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Protests And Papers -- What Is The Work Of Decolonising Universities?

Protests and the decolonising work we need to do in seminars, lectures and tutorials cannot be mutually exclusive with protesting.

27/10/2017 06:49 SAST | Updated 27/10/2017 06:49 SAST
Voice of the Cape

I was asked to present a paper at a seminar at the University of Cape Town's History Department on Wednesday 25th October. On the day of the seminar, UCT students had a shutdown. When the student protests began in 2015 I watched the drama unfold from the comfort of my home.

Having recently come back into academia as a lecturer and a student, I have had to contend with what it means to be in the university space with the awareness of the work of decolonising universities while being part of the system. While visiting UCT I was directly affected by what a shutdown means as someone who believes that the work I am doing is part of decolonising the curriculum in meaningful ways.

The paper I presented at UCT is about Maxeke and Mgqwetho's work which has led me to revisit black women's place in the nationalist politics of the early 20th century which has been dominated by narratives about the 'big men of history and politics' who eclipse other political movements in the late 19th century and the early 20th century (I've written about this article here and here).

Reading Maxeke and Mgqwetho alongside each other, blows wide open the narrative about a Congress that was cohesive and represented the plight of black people after the establishment of the Union of South Africa and the Land Act of 1913.

Reading Maxeke and Mgqwetho made me rethink the erasure of women during this period because women seem to only appear in 1956 as though they were not protesting in 1913 and as though they were passive observers while the men attended meetings and made deputations. Mgqwetho's poetry and Maxeke's letter are evidence that women were thinking and writing about the politics of the time. In my mind, writing about Maxeke and Mgqwetho is a response to the need to decolonise knowledge in universities and in public discourse.

A day before the protest I heard about a mass meeting on campus and an impending shutdown which may affect the lunchtime seminar I have been invited to. I sent a message to the organiser of the seminar and she assured me that there shouldn't be a problem and the seminar should go ahead. A few hours before the seminar was set to begin I got a call from her telling me the seminar has been cancelled because of the shutdown.

We were also angry about what it meant to disrupt a place where black women are the workers: what does solidarity with workers mean if students can also disrupt work that working-class women need?

I had already been browsing through Twitter and while I was disappointed, I was not surprised. I decided to go to campus to meet a friend and to see the action for myself. I arrived on a busy campus and my friend and I followed the crowd to see and hear the rallying cry. I was still not certain about what the shut down meant and what the purpose was. There were meetings about a march to parliament to demand the fees commission report and protest against suspicions of a fee increase.

I could not hear the speakers who are making the rallying cry for action amongst the students and while a throng of students joined in song and moved on to the next phase of the protest across campus --presumably to gather numbers for the protest -- my friend and I wandered across campus to find coffee. We found a spot at Café Frigo and while we were catching up and lamenting the morning's events and all things education, an angry student walked in brandishing a fire extinguisher.

He was angry and began shouting menacingly "yintoni ngoku, yishutdown apha"! I was stunned and angry at the way he addressed the people sitting at the cafe without any regard for why we were not part of the protest. He used the fire extinguisher near the main counter at Café Frigo and students and staff ran out escaping the fumes. The café closed in a flurry and we were all outside wondering about what to do next. My friend and I were furious about the use of the fire extinguisher because in previous protests a worker had died after an asthma attack caused by the fumes.

We were also angry about what it meant to disrupt a place where black women are the workers: what does solidarity with workers mean if students can also disrupt work that working-class women need? Did they consider how their wages may be affected? Do they care about the health of those they claim to care about while using a fire extinguisher to harm people and violently remove them in order for them join in the protest?

When the fire extinguishing student disappeared with his weapon we returned to the chairs near Café Frigo with some discomfort. We shall not be moved. However, with the seminar cancelled there was no need to be on campus and I met up with the organiser and we decided to go to Cocoa Wah Wah to catch up. Main Road was full of students milling around. Cocoa Wah Wah was abuzz with students and we found some space at Vida across the road.

While sitting there I got a call that there were a few people at the History Department who had turned up for the seminar. We rushed back to campus to find a few people who are keen to listen. By 13:20 we are sitting on beanbags ready to begin. There were about 10 of us. I was reminded of the scripture, "Where two or three are gathered..." there is a quorum.

It seems the work of the university is held to ransom and we are at the mercy of student unrest.

I presented snippets of the paper and we ended with a discussion about the politics of African languages in current political spaces, the politics of the archive and the need to decolonise using different methods of scholarship and theorising.

My experience at UCT of a disorganised protest and going ahead with the seminar with a small group of people led me to think about what it means to work at this moment with the "threat" of protests; this decolonial moment of looming chaos and disruption. I use the word threat deliberately because it seems the work of the university is held to ransom and we are at the mercy of student unrest.

While I support the importance of protest I think we need to have conversations about strategic protests which allow more nuanced action in order to get the government and the university to meet the demands of transforming our education system.

Protests and the decolonising work we need to do in seminars, lectures and tutorials cannot be mutually exclusive with protesting. A myopic view that the protests outside are the only way to decolonise the university is not helpful if we are to advance the work of decolonising knowledge.