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

CityPress - - Voices - Xolela Mangcu voices@city­

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

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