Anti-democratic element in student movements holds warnings for South Africa


South Africa is sinking into a political, social and economic crisis. Running in parallel is a growing disillusionment about the post-apartheid project of transformation.

The time bomb of socioeconomic inequality that experts have long warned about has finally detonated. Unexpectedly, however, we’re seeing not one but multiple, simultaneous explosions. These have been precipitated by class inequality and many other social pathologies, among them white and patriarchal supremacisms.

Materialism and relative deprivation sharpen while social relations become polarised and institutions crumble. Sparked by these multiple explosions is a growing authoritarian impulse. This is noticeable not only in the state but in the decolonisation discourse at universities.

In this article, I attempt to sketch the conditions of this authoritarian inclination in the decolonisation discourse and to identify some of the elements that combine to form it. But first I must emphasise that the discourse of decolonisation consists of multiple, contesting positions. Many within the discourse actively oppose the impulse described here.

An anti-democratic stance

Students have emerged as a newly politicised social formation amid rising disillusionment about transformation. This was envisaged as a comprehensive project of multidimensional, macro- and micro-level change in pursuit of human dignity, equality and freedom for all, as outlined in South Africa’s first democratic constitution. Students’ protest action has exposed intractable gaps in higher education transformation that manifest in different forms of exclusion – financial, cultural – and violence – sexual, racial, symbolic.

Student activists must be acknowledged for fearlessly putting their bodies on the line and demanding urgent action to remedy these untenable gaps. They have laid a powerful challenge before the older generations: they demand that transformation be renewed so it has impact and meaning across the fault lines of race, gender and sexuality and for people beyond the middle classes.

Sections of the country’s student movements regard transformation as a complete failure. Responding to this perceived failure, some among them have adopted an anti-democratic stance. It’s hard to ascertain how prevalent this strand is in the larger decolonisation discourse. There is a rich variety of positions and robust contestations over the meaning and content of decolonisation.

Still, it is important to note the anti-democratic stance, as it points to South Africa’s larger crisis of constitutionalism. Citizens and leaders have displayed a shared incapacity to make the vision of the constitution a lived reality for most people. This incapacity becomes fatal when authoritarian models of change seduce members of the next generation of intellectuals.

Six elements at play

The anti-democratic strand has been evident at recent talks and events. The University of the Western Cape hosted a panel discussion in May 2016 chaired by Premesh Lalu and titled “The University and its Worlds”. The panellists were Judith Butler, Wendy Brown, David Theo Goldberg and Achille Mbembe – thinkers known for radical critiques on present and historical forms of oppression. They were interrupted by students who said they’d had enough of “white foreigners” telling black people what to do. Mbembe and the University of Cape Town’s Xolela Mangcu were called “sell-outs”.

Another example is a colloquium of the student representative council (SRC) at the University of the Free State where I was invited to address students and staff on white privilege. I was attacked by a small group of students for daring to speak. My effort to analyse the changing positions in whiteness since the 1980s offended these detractors. It interfered with their essentialised versions of whiteness and blackness. They insisted that white people should be silent.

Yet another instance is the television programme “The Big Debate”, where I was a guest along with an array of people including representatives from #RhodesMustFall and Black First, Land First. During the recording, set to be flighted in July, a case was made for the violent seizure of land. Irresponsible journalism created a space for the instigation of violence.

Based on these experiences and other examples from the universities of Pretoria, the Witwatersrand and South Africa, I attempt an outline of the anti-democratic stance. The following six elements represent sub-strands that may overlap depending on the context and actors.

  1. South Africa is not a democracy. The word “post-apartheid” should not be used, since apartheid continues uninterrupted.
  2. The constitution is documentary proof of how South Africa’s current rulers sold black people out to the former white rulers. Black people who support non-racialism or the constitution have sold out to white people.
  3. Democracy is a western import and not “authentically” “African”.
  4. Whiteness and blackness are essentialist identities.
  5. The “revolution” is incomplete. Violence is the only way to ensure that justice triumphs.
  6. Blackness is the only political category of relevance in the struggle for social justice. Gender, sexuality and other categories should be shifted aside. In short, one of the sub-strands is openly patriarchal, homophobic and anti-feminist. It explicitly rejects the black feminist theory of intersectionality.

These six elements are not static and do not represent a consensus of any sort, as is clear from the recent showdown about sexuality and gender in the University of the Witwatersrand’s #FeesMustFall movement. At the University of the Free State’s colloquium, black members of the SRC expressed themselves strongly in favour of robust but also inclusive conversation.

The retrogressive elements can be summed up as entwined and mutually reinforcing dehistoricisation and essentialisation.

When it comes to historicisation many analyses, including my own, show that the legacies and continuities of colonialism and apartheid bedevil South Africa today.

But if we acknowledge that the country is a democracy, we also acknowledge that the current historical moment doesn’t only consist of remnants of the past. It is also full of new realities that have been brought about by the struggle for democracy, and its fruits. This moment is not apartheid. Several new potentialities have been made available. South Africans are in a process of political contestation to actualise these, or not.

In this sense, democratisation is a never-ending process rather than an event. Its emancipatory possibilities are foreclosed when it is conflated with apartheid, which is what the anti-democratic strand of the decolonisation movement is doing.

Denying democratic possibilities

I support the position that white people, men and heterosexuals should be silent in some contexts. But an SRC event like the one at which I was attacked is arranged by a body that represents the whole student community and doesn’t qualify as such a context. White people, men and heterosexuals have a duty to actively dismantle white heteropatriarchy, and should be led by marginalised and oppressed groups in doing so. This means that people with privilege can participate under certain conditions.

Silencing white people in shared spaces, irrespective of their positions, denies the differences among them. It denies the political possibilities that spring from these differences.

Both whiteness and blackness are flattened when racial identities are essentialised. Turning whiteness into an all-powerful phantasmatic object while reducing blackness to victimhood denies the various resistances that ended official apartheid and that continue to subvert apartheid’s legacies today.

I am not saying that black people did not suffer under apartheid or that white people did not benefit from it. I did. So did every other white person, unjustly so. However, a few white people resisted apartheid, sometimes at a great personal cost. Some black people collaborated with the system, to their own benefit. When we bring in gender, sexuality and class – as we should – the picture gets even more complex.

We deny the messiness of the past when we deny these intricacies and complicities. Merely switching the colonial terms around – white = bad; black = good – is not decolonising. It is an elaboration of colonialism’s logic of hierarchical binarism. Apartheid dehumanised black people. In a different way white people, as oppressors, lost their humanity. How does one find openings where self and other can reach out to one another? People in South Africa must recognise their interconnectedness, which is what apartheid attempted to undo. The potential of re-humanisation lies in that recognition.

Essentialisation and dehistoricisation also have other effects. Black people, as though such a monolithic bloc exists, are rendered naturally autocratic. This is a prejudiced fiction and clashes with the evidence on precolonial African systems, as described by Mahmood Mamdani. An offensive correlation is also created between black people and violence that reminds one of colonial racism.

Ignoring history doesn’t help

The anti-democratic strand within universities’ decolonisation discourse openly rejects the constitution. It denies the ideological and physical battles between 1990 and 1994 that produced the constitution. It seems unaware or unfazed that these battles led to the highest death toll of the apartheid era.

Many factors from that time and their implications are overlooked: global and local complexities like the rise of neoliberal triumphalism; the ideological disposition and actual capacity of the African National Congress (ANC); the then ruling National Party having to let go of a white veto even though it controlled the mechanisms of state terror.

These factors are all reduced to the ANC simply selling out to the then white rulers. The proof that is proffered is the constitution’s property rights clause, even though it allows for expropriation in the public interest. Drawing on mid-20th century pan-Africanist arguments, the demand is made that black people should “take the land back in the same way that the colonisers took it” from their ancestors. Precisely this argument was made during the fractious edition of “The Big Debate” I referred to earlier.

Why not instead suggest amending the constitution to address the issue of compensation in the property clause and overhauling the ANC government’s politically compromised land reform process? The restitution of black people’s right to the land must be a foremost post-apartheid goal. But why emphasise land at the cost of all other rights?

Little if any consideration is given to the exceptional inclusion of socioeconomic rights in the constitution, or that much more can be done to expand and claim these rights. The authoritarian impulse in the anti-democratic strand becomes clearest at this point.

A national depression

Historicisation is urgently needed – about the past and the present context – in order to identify the actual sources of our national crisis. Neoliberalism looms large both as economic policy and rationality. The background to this moment is worldwide economic and political instability as the forces of late capitalism try to regain their footing after 2008. Inequality is worsening. Neo-fascist tendencies are on the rise.

The ANC’s version of neoliberal policy is to some extent ameliorated by social grants but has still sharpened South Africa’s particularly acute socioeconomic inequality. This, combined with the global situation, is a primary cause of the economic, social and political crisis. One of the responses is a homegrown authoritarian tendency in which race is prominently wielded as a political tool. It is not coincidental that neoliberalism itself is a profoundly anti-democratic phenomenon that employs a specific mode of racialisation.

Transformation at universities is up against neoliberal instrumentalism, driven by anti-intellectualism. Its model is of the university as business enterprise rendering a select group of people “human capital”. The mantra of competitiveness is used to justify a false contradiction between transformation and academic excellence.

All of these factors, together with the implosion of the ANC – in terms of ethics and governance – contribute to a growing national depression. This brings me to the co-constructive relationship between the anti-democratic positions and a hardening whiteness. While most of South Africa is in the grip of a national depression, some white people respond to the crisis by displaying a nihilistic schadenfreude.

As argued, blackness and whiteness are co-constructions: they create self in relation to an other. The schadenfreude position is part of a hardening whiteness that’s also anti-democratic, essentialising and dehumanising. A dynamic is triggered in which efforts at enclosing white identity provoke efforts at enclosing black identity, and vice versa.

We need a collective rethink before we get pulverised by the shortsighted extremes of hardening whiteness and hardening blackness.

  • Christi van der Westhuizen, Associate Professor, Sociology, University of Pretoria
  • This article was originally published on The Conversation


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