Friday, 17 March 2017

SERMON ON THE INCARNATION



THE INCARNATION – JUST AN INSTRUMENT OR THE REAL THING

(I gave this sermon in Bellville, near Cape Town on Christmas Day; however the content of the sermon is really dealing with one of the pillars of Christian theology and could be read at any time, anywhere)

Christmas Day 25 December 2016 in Bellville, The Evangelical Lutheran Church,
Cape Orange Diocese, ELCSA, Martin Pietersen Laan

Full Communion Service at 09h00
Texts: Isaiah 52.7-10; Hebrews 1.1-4; John 1.1-14

SERMON
Theme:
The Incarnation, an instrument for something more or the real thing?

General introduction regarding God’s activities visa-vie us. On God’s creation and redemption.
Looking at our sermon text John 1.1-14: the key word is the Word, ó Logos; the evangelist as the key word so there is a link to the very beginning (Genesis 1.3), because when God created he said something, a word is used. This Word would be  understood by Jews as well as by Greeks. To the Greeks it makes sense to talk about the word in relation to the ideal world and the ideal man. To the Jews it was natural to talk about the Word through which everything was created. For example Psalm 33.6 says, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth”. The Word is central also in Wisdom literature (Apocrypha).
So it was through him that everything was created (Colossians 1.16).
Yet we do not have full clarity as to where this Word takes us. That is what this sermon will say something about. God has arrived through Jesus Christ, but to what purpose?

The next two points will talk about incarnation as instrument

One
John 1.14b says, “we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s Son, full of grace and truth”.
Here we see that the Word become flesh (the incarnation) opens up for the glory of God, and an existence in heaven. In other words, it must be literally true that this incarnation eventually brings you into the glory of God the Father, also made manifest in the Son being glorified, made omnipresent through the Holy Spirit. Is this glory only made manifest in heaven? A good question; God’s glory was seen in the baby in the manger. And Paul also experienced Christ’s glory on his way to Damascus, when he still was a Saul, persecuting the Christians.
But this does not take away that this same Paul, like so many other of us, also, almost constantly was longing to get away from this earth, this world, this life. So we need to hear what he wrote in the epistle to the Philippians: “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way… for to me living is Christ and dying is a gain; If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two; my desire is to depart and be with Christ for that is far better, but to remain in the flesh is far better for you.” (Philippians 1.21-24)
It would not be wrong to say here that Paul in fact is expressing very classic sentiments that people have expressed through the centuries, inevitably so, due to the chaotic existence that this world after all, even at its best, so he is expressing the conviction that through Christ we have a safe passage to heaven.


Two
“and the Word was God” (John 1.1)
The incarnation carrying the seed of the resurrection
Again one is bound to say that Jesus Christ came here for a purpose. He came to conquer suffering, sin, evil and even death.
We may not think about it, but every Sunday morning service in the church is there  because of what happened one morning, the day after the Sabbath Day, that early morning when the women found the tomb empty, that tomb, in which Jesus was buried.
The only thing that we could find sustainable as Christians is this, that there is a victory over death, and that this victory was made demonstrable that particular Sunday morning.
Therefore one is bound to say that the incarnation, the event when Jesus was born, which event was God making himself a homestead here (or rather skenoo means God making an encampment amongst us John 1.14) carried the seed of the resurrection. If it is true that it was God who had made himself a home here, however temporarily, that event must eventually lead to a conquering of all those things that hold us back from God’s heavenly kingdom.
Some of the first Christians, for example Athanasius in Egypt in the third century, could express the situation in the following terms: “God became human so that we may become deified”. This is with a very fine term called “theosis”, a word indicating that our whole existence is geared towards another and “higher” existence, where and when we would become more like God. This may be claimed on the condition that this inclination of moving away from here does not take away our responsibility while here on earth (here a huge discussion is lurking in the background as to how this expression in fact easily could be abused, see …).


The next two points will deal with incarnation as the real thing

One
To be a Christian is not in the first place to seek a way away from here but to seek a way of being here, and I would add, regardless of age. It appears to be an absolutely central issue in Jesus’ ministry. Why would he otherwise repeatedly, tell stories which implies responsibilities in this world?
Facing these stories, timeless as they seem to be in their application, we can only say that we fail…… utterly.
We can start with John 1.11 which says, “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not”. It is of course about the way Jesus was received by especially some of his own people’s leaders at the time, who eventually wanted to do away with him. He was even foretold by some of the prophets, but that did not help.
However, these same words should be put in connection with some of Jesus’ own parables. We choose one, namely that of the Judgment Day, when it again will be asked whether we received him or not. But it is done, to some of us at least, in quite a surprising way; in a way hiding behind others.
Jesus embodies the human nature completely (that is the word become flesh) and is therefore entitled to ask us how we deal with the following six categories of human beings (I am talking about the parable of the sheep and the goats and the judgment).
We probably are well aware of the point made in this parable: what you did to one of the least of these who are members of my human family, you did it to me. (Matthew 25.40)
Jesus says:
            I was hungry
            I was thirsty
            I was a stranger
            I was naked
            I was sick
            I was in prison

Could it be said more explicitly? God was made flesh in order to change this world into a liveable place, where those who are hungry will be given a meal, the thirsty running, fresh water, the stranger an invitation to share your home, the naked a set of clothes, the sick transportation to a doctor or nurse, and the one in prison a visitor who is not taking for granted that all behind bars are criminals (remember detention without trial, political prisoners, prisoners due to conscience, religious belief etc.).

Two
“And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn”, (Luke 2.7).
If it was good enough for God to enter this world through such a vehicle, frame, body, one cannot see lightly on the fact of the existence of children. The fact that this birth has taken place has led to the following result:
All new-borns are holy, eternally valuable, and directly under God, not only at the disgression of the child’s mother or the father, or both. You cannot do what you like with such a life.
Children’s rights will for ever be in focus
The church must be a safe space for children, in the ordinary church life there must be space for them (maar ook a lekker plek) and in the Christian homes; somehow the church must be a safe haven even for the unborn)

In brief, because of the Christ birth, church and society must provide security and happiness for all our children and this cannot wait. You see, the incarnation is not just an instrument or a vehicle for transportation to heaven. More than that, the incarnation is the real thing, which understood rightly will transform our churches and societies completely.

To sum up:
Incarnation:
It is an instrument for bringing us to God in a total and eternal way. But just as much the incarnation is the real thing, through which we live a godly life here and now fulfilling God’s purpose with humankind,
Called to becoming a reconciled community, reflecting the image of God already in this world.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, is now and will be, for ever. Amen.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

2017 - South Africa and the World



South Africa and the World Facing 2017
It is not without reason that we ask ourselves at this time what the year 2017 will have in store for us. For once, it seems that the prospects for South Africa are at this moment far better than the rest of the world, especially the Middle East, Europe and North America. I will come back to this unexpected prospect in a short while.
Just having come back from South Africa I realize that the level of anxiety has risen considerably since I left Sweden in July. In “uppdrag granskning”, a regular feature of Swedish television of investigative journalism, it was made pretty clear in the part sent on 30 November that the mastermind behind the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015, did his planning from hideouts in Stockholm. He was shot dead at a flat in Brussels four months later, but one of his closest aids in the Paris attack, as it appears, is still walking around free, living close down below the small mosque at Hötorget in central Stockholm. This uncertainty, this very thought that this or that stranger may be one of the extremists, is eating you from within. The linkage to Islam also fills you with a feeling of uneasiness. Whole European nations are at this moment becoming prejudiced against one particular religion. Unless you have personal friends who are devoted worshippers of Islam you run the risk being stuck in a stereotype. (To avoid misunderstanding I like to state that I am lucky enough to have personal Muslim friends in Sweden as well as in South Africa, with whom I share not just everyday friendship but also a common faith in God.)
Then it is apparent that by the month our societies in Europe are becoming more segregated. The more educated as well as those who believe themselves to be more educated, those more privileged, those of liberal leanings of various sorts (and if I belong anywhere it is here), we are looking on in horror how the political landscape is changing fast, just in time for the new year 2017. Sebastian Payne, in his article in Financial Times on 28 December 2016 hits the nail just there: we are fast approaching “the year People Like Them (PLT) take control from People Like Us (PLU)”. There are a number of elections taking place this year in Europe (France, the Netherlands, etc.) and it may well be that after those People Like Them will be in majority leaving People Like Us behind. There are things to worry about and Payne quotes a letter from a certain Mr Craig: “We have two failed wars and the Middle East in flames, China expansionist, Europe enfeebled, America ineffective and Russia resurgent”.
Payne again hits the nail when saying that now when entering a new year we have to reckon with instinctual emotion rather than pure reason: “PLT are folks who act on gut not reason. Emotion, not facts. They the ones who voted for Mr Obama and joined the Trump train. They feel misled by the elites and have decided that change, whatever it might be, is better than the status quo.”
He is so right: “Calm heads and moral hearts are needed in politics, now more than ever.” Equally, he has got a point when saying, and it is about a reality that we are waking up to in this year of 2017: “If this was the year PLU were shunned, 2017 will be the year when PLT take control. Whether we like it or not, the divide in society is real and will be hard to close.”
Again, and perhaps being biased, countries like Canada and Sweden could well withstand the onslaught of the current populism.
Before coming back to South Africa, there is one more thing to say. PLT, as coined here above, are about those who have populist leanings, and they are many in Europe right now. In these populist movements you find this toxic mix of a genuine anxiety regarding our and our children’s future, not in a small measure related to various terrorist attacks, and something else. This something else could be outright racism, extreme forms of nationalism and ethnicity, and it is there. This whole scenario is very well described by Sheri Berman in her article “Populism is not fascism, but it could be a harbinger” (Foreign Affairs, November/December 2016, 39 – 44). So, there is no doubt that Marine le Pen’s National Front for example easily could turn into a fascist movement. Berman contends however that there is a stronger culture of democracy today than in the interwar years. “[T]he right-wing extremists in the United States and western Europe today have much more limited options and opportunities than their interwar counterparts did.” Still she concedes that this might not be the case in parts of eastern and southern Europe. Her recipe is rather not to stare oneself blind on the toxic mix of current populism but rather pay attention to democracy itself and its institutions. “[T]he West should worry more about the problems afflicting democracy than about right-wing populists themselves… (and) make democratic institutions, parties, and politicians more responsive to the needs of all citizens.”
She rightly argues that populism, right-wing or left-wing, is a clear sign that democracy does not fare well. Again, her distinction between populism and fascism is, at this point in time, probably of decisive importance: “Right-wing populism – indeed, populism of any kind – is a symptom of democracy in trouble; fascism and other revolutionary movements are the consequence of democracy in crisis.”
This could not be more true for South Africa: it is all about building that culture and ethos of democracy that also takes seriously the various institutions like the parliament, the judiciary and the freedom of media (the press). And one could even draw from Berman’s argument that there is distinction to be made between populism and fascism when it comes to South Africa. The break-away group from the ANC under youth leader Julius Malema in many ways acted in a populist way, also playing with a rhetoric that bordered on genocidal hate speech (against certain whites). But the break-away group has become a political party (EFF, the Economic Freedom Fighters) quite to the left of ANC, and in many ways plays the game with the other political parties, except, perhaps on one point. There is never a sharp line drawn between peaceful articulations of views either verbally or through demonstrations on the one hand, and actions that in themselves carry elements of violence or at least coercion.
One would have to say the same thing regarding the student uprising during the second part of 2016. The cause is justified when it comes to a drive towards free education for all and the dire need for decolonisation of curricula, and the vast majority of students only want to go about it with peaceful means. But, and this is important, somewhere along the line there is a seed of violence sown into the action and there is reason to suspect EFF to have a hand in this. It is not violence leading to physical injuries but what should one say about the following coercive action: students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) holding the Rector hostage after a public meeting for more than half an hour?
Education, including tertiary education, is a cornerstone of any society and universities have had to contend with the fact that they had become leading apartheid institutions, built on the basis of racial classification. There were even special universities for English speaking whites  (UCT and Witwatersrand) and the other whites, the Afrikaners (Stellenbosch and Rand Afrikaans Universiteit, RAU).
Njabulo Ndebele is therefore right when he claims that all universities are in need of radical transformation, and that also goes for a place like UCT, which early on in defiance of the regime invited students of all races to come and study. There is no denying that a few of the former white universities like UCT have a higher standard than the others (UCT rated among the 200 best universities in the world). The academic standard as such has to be taken into account when transforming such institutions and universities that once had been designed for black students only will have to admit that their struggle credentials will not be enough when going into and becoming part of any international rating system.
Things have turned violent and ugly at two of the formerly white institutions, UCT and Wits, where at least half of the students are blacks today. The “discovery” of the colonial past, and, of course, continued white privilege in various forms (thus among their own class mates) have caused an uproar, but interestingly many white students also insist in being part of this uprising. However one can here sense an anger that will stop at nothing, an attitude that is clearly destructive, and a wish to smash everything to pieces (one library with handwritten documents and a lab have been burnt down at least). I am talking about the second semester 2016. However, Ndebele (well-known author and a former vice-chancellor of two universities) warned already more than ten years ago as follows. He first insists that all universities should be made black, not in the sense of colour coding, but in the sense of “the historic centring of the majority interest in national life”. What he says should not then be misunderstood as being a support of the historically black universities at the expense of the historically white ones. He says: “[I]t is not too difficult to see that, in general, our academic strengths are, with a few exceptions, not located in historically black institutions. It is not, therefore, in the universal interest of the black majority to seek to destroy existing strengths, merely because of their historic location, in the understandable desire to create new ones. To do so would simply be suicidal.” (Ndebele, Fine Lines from the Box, 166f)
It seems this is the crux of the matter. South Africa is still “white” but has to be made “black”, not in the sense of colour coding but in the sense of the majority, the vast majority (including  the poor), having a decisive say in an authentic national transformation. Whites here become apprehensive, but this should not be so, as it ultimately is not about race or colour per se. One should rather try to understand that blacks having come into their own will make sure that the others, whites etc., are part of the (new) deal.
It may well be that whites have great difficulties in unlearning this part of the story. J.M. Coetzee says: “If the work of hands on a particular patch of earth, digging, ploughing, planting, building, is what inscribes it as the property of its occupiers by right, then the hands of the black serfs doing the work had better not be seen. Blindness to the colour black is built into the South African pastoral.” (J.M. Coetzee, White Writing, in Ndebele, 61)
Ndebele concludes that “[p]astoral is the clinical tranquillity of the contemporary white South African suburb”, still very much in existence. An invisible hand has done its work. “Always hidden behind the legacy of imperial achievement has been the unacknowledged presence of black labour and the legitimacy of the political claims based upon that labour.” (Ndebele 62f)
In brief I will now tell why South Africa’s future is less bleak than that of Europe and North America.
As a model for this certitude of things coming right in South Africa I take a young, black woman, graduate from one of the universities, competent, well-articulated, self-assured, thriving in the multidimensionality of the new South Africa, not too much bogged down by the country’s historical burden, yet fully aware of its history, just as critical of President Zuma’s corrupt regime as of previous apartheid regimes. One such person will give you hope!
There are at least five reasons why I cannot say that South Africa’s future looks bleak but rather bright.
First, we have seen that democracy is becoming entrenched. I have earlier written about the local elections which took place in early August 2016. They were not only free and fair, they were also reflecting how diverse this society is and how decisive it is to support the party that delivers (social services, water, electricity, roads, litter, etc.).
Second, South Africa is a very open society. It is a society open for debate, and you get the sense that people are rather fearless in their debating, not afraid of giving expression of diverging opinions. With this I am not trying to intimate that things are always expressed with empathy.
Third, one can, not only sense, but actually see that society is being transformed. The born-frees (those born after 1994) are here very important. If you look at print media for example, Mail&Guardian, Cape Times, or Sunday Times, for example, you will find young, black men and women dominating the space, still finding some very good white people around.
Four, young, black academics and other professionals are emerging (too many whites are leaving the country for better pastures, but some are staying), and we have been able to see this for ourselves at the various graduation ceremonies at University of the Western Cape through the years. With such people future is bright.
Finally I again want to mention the student uprising of 2015 and 2016. It is a stern warning to the leadership of the country, but also a hopeful sign that already the young students want to be involved and share responsibility. And, again, I should emphasize that this uprising, which is against colonial and racial legacies as well as against the current insufficient political leadership (read President Zuma), very much is an expression by the whole student body of all shades. Many white students have played a vital role here.
And yet, enumerating signs that things are hopeful may not be enough. Encountering people is most of the time a real blessing. People seem contented and are as a matter of course very humane, and most of the time you discover after a little while that you are dealing with people of faith.
Two perspectives of faith should be mentioned here. First, there is a generous attitude to people of other faiths. There is a small Muslim community in South Africa and also a Jewish community, equally small, but both very vocal. The Christians predominate, a well-known fact. On 16 December, the day of reconciliation, there was again a walk in District Six in central Cape Town, where Christians, Muslims and Jews took part. They walked from the church, to the mosque and then to the synagogue. In each place there was a talk given by a person of a different faith and a prayer, and the walk involved people representing all three faiths.
But the Christian faith dominates in the country, especially in the black community. However, this dominance does not come across in a high-minded way. Media reflect this in many ways. For example, every Sunday night there is a gospel choir programme on national TV at prime time. On radio, the public broadcaster, SAFM, at the same time on a Sunday night, there will be a programme on Christian faith and ethics. One whole evening was devoted to the Christian marriage for example; another Sunday night was set apart for what is Christian leadership, etc.
The people of South Africa are very much like the full summer there right now, coinciding with Christmas, colourful, rich, bright, fearless and hopeful. Being partial, all that I have now said explains why the prospects for South Africa maybe so much better.

Reference: Njabulo S. Ndebele, Fine Lines from the Box. Further Thoughts about our Country. Roggebaai, Cape Town: Umuzi, 2007.

Friday, 11 November 2016

South African Universities Shutdown



South African Universities Shut Down: Anger, Impotence, separationsångest, yet Spirit of Hope

Part I
A person who supports liberation from oppressive structures generally (and South Africa has a long tradition of engaging in such a struggle) would welcome students’ engagement for an African reading of realities especially in a university set-up (thus “Rhodes must fall” movement) and for making university studies affordable (thus “Fees must fall” movement). So far so good;
But the current shut-down of campuses in many parts of the country is not immediately a logic consequence of these movements. For those of us who at this time go to a university campus on a daily basis the current shut-down comes through as an irrational act, detrimental to all. There is an element in the resistance movement that is bent on destruction. So, at our campus, known for being quite peaceful and a place that black students not least feel they are at home in, one morning “Campus Protection Services discovered petrol bombs and petrol containers hidden at various places across campus”. Apparently there are students, or people making themselves appear as students, who are bent on destruction and who couldn’t care less. At this point in time on various campuses extensive damage has been done to buildings, including libraries, cars have been torched etc.
What does not only frustrate me but also makes me very angry, is the fact that nobody seems to have a clue how this impasse is going to be resolved. I have to deal with the issue on a personal level, as it is something that concerns me directly, but I also want to relate to four different comments concerning our crisis: Arts Faculty staff meeting now a couple of weeks ago at UWC, Professor Tinyiko Maluleke’s comment in Mail&Guardian, October 14 to 20, Professor George Devenish’ article in Cape Times of October 20, Professor Jonathan Jansen’s article as well as that of Professor Nico Cloete in Financial Mail of October 13 to 19.
First the staff meeting of the Arts Faculty at UWC; the issue was: what do we do in the current situation (of a shutdown)? The situation: the students had 40 demands that had to be met before they would contemplate accepting opening the campus again and allow the ordinary activities take their course. It was the task of the university management to engage with the students on these demands (students= students’ representative council, all in favour of fees must fall campaign). One parent had been let in by default. He spoke. He said: I want my daughter to study, or I demand my money back. Everybody listened, but no meaningful response. I think this was one of the most useless meetings I ever have attended. Everybody was apparently afraid of blaming the students for anything, but violence is bad. Are we now talking about the lawless society? Since the early stages of this year’s student uprising one can also see a clear “patriarchalization”, meaning that the boys have taken over more and more, and subsequently physical violence is potentially at close range.
I left the meeting knowing that all staff were at a loss of what to do. Nobody had said anything that could lead anywhere out of the impasse in which we now found ourselves. And I was angry. I could not even go to my office and pick up one of my books. It is absurd, and totally irrational. Is there no pride in those who now are holding things at bay? Is there no pride in us being a university with some sense and some logic?? Here is no logic, just emerging madness…
Then you should at least read Maluleke’s comment in Mail&Guardian (a theology professor in Pretoria who figures regularly in this paper). Read carefully and you would discover that he (also) is beating about the bush. Brinkmanship is questioned, be it orchestrated by university management or students: “In this atmosphere of brinkmanship, the word engagement has assumed multiple and even contradictory meanings.” The only forms of engagement seem to be, for the time being, shut-downs or violence. It is as if students themselves have a contestation “in the manufacture and performance of outrage and rhetoric”. But Maluleke is quite cautious when it comes to confronting student behaviour. In the end the government is to be blamed. This is what everybody says (and rightly so) but such a statement is precisely what amounts to nothing (and everybody knows it).
Like I myself, Maluleke is deeply worried over the shutting down of campuses as he is aware of the ripple effects thereof. However one could only agree with him when he wonders why universities (read 25 something number of vice-chancellors) so far haven’t confronted the government “of the political party that, as recently as 2014, campaigned with posters proclaiming: ‘Vote ANC for free quality education’.”
George Devenish, emeritus professor of UKZN who assisted in the drafting of the 1993 interim constitution, says that “[t]he Academy of Science of South Africa has issued a stern warning that the country is facing the prospect of ‘permanent and irreversible damage’ to its higher education system, unless the chronic crisis unfolding in this sector is urgently resolved” (Cape Times 20 October, 2016). To date property valued at least R 100 million has been destroyed on campuses around the country. Devenish, as everybody else, puts the main blame on the government but also says that the incongruity of the student protest eventually could become fatal: “The protest is being pursued by a radical student leadership that is manifestly violating the rights of students who wish to complete the academic year. These radical students appear to be committed to closing down the institutions of higher learning at all costs, and in so doing, they are using or condoning violent demonstrations and arson.”

South African Universities Shut Down: Anger, Impotence, separationsångest, yet Spirit of Hope

Part II
But we should also listen to Professor Jonathan Jansen, who has just left the office as Vice Chancellor at the Free State University and is on his way to take up a position as guest professor at Stanford University, California; in other words, we could listen to a person who is free to speak his mind. And he does not mince his words.
What Jansen gives us is an utterly bleak picture, but a picture that we would have to face. To start with the emphasis on university education, as if that should be the goal of everyone, leaves the crucial, vocational education, that prepares people to work in a trade, a craft, etc., at a disadvantage.
But already in October last year President Zuma gave in and said to the students after their mass meeting in Pretoria that there would be no fee increase for the coming year. And he did, having come under severe pressure, create the impression on students that there is a direct causality on the part of the protesters: “make enough noise, cause sufficient disruption, and resort to violent attacks on public property, and eventually government pays attention and finds the money”.
The bigger picture tells us that similar unrest has been ongoing at universities in other countries in Africa, and where there does not seem to be a political resolution to funding crises on campuses. With this bigger picture in mind Jansen draws three conclusions for the (almost immediate) future: First, there will be “a steady decline in government funding”; second, there is a “creeping state of interference in the business of  universities”. Third, universities go into a “chronic instability”, and as we know, this is the second consecutive year of disruptions.
The result is disastrous and can be seen by all who dare to see: students who can afford to pay, leave, the professors who can afford to leave take jobs outside the country (not least those with high ratings from the National Research Foundation) and “the academic facility begins to collapse”. For example, funding for libraries and general maintenance will immediately be drying up.
The very sad thing is that this account is given by somebody who is on his way out of here. The one who cannot do this may feel that he is now telling truths while saving his own skin. Be that as it may, his final words are not to be ignored. He says:
“Does the militant minority care that they are in the process of destroying the top academic institutions still left on the continent? Frighteningly, no. The logic of the militant minority is that unless everybody can get free education right now, then nobody should, and if that means razing universities to the ground, so be it. What was built up over a century could very well be laid waste in a matter of two to three years.”
Jansen says that with President Zuma remaining silent there is only one way left, to me amounting to wishful thinking, namely the coming about of “a broad, assertive, public action that supports free education for the poor but stands up to the militant minority…”
Two more facts have to be added in order to give a fuller picture. In the same issue of the Financial Mail Professor Nico Cloete, Centre for Higher Education Trust, brings in two seemingly fateful circumstances. Not dealing with those, makes any other attempt futile. He says that “fewer than 5 % of the poor qualify for entry into universities, while for the 5% whose parents earn over R600,000/year, the percentage who qualify to enter university is over 50%”. But this is not enough, because of those who enter university far from all are going to be capped at a graduation ceremony: “barely 50% of the undergraduate students graduate”.
Having said all this, I have to emphasize very strongly that the students have a case, and that has been so since last year and the “Rhodes must fall campaign”. The key point is that violence and force are not going to help. Democracy is about casting your vote, and there lies the power of change. Admittedly, students are many times at a loss when it comes to meaningfully influence things on campus. But there are ways. What should be exposed far more are the condescendence and intransigence shown by academic staff knowingly or unknowingly. Let’s be honest: many academics have just taken for granted that they could carry on as before. The story of Professor Mahmood Mamdani, now Columbia University, USA, then at University of Cape Town, and the debacle regarding an introductory course on African humanities more than ten years ago, is a case in point.
Instead of making “decolonization” another catch phrase students and staff have to embark on the issue of curriculum. It should be noted that all curricula and all sciences have to be involved, though in very different ways.
This is the area where students, the brighter the better, should give their contribution and that must come now, not later.
My heart is going out to the students, all of them, also those who have committed violent acts (crimes). There must be a way back to campus, to a campus of peace, but also of struggle, but an intellectual one at that. Staff are, let me repeat, largely responsible for the fact that very little discussion on curriculum of any substance has taken place. We are standing there with guilt, let us confess.
I said initially in this rather long letter that I am angry, and so I am. I cannot stand the situation as it is, meaning that I cannot at this moment go to campus to do my job. However, my anger could easily become destructive, and that is a state of affairs that I want to avoid. Luckily I am sensing, while writing this piece, that my anger evokes a fighting spirit within me. I want to fight the good fight, even though with peaceful means. After all these years, and I have by now been working with and in South Africa/Africa for almost 41 years, I cannot turn my back on things as they are on campus. Whatever this means in practical terms, I want to make my contribution both to a renewed curriculum as well as to a renewed sense of (peaceful) fighting spirit, not neglecting nor ignoring the poor students (of whom only 5% make it for the university), also not being complacent about the 50% undergraduates who never graduate.
But before anything else, let us get back to our campuses. I am missing the sense of community there at the University of the Western Cape, the talks in the corridor, the serious discussions in class, the (frequent, those who know me) tea break as well as a not so infrequent visit to Val’s restaurant.