Monday, 14 September 2015

The ‘African university’ as a site of protest

Paddy O’Halloran, Pambazuka

Photographs of dozens of black intellectuals, artists and revolutionaries decorate the walls of the Black Student Movement Commons, formerly the Council Chambers, at the university currently known as Rhodes in Grahamstown, South Africa. Among the many people honoured there are Angela Davis, Steve Biko, Albertina and Walter Sisulu, Bob Marley, Frantz Fanon, Ellen Kuzwayo, Frederick Douglass, Maya Angelou, Robert Sobukwe, Harriet Tubman and Malcom X. Unlike the dreary portraits of Vice-Chancellors of bygone years that hang in the hallways outside the doors of the Commons, the many faces stuck up by the Black Student Movement (BSM) exude no pomp, none of the unearned arrogance of tradition, nor the security of age-old hierarchy. The assemblage of poets, fighters and thinkers provide inspiration for BSM members, who have occupied the Chambers for two weeks demanding a long-term resolution to the problem of vacation accommodation in university residences as a first practical step toward transforming their university.

It is a changed room. What was once the usually empty Council Chambers is now a thriving space of politics, study, engagement and protest. What was a sanctuary of solemnised, unimaginative bureaucracy has become a democratic, multilingual and politicised commons where transformational practice has replaced the procedural status quo as the mode of operation. To complement the symbolic inspiration of the photographs, the BSM have established a library; many of the authors to be found there are also among the faces on the walls. The BSM Commons has the unmistakable character and activity of a university, carried on alongside the work of peaceful political activism and protest.

The BSM reminds us that transformation requires change: not only the changing of policies and calendars, budgets and staff, but also the reinventing of university spaces, rhythms and procedures. BSM have offered a glimpse into such a transformation. Significantly, it comes during the longest and most fraught protest action that the BSM has staged since their first public meeting in March.

The topic of transformation of South African institutions of higher education has long involved the objective of ‘Africanisation’, of creating an‘African university’ as part of the decolonisation of education. Debates continue around developing an African curriculum, around academic staff’s (racial) composition and employment equity, and on the language (or languages) of study. These are important issues, and they deserve thoughtful attention and effort. However, the BSM occupation, which joins a growing list of student-led protests at South African universities this year, demonstrates a different version of the ‘African university’ than the one which has been discussed and debated: the African university as a site of protest.

An African university must constitute itself as a revolt. This does not simply mean new policies decided upon and implemented in the usual manner. As the BSM recognises and is doing its best to impress upon the administration of the university currently known as Rhodes, the ‘usual way of doing doings’ is simply unsatisfactory; moreover, it is colonial. To pursue this insufficient course of action can be modestly reformative, but never transformational. Genuine transformation demands that fundamental shifts in the political imaginations of university administrators and staff, in addition to students, must occur.

To affect this shift, we must consider the African university not as something to be implemented, but rather as something to be practiced. The African university is not a decolonised institution but a university that is engaged in the process of decolonising. As the experiences of the people pictured on the walls of BSM Commons attest, decolonising can only be practiced through acts of protest.

To be engaged in such protest, in the process of decolonising, does not mean that the African university will cease to be a place or learning, nor that all of its times and spaces will be taken up with sit-ins, marches, singing, graffiti and the other methods of change that we are seeing now. These actions are and will remain necessary, but they do not signal the entirety of what it means to be a university in protest. Fulfilling its mandate as a place of learning can and must become itself an act of protest in the African university.

On Robben Island during apartheid, the political prisoners formed themselves into a university. ‘We became’, Nelson Mandela writes in his autobiography, ‘our own faculty, our own professors, our own curriculum, our own courses’ (1995: 556). Crucially, this was an act of protest: it was done outside of the prison regulations; banned subjects such as politics were taught; and it was informed by the anticolonial struggle in which the prisoners were involved. It was a university dedicated to learning, but also constituted through and in protest. While political imprisonment is not a requirement either of political struggle or of an African university, moments in history such as this are important in considering a future for universities that are transformed and African.

The point is that the African university must be a critique of the colonial university, of the conception of the university as institution, of the increasing corporatisation of the university. It must be anti-colonial—more importantly and accurately, decolonising—in its outlook, its form, and its objectives. It must be open revolt against modes of operating that conserve traditions that are variously oppressive, reformist, anti-transformational and irrelevant.

As the BSM’s struggle shows, this critique and protest must first happen within South Africa’s universities, before they become African universities for the world. Still, in the BSM Commons, such a university is proven possible. Through the Commons’ constitution as protest, oppressive tradition no longer has a place there, institutional authority is held accountable and opportunity for transformation is intensely present.

Malcom X is not pictured on the wall of the BSM Commons to enshrine him, to let him grow stale and forgotten like the haughty old white men of the paintings. He is there as an intentional and insistent reminder that change is necessary, and that transformation moves outside of institutional strictures, even if it uses the same space.