Friday, 18 November 2011

Open letter to all COMSA members from Fazel Khan

In 2007 Fazel Khan was fired from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in Durban, South Africa, after leading a long strike the previous year for workers' rights, student rights and academic freedom. In this letter to his union he makes a case for a democratic university and, against the extraordinary authoritarianism of much of the South African left, a non-authoritarian radicalism.

Sunday, 29 April 2007

To all COMSA members


As you all know, last week I was finally fired after a 7 month disciplinary process. I am not the first person to have been forced out of this university on political grounds in recent months. When I was fired I was clearly told that I will not be the last.

When the media asked me questions about my removal from a photograph and article in UKZNdaba last year I answered them honestly and in good faith. I was certainly not being dishonest and anyone who reads the transcript of my hearing will see that the University failed to prove their claim that I had been dishonest.

I regret that giving my honest and well grounded opinion in response to the questions that were put to me wasted months of my life and got me fired. But I do not regret trying to answer the questions put to me as honestly as I could. If trying to tell the truth at a university is something that 'brings the university into disrepute' then there is something seriously wrong with that university. The whole purpose of a university is supposed to be built around the collective search for truth.

It is very important for everyone to be clear that it is not just individuals who are being attacked. Our union is under fire too. From the Gautschi inquisition to the slanderous article in Saturday's Witness our hard-won freedom to organise is being destroyed. And as a result, it is not just individuals and our union that is under attack. The whole idea of the university, as a space of critical work in education and research, is being undermined.

Our apartheid history means that we have no choice but to look to the future. But this does not mean that there is only one vision of the future. There are many and we need to discuss and debate them all. The management's vision of the future is corporatisation plus deracialisation. They call this being 'World Class' just like the Municipality calls evicting shack dwellers at gun-point, and in violation of the law, being 'World Class'.

Corporatisation means giving the university to the market, and this puts it under the power of local and global elites. It makes real deracialisation impossible. In COMSA our vision of the future has been democratisation plus deracialisation. We want the university to be a democratic public institution, one that serves all of society, not just its richest people. We have always fought for an institution that works for everyone, including those who the market ignores because they cannot afford to pay to be students or to have research done.

Over many years of struggle we have won decent workings conditions for permanent staff. Today, we all know that these victories are being rapidly undone by management. This doesn't only affect workers. Academics were previously given the autonomy that is required for people to become intellectuals and scholars but are now being turned into workers. They are increasingly being placed under surveillance and under suspicion and treated as if they are working on a production line.

Management has developed a new tactic to prevent us from defending ourselves from their consultants who can only see our university in terms of money. When we argue and struggle for our pay and conditions, and when we argue and struggle for our right to be able to teach and research outside of the rule of money, they don't argue back. Instead, they accuse us of bringing the university into disrepute. This is not true. If anything brings the university into disrepute, it is the way workers, poor students and now even academics, and especially contract academics, are treated. And nothing brings more disrepute to the university than the way that ideas are crushed and arguments settled by intimidation rather than discussion.

But we are all the university. Stanley Naicker is as much the university as Dasarath Chetty. We all have a right to decent pay and decent working conditions. But for many of us the university is more than just a job. Defending our university against an authoritarian management is not just about defending our pockets – it goes to the heart of who we are and why we work here.

Our university is not the only organisation that has been 'transformed' to meet the needs of the rich and the powerful. Other public institutions have faced this too. The SABC is now a monkey that dances to the government's tune. The HSRC had its teeth removed, and its critical thinkers dispersed to the wind. The assault on UKZN is hardly unique.

We need to remember that what is happening to us now has already happened all over Africa. Universities were more or less universally ruined when the World Bank insisted on 'reform' of African universities in the 1980s. Now that we are being 'transformed,' in the same way once great universities like Dar-e-Salaam and Ibadan were 'reformed', we need to learn as much as we can from the academics who lived through the World Bank led attack on African universities. It is important that we learn as much as possible about this from the work done by CODESRIA and the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa.

And here at home we need to remember that it is not just public institutions that are under attack. Anyone who is critical is under attack. The shack dwellers' movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, a democratic and deeply principled organisation, has in recent months been subject to vicious and blatantly criminal police violence and state repression.

It is clear that powerful forces are determined to close the democratic spaces opened up in the transition to parliamentary democracy. A new, dangerous and difficult era is upon us. Many of us who felt that the transition didn't go far enough will now have to fight to defend its limited gains as Zanufication gathers pace in our university, our city and our country.

Here at UKZN instead of developing a vision for the future through collegial discussion, we are supposed to silently accept increasingly bizarre propaganda by and for management. Instead of taking decisions through genuine deliberation, we are supposed to accept dictatorship. Instead of allowing the people who work here to have some say about how and why things are done here we are expected to obey, without question, the decisions of consultants who know nothing about the real value of what we do.

We must pay careful attention to the processes that disempower us. This is because there is a great danger in seeing our situation as only being the fault of a few specific individuals. It is true, of course, that we have some particularly paranoid and vindictive individuals in management who are doing particular damage to this institution. And it is true that they have now lost the credibility needed to run this university with our consent. They can now only rule by intimidation. But the crisis of this university is deeper than the unacceptable authoritarianism of these individuals.

We already know how to think about this. We never made the mistake of thinking that if only Botha had gone, apartheid would end. We should not think that after Makgoba and Chetty are forced to resign, we will have won the battle. We have made this mistake before.

At UDW, the sometimes militant struggles against various authoritarian vice-chancellors simply paved the way for even more authoritarian successors. And many times radicals in our own union have entered management and then quickly become some of the worst managers. This has happened because we focussed too much on opposing the individuals in management and did not take enough care to work out the principles by which a more democratic and a more critical and a more just university could be run.

To avoid repeating this mistake, we need to make sure that our union, the spaces in which we interact with other unions, and our departments and schools become non-racial spaces run on the basis of honesty, critical engagement with society, collegial decision making and respect for each other and for the importance of teaching and scholarship.

We have to become the alternative and to develop principles that we can use to change the institution from the bottom up. All authoritarians, on the right and also, as we have learnt, on the left are at their most terrified when ordinary women and men think and act for ourselves. This is when they start their campaigns of slander and intimidation. Sometimes they even start to work together against popular democratic spaces. It is our duty to scare them stiff. The way for us to do this is to create spaces where it is safe for us to think and speak for ourselves. If we make these spaces open and honest then slander will not be an effective weapon. Lies thrive in the dark and die in the light. Standing alone is very hard but if we are together we can support each other and then we can't lose. Shackdwellers in Durban have been able to do this and the people that make up this university can do it too.

Of course they will fight back. They will try to weaken us by scaring us. And they will scare us by slandering and threatening disciplinary action against the individuals that they see as the 'trouble makers' responsible for stirring up your anger. They will always assume that you cannot think for yourselves and that the people that you elect and mandate to speak for you are telling you what to think. I do not need to tell you that our management rules in a very vindictive way. It has its little rituals that it uses to pretend that it operates by the law, but they have nothing to do with justice. They are just a performance to create the appearance of justice.

I had to get through 7 layers of security to get into my hearing. My lawyer had to be smuggled on to the campus in the boot of a car. And when I finally got to the hearing it was clear what its real purpose was. I was denied legal representation. I had to choose a representative on the spot and he was given 30 minutes to prepare to argue my case. Witnesses were scared to tell the truth for fear of losing their jobs. The vice-chancellor shamelessly stood outside the hearing personally intimidating a witness before she entered. The chair of my hearing did not come to this dispute without baggage. It was clear that someone who was authoritarian enough to have enthusiastically supported Snuki Zikalala's crushing of independent journalism at the SABC and Mbeki's AIDS denialism was never going to take the side of a critical unionist against an authoritarian management.

I asked the chair, plainly and directly, to recuse herself because her sustained support for anti-social authoritarianism made it impossible for her to consider my case fairly. She refused. As you can see for yourselves, her judgement doesn't have much connection to the evidence that was actually led and debated. She wasn't even able to spell my name or that of my representative correctly. But the management paid a piper whose tune they knew very well and liked very much.

And so I was fired. And now out and out libel is being spread in the newspapers – libel that goes way beyond what is actually asserted in the judgement.

The lawyers and other experts who have looked at the judgement and the transcript from the hearing have told me that it is impossible for me to lose in court. So I will go to court and I will win in court.

But it is clear that the management is willing to accept regular losses in court. They recently lost their case against Olujimi Adesina, who pointed out the similarities between the University's management practices and apartheid practices. The court took Adesina's side.

Management shrugs this off, and makes us pay the bill. For them, trying to shut people up is an ordinary cost of business. This is a price they are prepared to pay to be able to keep intimidating us. We will continue to win in the courts but although these victories are and will continue to be important, we will not win the battle for the soul of UKZN in the courts. The battle for the soul of UKZN will be won at UKZN by the every day choices of the workers, academics and students at UKZN.

I don't yet know what work I will find. But I know that I will continue to learn, study and teach at the University that the shack dwellers have created for themselves, the University of Abahlali baseMjondolo. I am sure that the shack dwellers are not the only people creating their own democratic spaces as public spaces are increasingly crushed under managerial authoritarianism and given over to the market. If your struggles at UKZN are successful then one day spaces like the University of Abahlali baseMjondolo will be able to reconnect with the University of KwaZulu-Natal. If your struggles are not successful then the University will steadily become another weapon to be used against ordinary people by the state, imperial donors and big business. The stakes are high.

For years, we have shouted 'Amandla!' and replied 'Awethu!' It is critically important to remember that the power really is ours. Although the authoritarians will target us, will lie about us, will slander us, will make deals behind our backs and then stab us in the back, we can be stronger than they are because we are many and they are few.

I have often been frightened through this process. It was very difficult to tell my children that I had been fired. It was also very difficult to tell my parents. I now have no way of bringing a salary home for my children. I have no medical aid if they fall sick. But I am not alone and that has kept me strong.

I would like to thank my family, the ordinary members of COMSA, the Freedom of Expression Institute, the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa, Abahlali baseMjondolo and all the other trade unionists and academics at UKZN, around South Africa, and from Lagos to Istanbul to Boston, who supported me while this hearing dragged on. Every sms, every phone call, every email, every visit, every prayer in every tradition and every song has mattered. I deeply appreciate the personal and political support.

Make sure that no one who is targeted for speaking out is alone. That is the best way to take away the management's power to intimidate.

Through receiving unexpected support and being unexpectedly betrayed I have learned important lessons about courage and cowardice, principled commitment and opportunism. It is clear that we can't make easy assumptions about who will stand, who will waiver and who will turn on the basis of the political language that people speak. I have learnt the hard way that sometimes left and right authoritarianism, which both want to think and act for everyone else, will even unite against projects in which ordinary women and men think and act for themselves. I have learnt the hard way that it is what people do that matters, not what they say about themselves. It is everyday practice that matters.

The way to build an everyday practice that can build and sustain an alternative to corporate authoritarianism is to, as we began to do during the strike, build communities of struggle where people can think and discuss and speak out together. When we are together we can support each other when they try to slander us and discipline us in the name of the reputation of the university when our only crime is to have stated that obvious - that our emperors are naked.

My new email address is

Please keep in touch.

Good luck.

Fazel Khan