Black academics must move the centre
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.