Needs a new pact
We need to set aside our ideological differences if we are to truly pry open the doors of learning and culture
The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the ANC government cannot solve the challenges posed by university students, unless it goes back to one of its own commitments in the Freedom Charter. In a phrase drafted by Es’kia Mphahlele – whom the government hardly honoured – the Charter states that “the doors of learning and culture shall be opened”.
That is the one ideal that could turn me and millions of young people into instant Charterists. For the politically uninitiated, that is the term those of us in the black consciousness movement (BCM) used to refer to the ANC. That was back in the 1980s. Now is now. The challenges the black community faces require that we look beyond our ideological differences to collaborate in the same way our forefathers did in times of crises – whether that was the SA Native Congress of 1890, or the SA Native Convention of 1908, or the All African Peoples Convention of 1935, or the Congress of the People of 1955, or the Black People’s Convention in 1971, or the United Democratic Front and the National Forum in the 1980s.
What we now need is a new pact among teachers, students, universities, government, community, business, and religious and political leaders on what “opening the doors of learning and culture” could actually mean for the greatest number of people in this country.
A meaningful education cannot be just about throwing money at the problem.
Coming together on education does not mean people should abandon their political party loyalties, but that we should be able to act together on those things that are bigger than our parties. Education is without question the most pressing national question.
There are those who believe that radical economic transformation is the panacea. In a shocking display of economic reductionism, some of them even think economic transformation will bring an end to racism.
They could not be more wrong, if only because they fail to understand that racism is a cultural phenomenon that transcends economic systems.
Or, as Cornel West puts it: “Social practices such as racism are best understood and explained not only or primarily by locating them within modes of production, but also by situating them within the cultural traditions of civilisations.”
He argues that this transhistorical understanding of racism permits us to understand why it has existed across different modes of production “in premodern, modern and postmodern Western civilisation”.
You can have all the radical economic transformation, but many other factors drive the existence of white supremacy. For example, you can have radical economic transformation but still depend on the same white experts if you do not have people with the skills to drive the economy, manage the institutions and create new knowledge.
These activities are the basis and source of cultural power. By cultural power, I therefore mean the power of legitimation and benediction of public policy.
That power does not rest in Parliament, where all you do is pass laws. Cultural power lies in the universities, in the media, in the arts, among the heads of corporations – in all the areas where education is vital.
You do not achieve cultural power in those places by fiat, but by having people with the intellectual authority and moral capital to preside over them.
The late Aggrey Klaaste once put this argument elegantly in launching the Sowetan nation-building initiative, which is similar to what I am proposing for education. He presciently wrote: “For political kingdoms to be effective and particularly democratic, they need all sorts of power structures to underpin them. They need the backup of strong people who have clout academically, who have strength to recognise the value of a free press, who have a spiritual or religious foundation.”
Klaaste also noted it was the responsibility of black people to save this country from “certain ruination”.
It is indeed an uncontested truism that no society can rely for long on a minority of its population for its survival. White people constitute 8.9% of the population, a percentage that can only decline with time.
The privileged lifestyles they currently enjoy can only be momentary. It may last a decade or two, but without a broad-based black middle class that drives the economy, they too will land in purgatory.
And for the black elite to think that accumulation in the present secures the future is a delusion that was possible in the past only through state-backed violence.
Marikana, and the reaction to it, is evidence that the people of this country and the world will not stand for it.
In 2015, university students took to the streets to demand free and decolonised university education. I hope now they can also engage with the national question of education for all.
The BCM of the 1970s provides a precedent for the strategic role that university students can play in social change. Back then, the government was their enemy. Now the government must be put under pressure to live by its own democratic ideals – “to open the doors of learning and culture for all”, particularly for the millions of black children to whom those doors are closed. Now who, in their right minds, could be against that? There will be those who object to my emphasis on a black-led initiative because they do not want to talk about race, or because they are used to providing solutions for black people. But to heed that injunction would be confirmation of what I mean by lack of cultural power in the black world – the inability to self-define and an absence of self-reliance.
Somehow black people must not talk about what needs to happen to the education of their children, lest it offends the sensibilities of people who are not affected by the problems at all. The result can only be paralysis and self-doubt.
But who of sound mind can really deny that the millions of children falling through the cracks of the education system are far and away black? Who can deny that it is their parents, leaders and communities that must do something about it? That is where the initiative must come from.
As Steve Biko said, black people cannot be spectators in a game that they should be playing.
University students have shown us that a new model of racial cooperation is possible under black leadership – a model that does not deny the realities of racial inequality but uses them to foster meaningful black-white cooperation in resolving the challenges of basic and higher education. Mangcu is a writer, author and professor of sociology at
the University of Cape Town