Open Book day 1: Decol debate moves on

The steady progress of the decolonisation movement initiated by #rhodesmustfall and then #feesmustfall was clear at the opening of Open Book yesterday.

When decolonisation was discussed at Open Book two years ago, tension crackled across the audience. There was the woke finger click applause when a panelist spoke of the need for Eurocentric structures and curricula to fall, while the bristling of (white) hackles was almost equally audible. Those of us concerned about the lack of nuance in the debate quietly squirmed in our seats, and squirmed further when some pale skinned person got ahold of the question-time mic and made some appalling statement about the traditions of academia and why were people so desperate to attend colonial institutions if they hated them so much?

There were at least two of 25 events on Open Book day one which showed how far this discussion has progressed. Either that or the colonial apologists have finally shut up – with the exception of Helen Zille of course. I’d like to believe it’s the former, and that Open Book proves we don’t have to immediately find solutions to debates or tack the final word onto national conversations. Rather, it is the continuation and development of conversations that helps to deepen understanding and obtaining broader consensus, a continuation that an event such as Open Book nurtures.

That there wasn’t a single finger-click or raised hackle at the Decolonising Academia event at 2pm featuring the new UCT Vice-Chancellor Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng in discussion with Prof Pumla Gqola, showed this is possible. The conversation has progressed beyond whether decolonisation of our institutions is needed, to how we should go about it.

Similarly, the 6pm conversation between Abigail Calata, her husband Lukhanyo Calata (whose father Ford was one of the Cradock Four murdered by apartheid police), advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, and Koketso Sachane, centred not on whether, but how our history should be retold to provide remembrance of injustice as the most basic form of justice. And not a raised hackle in the full room. Not that hackles shouldn’t be raised, consciences pricked, and backs got up, its just that the contention lies in new debates. Such as land, perhaps, although nuance seems to rapidly be making a welcome appearance there too. Unfortunately The Critter could not be in two places at once so the 12pm Land – Beyond the Rhetoric discussion was missed, but the audience who spilled out into the Fugard Theatre foyer afterwards was convivial.

Certainly UCT seems to be in good hands with Prof Phakeng, who knows her worth.

A statement such as “I know the game (of academic leadership) and what’s worth getting excited about. I can recognise potential and what to do with it,” may seem bombastic on its own, but it needs to be seen in the context of someone who, during her short stint as Vice-Chancellor, has attended churches in Langa and Gugulethu in an effort to get to know and better understand some of the broader Cape Town community of which UCT is part. At these churches, she says, you find that the cleaners and security guards working on campus are deacons and church elders on the weekend. So on a Sunday the chief adminstrator of their workplace places herself on the lower rungs of a different institutional hierarchy. And when asked to address the congregation, the community, her message is that they own the university. The institution is not there to take from them, nor to “be their saviour”, but as a public institution, “it is theirs”. In this light, her statements of achievement reflect a pragmatic assessment of her worth, rather than any boast. And besides, how is it that white men are not called bombastic when they make regular claims of exceptional capabilities?

She was forthright about attacks against her, and that she never wanted the VC position. It was Prof Bongani Mayosi, the dean of UCT’s health science faculty who tragically committed suicide on July 27, who convinced her to assent to staff putting her name forward.

She said Mayosi convinced her to “accept the challenge” when he said “we can complain about transformation as much as we like, but if we don’t take responsibility for it, who will?”.

But equally – and perhaps this also reveals how much we’ve progressed – when the question of former Wits Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib’s term ending came up in 2017, feesmustfall activist leader Mcebo Dlamini told her the activists didn’t want her to put her name forward for the position. She says Dlamini said “we don’t want you. We want a white person, because if you become VC how are we going to fight?” The simple story of that conversation reveals her fearlessness in calling out bullshit, a critique of the politicisation of the feesmustfall movement, and her commitment to decolonisation while upholding academic excellence.

The conversations continue at Open Book today, tomorrow, the next day, and the next.

Open Book Festival is sponsoring The Critter’s attendance

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