Black aca­demics must move the cen­tre

CityPress - - Voices - Sim­phiwe Se­santi voices@ city­press. co. za Se­santi is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Nel­son Man­dela Met­ro­pol­i­tan Univer­sity’s jour­nal­ism, me­dia and phi­los­o­phy depart­ment

Last week, as South Africa cel­e­brated Press Free­dom Day, which co­in­cided with our 20th an­niver­sary of democ­racy, I re­called an ob­ser­va­tion made by veteran jour­nal­ist Al­lis­ter Sparks in his book Beyond The Mir­a­cle: Inside The New South Africa.

Sparks ob­served that not only did black jour­nal­ists re­port about the suf­fer­ing of fel­low blacks, but that they also brought uniquely black per­spec­tives into news­rooms. This meant that black jour­nal­ists ar­tic­u­lated views in­formed by black peo­ple’s lived ex­pe­ri­ences.

Sparks’ ob­ser­va­tion echoed more re­sound­ingly as I read the ar­ti­cle, “Black aca­demics must unite” by Xolela Mangcu (City Press, Oc­to­ber 18 2014). It is not the first time that Mangcu, right­fully so, has ex­pressed con­cerns about the small num­ber of black aca­demics, es­pe­cially at se­nior lev­els of univer­si­ties.

While I share Mangcu’s sen­ti­ment, what con­cerns me more is the con­tent that black aca­demics should bring to trans­form cur­ric­ula at univer­si­ties. I am un­moved by calls to in­crease the num­ber of black pro­fes­sors who are black only in terms of skin colour, not in terms of ori­en­ta­tion.

The for­mer are fas­ci­nated by merely be­ing as­sim­i­lated into the ranks of con­ser­va­tive white aca­demics and per­pet­u­at­ing such schol­ar­ship, while the lat­ter, to bor­row from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, are in­ter­ested in “mov­ing the cen­tre”.

In his book, How Europe Un­der­de­vel­oped Africa, ad­dress­ing how Western ed­u­ca­tion psy­cho­log­i­cally de­formed Africans, Wal­ter Rod­ney notes that this sys­tem simultaneously “Euro­peanised” and “de-African­ised” Africans.

Through Western ed­u­ca­tion, Africans were “bat­tered and suc­cumbed to the val­ues of the white cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem; and after be­ing given salaries, they could then af­ford to sus­tain a style of life im­ported from out­side. Ac­cess to knives and forks, three-piece suits, and pi­anos then fur­ther trans­formed their men­tal­ity.”

This means that Western ed­u­ca­tion turned Africans into crea­tures who, in Wan­gari Maathai’s book, The Chal­lenge for Africa: A New Vi­sion, “suc­cumbed, not to the god of love and com­pas­sion they knew, but to the gods of com­mer­cial­ism, ma­te­ri­al­ism, and in­di­vid­u­al­ism”.

It was this greed for Euro­pean ma­te­rial things that killed the conscience of Africans and com­pelled them to sell their own into slav­ery. With a chill­ing, poignant tone, cap­tured in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, A Story Of Greed, Ter­ror, and Hero­ism In Colo­nial Africa, King Afonso of Kongo, notes: “Many of our sub­jects ea­gerly lust after Por­tuguese mer­chan­dise … To sat­isfy this in­or­di­nate ap­petite, they seize many of our black free sub­jects ... sell them ... As soon as the cap­tives are in the hands of white men they are branded with a red-hot iron.”

To this day, African peo­ple con­tinue to be sold out by those who go shop­ping in Italy and run hel­ter-skel­ter to re­ceive crumbs from their white masters’ ta­bles.

What has this got to do with Mangcu’s call for black aca­demics to unite? The an­swer is that I un­der­stand Mangcu’s ref­er­ence to “black­ness” in the con­text of Steve Bantu Biko’s ex­pla­na­tion that black con­scious­ness is not merely about skin colour, but about an at­ti­tude of mind.

Biko did not leave us guess­ing about what he meant by “at­ti­tude of mind”. He meant that any­one who de­fined him­self as “black” was com­mit­ted to the cause against any form of de­hu­man­i­sa­tion find­ing ex­pres­sion in self-en­rich­ment and the im­pov­er­ish­ment of oth­ers.

I un­der­stand the ref­er­ence to “black aca­demics” and their “unity” to re­fer to those who are com­mit­ted to the kind of ed­u­ca­tion that teaches that mo­nop­o­lies and pri­vati­sa­tion of wealth is in­im­i­cal to hu­man de­vel­op­ment.

It does not serve the black peo­ple’s cause to fight for the up­ward mo­bil­ity of black aca­demics who join their coun­ter­parts in ivory tow­ers, earn fat salaries, work in fancy of­fices, drive flashy cars and, in the process, treat fel­low blacks with dis­dain.

I support the unity of black aca­demics if our ob­jec­tive is to seek and find ways to de­sign the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem in a way that the val­ues to be in­cul­cated in stu­dents are not those of de­struc­tive com­pe­ti­tion about who ac­quires what first, and to deny oth­ers the op­por­tu­nity to sit at the ta­ble.

The val­ues that must be in­stilled are those that will help us re­trieve our African an­ces­tors’ po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and so­cial sys­tems that will place hu­man­ity, not ma­te­ri­al­ism, at the cen­tre of things.

This was Biko’s idea of black con­scious­ness: the quest for a true hu­man­ity.

Sadly, at the mo­ment, many black aca­demics I en­counter are pre­oc­cu­pied with be­ing ad­dressed by their hon­orifics (pro­fes­sors and doc­tors) and care less about ser­vice.

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