Why the Wits University general assembly failed: An anthropological view

8 Oct 2016

By: Hylton White

So we had a really interesting thing happen here, that anthropology has quite a lot to say about.

We were moving towards an event called a “University Assembly.” There have only been about ten or so of them in the history of our university, and likewise at other universities in South Africa. They’re really big occasions where there is recognition that the usual course of events has been overtaken.

The first ones happened in the 50s, when universities like Wits and University of Cape Town (UCT) brought their staff and students together to say that they refused the subjugation of academia to apartheid laws regarding who could live and work together in one space. For our liberal universities, they’re a source of great pride.

Some of these assemblies are commemorated still with plaques, or, at UCT, with an extinguished torch of academic freedom. But it turns out that this translates extraordinarily badly into the space of the post-apartheid academy. We were supposed to have a University Assembly today at Wits to commit ourselves to the principle of free education. The narrative in the media is that after much mediation the university management agreed to this and even wrote a draft pledge to support it, and that student activists then shifted the goalposts by making new demands and thereby destroying the whole thing (it’s been ‘postponed’).

It’s kinda true. The student demands were two-fold. First, they weren’t happy with a general commitment to free education. They wanted the university to commit to saying that it would not re-open until the state had agreed to a concrete plan for implementing this. I won’t comment here on the wisdom of that. But second, they didn’t like the format of this Assembly that was being held over them like a rite of old from the Lord of the Rings or some similarly foreign cosmos.

According to the management’s vision, laid out in a detailed email, the University Assembly is a highly ritualised event. One representative from each of the university’s main constituencies makes a pro-forma speech to solemnise her/his constituency’s commitment to the pledge being made, which is then to be binding policy. All this is to be done in academic gowns and what-what.

Well, the students who are calling for decolonisation didn’t much care for all that. They don’t share with older white liberals the nostalgia for the solemnity and dignity with which almost exclusively white academic staff and student bodies made statements in their academic robes opposing apartheid laws, back in the old days when black people were excluded from such spaces or such statements.

Fairly or unfairly, student activists these days regard the claiming of that liberal history as a fig leaf on the racism of the actually existing university now. The latter having, at very long last, an African majority student body that, for obvious reasons, doesn’t ‘feel’ the institution’s aesthetic and political history of dignified white liberalism.

So they wanted something called an imbizo instead. That’s an Nguni word for a public gathering where every voice is heard by those in authority. Note the difference. In the University Assembly, authority makes itself heard through its pageantry, which, by the way, descends most proximately from a Eurocentric aesthetics of monastic solemnity that most of our students these days find as recognisable as they would the welcoming dances of a troupe of visiting Martians.

In an imbizo, as envisioned in this student demand–please note the contextualisation and just do us all a favour by shutting up right now if you were going to accuse me of some kind of nativist romanticism–there is, by contrast, a lot of contentious participation, a lot of the performance of voice by all, and hey, a hell of a lot of rambunctious singing. The point is that authority listens, not that authority speaks. It feels really different. It has a lot more, um, audience.

So, this brings me to anthropology. A long time ago, Maurice Bloch argued that the main purpose of highly ritualised or formal speech was to shut down the contestation of voices and to reinforce existing authority. Whatever the merits of that particular argument, it opened up a long line of anthropological theory along the lines that politics proceeds as much through disputes over form as it does through contestations of content. People at Wits, let’s pay attention to the arguments that students made over the form of this event, at least as much as we pay attention to the content of what different people wanted said. The whole form of this extraordinary representation of the ‘whole institution’ needs to be re-thought for the post-apartheid period.

This piece was spotted on Facebook  as an ordinary post and lifted to this platform with permission from the author.

Hylton White is an Anthropologist at Wits 


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