University Seminar 2016: Achille Mbembe on the new politics of the South African student

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This is the full transcript  of an interview with Achille Mbembe by freelance journalist and writer Hans Pienaar. The interview was originally commissioned by Business Day but hasn't been published in its complete form.

How do you see the student movement panning out?

Also read:
Reclaiming Multilingualism

The problem with South Africa is that all predictions always seem to run counter to the brutal fact that South Africa always seems to escape any prediction. What happens is never what people predict will happen.

But that having been said, the general observation is that South Africa is at a crossroads. Both economically and politically. Politically it is very clear that short of major, internal reform the ANC will keep losing support in the coming years. It will keep losing support either because some of its core constituency will choose to abstain from voting for it, or because they will choose to defect to other political formations. As things stand right now the EFF is the political party most likely to benefit from this defection. Second, a new generation of social protagonists is emerging on the South African political scene. We have seen them at work during the very recent student protests; we have also seen them during the very important march the EFF organised recently. The number of those new social and political actors recruited were mostly among the young people, and their number will keep increasing. And thirdly, all predictions seem to show that the economic situation is going to tighten up. We are likely to enter an era of austerity, and the combination of these three factors make it such that the future is anything but predictable. The future is probably up for grabs.

So I want to ask you about your prognosis ...

I think the economic situation is going to define … You see, 0% is fine, but you don’t run universities like that. Free education is all fine, but somebody has to pay for it. You can’t have 14, 15 million people on social grants. A public service of more than one million people with annual wage increases above inflation and wasting money in parastatals and VIP this and that and of profligacy … you cannot go on a long time with it without at some point having to borrow and then having to reimburse. So a lot will be decided by the economy. Imagine that … I mean, I see this year they have the level of revenue of tax slightly decreased and you have all these things that are coming in and the rating agencies are busy rating down and the national debt is going up, and the currency keeps just deteriorating. If you don’t stop that you will have to pay for that very seriously at some point. Can you have a decrease of revenue and a huge number of people who want things for free? So how long it will take I don’t know. The economy doesn’t recover properly and … we begin to see growth rates of no more than 1,5% while next door it is 7%, 6% in the continent. It is not tenable. So the prognosis is that we have to keep looking at the economic indicators – they’ll tell us where the whole thing is going.

Standing still with the student protests, you seem to see them as very important. But there is the criticism that it is something that is going to blow over, that specifically many of the students (and this is an observation from people from outside who maybe haven’t paid close enough attention) … that the students involved seem to be mostly from the humanities – you don’t get engineering students or medical students taking part. Is that your sense as well, that it is confined to the humanities?

It depends on what campus one is talking about. It is clear that at Wits the main impetus is coming from the humanities, especially from politics, sociology, and to a lesser extent from anthropology. And at other campuses what the students have done is that they have built a cross-disciplinary coalition. You have people coming from law, from engineering, at least during the first phase of the movement. At UCT for instance, the #RhodesMustFall movement, most of the intellectuals were in fact coming from areas outside of the humanities. But beyond the disciplinary affiliations one thing is clear: we have a generation of young people who are no longer willing to accept the national narrative as it has been constructed since 1994, meaning around key values of racial reconciliation, market economy, non-racialism and so forth. It’s a generation of people who are more and more convinced that they have been sold a lie, and I am quoting them. And they are determined to put on the table some of the questions we have put under the carpet for a long time – questions of property and ownership, questions of democratisation of access, questions of whiteness, and fairness. All those difficult issues we have not tackled enough, they are willing to bring them to the open, sharpen the antagonisms and get them resolved. And that shift, that cultural shift it seems to me is much more important than anything else, and it signals a new form of politics, at least on campuses. The challenge will be to what extent these new protagonists are capable of linking up with other social and professional categories, workers, the disenfranchised youth … Will they be able to build broad coalitions to put new claims on to the state and on to society? It’s something we have to look for – to, let’s say, observe very attentively.

Speaking of coalitions, are you surprised and encouraged by the broad coalition among intellectuals? I’m thinking of what is happening at Business Day, that while there is a lot of criticism in the normal quarters you also have a very conservative writer like Simon Lincoln Reader who came out in support of the students. What do you make of that?

The students have won a major argument. The argument has to do with how we apportion resources and the national wealth, and for what? They have won an argument concerning the necessity for this country to invest seriously in its future. And they have been able to bring a number of people from the left as well as from the right to agree on the necessity to invest in the future. The debate they have reopened has to do with how we use … we apportion … the national budget. South Africa spends between 0,6% and 0,7% of its national budget on higher education. This is not acceptable. It is not acceptable from an economic point of view, nor is it acceptable from a political point of view. It is far less than what poorer countries in Africa allocate to higher education. It is even far less than what countries of similar levels of development in the world allocate for higher education.

The students have also effectively put on the table the question of what it is that should be considered as priceless. Meaning what pertains to the domain of what the people in the country shouldn’t be commodifying and what should be kept away from that process of commodification, and that has been part of the way in which we’ve lived since 1994. And I think there is huge scope for building coalitions around such key questions of the future, provided the student movement doesn’t fall into sectarianism, as has been the case among the left.

You have said in criticising the ANC, its failure over the past 20 years, you then call for the ANC to use its numbers to impose a new way of thinking, simply by virtue of numbers.

No, no, I was just saying the argument was this: people are telling you, “Oh, white people are everywhere, they are dominating everything, and we are powerless.” And I was saying, “OK, look, how can you be powerless, you hold political power, don’t you? And if you hold political power, how can you say that you are powerless?” and then they tell you, “Oh, we hold political power, but those who hold political power are just … in French … marionettes … puppets … yah, they are just puppets in the service of white capital. So in fact they don’t have power.” So the argument I was making was, this is nonsense, you cannot tell me that you are entirely powerless. You have political power and for sure you can do something with political power. You may not have economic power entirely, but with your political power you can achieve a whole set of things other people did achieve with it.

In Malaysia for instance, in Singapore, where one had more or less a similar situation, where you have … the Chinese minority held huge economic power and through a set of carefully crafted programmes that had nothing to do with BEE programmes for instance, they managed to transform the structure of property in the country. It didn’t result in the Chinese losing anything, but it resulted in those who were excluded from those realms gaining something, gaining a stake in the economy. A tangible stake. So don’t tell me that you are powerless. You can only say you are powerless if you haven’t been creative enough to go around and see how it is that other people in more or less similar situations managed to transform their own society …

And I was also saying, objectively, in a black majority country for sure there must be some ways in which the cultural structures, the debates are framed in such a way that you do not feel always as outsiders. This has something to do with numbers, which is not about wiping out white people, excluding them, asking them to shut up, which is something different. Why haven’t you experimented with that?

So it was an argument against the idea that blacks in South Africa 20 years into democracy are powerless and therefore whites are the ultimate, final cause of their miseries. It was a counter-argument.

So it was not an argument against pluralism.

No, not at all, no, no. It was an argument against the thesis of black disempowerment. I mean, I would need to be convinced, but I can’t believe that we can say that black people are powerless in South Africa. But it is an argument that you hear, including in some sectors of the ANC – they say “We have power but we don’t really have power.”

A British journalist once remarked that while he was here in South Africa it felt like the ANC was in opposition, was the opposition. You know, our reporters came back [from the student march on the Union Buildings] and said, you know, it looked to them like the instigators of the little violence that was there were the ANC branches from Soshanguve and so on. (Laughs)

Yes, from Soshanguve, and then they created mayhem. Yes, they are marching against themselves. It is quite astonishing. And they try to co-opt the … I understand there is a strategy, how effective it is I don’t know, but I mean the student movement was against … It was understood not everything could be solved at the level of the vice-chancellors, you have to go to Pretoria. Now if you go to Pretoria you are going against the government. You are going against the ruling party. But then the ANC turns around and says, we are with you. (Laughs) It is quite astonishing.

Can you see business people joining the coalition?

Business could play a far more dynamic role in South Africa. It’s about investment in the future basically contributing to the kind of social fabric that could be sustainable. The country is not sustainable with the levels of poverty … it cannot go on forever. At some point there will be serious ruptures and business and industry could have done more … We see it in many other countries. In the USA, for instance, businesses are deeply implicated in the funding of higher education, for example. We have rich people here who could contribute more actively to higher education than they have done. There is no way that we can say that they have been very dynamic.

Is there a deeper issue here? Can one not critique business for what one may call their lack of loyalty? A divided loyalty. They are in the country to exploit the country but live overseas. I think you made some comments in your writings about …

Definitely, that is what has happened I would say over the past 30 or 40 years, that capital has become very deterritorialised. In the first half of the 20th century capital and territory went more or less together. Today that is no longer the case. Capital is mobile. It is circulating endlessly and the velocity of the circulation is part of the conditions for making bigger and bigger profits. Added to that velocity of circulation is the logic of offshoring and enclavement, all of which does not help to hold capital loyal to any nation state or any territory. And those logics, it seems to me, have become so fundamental to the way in which capitalism operates in the age of financialisation that of course this explains that. Most of those entities don’t feel like being part of a place, a specific place. Capital today is a no-place entity.

Business people’s response might be that, look, we are now a globalised economy, we have to play by the rules of globalisation, which means that we have to improve our competitiveness and we have to take steps to do that. What is your response to that sort of argument?

Look, they are not wrong. In terms of the street logic of capitalism today, that is how it operates and it forces anyone who wants to compete to compete according to those rules. And that having been said, these huge amounts of money that are produced from here, a huge part of it is dormant, another huge part of it is being exported, most of the times illegally, a small amount of it is taxed – we know how taxes are managed by this government – but there’s room for a far bigger contribution of business to the development of South Africa, a contribution that would not jeopardise their capacity to make profits. In short, there’s still a lot that could be done, without businesses going bankrupt.

If one looks at the logic of liberation, isn’t there scope for an argument that the next stage of the liberation, the emancipation of South Africa, especially of blacks, is where we go through a period of almost slave labour conditions in order to industrialise the country and lay the foundations for a better future for our children?

You see, the conditions are very different from what they were let’s say in the 1960s, in the ‘50s or even the ‘70s. First of all it is true that the … I find it very difficult to … let me put it as bluntly as I can. South African questions will not be solved nationally. There is no country on earth today that is able to solve all of its problems nationally, or from a purely national-oriented perspective. Not even China. South Africa’s economic development will depend to a large extent on South Africa’s integration into the region and into the continent. There’s no way in which, for example, the manufacturing industry can be revived in South Africa from a purely national-oriented perspective. When one considers, for instance, the extent to which China has basically ruined the manufacturing industry, the only way in which manufacturing can be revived is by linking it up with the huge market outside of South Africa on the rest of the continent. The same thing with employment and all of that … The drama yesterday for many people was to be exploited. The drama today for millions of people, South Africans included, is to not even be exploited … That is the meaning of these crises of joblessness, that you want to sell your labour, but there’s no buyer, nobody wants to buy your labour. Yesterday, the drama was to sell your labour and for your labour to be bought at a price that was hardly conducive to self-reproduction. Today that possibility doesn’t exist … many people have become superfluous. It seems to me that is the basic fact from which we have to begin rethinking all the rest. But this is probably more of a theoretical position than a policy.

What then about Cosatu’s living wage campaign – do you think they are on the wrong track?

But you see … I mean … those are the contradictions we are facing. On the one hand, nobody wants to argue for a return to neo-slavery conditions, nobody wants to go back to that which was earned as a result of intense dramatic struggles by the labour movement throughout history, that people should be paid properly, they should be paid a wage that allows them to live a human life. But what neoliberalism does is it wants to go back, renege, withdraw from that pact. That was, as I’ve just said, the result of long years of struggle. They do not want to abide any longer by that pact. So personally, of course, I wouldn’t go around arguing for paying people a wage that doesn’t allow them to live like decent human beings – I mean have a shelter, have food, be able to provide for health in case of disease, send children to school. Those are the wages we need to be giving. But we are in a structural condition in which, as I said, there are no jobs. So what do we do? Who has to pay for putting the rest of the people to work? Should workers who are already in a precarious condition be the ones to pay, to write off the fact of bringing in more people into work? I’m not sure. The price has to be equally redistributed. The costs of putting more people to work, those costs have to be equally redistributed, and they cannot be paid only by workers, that’s all I could say. And from there, OK, negotiators would discuss in a democratic framework and would find the best way to go ahead. But I disagree with the idea that the cost of putting more people to work should be borne by workers alone.

This suddenly makes me think of an argument by, I think … Atkinson? … an economist in the UK … who says that the state should guarantee everybody a job. What, offhand, would you make of such an argument? You know, even … give them street-sweeping jobs, a simple job like that.

No, we have to put it differently: Does the state have the means to guarantee everybody a job? I’m not sure about that. The state should guarantee everybody the conditions to exercise his or her faculties to the utmost of his or her abilities. The state shouldn’t be doing anything that prevents me, you or anybody else from exercising our capacities to the utmost of our capabilities. Whether the state should give us a job … I don’t want to go there – I’m not sure that our states in Africa have those capacities. I’m not sure. And if they don’t have those capacities, then something else has to be imagined.

The ANC is often criticised for having an anti-business attitude, it is not facilitating ordinary people, small businessmen to come with –

They could do more. I was reading Motlanthe’s interview in Business Day and there was a section in the interview where he was raising small businesses and he was referring to experiments done elsewhere, can’t remember the exact country, and he was arguing that a lot more could be done to facilitate the … opening the environment for small businesses to prosper, and I agree with him. In places such as Nigeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, small businesses are the drivers of the economy, they employ more people than any other entity, but the legislative environment as well as the bureaucratic environment will have to be tailored in such a way that it does not become an obstacle for anybody who wants to move into that sector. We see in the rest of the continent the extent of the so-called informal sector: the informal sector is basically a sector in which people in their inventivity, creativity, create jobs for themselves. They identify niches where there is a potential demand that can then be turned into something you sell and buy. The informal sector in South Africa is expanding, it looks like something that is new, and you can learn a lot from those popular economic practices and harness the knowledge that is embedded in them and capitalise it, but that demands new studies, new research and an administration that is open to experimentation. I think we haven’t done enough to harness the knowledge that is embedded in those popular economic practices, this group of small enterprises.

… and it’s a great resource.

It’s a great resource. Nobody knows how the economy in Hillbrow functions. We have no idea how much money is involved in that, most of it not at all involved in the banking sector and a lot of it produced or in the hands of people who have no papers, migrants who have no … and most of them have no jobs that are secured by the state, they have no … they do not have bank accounts, because in South Africa you have to have legal papers to be bankable. When it comes to … But we need a major study of Hillbrow for instance, or of Yeoville, for that matter.

Achille Mbembe (photo: YouTube)

I was also specifically asked by the editor of the Review section, by Rehana Rossouw, what is the role of philosophy in all of this, in the political tumult at the moment?

Right now?

I think she also means in the future.

In the future …?


You see, right now … I have travelled around, I have visited almost every single campus over the last ten months. What I have observed is that an increasing number of students have been reading new texts, most of which are not being taught in the official curriculum. They have been reading people like Biko, Frantz Fanon; they have been reading a number of black feminists, Bell Hook, Hortense Spieler; they have been teaching themselves about a huge tradition of black radical thought that is once again not taught in the departments of philosophy, or political science or all the rest, and they have been trying to find in those texts the conceptual tools and the modes of argumentation that would allow them to make sense of the position in which they find themselves when they come to these universities – questions of what does it mean to be black, what does it mean to be white, what are the sets of privileges attached to being white, to what extent is that to be black ends up turning into a liability and how to transcend that. So, critical thought, or you can call it philosophy, has been essential in leading these students to build a new form of political consciousness. I mean there is a lot to criticise in what is going on there, but clearly as a result of their exposure to this set of ideas they have been able to intervene in the social scene in the way we have seen and that role of philosophy in the emergence of certain forms of political consciousness seems to me to be something that won’t go away tomorrow. It is now part of the cultural landscape and it will influence in a durable manner the kinds of political struggles that are unfolding.

So it would be a big mistake for business not to be interested in philosophical developments in what’s going on in the humanities in South Africa at least, right now?

Well, I think it is a big mistake of business to ignore philosophy in general. Yah. Or for that matter in the arts. A lot is going on in critical thought, philosophy, a lot in black thought and a lot in the arts. I just attended this weekend a major workshop called “African Futures” organised by the Goethe Institute, with lots of artists, and the debates were more or less similar to what I observed on campuses. There’s something going on, and it is in the interest of the nation and its various sectors to know about it.

One of the key concepts that has come forward is one that you have built much of your philosophy around as well, and that is the concept of whiteness. But I think you are saying that whiteness is not a racial concept, but this looks like a contradiction. It is a paradox, can you explain this paradox?

You see, I’m not responsible for the term “whiteness”. The term “whiteness” was developed especially in the US and Britain by scholars who were interested in understanding the dynamics of race in former settler colonies and places where whites were the majority and blacks and non-whites were the minority. They developed that concept … historians, cultural critics, people coming from other disciplines. By whiteness they basically understand the following: the way in which racism defines; by whiteness they understand the privileges that are structurally attached to the fact of being white, that to be white becomes like a property endowed with things people of other so-called races do not have. That’s what they mean by whiteness – a structure of property and a structure of privilege. Privilege that is institutionalised and enacted in everyday encounters, even through the law, through culture, education and so forth, and so on.

So what we have seen in South Africa over the last five, six years is a critique of the privileges attached to being white in South Africa, historically and after 1994. And a whole effort by students to organise themselves to defeat those privileges, thus the #RhodesMustFall movement and things like that.

That’s what is going on, that huge intellectual work, the aim of which is to put an end to the privileges attached to being white.

But it’s an effort that like many other things, there is always something positive and something risky. There are a number of risks. One is to fetishise black pain, black suffering. So you have people who believe that to be black is to be suffering – suffering is for blackness the equivalent of privilege for whiteness. I mean that’s not entirely true. The other risk is to fall into reverse racism, start hating whites, rather than engaging with them. Another risk is to believe that by getting rid of whites you get rid of your condition. So that’s what’s going on, and there are all kinds of debates that are being conducted around all of that.

So my own point of view is that, OK, I don’t deny the fact that there have been historical structures of privilege attached to being white. I don’t believe that the way to create a non-racial society is to criticise whites or to hate them in return or to ask them to shut up. I think that the work of building a non-racial society is much more complicated than resorting to revenge.

But I just see a contradiction somewhere. I mean surely there are many contradictions, because it is an evolving debate obviously, but fighting whiteness with English as the lingua franca …? Do you think I’m right in seeing a contradiction there?

Yes and no. No if one assumes that English is just like French. I mean, this morning I was having an interview with … because I speak French – English is not my first language … I had an interview on the question of French. You see, French, English, Portuguese have become African languages. They are no longer, they can no longer, they are Asian languages, they are African languages … We have to start from that position. There is no way that they are going away. They will not go away. They have become part and parcel of the African linguistic archive. So we cannot think of them as belonging … I mean in fact, most speakers of French are outside of France. The future of French no longer resides in the hands of the French. So I don’t buy into that dichotomy. Languages are domesticated and appropriated and put to use in ways that are usually very different from their place of origin and in that process they become indigenous. So the contradiction is that indeed, these students manipulate English very well and yet they think that English is foreign to them. That is where the contradiction lies – it’s not at all … they still believe that it’s a foreign language, although they have mastered it. I mean, you even listen to them, they speak it very very well, they … but they still somewhere in their mind believe that it is the tool of the oppressor. But it is not simply the tool of the oppressor …. There is no language that is only the tool of the oppressor. Every single language … what defines languages, living languages, is their plasticity, the fact that they can be ... I mean … can be appropriated, they can be used, they can be domesticated, they can be repurposed, provided those who are implicated in those processes are just a little bit creative.

But isn’t it the case that they will always stay imbued with whiteness, because they –

No, I don’t believe that. You can (laughs) dewhiten a language. I mean, look, we see it among the writers, but just forget about the writers, the way in which for instance French is spoken by common people in a big city that is a huge city like Abidjan … I mean, it’s nothing to do with whiteness, or the way in which English, or pidgin English, is spoken on the streets of Lagos, 20 million people – that has nothing to do with whiteness as understood as Englishness, it is something entirely different, a new linguistic formation that borrows from all kinds of sources, and is characterised by mixture, hybridity, and an amazing dynamism. There is nothing like pure language, and this is valid for Afrikaans too, by the way …

I was going to ask you (laughs) …

Yah, I mean the people who believe that Afrikaans is some pure thing that has to be protected and … it’s ridiculous. It’s completely ridiculous.

It is not even a white language, it’s a black language, it’s spoken by –

The future of every single language is creolisation. That is what it is. But we don’t want to espouse that historical movement, we want to barricade ourselves in the belief that all that comes from outside is pollution or danger, but in actual life, actual history, languages that cannot creolise themselves, meaning cannot work at the interface with many other heritages, they just die, and they should die. So what we see here is a distinction between the ideology people are using, and the actual historical work that is being performed through the use of languages, but people don’t want to bring all of them together because they hold on to some ideological fiction which is that English is a foreign language or Afrikaans is a pure language. Look, that is my reading of it.

I want to ask you, then, in order to retain this dynamism, to keep a language open, shouldn’t it have its own institutions, devoted to it? Not institutions meant to protect the language, but allow that the language blossoms … like universities.

You see (sighs), one could imagine, and I don’t know if you should be quoting me, because I am just thinking aloud (laughs) … OK, let me put it this way: in a free society, authentically free society, one could imagine a university in Zulu, where Zulu is the language, but it doesn’t mean that only Zulu people are admitted to that university. It would mean that anybody – Japanese, French, Mexican or Brazilian – who is interested in studying in the Zulu language, and who is proficient in Zulu, could go there. I don’t see any problem in a liberal democratic society for something like that, provided once again it is not a university institution that uses its linguistic identity to engage in overt or covert forms of discrimination. And that is the balance that has to be found in relation to formerly Afrikaans universities in SA&. They cannot be institutions where, that are like self-enclaves where language is used as a covert medium to practise this racial discrimination. And that cannot be allowed.

Do you think that is the case at Stellenbosch …?

I think that to some extent that is what has … and these universities … it doesn’t mean they belong to an ethnic group – these are not ethnic universities, these are public universities where the medium of education is open to all.

But still …

I mean the problem now is: OK, people say this a public university, we should have an Afrikaans one, we should also have English. The model I have in mind is a third model, where you have a truly Zulu university … I take Zulu as an example to keep us away from the focus on … you have a Zulu university, that is … whose specification, that is its specification, but it is not only for ethnic Zulus, it’s a universal university in Zulu open to everybody who is interested in learning in that language, and then you would have bilingual universities where people are taught in many different languages where translation then becomes something that should be available to everybody, where I can teach in … what … Swahili … and then if you only speak English, you have access to translation.

But is it very practical to do it that way? I mean we have ten languages – obviously you can’t have ten languages at one university.

No, you cannot, you have to have … linguistic policy has to be realistic … you cannot have all ten national languages, I mean, it’s very generous, but is not very practical.

Forgive me, but I want to come back to –

I mean some languages are … they are OK. Look, in the world as it is moving forward, we have some dominant languages, and then some supplementary languages that are regional, local. If you want to be part of the world … if the world is the stage where we belong and compete, this helps us somewhat to relativise the fetishism of languages, and make choices that do not ghettoise us in the world scene.

I think you know –

I think we need, for instance to be learning Mandarin. I think that the initiative taken in Gauteng is the right way to go. The world of tomorrow will be dominated by China. And if we want to have an identity in that world and shape it to some extent, we need to know their language, especially in so far as they are becoming a major dominant political and economic actor in our continent.

I quite agree with that. I still want to come back to Stellenbosch. If you don’t want to answer, you don’t have to, but you know the Stellenbosch people would respond to the arguments by saying that Stellenbosch is not an ethnic university, it doesn’t –

It acts like one. I spent a year there. (Laughs)

OK, tell me about your –

I spent a year there. You see, look –

Let me just add what I mean by “ethnic“. It doesn’t cater for white Afrikaans speakers only, it caters for black Afrikaans speakers as well.

But no, it understands itself as ethnic … it understands its identity as ethnic.

As white Afrikaans? Is that your experience?

Yes, and what it does, it is generous enough to open the door for a few others.

A few token –

Yah, but fundamentally: “This is my identity.” But even more radically: “This is my university. This our thing … and you cannot come here and just behave as if … it … this belongs to us …” But that goes very directly against the idea of a public university. One could imagine a private university. I don’t know why we don’t have private universities in South Africa. I have no idea why. But in America, for instance, you have money, you create your university. But a public university cannot be a private university or it cannot be an ethnic university. A public university belongs to all, it’s something that is common. It is defined by its being common, meaning it has to be shared by all. It doesn’t belong to anyone in particular. But what you see right now is a tension in places such as Stellenbosch or Potchefstroom. It’s a serious tension. They tell you, no, we built these things, they belong to us, you have to show gratitude if you open it a little bit to … (Laughs)

We have to be clear what a public university is, and I was expressing my astonishment at the fact that, maybe I don’t know everything, that there are no private universities in South Africa. It should be a space where if I want to open a Tswana university I would do it, but everybody knows that is what it is. But I cannot turn a public university into a Tswana university.

Just one last question. It is from my wife. You know my wife is like me – we took part in UDF activities in the ‘80s, we voted for the ANC, but we don’t vote for the ANC anymore … And she was asking –

There are a lot of people like that …

Ja, what should whites do?

Whites should embrace their South African citizenship. They should be active. They should organise. They are not half-citizens, they are full citizens, which means that … I mean the thing with 1994 was that the distinction between natives and settlers and all that, it is abolished … everybody is a citizen from 1994 on, so there is no reason why they should put their citizenship in hibernation. They should intervene in the public space, they should intervene in debates, they should intensify experiments in cross-racial friendships, because the future of South Africa lies in that, it doesn’t lie in enclaves, in enclaving and all that, in offshoring, or blackism, it lies in building the middle ground and that implies reactivating modes of political and human friendships that were central in every single turning point in history in South Africa, and if that is not done, what you will have is that the middle ground will collapse and you will have a confrontation between two extremes – on the one hand black nationalists who are in the business of sanctifying their black suffering and turning it into a weapon of revenge and whites who are oblivious to the history of the place and who are thinking only of themselves.

So that’s what I would tell your wife and countless friends who were involved at some point and got very tired and exhausted at some point and opted out.

But opting out doesn’t serve any purpose, especially in these times of re-engagement, because what we are witnessing now is people flexing their muscles for a fight they want to be decisive. I mean … that is what Malema is all about – he is building a constituency for the second round, and it is also a work of … it’s powerful cultural work too, because how it is that the fight will be defined, is all at stake. The ANC is in a state of intellectual bankruptcy. They know only two or three things: co-option and corruption, and soon when co-option and corruption fail, they will have to resort to repression.

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  • Gert van der Westhuizen

    Thank you to LitNet for publishing this interview - it is a significant invitation for public discussions on education in SA - the questions raised deserve broad public attention, beyond what we currently have as debates among academics.
    Mbembe's encouragements are for the broadening of perspectives, critical analyses of neo-liberal perspectives, and openness to interpretations and extensions of African identities.
    He raises questions worth considering. These include questions about the significance of student movements and how they bring into focus the problems with commodification of education; questions about the relevance of education and the need to decolonize curricula; questions about public universities and how languages are public assets, and so on.
    Looking forward to interactions about these and other questions in the LitNet space.

  • Reageer

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