Saturday, 2 May 2015

Mabogo More: More than a Black Philosopher

Mabogo More

The Rhodes Must Fall campaign has shaken both the University of Cape Town and Rhodes University to the core. It has quickly become about a lot more than just a statute and name. Students are demanding the deracialisation and decolonisation of both institutions. As more and more stories are being told about the racism faced by workers, students and academics in these institutions, and its hold over curricula, the idea of the liberal university as a space of universal enlightenment and reason is being subjected to sustained and cogent critique. Much of this critique is, rightly, orientated towards the present and the prospect of a better future. But there is a long history of the systematic marginalisation of black South African academics, whether working at home or in exile, in both the liberal and radical wings of the South African academy. In 2015 students at a university like Rhodes are quite likely to graduate with a degree in the social sciences without ever having been asked to read people like Archie Mafeje or Sam Nolutshungu.

Earlier this year the philosopher Mabogo Percy More was awarded the 2015 Frantz Fanon Lifetime Achievement Award by the Caribbean Philosophical Association. Previous winners have included the likes of Enrique Dussel, Nigel Gibson, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Michel-Rolph Trouillot. The award not only served to highlight More’s academic journey, which began with enrolling for philosophy at the University of the North (Turfloop) in 1969, it also shed light on the racism that continues to constrict academic philosophy in South Africa.

To make a small contribution to undoing some of the silencing around the black presence in the South African academy before and during apartheid, The Con has put together this feature on Mabogo More. In this article, students whom More taught, at the former University of Durban-Westville, before it was merged with the former University of Natal, reminisce about the impact his scholarship and teaching methods had on them. It is followed by a Q&A with More himself.

Here are some students’ recollections of More:

I had the privilege of having Prof Percy More teach me philosophy at Durban-Westville (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal) in the 1990s. More’s introduction to political philosophy provided the bedrock of my interest in the discipline and, with hindsight, the skills and tools to develop a wider critical awareness. His confident, intelligent and humane teaching style, his humour and irreverence were matched only by a fierce intellect and strongly committed political awareness.

More’s lessons were regularly punctuated by outbursts of “Oh man!” – surprise perhaps at the narrow restrictions that the academy perpetuates though rigidly defined disciplines. I remember my notes from his classes littered with side references to figures and movements, which were invaluable in piecing together a broader view of philosophy. Through Percy I found beauty in Fanon, DuBois, Césaire, and the strong politicised claims in Sonny Rollins and Fela Kuti.

This award is a recognition of More’s contribution not only to teaching but also to the type of scholarship, particularly in philosophy, which is essential but rarely seen; intelligent and humane, the influence of which extends well beyond the academy.
Many well deserved congratulations, Percy.
-           Andrew Joseph, Johannesburg

Prof More has been one of the most important intellectual influences in my life. It would be no exaggeration to say he taught me how to think and write. Prof also instilled in me the idea that philosophy has an obligation to engage with the lived realities of the poor and the oppressed in South Africa and the rest of the world.
I strongly believe that this conviction combined with his independent spirit put him at odds with mainstream academic philosophy in KwaZulu-Natal and South Africa, which resulted in him being marginalised. 

I loved sitting in his office in the philosophy department of the then University of Durban-Westville talking about Fanon, Biko, Sartre and many other thinkers. It was also a pleasure to discuss sports and jazz with him. I respect him tremendously.
-       Pravasan Pillay, Stockholm

The University of Durban-Westville (UDW) was in all kinds of crises in the second half of the 1990s. But among all the sound and fury, the steady grinding down of the university and the structural contempt experienced by many African students, the philosophy department was a haven of reason and generosity. At that time many of the academics at the university just didn’t believe African students could do serious intellectual work. But in the philosophy department, honours students were reading books like Being and Time and Being and Nothingness – something that was not just strikingly unusual at UDW but unimaginable at the plainly inferior department at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg where I had done my first degrees.

There was endless coffee and discussion about politics, music (especially jazz, and Philip Tabane and Miles Davis). It was a space in which thinkers lived, almost as if they were personalities with real presence in the corridors. Students were engaged with real seriousness. Some wilted under the pressure to do serious work – a pressure that was entirely absent in some departments – but many bloomed into remarkable young people.

More supervised my master’s degree on Fanon. He was exacting and generous in equal measure. My work was always read quickly and closely, books were lent, ideas were shared, and long conversations were had over coffee or beer. But, as with all his students, More always pushed me way beyond where I thought I could go. I had never had that kind of teaching before and I have never had it since.

The discussion around our universities is often looking forward, trying to anticipate a better future. It is now 20 years since I started teaching philosophy at UDW. The years at UDW were, by far, the best I have ever spent in any university. That was thanks to More, as well as the late Ben Parker, always More’s ally in the department, and some fabulous students. When I’m asked to contribute to discussions about the future of our universities, I generally draw on my very concrete experiences of the past. Those experiences are a large part of the reason I find myself constantly enraged by the everyday realities of Rhodes University, where I now teach.
-       Richard Pithouse, Grahamstown

My photojournalist uncle and the political climate in Soweto in the 80s both fuelled my interest in journalism as a field of study – until I came into the philosophy class of Prof Mabogo More (affectionately known as just Prof). Philosophy was initially just an elective I chose simply out of curiosity, as a filler. But from my the encounter with the Prof, this became a course I majored in, and I went on to get a master’s in philosophy.
At first, the philosophical terms were intimidating and would often go over my head in their highfalutin English, which was my second language. But Prof’s enthusiasm and general outlook on life drove me to soldier on. This not only resulted in my love for philosophy, but also allowed me to apply it as necessary in this complex jigsaw puzzle called life.

In his vaguely American accent, Prof would somehow make you love being African, and appreciate and take pride in your Africanness. Biko, Nkrumah and Fanon are just some of the thinkers he would teach us about without even having to open his notes, and in that way we saw the man knew what he was talking about thoroughly. More than lecturing, Prof sought to engage us and have a conversation with us on various subjects.

He knew all of us by name, and would often ask us about our backgrounds. He would also tell us about himself, too – from stories about his Beetle to those on his religious daughter, as well as on his studying days at Harvard – all relayed with no air of grandeur and no pretence.

I admired that even in our diversity (as students, as well as the overall philosophy department at the then University of Durban-Westville), Prof was never scared to or sensitive about approaching issues around race. He tackled race matters head-on and encouraged healthy debate, nurturing our critical thinking and helping to affirm our sense of security in our different shades.

He changed my life in more ways than one, and deserves prestigious recognition and acknowledgement. May this lifetime achievement award inspire him to do much more in philosophy.
-Kiki Senatla, Johannesburg

It is a daunting task to begin to pen the impact and influence Prof More has had on my life. In February 1997, my long-awaited experience of, for the first time in my life, sitting down in a philosophy class came into being. This was the only class I looked forward to as a young man who had come into contact with philosophy by chance when visiting a friend at Howard Collage before enrolling at the University of Durban-Westville, now the University of KwaZulu-Natal. At that time I was a student at Natal Technikon, now the Durban University of Technology.

I took a conscious decision to enrol at UDW in 1997 and to study philosophy because what I had read in my friend’s residence room made me realise that all the things I thought I had known and believed in might have been wrong. In February 1997, Prof More walked into the class and took us through an introduction to philosophy and all its branches. The manner in which he lectured confirmed my suspicions about the limits of my knowledge and beliefs. Prof More instantly joined my high school English and history teachers, whom I had put on a pedestal for many years. I was born again – into critique, not faith.

Prof More taught me things I was never taught by the liberation movement I had been involved in for many years. He taught me about Fanon, Biko, Sartre, and many other existentialist thinkers. He taught me the most important lesson of my life – the importance of self-consciousness and black consciousness in an anti-black world.
The critical thinking he infused into me and my friends, Pravasan Pillay and Kiki Senatla, meant that for us the world was no longer just there – it became something to be critically analysed. With the energy and desire to question things, we could no longer fit in with our groups of friends because we could no longer relate to their discussions, which only served to strengthen the friendship between curious young minds.

From that point on, our desire to better know the world we live in drove us into the second-hand bookshops in Durban. All our savings and lunch money were used to find books that gave us more perspectives on life. A new foundation had been built, and the path for self-discovery had been laid. Prof More had ushered us into black existentialist philosophy, and nothing has been the same since February 1997.
-Xolani Tsalong, Johannesburg

Q&A with Mabogo Percy More

The Con: You had the opportunity to teach philosophy in a philosophy department, a rare thing for a black philosopher in this country…

Mabogo Percy More: At UDW [the University of Durban-Westville] I did, but after the merger, no. I taught a course on African political thought. Political thought is political philosophy, but we called it political thought. I would teach people like [Julius] Nyerere, [Kwame] Nkrumah, [Kenneth] Kaunda, all those things you wouldn’t teach. I’d not only teach them, but teach them as thinkers, to show that they have theory. The book I’m writing on Biko is to [help people] understand that. Biko is portrayed as an activist. Very few have located him within a philosophical tradition.

Is it not self-evident that Biko was a thinker?

Well, I’m talking about academic philosophy. It might be self-evident outside, but the gatekeepers of what is called “philosophy”, which is the academy – full of white males – declares that Biko was not a philosopher. In fact, they don’t even declare. They just cannot consider that. In fact, one Italian guy, a philosopher at UKZN, said: “I’ve been punished because I do not want to teach Biko, who is not and cannot be a philosopher.” I’m doing it to let black kids know that they are thinkers, too.

Most of us still doubt ourselves as black people. Have you noticed that when we’re [involved] in serious [legal] cases we get white lawyers? We do. The major project of BC was to eliminate that doubt among black people.

You mentioned that after the merger you could not teach philosophy. In your assessment, what has been the impact of mergers?

They were oxymoronic, because in a country where the output of people who had to go to tertiary institutions increased, you had a government that decreased the number of institutions. Why?

My argument was that it was imposed by neoliberalism, so that as the number of matriculants grew and the institutions shrunk, you had no space and therefore you opened up the space for the privatisation of education. During our time, and even about 10 years ago, you wouldn’t see the queues that you see at UJ [the University of Johannesburg], where someone even died [during registration in 2012].
Education as a whole in this country has been politicised, commodified and corporatised.

It becomes a political issue for the minister to produce, to be proud and say, “We have a matric pass rate of 90%”. The party will get votes. [Some students] get eight distinctions, but when we meet them at university they don’t show that.
Our universities are not geared to have 1 000 students in a lecture hall, so you break it up into two groups. You have to employ staff to deal with that.

So if I’m teaching a class of 500 students, how much personal attention can I give to them? If I give them two assignments and a test, I’m going to die. It takes me three weeks to mark 500 students, because they write essays, and some of them plagiarise, and you have to go to your computer to see whether or not they’ve plagiarised.
So what d’you do? You give them one assignment; you reduce the test and make it smaller so that it can be marked straight. When they pass, they pass not because they know, but because there was less time for you. You push them through. What you get is a serious decline in standards. I’m talking like a liberal here, but I know because I’m an external examiner. They send doctoral and masters theses to me. It’s unbelievable. The kinds of PhDs we have out there, a lot of them … Pallo Jordan should get two doctorates. He’s good, his lies notwithstanding. At least he writes.

With specific reference to universities, what has been the impact of what you call commercialisation?

Universities are becoming corporate entities to make money so that people can make fat cheques. The emphasis has shifted to skills development. The emphasis has been on subjects such as mathematics and economics. The humanities, especially philosophy, are suffering. They’re not viewed as important by government. But here’s the catch: because of the education system we have, the humanities are all full of black kids from black schools. That’s why you get a lot of kids with degrees not getting jobs – because of the mechanisation of education and the world out there, the demand by neoliberals that you have to have skills to do A, B, C, D, E. The demand to know things has become obsolete.

Also, you have a teaching profession that has its eyes somewhere else. Our kids cannot be good at maths because our teachers are not interested. And the kinds of teachers we produce at universities are not that good because of the mass production in the humanities. It’s a vicious cycle, really vicious. Why does the white trade union not go on strike? Indian schools don’t close. Even the [black] teachers who go on strike, their kids are elsewhere.

So at the end of it, every country gets the intellectuals it deserves by the kind of education system it puts in place.

In your essay Fanon and the Land Question in (Post) Apartheid South Africa, you write of the “emergence and proliferation of land activism throughout the country whose militancy might surpass the Zimbabwe land struggle”. You point to Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema’s endorsement of Zimbabwe’s land redistribution programme. Do you still hold that to be true, especially in light of the EFF’s stance?

There is no freedom without land. What we got was flag freedom. So the EFF might have a land policy that you think is the right one, but they might just be using that principle as a rhetorical tool. Will they really fight for the land and get it back? I don’t know. Will they carry out their mandate until the end? I don’t know. Especially the leader – he hasn’t been exemplary in making us believe in his integrity as a person.
We have to expect that if we want the land, there will be serious repercussions. You can see the scarcity of land and the emergence of serious [organised] shack dwellers. It’s just that people are looking for land in the urban environment.

Is obscurity a mode of effective existence for you? Outside of academia, you have shied away from public life…

I wasn’t really interested in being a public intellectual. My aim was to reach some souls out there in the classroom, to contact and influence these guys, to change them. I wanted to change people’s thinking. I had the platform of teaching. In that teaching space you have, say, 50 or so minds, and you have the chance to reach them without being limited by space in newspapers, 1 000 words or what have you. You have these guys for six months, so you can make a difference. I’m not known and I don’t care. But I know that my work will speak for itself.

In SASO [the South African Students’ Organisation], I was just a fellow traveller. The [Cyril] Ramaphosas were there; the [Terror] Lekotas were there. But I believe there is a presence in an absence. For instance, right now, there is a presence in an absence between you and I; there is a presence of a white person even in their absence because of how we’re dealing with ourselves. We’re speaking English to each other, right? You can reach people through not being visible. I’ve never appeared on TV because I don’t want to. I really don’t. I’m not keen to do that. I don’t think I can handle a public space like TV in a manner that would be satisfactory to me.

So what does the award mean to you?

I appreciate the award because I have lived all my life teaching, without anybody taking any notice of me, and all of a sudden, those guys out there did. And I’m much more famous out there than here. I’m known out there. There is no university here that’s teaching my work.

Even at the university where I was working, they’re not teaching my work. The problem with South Africa is that we always look outside rather than inside. When I was a student in Indiana University [in the early 80s], Es’kia [Mphahlele] came to give a public lecture. I’ve never seen a hall so full. The students who were there were writing about his books. Back here, no one gives a damn about him. Now that’s South Africa. We always want to quote people from outside. Here, as black people, we don’t even cite one another. We prefer to cite Foucault, Derrida, Kant, Hegel.