Thursday, 8 December 2016

Defining Decolonisation!

There have been a number of articles, letters and social media rants whose central critique of the movement to decolonise academia and its institutions revolves around the lack of a coherent definition of decolonisation. As with any emerging discursive niche, however, it is reasonable to expect that such a definition would be a ‘working definition’ that is meant to evolve with the discourse over time, and take shape within different spheres of academia (i.e. disciplinary, institutional, cultural, etc.) in a manner that is relevant and appropriate to each. This piece attempts to formulate a working definition that can be taken up in these different spheres and implemented within them to further define what the specifics of decolonisation would constitute within each of them. It is not an exhaustive or closed definition and neither does it attempt to be; it is an open, working definition of decolonisation that can be further developed and refined or broadened as appropriate.

A Working Definition

As with any emerging discourse or discursive niche, defining the central terminology around which the niche is evolving can be difficult. Not long ago, terms such as sustainability, resilience, disruption, and so forth were new and contested additions to both the popular and academic realms. They are now commonplace in everyday language, and they are deployed differently in different contexts. Even after they have become mainstream ideas, they continue to find purchase in many differing problem spaces, disciplines and practises.

It is therefore only fair to expect that the term “decolonisation” is undergoing a similar evolution, and will eventually demonstrate its usefulness in a variety of different spheres. Hence, any working definition of decolonisation needs to be defined in as broad and abstract terms as possible, so that it can be applied in the different spheres of thought and practise that make up academia and ensures its reproduction.

The departure point for definition, as proposed in this piece, is that decolonisation seeks to bring about systemic change in academia and society; change that helps break with the influence and legacy of the colonial and imperial global projects on the role of knowledge in academia and society. The institutional ‘commons’ underscored by Western academia, in this sense, remains that which can be articulated as a settler enclave, to which access is restricted and where bias towards different forms of knowledge is perpetuated[i]. The persistence of (Western) colonial effects on the role of knowledge and institutions in society have and continue to enable undesirable impacts on the societies and ecologies of the 21st Century. In this spirit, a working definition of decolonisation is proposed as follows:

Decolonisation is (and necessitates) the diversification and critical reappraisal of; (1) the sets of inherited practises that govern academia and its reproduction, and (2) the modalities through which these practises are implemented.

This definition of decolonisation identifies and targets the ‘sets of practises’ and ‘modalities of implementation’ through which academia functions and reproduces itself. In this respect and in simple terms; ‘sets of practises’ can be described as the things we do, and the ‘modalities of implementation’ can be described as how – and why – we do it.

We can, however, go into these in more detail, as shown in the schematic below, and for the purposes of illustration it is perhaps appropriate to do so:

1.       The sets of practises that academia operates by is concerned with how knowledge is produced and taught, and hence includes the full gamut of disciplinary and institutional practises that characterise academia. This includes; (1) disciplinary (and/or inter- and transdisciplinary) formalisms, methodologies, epistemologies, ontologies, pedagogies and historiographies, as well as (2) institutional practises as they relate to (or are influenced by) bureaucracies, cultures, semiotics and aesthetics. Note that these lists are not exhaustive or definitive in the absolute sense and can be broadened or refined as necessary.

2.       The modalities through which these are implemented relate to (or are influenced by); (1) the context of implementation (e.g. historical, current), (2) the intent of implementation (i.e. to what purpose and envisioned future), and (3) the manner of implementation. Taken together, implementation modalities then govern/shape how these sets of practises exist and are experienced both within academic institutions and the societies they inhabit (i.e. the role of knowledge in society).

***Please click on the schematic above to view it in more clarity and detail.

Implications of Definition of Decolonisation

In this formulation, the sets of practises take shape within different implementation modalities. It is self-evident that sets of practises may be more fixed, while their modalities of implementation may vary between different contexts. For example, the formalisms through which abstract scientific disciplines such as mathematics and statistics (as well as natural sciences such as physics, astronomy and biology) are formulated and taught, may be more fixed. However, the modalities through which they are implemented (e.g. to what problems and contexts they are applied, and to what ends) may vary depending on the specific context (i.e. socio-cultural, political, environmental, etc.) within which a particular academic institution is situated or located. For example, mathematical and statistical problem solving may be made more contextually relevant; instead of statistical problems focusing on games of dice and cards – as is commonly the case in statistical textbooks – they could instead be related to problems that are immediately relevant to the social context within which students are located.

In the case of applied disciplines such as economics – which is supported by abstract formalisms such as mathematics and statistics, but are inextricably linked with technological, political, social and environmental systems – the sets of disciplinary practises in economics may need to be broadened to accommodate the complexities of implementation in different contexts. For example, applying economic theory in developed and developing world contexts requires acknowledging and accommodating their differences. Whereas the economics of the developed world can largely be understood and described through economic theory that applies to formal economic systems, the economics of the developing world requires acknowledging the prevalence and importance of dual formal-informal economic systems. In accommodating informal economies, economics may have to draw on softer, more qualitative forms of knowledge production and broaden its formalisms and methodological foundations in order to do so i.e. its sets of practises may need to be broadened to accommodate the different implementation modalities it is deployed in.

It is worth pointing out that simply applying theories that have been formulated specifically for developed world contexts, to developing world contexts can – and has – had disastrous consequences in many cases (e.g. theories of development, planning, conservation and economics). This can be inextricably linked to the projects of colonisation and ‘neo-colonisation’, but that is a topic for another discussion and would distract from the objective of this piece. Needless to say, the colonial and academic projects have a long and entangled history as co-evolving projects that cannot easily be separated in objective terms.

The working definition proposed here would also prove relevant to studies of English literature, for example, where English language writers from the ex-colonies of the British Empire have made substantive contributions to the evolution of English literature and have played a key role in innovating new and exciting niches. The same can be said of the literature of other colonial empires such as the French, Spanish and Portuguese empires.

In a similar vein, philosophy – as a discipline – is often conflated with Western philosophy, where Greek philosophy is often taught and/or written about as though it is the starting point of philosophy i.e. where the tradition of philosophical thought began. Eastern philosophy, and the philosophies associated with indigenous cultures and knowledge, for example, are rarely taught in conjunction with Western philosophy, and the very obvious historical and other links between Western and Eastern schools of philosophical thought are not adequately acknowledged and/or taught. Instead, they are taught as separate philosophical systems, and as a result, philosophical inquiry remains pigeon-holed into artificial categories that constrain the ability of the discipline to advance as anything more than a Western white male preserve.

A simple example of how the teaching and writing of histories are skewed is worth mentioning. While the travels of Marco Polo to the East are well known – and even mythologised – in Western knowledge systems, little mention is made of the Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta, who undertook extensive journeys in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Why is it that the journeys of Marco Polo are common knowledge in modern society while the journeys of Ibn Battuta little known or taught outside of the Arab/Muslim world? Is it not reasonable to acknowledge these deficiencies in our histories and attempt to address them?

Moreover, if we broaden the concept of colonisation to include more than just indigenous, enslaved and exploited peoples, to include other species and ecosystems, we can then envision the importance of identifying the anthropocentric modalities that have led to large-scale destruction of the environment, the erosion of the natural resource base and ecosystem services upon which human life depends, and the vast influence the industrial era has had on global climate change. In this respect, decolonisation would involve going beyond the false dichotomy between human and natural systems that govern the modalities in which traditional disciplines have been formulated, taught and implemented. It would involve making the systemic links between human and natural systems explicit and considering how they co-evolve as intimately coupled systems. Inter- and trans- disciplinarity become important discursive niches in their own right when this perspective is adopted, and rightly so, as the grand problematiques[ii] of this era (e.g. climate change, natural resource depletion and degradation of life-supporting ecosystems) are densely interconnected and related.

A Rationale for Decolonisation

When considering the illustrative examples provided above, it is self-evident that some level of diversification and critical re-appraisal of academic practises and their implementation modalities hosts potential to make academic practises more relevant to the various contexts in which they are applied. Whether this potential is great or minimal cannot be determined at this stage.

To be sure, there are many who would argue that the need for establishing a discourse on decolonisation is self-evident and very necessary. Others argue that there is no need for academia to undergo any radical change, and that the conventional modalities through which academic reproduction is currently undertaken is good enough. The reality is that only by pursuing the discourse further – generating new knowledge and perspectives on the topic, debating and interrogating them, and subjecting both old and new discursive orientations to broad academic scrutiny – can the usefulness and power of the concept of decolonisation be determined.

This should be self-evident to academics, but it is often the case with new discursive niches that host the potential for radical change that academics respond with fear, suspicion and derision. Change is accompanied by uncertainty and variation. This threatens to destabilise; (1) who is considered important or authoritative in certain fields, and consequently (2) who holds power within institutions and society. When the status quo is challenged in this manner it opens up spaces for innovation and regeneration and a changing of the guard often follows suit. This, more than anything, is what lies at the core of the discontent with the emerging discourse on colonisation; it threatens to destabilise the hierarchies (i.e. disciplinary and institutional) that have governed academic reproduction i.e. especially throughout the late 20th century.

Yet it is fundamental to the academic project itself that it embraces innovation, new knowledge and change. Indeed, without that willingness, academic reproduction runs the risk of increasingly growing out of touch with how society is changing, making its offerings increasingly dangerous – in real terms – to society itself. Old ways of thinking and doing, when applied to new and changing contexts, can result in undesirable and destructive outcomes.

Indeed, merely applying more of the same perspectives and prescriptions to newly emerging and changing contexts constitutes a blue-print for an insanity of sorts. One where problem contexts are straight-jacketed into standard disciplinary frameworks, with potentially disastrous results (e.g. applying steady-state equilibrium models to economic and natural systems that – in reality – occupy stability regimes very far away from equilibrium through strong feedback mechanisms and controls.

It is critical that the entire system of academic reproduction exist in a constant state of reflection upon itself, lest it lose its ability to innovate and engender broader societal relevance by existing in a mode of bureaucratic reproduction that churns out knowledge for the sake of itself and its own survival. The quest for the decolonisation of academia is hence not solely concerned with the political or historical dimensions of academia, but rather can serve as a framing for radically re-envisioning the role of academia within society. For this reason it should be awarded its proper place, alongside other emerging discursive niches, that seek to interrogate and redefine the academic project itself.

When the fears of new knowledge take root within academia, this fear – to some extent – reveals the degree to which old knowledge and systems of reproduction have become sanctified. This is not only anti-intellectual, it runs the risk of ossifying the processes of academic reproduction until the only option for it to evolve necessitates catastrophic release. Sea changes have occurred before in academic and intellectual thought; visionaries such as Galileo, Copernicus and Darwin fundamentally changed the role that religious belief played in intellectual thought and how we envisioned the world. When their ideas were finally accepted, they shattered the status quo, and ended the censorship role that religion played in intellectual inquiry and thought. Can it reasonably be argued that these developments were antithetical to the spirit of intellectual inquiry?

It is beyond doubt that the world would be a poorer place without these contributions. And so we must endeavour to maintain an open-mindedness – and criticality – while entertaining new and novel concepts and ideas. Engaging in a new discursive niche does not necessarily amount to an abdication of all that comes before it; to assert that this is the case is foolish and unreasonable. To attribute the notion of decolonisation solely to the Fallist movement is also ridiculously uninformed and ahistorical. The term “decolonisation” has been around for a long time, much longer before the Fallists of today were born. Perhaps it is only rising to significance now because the time for its germination is ripe and society and academia is more ready to take it up in a meaningful way.

It is a great pity indeed that this emerging discursive niche has been met with such intense – even irrational – opposition, even before it has had a fair chance to develop. It is quizzical that the most intense opposition has emerged in South Africa, a country with a clear historical prerogative to undo the evils and injustices of its past, many of which were conceived of and/or justified and promoted by academia itself. That there can be such resolute pig-headedness towards the notion of decolonisation speaks volumes for the failures of cosmetic transformation of South African society, and should serve as a clear warning to all those within it. In the quest to resist and quell a necessary and inevitable discursive movement that seeks to interrogate how the past manifests in the present, we may achieve little else but to obscure and disrupt the capacity to envision new intellectual and societal trajectories.

Simply put, we may be shackling ourselves to the very systems of knowledge that were used to enslave, oppress and disenfranchise the majority instead of revising them and building upon them to improve how we see the role of academia and intellectual pursuit within our society. We need to be bolder and more open-minded even as we remain critical; to do otherwise is to abdicate from the process of intellectual pursuit itself, it is to sanctify a set of practises as though they should remain untouched forever. This is clearly a ludicrous and ridiculous stance to adopt, given the very clear need that exists to build a new future for South African society, and to locate its systems of knowledge production within that new future.


In conclusion, the emerging discourse around decolonisation should be regarded as part of a set of agonistic engagements with the shortcomings of the academic project in its current state. It sits alongside, and is related to, other discursive movements such as systems theory and thinking, complexity theory, transdisciplinarity and posthumanism; all of which seek to transform the disciplinary and institutional sets of practises in academia, as well as the implementation modalities of academia and its role in society. The discourse on decolonisation should not be regarded as the single panacea to the woes of the modern academic project, but rather a complementary and co-evolving agonistic engagement with the academic status quo.

The definition of decolonisation that is proposed in this piece seeks to directly address the systemic reproduction of exclusionary and biased practises within academic disciplines and institutions. It seeks to help establish a framework that can comprehensively address the role of the academic project in society and in particular, to make it more relevant to the diverse implementation contexts that academic knowledge is deployed in. In particular, it achieves this by enabling transformative actions to be conceived of and undertaken in both the disciplinary and institutional practises of the academic project. It draws on transdisciplinary thinking to establish a definitive framework for decolonisation that enables systems knowledge, target knowledge and transformative knowledge to emerge from the consideration of the (disciplinary and institutional) practises and implementation modalities that dominate traditional academia. There are surely other ways of defining decolonisation, ones that seek to address different, but complementary ends; hence this definition should be taken as a contribution to be read alongside them where appropriate and/or useful.

[i] This articulation of the institutional commons is drawn from “The Undercommons. Fugitive Planning and Black Study” by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, Minor Compositions, Wivenhoe, New York, Port Watson, 2013.
[ii] Max-Neef, M.A. Foundations of transdisciplinarity. Ecol. Econ. 2005, 53, 5–16.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Left-Right, Who’s Right?

“If we can see the present clearly, then we shall ask the right questions of the past.”

John Berger, Ways of Seeing

Emerging Narratives: Right-Wing Resurgence

That right wing populism and anti-immigration rhetoric is in ascendancy is no surprise. Already, in the 1990s, the signs that right wing activity was emerging began to create discomfort in the accepted political order, which had embraced globalisation as fundamental to the new global political and economic order.

Right wing sentiment has been growing in response to increased immigration, and inter-cultural and racial integration within the cities, towns and metropoles of the – white, Western – developed world (UK, Netherlands, France, Germany, Austria, Norway, Australia, USA, Russia, etc.). It has also taken root in some countries of the developing world. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – who heads up the Hindu nationalist BJP in India – and President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines stand out. In South Africa, left wing populism has facilitated the rise of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), under the leadership of the firebrand Julius Malema, who has led the party to around 8% of the national vote in record time. The former all share right-wing ideologies and values that define their worldviews and politics. Trump’s victory has proved an inspiration to them all.

And so the Trump victory in America has on the one hand – rightly, but partially – been explained by racism and white supremacism, and a resurgence of a right wing agenda. On the other hand it has also been explained by the rise in anti-establishment sentiment all over the globe, a profound distrust of traditional and existing political and economic systems. What is of particular concern, is that these narratives are being posed as binary in relation to each other, that they are somehow mutually exclusive from each other seems – to me at least – and intellectually lazy interpretation of what is transpiring. It is important to acknowledge that the rise of the right has been mirrored by an equal rise in populism and socialist rhetoric on the left, and that these sentiments appear to have peaked in post-2008 global financial collapse world.

The most common accusation is that the emphasis on anti-establishment sentiment is a deflection away from the underlying white supremacist core of these movements (i.e. notwithstanding that right wing populism is surging in non-white countries as well). Yet to lapse into this kind of reductionism – i.e.  to accept that it is just plain racism and white supremacy at work, and that anti-establishment sentiment has nothing to do with the rise of populist rhetoric and fascist posturing (to repeat; which is evident on both the left and right wings) – is a fatally flawed analysis. In this emerging narrative, the establishment, as accounted for in simplistic terms, is a racist one, hence racists cannot be anti-establishment i.e. meaning that Trump supporters are just plain reactionaries harking back for a 20th Century status quo, and not a true anti-establishment phenomenon. Let’s unpack that narrative a bit further.

Left-Right Polarisation: It’s Global!

Firstly, this narrative conveniently relegates all Hillary supporters to the ‘non-racist’ camp, a problematic consequence of the prior assertion itself. Can anybody seriously argue that Hillary supporters are devoid of racism, and still uphold the argument that their pro-establishment stance is not de-facto showing support for a racist system? Many contradictions reside within that perspective, not all of which are necessary to expound upon at length here.

Of course, it is possible to be racist and anti-establishment at the same time, as it is possible to be racist and pro-establishment. Conversely, it is also possible to be non-racist and anti-establishment, or non-racist and pro-establishment at the same time. That is reality; simple boxes do not adequately capture human nature and/or society, no matter how tempting it may seem to relegate people to them. Racism is both inter-sectional and situational; it is not ever-present, it rises up under certain conditions, and polycrisis – which is undeniably the current global post-2008 condition, characterised by fast rates of change, and high levels of uncertainty and insecurity – provides the ideal conditions for fear and racism to thrive.

Secondly, it ignores the emergence of profoundly anti-establishment rhetoric on both the left and the right of centrist establishments. Indeed, it ignores that there has been activity at both ends of the political poles. On the left, we’ve seen the dramatic rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK – a self-avowed anti-establishment figure – and the rapid ascent of Bernie Sanders in the US elections. What are these movements about, if they are not anti-establishment, a product of frustration, not just with the neo-liberal consensus, but the actual establishment itself, which precedes neoliberalism? Are not the global calls for decolonisation, and movements such as Black Lives Matter and #FeesMustFall, expressions of profound discontent with the political establishment, as well as the societal institutions that depend on it?

On the right, anti-immigration sentiment, protectionism and isolationism has arisen across the developed and developing worlds. Whether the US, UK, Netherlands, Austria, France – or India, Burma and the Philippines – there is a clear rise of right-wing, conservative rhetoric that is profoundly nationalist, separatist, anti-immigration, Islamophobic and socially conservative.

In Africa, postcolonial liberation era establishments are also coming under scrutiny. These establishments, more than any others, have entrenched inequality, sowed division and exercised totalitarian and authoritarian power, supporting dictatorships and minority-led governments that echo and mirror colonial era elites and oppression. It is unclear how left or right these anti-establishment movements are at present, however. Speaking from the South African context, it may well prove that the centre-right opposition may win out over the centre-left ANC over time (albeit in coalition with far-left and left parties).

It is worth remembering that Obama also originally ran on an anti-establishment ticket. He was the outsider, and also ran against Hillary, who promised that “change has come to America”. And while he did bring changes, they were incremental, tagged on to a system that is undeniably a source of great frustration. Obama promised change in 2008. In turn, US society sensed that change was possible – and necessary – but he delivered very incrementally on those changes, with the exception of Obamacare. He also failed to adequately tackle systemic racism, working and middle class insecurity and marginalisation from opportunities for advancement, as well as the extraordinary unaccountability and power of Wall Street and global elites, multinationals and corporations. Even Obamacare – viewed as a major change in the American system – is largely a norm in first world developed countries; even though it drew major opposition within America, it is essentially a moderate reform.

By comparison, the Trump presidency threatens to be an unmitigated disaster. He’s a bigot, he’s sexist, he’s politically illiterate, and he thinks protectionism and isolationism are the answers to America’s problems. He sees the purpose of leadership as a business and managerial one, and sees the public good as deriving from that premise i.e. he does not view the public good as the essential and primary duty of public service; instead running the country as a business is his prescription for public leadership. This central irony – that his prescription still fits within establishment norms, only deviating in respect of economic globalisation – was lost on his followers. Indeed, it is not his economics, but his bigotry and disregard for political conventions and norms that has made him appear to be anti-establishment.

As the resentment and ire towards his presidency grows, it is not unforeseeable that he will manufacture a series of wars to “unite” Americans behind. He’s already stoked Islamophobic fears beyond the pale, and adopted an adversarial stance towards Latin American neighbouring countries such as Mexico. His tough rhetoric also threatens to alienate an important key player in the new global order i.e. China, which the American economy is strongly coupled with, and cannot survive without. He’s aligned himself with Putin, a move which poses a threat to Western European security. And after he’s stoked all fears and resentments, his demands that NATO allies pay up or lose protection (i.e. simply put a global protection racket in the making) seem calculated and cynical and is bound to embolden NATO’s adversaries.

When one considers the global upset the Trump presidency is sure to spawn, amongst both allies and adversaries, as well as the widespread discontent at home (remember that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by over 200,000 votes) it is not inconceivable to envision a new “axis of evil” declaration emerging from the lips of President Trump. Indeed, stoking fears and making declarations of war – and demanding unity behind his leadership thereby – is a well-worn route for superpowers such as America and Russia.

Globally, the rise of populist politics and fascist rhetoric, has a lot to do with general disenchantment and active disregard for traditional establishment politics. And the ‘establishment’ in this sense, does not only refer to the neoliberal consensus, it refers to 20th century modes of leadership, governance, policy and decision-making that has persisted from the post-War, cold war period into the new, more complex socio-political and economic territory of the 21st Century.

There’s no doubt that the left – and the liberal centre – now has a major fight on its hands, but that fight is not – and should not be – for an establishment that has dismally failed people of all political persuasions all over the world, and benefited only the wealthy elites and private sector global pirateers. It should not be simply an anti-racist, anti-xenophobic campaign. It should be a campaign to dispel (or radically reform) the entire economic and bureaucratic system – replete with its systemic privileges, racisms and prejudices – from the general polis of the 21st Century.

A New Left Consensus: Challenging the Establishment

The world needs a left politics that serves the purposes and the context of the 21st Century. It should be a campaign that makes a serious effort to generate a new left body of thought and practise – one that draws on everything from sustainability (environmental protection, climate change, etc.) to new modes of local production, decentralised infrastructure, technology and modes of governance, the revival of grassroots activism(s), a new trade union philosophy (one that is appropriate for the changing nature of employment and work), as well as identity politics and indigeneity, and emerging new economies in the knowledge and informational ages – to formulate or sow the seeds of a transition to wholly new societal vision.

The challenge of this era is not one-dimensional, and one dimensional diagnoses will lead to inappropriate one-dimensional prognoses. Polycrisis and global hegemony are serious, intractable challenges that characterise this century, and any response to the rise of populist forces that fails to grasp this reality is bound to fail. The key to dealing with the complexity of the 21st Century is to go beyond reductionism and the false dichotomies that political philosophy lapses into so regularly and predictably. This century requires more consideration of the “and”, and less consideration of the “or”. The reason is simple; emergence (i.e. outcomes that are unpredictable beforehand) and catastrophic failure, results most often from unforeseen combinatorial effects; they are rarely the outcome of single causes or single variables.

Acknowledging that, is key to understanding how to prepare for, cope with, and harness complexity. As long as reductionism and dualism win out in how we diagnose the problems we are facing we will only ever be dealing with singular dimensions of a multi-dimensional problem; the head will always elude us; as we cut off one, another will pop up elsewhere, and we will grow exhausted and eventually be defeated. There is a system that underlies the seething discontent that has exploded on both the right and the left. That system is in the centre, and it has proven itself to be one that fosters inequality and uncertainty, threatens the sustainability of the natural environment and the ability of future generations to live in comfort and security.

So if the response to Trump is solely a moral cause, one that targets only his bigotry, I’m afraid little will be achieved in the global struggle to establish new models of society, ones that accommodate the multi-dimensional nature of society and carefully considers how systemic reproduction of gross inequalities and a fractured polis is engendered by the system itself. Indeed, I don’t think it is possible to address the moral imagination of society through one set of filters alone. It is not just race, but xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, the persecution of indigenous peoples, environmental destruction, climate change and a global economic system that need to be addressed at its root i.e. the system that produces and reproduces all these phenomena. 

I would argue that the great failing of civil society in the late 20th Century was to divide itself up along funding channels and advocate specific causes without adequately addressing the intricate linkages that sustain each great injustice through a set of others. The plight of indigenous peoples cannot be separated from that of environmental justice, the plight of the working and lower middle classes cannot be separated from the economic systems that are now ‘glocal’ in nature, just as the plethora of prejudices that prevail in societies across the world cannot be dealt with from a non-intersectional perspective.

To be clear, I think that an antagonistic and direct confrontation to the new right-wing Republican ‘consensus’ – if one can all it that – is warranted and necessary. However, the left is going to have to fight like hell on a number of fronts, and if it cannot make the links between the various struggles that require support, the danger is that it will amount to nothing more than an uncoordinated set of antagonisms that fizzle out, effectively remaining divided and conquered. There needs to be a coherent way – or set of ways – of making the links between these struggles, and addressing the core systems that underlie them. I see no other intelligent way forward but to acknowledge this, and to act from it.

That is, the economic system that produces and reproduces inordinate wealth amongst urban elites while generating gross inequalities – i.e. highly indebted households, large-scale unemployment and job insecurity, and poverty and near-poverty conditions, especially within the poor, working and middle classes, and entrenches marginalisation, limiting mobility and accessibility to those who do not possess the means to navigate the new economy and changing employment trends – needs to be revised.

The Threat of Fascism

However, it has to be clearly stated that waiting for medium and long-term changes that can result in a more desirable, equitable system that distributes wealth and opportunity more fairly is important, in the short term it is important to acknowledge and recognise the dangerously divisive forces that are in play. The socio-cultural threat that has arisen – accompanied by alt-right rhetoric and misinformation – may very well result in the targeting of minorities such as Hispanics, Jews, Asians and Muslims, as well as people of colour and immigrants, to the detriment of long-term societal cohesion. The forces of division are never easily assuaged, and once entrenched, take a long time to overcome.

It is not enough to hope for the best. Concerted, clear action is necessary from the outset, action that confronts the forces of racism, neo-colonialism and xenophobia head on, and to refuse to give an inch to it. There should be no “appeasement”, no “wait-and-see”.

We must always take the racists, xenophobes, misogynists, homophobes and supremacists by their word; it is folly indeed to attempt to read deeper into their rhetoric in the hope of deciphering a more palatable sub-text. For this kind of racism – according to Hannah Arendt – is banal, superficial and has no roots. Rather it spreads as a fungus, attaching itself easily to whatever surface it can grow on. It is not radical, because radical implies having deep roots (i.e. if one considers the etymology of the word).

It is one thing to hope for the best, it is quite another to allow the conditions for a murderous society and regime to emerge in one’s midst. It is necessary to fight it directly – and unrelentingly – from he outset, that way it will be forced to show its true face, and if its face is that of true ultra-fascism and hope soon begins to dwindle, you will know that it is time to leave that society and begin life elsewhere. Too many have suffered disastrous loss under fascist regimes that are emboldened by popular support to ignore this reality, and anyone who does so, does so at their peril.

And even those who may think that they are safe from harm, because they ‘fit in’ with fascist movements should think again, because pure is never pure enough, and it is the way of fascists to devour their own young once they’ve feasted on the flesh of others. Where fascism appears, war is never far off. This much is always guaranteed whenever fascism raises its ugly head, irrespective of whatever society it does so in. Fascism is totalitarian in nature, it seeks absolute control and endures in its quest precisely to attain the kind of power that allows it to achieve this. It is not a system that can survive the globalised world we live in, and the question that we should all be concerned with is whether globalisation can survive the rise of a global right-wing crypto-fascist consensus that masquerades as a conservative agenda.

Concluding Note

In conclusion, the dichotomy between the emerging narratives – i.e. it is either right wing resurgence or an emergent anti-establishment sentiment – is false.  Clearly both phenomena are emerging, and both require appropriate responses i.e. according to their weight and significance. Merely focusing on one, without paying adequate attention to the other, constitutes a partial strategy that – in the end – may do more harm than good. It is not enough to address one and not the other. The complexity of the 21st Century is revealing itself, and we must respond to it with all the tools we have, if we are to bring about a world where everyone has a place, and all can thrive within it without fear of hate and socio-economic insecurity.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

After the Sun Sets: A Country Divided

The stark contrast between the protest actions taken yesterday is itself indicative of the real threat that South Africa needs saving from. Instead of cross-class and non-partisan unity the fragmented polis of South Africa exposed itself for what is has become. The split screens on television were revealing; corporate, political and civil society leaders, whose silence for so long enabled this crisis on the one hand, and the marginal and excluded working class on the other, with the DA firing off tangentially to it all. 

We need to quit the addiction to momentous moments - as desirable and inspiring as they are - and put in the real work to build real broad-based unity, even if it is issue and interest based. I'm not keen to rain on the parade, but it's worth remembering that sustained effort, rather than momentary expressions of discontent, is what is actually missing in this country. To be frank, we need to save South Africa not only from its current leadership, but from ourselves; as we are the society that has allowed this mess to spiral out of control. We need to spend a lot of time looking in the mirror as a nation before this ship gets turned around.

Yesterday’s events, saw the launching of the new Save South Africa campaign, as well as an attempt by the Economic Freedom Fighters to occupy the Union Buildings and Pretoria in a bid to force the resignation of the President, and a largely tangential gathering by the Democratic Alliance that also called for the President’s head. The race, class and political ‘geography’ or territories ascribed by these movements reveals a great deal about the profound divisions within South African society.

The newly launched Save South Africa campaign largely consists of a temporary alliance of old activists and political leaders with corporate and civil society leaders. That is, it clearly consists of the elite of the political and business classes, who until very recently remained reticent to enter the fray and denounce the president and his current leadership. Until now, they have largely played a game of self-interest, extracting what benefits they could from the derailed and dysfunctional political leadership of the country.

It is worth mentioning that they have only ‘come to the party’ – so to speak – and found their political voices when the economic and institutional decline of the country teeters on a precipice. It remains to be seen whether their efforts will result in the revision of state and government policy that is required to address the deeply entrenched socio-political and economic challenges facing the country. Over the past ten years, protest action at grassroots level and amongst workers has grown exponentially, yet they have been largely ignored by the middle classes who, secure in comfort in their gated enclaves, remained largely unaffected by failures in service delivery and access to the law and justice. Only in recent years, have problems with services such as energy and water impacted them directly, if temporarily and intermittently.

Widespread ‘service delivery’ protests in poor and marginal communities rarely deserved mention in the press; indeed, South Africans are more likely to hear about service delivery protests on traffic reports rather than in the reports of the mainstream media. It is only when the student protest movement brought that level of disruption, disorder and violence to the hallowed halls of the tertiary education sector did it provoke a response from the enduringly silent middle classes and elite. And their responses have been largely reactive and unreflective, unable to integrate the discontent that has been building amongst the poor in this society into their analysis of the moment.

This profound disconnect – which lies at the core of the troubles of the new South Africa – and which is reflected in the drastically high levels of inequality within it, played out with uneasy predictability in the protest actions that were undertaken yesterday. The fractures along which the ‘rainbow nation’ is split was revealed in plain sight.

While the Save South Africa and Democratic Alliance events were characteristically outspoken, they remained measured and typically benign. They voiced their discontent in an orderly fashion, and did not undertake any direct action; they made demands, but there was no exercise of power (e.g. sit-ins, occupations, confrontations) apart from the political and economic power they hold as the elite of the political and business classes, and the middle classes, respectively. That is, the power they have is self-evident enough not to have to engage in drastic action; they have the luxury of being able to express discontent and be ensured that it will ripple across society and the world.

In contrast, the Economic Freedom Fighters march was an exercise in disruption, intended to bring all of Pretoria – the administrative capital of South Africa – to a complete standstill. There was no overall plan for the protest action undertaken by the EFF; marchers split into groups to disrupt business and traffic through the city (some looting ensued), and converged again at certain points, eventually marching on the Union Buildings in an attempt to occupy its lawns and force the president’s resignation thereby. The EFF’s power has not come automatically. That is, it is not derived from unquestionable political and economic power; rather, its power has been derived, from its very inception, from its willingness and capacity to disrupt the status quo with revolutionary fervour and zeal.

It is worth remembering that the political status quo proved very difficult to shift and destabilise until the EFF entered parliament and embarked upon its program of disruption at the very highest levels of power. They’ve held parliament ransom with relentless filibustering, open protest action (e.g. singing “pay back the money!”) and refusal to back down, often resulting in them being physically thrown out of parliament.

They’ve taken occupy protest styled practises directly to parliament, and have shaken up South African politics immeasurably; the opposition, as well as dissenters within the ANC have benefited from their antics. Hence it must be stated that it is the EFF who called out the large elephant in the chambers of parliament and relentlessly stuck to their guns, drawing the attention of broader South African society to its pressing political challenges. They disrupted the status quo and demonstrated that direct challenge to those in power was not only possible, but effective.

This method – of direct confrontation – is also what lay at the heart of the student movement, as it pushed for changes and won out against institutions of higher education and government. They’ve effectively shut down the national system of higher education, and forced its agenda to the very highest levels of power, yet not without enduring great controversy and disdain towards their methods. Both their willingness to engage in disruption, which veers into intimidation and occasional flare-ups of violence, has been roundly condemned. Yet the condemnations have conflated disruptive protest with violent protest, and conveniently ignored the fact that institutional brinkmanship and heavily securitised responses have led to a breakdown in communication and have scuppered efforts to channel discontent in useful and positive directions.

Yet it is all too easy to level harsh criticism of the EFF and the student movement(s); criticisms range from fascism to anti-poor accusations of ‘entitlement’ and sneering disdain at demands for radical change such as “decolonisation” of curricula and institutions. Notwithstanding, the fact remains that it is precisely these direct confrontations with power that have elevated the agenda to unseat President Zuma and his compromised leadership, and have created the climate of direct confrontation that has emboldened the previously silent middle class, as well as political and business elites, to make their voices heard.

While the engagement and participation of the middle classes and business and political elites are welcome, it would be wholly disingenuous to present the actions of Save South Africa and the Democratic Alliance as that which underlies the push for change in South Africa. As the euphoria of this moment does its rounds, and hyperbolic claims are made about ‘the people taking to the streets’, it is worth remembering who has been out in the streets dodging bullets and batons to create the potential for this moment to be actualised.

It is worth remembering that it is not just a call for the current leadership of the country to resign, but for deep structural changes to be made within the state and economy, so that the combination of structural and system racism and inequality that is tearing this nation apart is addressed. It is worth remembering that there are dual systems of service provision, access to infrastructure, education, policing, access to justice and employment in this country, and that this dual system perpetuates the division that lies at the heart of South African society i.e. between the poor and the middle classes and elites. That the neo-Apartheid spatiality of South Africa only serves to entrench and reproduce these divisions, and that as a society we remain divided.

We are ironically united only in our disunity; in our inability to reach across class and race divides to build a cohesive society that cares for all equally within it. It is worth remembering that the last time we took our eyes off the substantive issues we fought for, and fell prey to sentiment and adopted compromises that went too far, our national political project was compromised and the status quo prevailed. The late arrivals into the space of action in South Africa, bring with them the risk of ensuring that the status quo is preserved and the potential for radical transformative change is lost in this historic moment.

If there is to be unity, it needs to be built on the common understanding that it is our divided, fractured and ailing society that lies at the heart of the problems we are experiencing as a country, that we can change leaderships like we change underwear and still end up perpetuating more of the same. It is time for those who are entering the space of action in South African society to begin listening to each other, and building consensus around a key set of issues (e.g. access to services, education, poverty and inequality for starters) and to formulate a programme of action that it puts before the state. Irrespective of what party is in power, there is a clear need for a state-led set of priorities that South African society stands to benefit from, and this needs to be the first priority of the protest actions that are currently being undertaken. Merely toppling the president and all his ‘men’, will not cut it in the long term, because as the sun sets on each new day in this country, the all too entrenched realities of sharp inequalities, social divisions and tensions remains and festers into the next.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

#FeesMustFall: Rants, Meltdowns and Recriminations

As the end of the year approaches, and the deadlock that #FeesMustFall student protesters have brought about at universities and other tertiary institutions across the country has entrenched, we have witnessed a mounting number Facebook rants, public proclamations, and newspaper articles pregnant with denunciations and calls for firmer leadership. Senior lecturers, professors and other commentators who are associated with academia in South Africa have stormed into the fray spouting apocalyptic visions, convinced that the nihilism of an unhinged youth is set to destroy all they know and are familiar with.

A fair amount of bluster and recriminations have been leveled against Vice Chancellors who have shut down campuses. Critics among the staff deem the VC’s to be acting with weak resolve, acquiescing in too great a degree to the protesting students. Their most often repeated concern is that non-protesting students are being unfairly denied their opportunity to learn, but there are other dimensions to the crisis that has motivated them into action; universities will likely be bankrupt for the year, there are insecurities around how salary payments will be made to staff, and staff layoffs may occur as a result. Junior academics will likely be the greatest losers, and the threat of academic emigration has come to the forefront.

Yet, these rather late grumblings from the establishment is perhaps the surest sign that the balance of power has changed significantly. Universities – and their staff – are beginning to hurt. With their careers and pay-checks balancing precariously, and with a level of uncertainty not previously experienced in post-Apartheid academia, their responses have been charged with recrimination and angry calls for stronger action to be taken against protesting students have ensued.

They have charged the students with radicalism, militancy, insurrectionism, fascism and a variety of other hyperboles that don’t stand up when compared with other, similar protests around the world. Many of the rants have been unreflective and constitute what I have come to term, “meltdowns by micro-aggression”. In some cases, the aggression is absolute and the calls for action are outraged and misguided.

It begs the question; what stronger action can be taken? Are rubber bullets, water cannons, tear gas and stun grenades not strong enough? Are curfews, restrictions on groupings, searches, guarded access to lecture theatres, widespread arrests and targeting of student leaders, denial of bail, and beatings and harassment at the hands of ill-trained private security not harsh enough? Has the failure of securitising campuses not proven evident enough? Is the involvement of state security agencies that view the student protesters as “regime change elements” not enough?

What’s the next step; live ammunition, call in the army? Is a return to Apartheid era strong arm tactics the solution to this crisis? Or is it now clear that the only way that this crisis will be resolved is through obtaining a firm commitment from government to ensuring universal access to higher education, and clear institutional transformation plans that focus on diversifying staff and syllabuses? It is fair to say that the latter route is the most desirable, and holds the most promise for a much needed transformation of the higher education sector. Things change, that is the nature of everything; it has become untenable to proceed in the same vein as academia did one or two decades ago. The 21st Century has seeded a desire for a new, more inclusive and reflective system of learning and researching. It is not just a local struggle, but a global one; as evidenced by similar protests across the world.

While the traditional establishment figures seem to have wandered into the fray rather late in the crisis, there has been a firm and steady commitment from a small group of academic staff who have repeatedly called for the de-escalation of violent confrontation by taking private security off campus and limiting the involvement of police on campus – rather, choosing prolonged negotiation, dialogue and consensus building instead. These appeals went largely ignored, as the priorities of ensuring business-as-usual took precedence. The result has been disastrous; many university administrations that chose to continue classes with heightened security and police presence are now no closer to resolving a way forward with protesters.

The chorus of establishment voices that have arisen, seemingly out of nowhere, are making their views heard extraordinarily late in this crisis. It does not help that many of them took a dim view of student protesters early on in the crisis, and made ill-advised disparaging and condescending remarks, not only in private, but publicly – on social media – which has the effect of discrediting their current views, no matter how well formulated or sensible they may appear to be on the surface. They did not avail themselves early on in the crisis, did not take the student protesters and their demands seriously, and have dithered along hoping that it would all just go away. Their absence and condescension at a distance has played a strong role in determining where this crisis has ended up.

The VC’s, who have been struggling with the rather complex dynamics of the protest actions have been at it for a lot longer, and in all fairness, the recent calls from the traditional establishment seem rather opportunistic. While it often goes unacknowledged, academics are extremely competitive, and cut-throat manoeuvres are commonplace, precisely – as some joke – because “the stakes are so low”. In a micro-verse where reputations and authority are paramount, careerist opportunism is rife. Money, is not the only driver of competitive behaviour, and it is common for ambitious academics to go for the jugular when the opportunity presents itself. No doubt, some are eyeing the crisis as an opportunity to advance themselves within the establishment.

If they had been deeply concerned from the outset, surely they would have been far more active in resolving the crisis. Surely they would have bothered to engage with student protesters more openly, and with less derision. If they were honestly concerned with the whole student body then does it not make sense to pursue lengthy – even if frustrating – engagements with the protesters. Instead, derogatory remarks and curt dismissals were order of the day earlier in the crisis, and many academics still show a startling lack of understanding of the student crisis.

Their responses, early on, led the universities down the path of polarisation, as they attempted to cast the student protesters as a radical minority whose sense of “entitlement” (notwithstanding that the use of the term in the pejorative ironically refers to privilege i.e. the opposite of entitlement) and radical positions on transformation were sufficient cause to dismiss them. They have proceeded to treat this ‘minority’ (who in reality represent the greater majority of black South Africans) as an outsider phenomenon that have no place in their hallowed halls of privilege.

Now that the “do nothing and see what happens” approach has failed, and universities across the country are in deadlock with protesters, a stream of critics have burst onto the scene, lambasting both students and administrations, the government and all those who support the protest actions. They seem to have forgotten their role in exacerbating and extending the crisis, and their knee-jerk reactions early on in the crisis that catalysed the polarisation of universities. If universities had spent this year in serious engagement with protesters, and had managed to find common ground, they could have by now established a programme of joint action to put before government. This would have been a constructive outcome.

This is not to entirely exonerate the student protesters; there have been incidents of intimidation, death-threats, and acts of violence and arson, and a lack of coherent messaging, but this should not detract from who holds the institutional power in this crisis, and who should have been level-headed and calm, and sincerely devoted themselves to seeking solutions earlier on in the crisis. It is rather disingenuous only to act on a crisis when it has reached a head, having been dismissive and condescending about it all along, and having shown the poor judgement to make those positions known early on in the crisis.

It is entirely likely that the derogatory and dismissive attitude displayed by establishment figures towards the protesters early on this year actually led to the intimidations and threats that were directed at some of them. If they had sought to leave matters in the hands of the VC’s and management alone, their ill-advised public forays early on only stood to make negotiations more difficult for the VC’s and their management teams. That is, if they were going to stay out of it, they should have been circumspect about their public pronouncements.

I think it’s fair to say that they have played a role – from the side-lines – in exacerbating the climate of confrontation and repudiation, and are part of the problem in that sense. To jump into the fray now, with prescriptions and demands of their own – so late in the day – appears to be little more than a panicked attempt to assert an authority that they have already squandered by the lack of engagement and sarcastic disdain they demonstrated early on in the crisis.

These recent “meltdowns by micro-aggression” are merely more of the same, and do little to build a bridge out of this crisis. All it shows is that those who thought themselves comfortable within the establishment are now being dislodged. They face financial uncertainty and job insecurity, and that has led them to lash out. Ironically, they are now in a position to begin to understand the difficulties that student protesters have campaigned so fiercely over; where financial stress and the constant threat of being shut out of opportunities that shape their lives and future have become untenable. A condition characterised by stalemates and deadlocks with institutions that are insensitive to their difficulties.

Finding a way out of this crisis does not require more of the same ridiculous posturing that has led to the polarisation and dysfunction of the higher education system (i.e. on both sides of the conflict, notwithstanding the obvious power imbalance between them). It requires a break from it, and a willingness to begin afresh, make apologies and find common ground that both sides can act from. Internal power struggles and grandstanding are hardly likely to prove useful in this respect. What is needed are conciliatory and sensible modes of engagement that seek to build unity and greater shared understanding. It is only from that basis that the crisis can be resolved in the long term.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

#FeesMustFall: The Questions We Should Be Asking

That South Africa has one of the best academic systems on the continent is beyond doubt. It is, for the most part, well-resourced and actively engaged in ground-breaking research on many fronts. It is exclusive – that cannot be denied – but it has well-established foundations, produces a great deal of research, and by all measures, leads the continent in many disciplines and fields. The South African academic system is also deeply engaged in understanding and solving South African challenges, and views itself as critical in the role of nation-building and intellectual leadership. We have many well-respected professors who are internationally renowned for their contributions, and exhibit a depth of knowledge and analytical capability that is enviable.

So it begs the question; with all the in-depth research and analysis that is undertaken each year, and with all the well-funded and resourced programmes we have that focus on the social and cultural dimensions of change in South Africa, why did nobody see the current student crisis coming? Moreover, why did nobody prepare adequately for it?

Indeed, the public is left with the impression that our institutions of higher learning have been caught off guard, that they have been unfairly cast before a set of circumstances that have appeared out of thin air, a complete surprise; a “black swan” that rose up from the hidden workings of society catching all and sundry unawares. Surely there is something wrong with this picture? After all, is it not precisely the purpose of research to detect significant societal changes that are unfolding, and especially those that threaten to destabilise it?

Climate scientists and researchers, for example, spend a lot of time warning society about the potentially harmful effects of climate change. Let’s not get into the merits of whether these warnings are taken up by society, but the fact is that the campaign to inform society about potential climate change impacts has been widespread and extremely active. They have got the word out.

What failed academia in respect of the youth uprising that is currently on its doorstep? Was it not foreseeable? I have sat in on many discussions where concerns were raised, and laborious data sets were presented about growing public discontent with the status quo (especially service delivery data). Youth politics has changed dramatically in recent years. Closer to home, there have been protests and grievance processes running at South African Universities since the early 1990s. With all the well-paid and highly skilled leadership teams that these institutions have had, how is it possible that nobody picked up on the warning signals?

Surely the question of how the best higher education system in Africa failed to pick up the signs that a veritable thunderstorm was brewing on its doorsteps speaks volumes for its incapacities and inadequacies? And is this not precisely the question that should be given the very highest of priorities right now?

With all the mea culpa’s, the angry accusations of militancy, radicalism and violence, the concerns about the academic year-end and the potential consequences of shutdown; the central question – which revolves around a critical failing of our institutions – is not being asked. Why is this the case?

To reiterate the point, we have many extremely skilled and intelligent academics, who produce volumes of research, secure large amounts of funding for research programmes, and collaborate with colleagues from across the globe. They are not stupid or ignorant. So why aren’t they asking themselves the questions that they should be, namely; how did this happen on our watch? What did we miss?

It’s all fine and well to point fingers in every direction, and descend into the minutiae of who did what first, and who is to blame for what, but surely, the burning question should be – to people who are concerned with understanding society and the changes unfolding within it – how did we miss a discontent so large that it has crippled our institutions?

Moreover, in order to solve a crisis that is characterised by deep conflict, surely one has to begin with recognising one’s role in helping create it, or catalysing it? Is that not what we teach our children? That no conflict is ever one-sided, and owning up to that is the basis for negotiating compromise. Putting oneself in another’s shoes, so to speak?

It simply cannot be that the system we have is beyond reproach, and beyond the need for re-envisioning and transformation, if it failed as dismally as it has in respect of the student protester movement that has all but crippled it, with great pain and regret on both sides of the fence. This must be acknowledged and absorbed, adequately contemplated, before we can even think of moving into a future where these protests cease to be the new norm.

Indeed the logic that poses that our institutions are above reproach, and that any tampering will ruin them, is surely misplaced? Surely this crisis, is a stronger indicator than ever, that the system itself is problematic in some – or many – ways? That it is in need of change?

I have many speculations and observations to offer on why our higher education systems failed to predict the crisis that landed so squarely on its doorstep, but for the sake of keeping the question open I will abstain from colouring the exploration of this question with my own suppositions. Academia needs to interrogate itself. If it cannot, then it is not an academic project in the true sense, it is merely a system of knowledge production, one that does not introspect deeply on the society that it is resides within.

I will say this, however. The fact that questions regarding what kind of changes are necessary are thrown back to twenty-something protesters with annoying regularity, indicates what mode of engagement our academics have descended to in addressing this crisis. It does not matter how many accusatory articles are written in the end, if an honest appraisal of the system is not something that South Africa’s intelligentsia are willing to undertake. And it would be ironic, as they have been central to a number of prescriptions regarding what kind of society we should aspire to live in, and continue to fight hard for their positions; amongst each other as well as in efforts to influence policy and decision-makers.

What is clear, is that it is time for academia to take some of its own medicine, humble itself, and get down to solving the very pressing and potentially enlightening and transformative challenges that face it. There is no way around this central fact; that this crisis has been a long time in the making, and that many feet have dragged on issues concerning inclusivity and transformation. The proverbial chickens have come home to roost and it is ridiculous to treat them as pure externalities, as events outside of the control of university administrations. This crisis is not just about fees, it is about the lack of an inclusive academic culture, and a rigid adherence to a status quo that is unquestioning of itself. The crisis mirrors that unfolding in our society and we would do well to put all our effort into understanding and acting upon it, before it’s too late.