Broadly speaking the only people still on holiday are university students. So what are they up to? 2016 was the year of Fallism and 2017 promises more disruption, so it is safe to say that disruption is being prepared. The first shots across the bow have already been fired and now is the time to address crucial points before acts of violence overtake our national institutions of higher learning, again.
One shot rung clear from The Economist under the headline “South Africa has one of the world’s worst education systems”. Fallists should note that this article mentioned SA universities only as sources of knowledge and relevant statistics. Our primary and high school education system is “one of the world’s worst”; our universities have sustained relatively high standards of excellence despite the charred paintings and libraries.
Money, the usual suspect, is not the (primary) problem in SA education. South Africa already spends a higher share of GDP on education than Europe, most of Africa and BRICS. Instead The Economist ascribes our failure largely to an unholy alliance between the South African Democratic Teacher’s Union and the ANC. The corrupt relationship between these institutions was exposed yet again by John Volmnik last year, but attention to this travesty is consistently drowned out by Fallist protests. Fallists can attract attention to themselves with fire and fury more easily than little children. And once again a great clash in society has left the weakest, most vulnerable and innocent behind.
There is, of course, another reason for South Africa’s terrible school-system. Apartheid. Whatever one’s view of Bantu Education, it was hated by those who were its supposed beneficiaries, causing black schools in the townships to turn into crucibles of violent struggle for a generation. Those students of the 1970’s and 1980’s are senior teachers today. Cycles of mistreatment are at their most dangerous on the planes where different generations meet. The father beats the child; the child bucks against authority; then the child becomes a father and does what he knows to do. Students of a system that disrespects learning become teachers and repeat the cycle. It can be unending. The cycle must be broken.
To break the cycle will require tremendous energy within the corridors of power, but also in the public’s mind. There is huge energy, as the Fallists attest. But that energy is being channelled toward a different end -- the need to decolonize education.
While there are many theories about what decolonizing education means, none seem to centre on encouraging South African primary school teachers to work harder, keep students in for longer hours and buckle down on the numeracy and literacy skills that today’s youth will need to succeed in tomorrow’s economy. Integrity, discipline and respect, missing ingredients of our current system, are neither European nor African virtues (of course they are universal) and so they do not figure in this debate. Rather the focus is on changing the syllabus, changing a mindset allegedly bereft of respect for African honour and tradition.
That project is urgent but so is making sure that the 27% of school children who are illiterate after six years of schooling finally learn to read. Frustrated university students and talking heads are keen to keep African honour and European shame at the top of the public agenda. To what extent will the powers that be continue to allow this to disrupt the more practical project of teaching young children to divide 24 by three – a skill that about half of them reportedly lack even after five years of school?
The first thing to notice about the drive to decolonize education is that it is itself distinctly colonial in its current form. Not the form of education. The form of resistance. In fact, Fallists are following a depressing pattern in which South Africans adopt rejected ideas from the West, thinking they’re onto something new and brilliant.
Three years after Hitler and Mussolini’s fall, the National Party came to power, proclaiming their own form of racial nationalism. By 1960, when America’s Civil Rights movement began to break down racial barriers, apartheid had ramified into an elaborate ideology of total and eternal racial separation. The idea that race is the natural unit around which society should be organized was crushed in the West, and people died to do so, just in time for some of our ancestors to decide to give it a go.
Something similar happened with Marxism, which was collapsing in the USSR even as it gained and maintained favour among South Africa’s left-liberal elite and in the struggle movements. (I’ve lived in Joburg and Moscow and I’ve come across more Marxists here than there). The South African Communist Party might be desultory, but a Marxist lust for violent revolution agitates the Economic Freedom Fighters and elements with the broad Fallist movement to a degree that would be considered laughable in the contemporary West or Russia.
And then there’s the oldest appropriation, the “African Renaissance”. At least the term clearly signals its derivation from a Western tradition. It is worth remembering that the Renaissance was also a decolonization project of sorts, the worst elements of which the Fallists threaten to rehearse. Islam’s contribution to human knowledge was excised in favour of a rampant glorification of Ancient Greece and Rome and “white” baby Jesus.
Aristotle’s work and the Bible were held to be the perfect expression of all things true; all that remained was to defend this edifice against challenges from inside and out. In time, Europeans began to understand that these ideas were retarding progress, and “Renaissance” has now come to mean something eclectic, like a man who cooks and cleans but also plays a hard game of rugby.
But many Fallists do not believe in progress. They are old school renaissance-types under a different name. They believe we live in a postlapsarian world; in a country that has fallen from the grace of its ancestors. They chime in with hypocrites in the EFF who think it best for most black people to spend their lives drawing water and hewing wood on tiny plots of land, recalling a fictional “good ol’ days” of authentic African living. Like all those who suffer a dogma their attempts to close the gap between their ideological beliefs and reality leads to trouble.
The destruction of property at universities that are already under financial strain strikes outsiders as self-defeating, but it exalts Fallists like the anonymous UCT student who authored the following screed: “Violence will bring an end to the world as we know it and cleanse all the evil, give rise to a completely new world.”
Also intrinsic to the Fallist position is that the 1994 peace deal was a sell-out, and that our constitution serves only to prove that blacks who endorse it are tools of white monopoly capital. The answer is of course an old-fashioned Marxist revolution to usher us into utopia.
“Fuck All Whites” is a slogan that some Fallists may (quietly) prefer to distance themselves from. But Prof Christi van der Westhuizen of the University of Pretoria finds that Fallists are partly defined by their belief that “whiteness and blackness are essentialist identities” - an idea that comes straight from the annals of apartheid theory, which itself derived from the worst forms of European racial nationalism. A bad European idea has become a cornerstone of Fallists who strike a progressive pose.
And Fallists depend on radical relativism. Early in the 20th century Einstein introduced the idea that such basic concepts as time and space and momentum are relative to a frame of reference. Fifty years later Thomas Kuhn used Einstein’s insights to introduce the idea that scientific facts are relative to conceptual schemes. His aim was to explain why universal scientific progress is possible, why some conceptual schemes beat others.
The radical relativism of the Fallists is not like that. When UCT Fallist leader Mickey Moyo said that decolonizing science means teaching a syllabus that resonates with her and her “African” values she was reiterating a line that excited European thinkers and doers for centuries, eventually under the banner of “deconstructivism”: another idea that has been widely discredited in the West.
Deconstructivism is a school of philosophy that can be traced back to the 19thcentury German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who first articulated the idea that Western thought is inherently domineering and totalizing. After World War II, the theme was taken up by deconstructivists like Lacan and Derrida, who ridiculed anyone who believed in universal values, final answers or complete mutual understanding.
These ideas were subsequently carried forward by a variety of social scientists, especially American anthropologists whose vocabulary of cultural relativism has gone mainstream in English-language universities everywhere, including South Africa, where it is central to the Fallist concept of decolonization.
If decolonizing university education means changing the syllabus to affirm radical relativism – morality relative to culture or individuals, empirical fact relative to continents and the value of knowledge relative to how good it makes you feel about yourself and your ancestors -- the roadmap is already out there. It was invented by European and American deconstructivists ages ago.
Deconstructivists made the plea that every expression, whether scientific or ethical or political or artistic, deconstructs itself into a basic assertion of power under scrutiny. This is the thought Fallists depend upon to assert that texts about the flight patterns of birds, the molecular composition of water and the harmonic progressions in Bach are really just shackles that today’s youth must explode. This attitude frightens South Africa’s most talented students to such an extent that many flee to universities in the West, reinforcing the colonial powers’ corrosive practice of extracting the colonies’ best.
South Africa has a bad habit of being the place where anachronisms go to die. Except they don’t die here, they fester, pollute and corrupt while we wait for the next reject from the first world. We live in a land of zombie ideas propelled by short-sighted anger and long-term guilt. More than anything those zombies are kept alive by a lack of faith in ourselves.
Decolonizing our education and ourselves should not mean ignoring Western texts, or texts by whites (as Nadine Gordimer once recommended) because that just means we repeat the mistakes that others have already made, sometimes on a grander scale.
Rather it should mean working harder, learning faster and accelerating ourselves into the position where we can have a few bad ideas that other country’s mimic long after we’ve discarded them. And many more good ideas that will be taught around the world one day with the little footnote, *this came from a little town in SA.