UCT’s sharp, white English spear

It is a problem I could never quite grasp – the deep, deep anger of many black academics at the University of Cape Town.

The puzzle was that these were really accomplished scholars in fields ranging from psychology to medicine to engineering.

What exactly are you seething about? I would often ask. This was the other intrigue – nobody could quite put their finger on the problem. But they were and still are furious about the institution.

So I set out to understand why. Now, after more than 60 informal discussions with black staff at our premier university, I am beginning to get some grip on the rage of black academics inside white English institutions.

From the so-called Blackface incidents to the notorious Reitz incident, white Afrikaans speakers wear their racism on their sleeves. Not the English.

It is much more subtle but equally devastating in the lives of black staff at a place like UCT. But what is it that drives otherwise pleasant and productive black scholars into such a rage?

It’s the way they make you feel, a former transformation officer at UCT tells me.

I was skeptical. How can somebody make a top academic or administrator “feel” inadequate? That can only happen if you allow them to, I would counter.

Maybe, said a celebrated Oxford PhD who also left the UCT in a fury – but you do not have to live with this reality day after day.

That is true, my last three postings were at Afrikaans universities. You see bigotry a mile away and you can deal with it. This was different.

For years, says the author of a stunning new book on race, “I used to avoid going through the front entrance of the department building for fear of seeing them (two prominent white academics); so I used the back entrance”.

Having since climbed the academic ladder with much success, I asked her if she would go back to UCT and make a difference. Her response was pure and painful poetry: how do I return to the place of my woundedness?

So what are the spears that inflict this woundedness?

One spear is language and how it is used within this former British colony, the Cape, and its university. I know. For some strange reason my body reacts to white folk in the Southern Suburbs who speak high English with a pronounced English accent as if they were still in Nottingham.

It is the same emotional reaction that I have when those anchors on Classic FM speak English as if they just landed from Europe; there is a searing communication of the superiority of race and class. My reaction is involuntary, a reminder of a bitter past.

But English does not require words to subject and subdue the listener.

It is still the only language that can make you feel small without uttering a word. It is that withering look, the nose up in the air, and that cold, disapproving stare.

English is, if anything, ice cold. A now-retired senior executive at UCT told me how strange he felt as one with Afrikaans roots that there was never a welcoming embrace.

The English feel uncomfortable with such closeness. It is a retraction that regardless of how good the teaching is, conveys to students an alienating sense of distance.

Spoken English is wielded as a devastating spear inside white institutions like UCT.

The way they use language, a senior executive at UCT told me recently, is to keep people in their place.

Now it is clear why decolonisation emerges as a strange and somewhat anachronistic slogan within UCT late in 2015.

The Rhodes statue was a visible representation of those emotional and political discontent with the English; one student “saw” him as such, the symbol was coming down.

No surprise that decolonisation finds little purchase in the historically black universities – they are more products of Bantustan ideology rather than projects of colonial insertion as in the case of UCT.

One researcher recently looked into this seeming disinterest in decolonisation at the University of Fort Hare and found that basic material needs and survival drove student protests more than any appeal to a colonial past that needs to be undone.

How is this problem of English prejudice and privilege resolved? With difficulty.

Those who wield the power of racial privilege at UCT are clearly unaware of how the performance of their culture, language and presence alienates and angers black staff.

The English are themselves products of a particular South African experience tinged with colonial expression.

You can’t switch such behaviour on and off. But being aware of it and how such behaviour becomes operationalised in the day-to-day lives of campus citizens should engender some sense of humility and enable deeper discussions about institutional transformation.

For black staff the challenge is to rediscover one’s sense of confidence, courage and voice.

It is to claim the space, not in an angry and accusatory manner but through the sheer authority of one’s standing in the academic community – and more than that, through the simple yet profound claim to a shared African humanity.

This is the difficult conversation that UCT should open up among its staff – how to recreate in the learning commons a more human and humane way of learning and living and loving together.

And what holds for campus, holds for country.