American ideology and the politics of pain in a South African university

Monday, 25 April, 2022 - 16:00

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Twenty years after the transition to non-racial democracy, South Africa’s universities descended into racialised and violent confrontation. It was a particularly stark example of resurgent racial essentialism in the South Africa’s national politics. Protests began at the University of Cape Town in 2015. Protestors performed a racialised politics of pain, initially against a statue of the nineteenth century imperialist Cecil John Rhodes. Protests evolved at the university and expanded to other South African universities, demanding free education and the ‘decolonisation’ of ‘white supremacist’ universities’ culture and curriculum.Public protests were the most visible manifestation of more general political shifts within South African universities. This new politics was shaped by American style ‘antiracism’ that attributes all objectionable racial disparities to systemic anti-black racism. Proponents of this new American ideology reject the non-racialism associated with Martin Luther King Jnr in the United States and Nelson Mandela in South Africa. They argue that combatting racial injustice requires ‘seeing’ race, rather than seeking to transcend it, and that pointing to class-based injustice ‘denies the reality of racism’. The 2015/16 protests at the University of Cape Town were a self-absorbed elite project.The class basis of protests at other universities may have been somewhat more diverse, but in general the protests were driven by constituencies who had benefited from the substantial but incomplete racial transformation of South African universities, and who were first in line to benefit from further race-based opportunities. This elitist character is best exemplified by the demand, from University of Cape Town protestors, that race be the only marker of disadvantage in university admissions. Such a policy would benefit ‘black’ students from elite schools at the cost of poorer students whose disadvantaged educational background would no longer be considered.The impact of American ideas and practices at the University of Cape Town was mixed.The 2015/16 demonstrations of black pain against colonial symbols were disruptive and undermining of democratic and collegial governance, but ideological efforts to decolonise maths and science failed. The University resisted demands that race be the only indicator of disadvantage and remained committed to addressing multiple causes of injustice in its admission policies. In 2020, in the context of global Black Lives Matter protests, the University of Cape Town’s ‘Executive’ engaged in unprecedented virtue-signalling condemnation of a research paper for causing racialised offense, yet related efforts to censor the publication and tighten restrictions on academic freedom failed. American style racialised politics of pain/offense chilled, but did not suppress, debate.This paper is a draft introduction to a draft book examining how race – and American ideas about race – and class have framed politics at a premier university in South Africa (and Africa). Resurgent racial essentialism and the politics of pain exacerbated the trend toward authoritarian managerialism at the University and, as been the case globally, undermined its liberal foundations. This resurgent racial essentialism was however, resisted. South Africa’s non- and multi-racial traditions proved stronger than in the United States, not least because‘black’ South Africans are in the majority and control political power. Racial essentialism has also been resisted on account of its links to xenophobia and ethnic chauvinism, which cause particular alarm in a university that draws staff and students not only from South Africa’s multi-‘racial’ Western Cape, as well as South Africa as a whole, but also from across Africa.

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