. If there is any ounce of self-respect left in them, they will pay careful attention to the words of the Warrior Queen, Assata Olugbala Shakur.
Inspired by the rebellion of Black students at the university known as Cape Town, against white supremacy, Mama Shakur decided to write to them. In her letter she says:
“...For centuries, we have endured beatings only to never raise our fists. We remain in subjugation, talking, listening, debating, but nothing changes. The only thing left to do is to fight centuries of fire with fire.”
* This is transcript of a lecture delivered by Veli Mbele delivered Nelson Mandela University on 14 May 2018. Veli Mbele is an essayist and Secretary of Black Power Front.
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