Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Our Dar Moment

Race and Education Roundtable, Rhodes University, July 2011

Nigel C. Gibson (Click here to read the version of this talk published in the Mail & Guardian)

1. What will be our Dar moment?1
 In a recent commencement speech Saleem Badat, the vice chancellor of Rhodes University, called on graduates to put their knowledge and expertise to work “for the benefit of society at large” through “ethical conduct, impeccable integrity, visionary endeavour, selfless public service and commitment to people and responsibilities.”

Yet I wonder whether it paradoxically becomes more difficult to be an oppositional critical humanist in the post-apartheid academy? I ask because during the 1980s some quite amazing intellectual spaces opened up in the universities, often related in one way to the social movements, the trade union movements and so on in the struggles against apartheid, each with their own political education, the idea of intellectual-activists was not far fetched. And with it, the brief moment of discussions, as Andrew Nash has described, of a dialectical tradition of Marxism in South Africa, which was part debated in the movements. After 1994, the problem seemed one of practice and policy, leading to policy units trumping the development of more reflective units of academic study. Additionally, the logic of University within the neoliberal global processes (as well as the economistic authoritarianism of budget cuts) has furthered a hierarchy where an elite can still afford to study in the Humanities with guarantees of future employment, while those that struggle to afford a university education are in practical-career oriented pre-professional study, often with Humanities as a broad based but very much a second rate often under-resourced “general education” requirement. Positivism rules. Questions are reduced to how to fully realize market mechanisms. Entrepreneurship (social, political, economic, psychological) we are told is the most rational and equitable model. Yet at the same time South Africa is becoming an increasingly unequal society where, Badat adds, “crass materialism, corruption, tenderpreneurship, and unbridled accumulation, often of the most primitive kinds, run rampant.” 

In one sense, the crisis of higher education in South Africa should be considered in the global context, the increasing privatization of universities and colleges and further instrumentalization of higher education toward functional business and corporate needs, with boards of governors increasingly subservient to corporate oversight, implicitly or explicitly (as trustees), measuring the value of education based increasingly on the number crunching of assessment culture and the reduction of university administration. It is a culture that pervades the whole institution in a logic that reduces academic units to narrowly conceived accounting and output. This bean counting management model sits alongside the increasingly consumer culture of students as customers, which is reproduced at every level right down to teaching evaluations devoid of anything but popularity and entertainment. The perfect labor is thus contingent term and part-time faculty, rehired every year based on evaluation and need, undercutting faculty autonomy and academic freedom. It is not only quantity over quality, but that which is branded “excellence” succumbs to a bland peer review where academic freedom, the freedom to think differently, as Rosa Luxemburg puts it, is on heart support. In this whirlwind, Black studies departments and programs in the US, which traced their beginnings to theorizing race and liberation out of the movements of social change in the 1960s and often had a mission of community activism, were among the first to be cut, cut back and merged. And innovative programs, especially ones that didn’t articulate with a business or (social) entrepreneurial model, have been seriously undermined if not closed. The Humanities had to justify itself as a kind of value added to a student’s education; the discourse of “excellence,” global, plugged in and world class came the buzz words; a kind of university casino economy based on information technology but most certainly grounded in the elite institutions of the North. The capitalist financial crisis of 2008 became another raison d’être for a new round of political-economic cuts seriously undermining the possibility of a critical Humanities, let alone a decolonial educational praxis. The closing of Middlesex University’s philosophy department, perhaps the most highly rated even in terms of the bean counter research assessment and successful in terms of academic placement of graduate students (though simply too radical and continental, not analytical in outlook), is a case in point. It was clearly a political decision, perhaps in a larger framework of the dominance of positivism. At Howard University, the masters program in philosophy was recently closed alongside the PhD program in African Studies. It was simply a sign of the larger process of the growth of pre-professional studies trumping the academy with the result that in a zero-sum game of higher education economics, “fields” such as fashion merchandising, hospitality management, sports marketing, and insurance are developed at the cost of the Humanities. Of course this pre-professionalism is occurring in the new South Africa, perhaps most clearly seen in the cash-cow UNISA machine, essentially and cynically much like a for-profit university in the US, which is is set up to fail many and mostly African students. Yet among the small number of African students at the graduate level the type of work being produced is also narrowly focused on business and management within a discourse of entrepreneurship. While the class dynamic of US and UK universities for example is quite clearly measured in dollars and pounds, there is a roll back not only from the days of open admission but also from meritocracy; it is simply too expense for the vast majority. In South Africa the situation, as was mentioned often yesterday, reinforces the continuing legacies of colonialism and apartheid in the structural dynamics of the capitalist university.2

Yesterday, Andile mentioned the debilitating effects of the cultural production of stupidity, produced and reproduced by the ANC as well as the media. The stupidity runs all the way up, or down, to the PhD level. There is real drivel being produced by post-graduates, often driven by uncritical as well as poor research and narrow thinking focused on career/job-placement outputs. Again this is not unique to South Africa but it also dovetails with Fanon’s critique of the national bourgeoisie as lacking any creative ideas. With the veneer of Africanization, the wish to mimic the “world class,” read elite universities of the North, simply reproduces the stupidity because under the rhetoric of excellence, the emperor has no clothes.

Yet, Fanon’s point about the impossibility of a bourgeoisie has to be slightly stretched; in South Africa there has been the creation of a Black bourgeoisie. Mbeki’s BEE and allied programs by the government have in a sense paid off. There is a Black middle class and there is a small Black bourgeoisie and it is not simply the mimics and hucksterers and jokesters and showmen that are paraded on the media. There is corruption, the more violent and brutal as one gets closer to the poverty of the masses, but this isn’t unique to South Africa or to capitalism and certainly not postcolonialism. Pathologized as an African disease, the sensationalist stories of huckstering and corruption mask the legalized corruption of the system; a system which, in its own terms (as was seen during the World Cup), has enormous capacity to actually get things done.

What there isn’t, however, to think in Fanonian terms, is a national bourgeoisie. That is a bourgeoisie with a progressive national project that includes education and higher education. South Africa did in a sense have a national bourgeoisie during apartheid—it was white. Based on the super-exploitation of Black labor it was a development bourgeoisie. It built. It had a national project. It had an education project. But what you have had since 1994 alongside privatization, Black economic empowerment and pitiful social grants (and thus in contrast to a state-led development model) is a two-fold development: the further internationalization of the former white bourgeoisie, as well as its cosmopolitanization and legitimation. The point is that the latter cosmopolitanization, regionalization and internationalization of the South African bourgeoisie has been encouraged, indeed fronted by the ANC whose elites are also its beneficiaries. Here Moeletsi Mbeki (whose solution to South Africa’s massive inequalities and structural poverty is a kind of China envy built on skilled, educated, and cheap labor and by necessity a strong and authoritarian corporate state), has a point—it is the cost of doing business, and we can trace this to the management of the transition, and its timing to a moment of the collapse of Communism and to the Washington consensus, but that really won’t do and doesn’t explain the internal capitulation of the dominant opposition political forces to a limited and elite driven transition. In this context, not only were radical ideas of education off the agenda, but more traditional ideas of a national educational system built by forms redistribution were set aside. The apartheid state was taken within the context of a homegrown structural adjustment—and logically the crisis of education in South Africa would be “structurally adjusted” within the neoliberal paradigm understanding of course that such a paradigm is not a single policy or economic practice but that is hegemonic and thus flexible. But that it has constraints, especially ideological, and indeed it is on the ideological level that the battle has to be fought. The point here is that to a large degree South Africa’s structural adjustment was mapped on top of the dispossession of apartheid and colonialism with the result that for many the situation of basic education is worse than during apartheid. In other words, the vote was won but life for the conditions for half of the people has worsened.

In a recent piece Mahmood Mamdani published in The Mail and Guardian (June 2011) he makes a strong case for thinking Africa as sites of epistemological resistance to World Bank paradigms and funding sources that dominate research, which, he argues, has become a kind of extractive industry with Africans simply the raw data collectors for paradigms built elsewhere. Of course, it is not only geography; it is about shifting the geography of reason from value free positivistic paradigms, which are race and class paradigms and challenging the very structures of the Universities (its disciplines, its academic ranks, its exams and so on) that are imported from the colonial “metropole.” Mamdani adds that the development of higher education in Africa was mainly a post-colonial development. Colonialism tried to control the development of an educated colonial middle class, frightened that it would turn to nationalism or Marxism (as Fanon mentions) and the development of universities was a key nationalist demand. As state funded projects they flowered in the 1960s and early 1970s. Though politically brokered (namely as a national project) this was the period of the Dar moment. 

We spoke of agency yesterday, but we have to bear in mind the enormous work that was done by the ANC and its allies in suppressing agency during the transition—we can debate the reasons, but there was never a Dar moment in South Africa, making it more difficult to be an oppositional critical humanist, let alone critical social scientist in the post-apartheid academy that is outside of being determined by the state project.
Yet in the university, the place which also relies on cheap custodial labor, the small spaces of situated intellectual autonomy have to be fought for, even as they are also being closed and there are constant battles over space for critical rather than instrumental reason. Amazingly, for example, some of the Fanon scholars at the Naples conference I went to last month operated in a Business school. These spaces—often the product of activist chairs and benign deans—last for a while. But eventually, they lose their impetus or are found out and subjected to bland outcomes assessment and research accounting, cost-benefit, etc. For example those in the Business school just weren’t publishing in accredited Business school journals. The audit of academics, the necessity to find research projects, to gain funding from philanthropic agencies, to publish in accredited research journals, all help to create at best alienated relations. Driven by policy paradigms and funding guidelines and timeframes, poor communities are subject to research—whose goal is the academic papers which have little use to the community, who are simply reified as objects of study. Almost like Fanon’s description of the anticolonial politician, they parachute into and out of communities and hinder long-term relations with outsider movements that are outside the dominant (in a Gramscian sense to include opposition-insiders) political structures. One could say that the standpoint epistemologies are Manichean.

2. How can one think through the present situation?

Yet even under dire circumstances there has always been a practical element to university education. Fanon and Biko both went to medical school. Black doctors and Black teachers were needed by the apartheid regime. And in the 1970s these young professionals became key to the Black Consciousness Movement, as was heard from Barney Pityana yesterday. Fanon first enrolled in dental school of all things. Then he went to Lyon, ended up becoming a psychiatrist and continued to study philosophy, taking, for example, classes with Merleau-Ponty. Yet both Fanon and Biko had a critical attitude toward their educations. Fanon saw colonial education as part of the problem addressed in Black Skin White Masks; Biko was critical of how higher education created elitist attitudes toward African culture and day to day acts of resistance by working people against apartheid. Pityana spoke yesterday of students being intellectually disciplined by going to work in rural communities. This was far from a community service program; it was a program of transformation, and not only conscientization but an existential epistemology as Pityana put it. Fanon also writes of anticolonial intellectuals snatching education and using it against the colonial system and putting it to use against the regime. At the same time, the intellectual committed to social change, Fanon argues, is fundamentally alienated from the people and needs to fundamentally change the elitism, internalized values and ways of thinking they have imbibed. In Black Skin White Masks this alienation and neurosis is quite normal, that is to say a product of books, newspapers, schools, and their texts, advertisements, films, radio—what we might call culture. He has the marvelous example of the culture work that watching Tarzan plays in the mind and identity of the young Antillean. In The Wretched of the Earth, he argues that while in the capitalist countries a multitude of moral teachers, counselors and "bewilderers" separate the exploited from those in power, in the colonial countries, the policeman and the soldier, by their immediate presence and their frequent and direct action maintain contact with the colonized … by means of rifle butts. It is obvious here that the agents of government speak the language of pure force (38). How do force and consent—“hegemony”—operate in post-apartheid South Africa where a whole new generation of bewilderers has been born?
But, returning to the question of the Humanities; the issue is not only creating space for a critical Humanities which has to be a consciously decolonizing project (by decolonizing I do not simply mean the formal end of colonialism but, following Fanon, the form and content of pedagogies and practices devoted to the decolonization of the mind). I think that that jibes with V-Y Mudimbe’s remark yesterday that I took as the measure of the university as critical, self critical and systematic. Such a conception runs counter to the university inherited from apartheid cut through with colonial categories: namely, the most basic question for the post-apartheid university remains its beginning point, what has happened to the fundamental questions and discussions about creating a new society? In a certain way this is a question that articulates with Saleem’s question of Andile, what is to be done within the situation and places we find ourselves? But also on what philosophic ground and from what principle do we ask the question? And we can go back to Fanon’s two notions of dominance; we could argue that this roundtable, this discussion is simply a part of hegemony, yet we also know that hegemony is a process that is never guaranteed. What are the choices? Certainly the existence of a public sphere, of public intellectuals, is not guaranteed. In the face of the destruction of what we might consider bourgeois freedoms, these are worth fighting for. But it is also a rearguard action. This is an old debate; Saleem mentioned the Unity movement of the 1960s, noting that they had great debates but they never translated into action, but we could also go further back and further forward to the politics of united fronts. But let us not confuse principle with strategy. Principle entails both working out theory and also, as Pityana put it, reflecting on BC in the 1970s, a wholly different existential epistemology.

3. Education--Where is the truth?

For Fanon there is not education and political education. In practice all education is political and education is political in all its forms of socialization and in its disciplines. In other words education helps us organize our lives, helps us think and act, help us think and create an images of justice. Colonial education destroys the student’s corporeal schema and violence (in all its forms) rules the colonial school system. If colonial education amounts to the negations of the human, decolonial education has to be considered a transformative experiential process. Indeed this notion of education as transformative is recognized in the rhetoric of individual entrepreneurship—education as the key to success, or “where leaders learn” as the Rhodes logo puts. But the issue for a decolonial national education is an education that helps create a social consciousness and a social individual. Fanon is not concerned with educating the power elites to lead but educating the mass of people to take an active role in politics. Political education is about “opening their minds and bringing about the birth of their intelligence,” turning out fully conscious men and women, as Fanon puts it.
How does the formal university relate to political education outside it? People’s experiences from the 1970s and 1980s would be important and there should be an archive of these practices—of worker and community education—some of which were institutionalized after 1993 but many of which have withered. For Fanon the goal of political education is to teach the masses that everything depends on them. In other words, how to respond to S’bu Zikode’s invitation and challenge to intellectuals at the Fanon colloquia to work with the shack dweller organization Abahlali baseMjondolo? Or in another way what are the possible relationships between intellectuals outside the university—namely those intellectuals who are thinking on the ground in the shack dwellers movement and intellectuals in the university. This is not simply a version of community education and certainly not of conscientization. Certainly we can all think about dialogical models, but how to do that conscious that the post-apartheid university is failing but unfearful of the consequences of thinking transformation (of losing one’s job). Let me give an example that focuses less on the content of education than the form. In Year 5 of the Algerian revolution (A Dying Colonialism) Fanon has an essay on the radio, “the voice of Algeria.” What becomes clear is the importance of content and form. He describes a room of people listening to the radio, and the militant—namely the teacher—is among them, but (jammed by the French) there is only white noise on the radio, and after a long discussion the participants agree about what has taken place; the teacher becomes a discussant, not a director. In The Wretched, Fanon speaks of an individual hysteric who, during the early days of the anti-colonial struggle, proclaims victory against all odds; such people are always dangerous but what Fanon is describing in the essay on the voice of Algeria is far from a hysterical invention. The form of the class room is a democratic space, and the result is in a sense the point that political education is about self-empowerment as social individuals. It is a new collectivity, a new solidarity. The reference to the voice of Algeria is simply an example that helps to emphasize the processes at stake. The wider issue of the politics of pedagogy and curriculum must include the geography of the post-apartheid university, its buildings, its gates, its barriers, it class rooms and all its spatial set ups. Colonialism, Fanon argues, is totalitarian. It inhabits every relationship and every space. The university produces and reproduces reification and thus has to be thoroughly reconsidered. But that reconsideration doesn’t come in one fell swoop; it is a process and a praxis, but one that also must include its philosophy and its raison d’être.

4. The call to the barricades?

In my paper at the Fanon colloquia I thought I might create a stir by arguing that the idea of revolution in permanence or Fanon’s notion of a second or true liberation should become the ground for discussions about organization. Namely, the church and the university are rather like vanguard parties, democratic centralist at best. They are essentially conservative institutions. So if we want a transformative, critical and engaged Humanities, can that come from itself, from within the university? 

This is not a call to the barricades even if it is a call to ideological combat to have one’s ears open, to not confine new development in a priori categories. In other words, a decolonial praxis would have to begin from the movement from practice not simply where the people dwell in those thousands of revolts taking place across the country but in their self-organization. Right here at this roundtable are intellectuals from the unemployed people’s movement, a unique opportunity, I would think, to engage in a working discussion about the meaning of higher education in Grahamstown. Ideological combat, or a fighting culture, as Fanon explains in The Wretched is quite simply engaged intellectual work. In other words, and this obvious, it is not a Maoist notion of intellectuals going to the rural areas to pick up a scythe and be with the people. I am not saying that that can’t be done, but that is not intellectual work, and it certainly does not challenge the division between mental and manual labor. 

The “honest intellectual” to use Fanon’s term—enters what he calls the “occult zone” with the grass roots struggle in perpetual motion, engaging the notion of the transformation of reality with a real sense of uncertainty but also with an idea of what is humanly possible. This “zone of occult instability where the people dwell” is, at one and the same time, not a ghostly movement but a corporeally alive relationship, with all its contradictions and contending pressures. Fanon notes that the university intellectuals cannot really take a living role (that is a disalienated role) in this movement unless they realize the extent of their alienation from it (226). Thus the intellectual doesn’t go “back” to the people (there is no people to go back to since they have already left that space) but joins them in the fluctuating movement “which they are giving shape to” where the people’s intelligences by their own self-movement have been “dialectically reorganized.” This is the challenge to intellectuals to begin to comprehend that the “workless less than human” and “useless” people think concretely in terms of social transformation (see 1968 127). How to understand this? Critical of the intellectual as “race of angels” and resisting an intellectual anti-intellectualism, this new zone of movement and self-movement—what we might also call a radical zone of dialectical leaps in thought and activity (see CLR James writing on Lenin and Hegel, “Notes on Dialectics”, 1948)—is a space where Fanon argues souls “are crystallized and perceptions and lives transfigured” (translation altered 227; 2004 163). Fanon’s language almost escapes him. The occult zone is not supernatural, quite simply the “honest” intellectual has to give up a position of privilege and genuinely work together with the “people’s intelligences.” It creates a genuine moment (and zone) or community where trust and the sharing of reason is implicit. Such “authenticity” born of this revolutionary moment seems as impossible as the excluded, the uncounted and unaccountable, and damned of the earth, upsetting the household arrangements of the here and now especially in the here and now. Yet, Fanon is not speaking of some future heaven; it is very much in the contingent now. And rather than something put off for the future it is quite practical and unexceptional to thinking in that it challenges Reason, in other words, shifts it from what is commonly accepted—or if you will hegemonic—and recenters it toward the reason of so many of those who have been considered unreasonable, but who in a dialectical logic implicitly propose a new humanism. What is the beginning, or what makes possible the capacity to see into the reasons for popular action (i.e. against service delivery), or in short, the reason of revolt? This is the challenge for the university intellectual. 

One of the challenges of Fanonian practices in South Africa, from Biko to Abahlali is epistemological; it is to think of thinking from the underside, if you will. The struggle school is a struggle, as Richard Pithouse puts it. And let’s be clear sometimes that school comes into contradiction with the University system and can have dire costs both in terms of employment and in terms of threats of violence. Fanon talks about “snatching” knowledge from the colonial universities; he is also aware of the great sacrifices that this can entail. In The Wretched he makes a point to distinguish between the hobnobbing postcolonial intelligentsia and the honest intellectual who distrusts the race for positions, and who is still committed to fundamental change even if he or she presently does not see its possibility. 

What if the vaunted position of “intellectual” does not require a degree from a “world class” institution? The public intellectual without a university accreditation is becoming almost unthinkable. But is the university simply an accrediting agency? If so we are back to a guild mentality, bolstered by a politics of fear: The threat of redundancy? But what is the relationship between shack intellectual and the honest university intellectual understood as criticism, auto-criticism and systematical, to use V-Y’s definition? Could it be a joint-degree? Why not—how else should the history of struggle and its phenomenology, demanded by students here, be taught but as praxis and as an experiential epistemology? That could be our Dar moment. 

1 The Dar moment represents a period at the University of Dar es Salaam in the 1970s when a group of intellectuals including Claude Ake, Archie Mafeje, Mahmood Mamdani, Walter Rodney, John Saul, Issa Shivji, and many others participated in debates about the transformations in the University in the context of Africa’s liberation. Mahmood Mamdani also argues in his article “The importance of research in a university” (2011) that the great achievement during this time “was the creation of a historically-informed, inter- disciplinary, curriculum.”


2 While neoliberal restructurings are rolled out in different ways in different places, they remain hegemonic. For example, the administrative amalgamation of the apartheid Universities in the late 1990s, alongside their marketization, did little to really address (and perhaps simply reinscribed) the race/class structural inequities of a highly unequal society.