The problem is not the students, but the Mantashes, Benatars, Habibs and Prices of the world

Image of Shackville protest at UCT by Ashraf Hendricks

Last week, in the midst of student protests for free and decolonised education at most of South Africa’s universities, Professor David Benatar, HOD of the UCT Philosophy department, criticised his university for capitulating to the students. Soon after, ANC General Secretary, Gwede Mantashe, suggested that the students should be taught a lesson and the universities closed for up to six months. The two are miles apart in terms of the ideologies they claim to adhere to. Still, in practice, Jared Sacks asks whether there is really much of a difference between the two?

I have been reading up on the question of Orientalism and, in particular, the literature of a range of colonial administrators and politicians during Britain’s 19th Century domination over what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. I happened to come across a report by Thomas Babington Macaulay to the British parliament in 1835 whereby he decried the empire’s sponsorship of free education to learn Sanskrit and Arabic.

Macaulay, as we know, was instrumental in forcing English as the only medium of instruction on “a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern”. In his words, the goal was to create “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”. He simply believed it was a fact that English was intrinsically superior and therefore a more useful to the “native subjects”. Sanskrit and Arabic on the other-hand not only lacked literary and scientific relevance, but encouraged opposition to British rule:

“What we spend on the Arabic and Sanscrit Colleges is not merely a dead loss to the cause of truth … It goes to form a nest not merely of helpless placehunters but of bigots prompted alike by the passion and by interest to raise a cry against every useful scheme of education.”

This language immediately shocked me. Not because I would have expected anything different from such an eminent figure of British colonialism, but because this way of speaking remains so prevalent today amongst the discourse excoriating students for their protests for a free and decolonised education.

In an opinion piece last year, UCT Head of the philosophy department David Benatar attempted to discredit student calls for decolonisation of the university questioning what “philosophy” would be without the rigour of Western academia. In other words, there are no acceptable methodologies of thought indigenous to Africa – it must all be imported from Europe via people who place value in such approaches, people like himself.

In a more recent piece on the resurgent protests, Benatar criticised his own university for “capitulating” to student protesters thereby encouraging further protests, lawbreaking and general “thuggish” behaviour. Implicit in his argument is that the university is encouraging black students to have a sense of entitlement over education – something for which they should rather be humbly grateful.

But how can a sense of entitlement (read: desire for influence and ownership) over one’s own education be considered a bad thing?

I hope you can see where I am going with this: Benatar is reformulating the racist trope Macaulay was using to refer to his ungrateful subjects getting a “free education” in India.

Macaulay: “These are surely the first petitioners who ever demanded compensation for having been educated gratis … They represent their education as an injury which gives them a claim on the Government for redress”.

Is this not what Benatar himself is saying about black students’ unappreciative behaviour because they refuse to learn in the manner and under the conditions that Benatar thinks is rigorous and world-class?

To be sure, Benatar’s language isn’t nearly as crass as Macaulay. He knows that he should speak the language of equal opportunity and non-racialism even while pushing policies that are deeply unequal and racist. But if you read more deeply into what Benatar writes, his paternalism, his belief that he knows what is better for anyone without the privilege of a PhD, is not different than any colonial administrator before him.

What is most surprising, however, is not that people like Benatar still exist, but that his attitude reverberates throughout the ruling class, and even amongst the South African Left. The discourse of colonialism, to use Edward Said, is pervasive throughout society.

“Uncle” Gwede Mantashe, echoing Macaulay’s complaints of the sense of entitlement his subjects felt, suggested the long-term shutdown of the university as a solution: “After a year, people will know higher education will be important for their future. You are not doing anyone a favour by studying”. If students can’t pay, he said, they must sell cattle to do so.

Obviously, there is something deeply wrong with our education system. But the problem isn’t some sense of entitlement students apparently have. It is the fact they have such little control over the way in which they are being educated. Mantashe has no sense of this because he too has fully embraced the deeply paternalistic discourse of colonial education. In this sense, he takes his cue from the likes of Lucas Mangope, the former president (read: apartheid administrator) of Bophuthatswana, who in 1988 shut down the university indefinitely in response to student protests.

The problem is not the students, but the ruling class: the Mantashes, Benatars, Prices and Jansens of the world.

Our universities and schools remain the colonial institutions which the British founded to produce docile subjects forever dependent on an unjust and exploitative system. Decolonisation, then, is about both the call for free education and the re-founding of the university on a completely different democratic basis: that of emancipatory critical thinking.

Featured image by Ashraf Hendricks
  1. Jon Low says

    All the aforementioned are not rioting, burning and trashing and intimidating students who want to study. The lumpenproles are doing that. (No wonder that Marx himself spared his worst contempt not for counter-revolutionaries nor capitalists, but for the lumpenproles which he loathed.)

  2. B Ward says

    Before this week I had never heard of David Benatar, but I have done some “reading up” of my own.
    For anyone reading this article, first familiarise yourself with what David Benatar actually wrote (
    1. He was referring to the violent protesters (“the thugs”) and not students in general as inferred above.
    2. The main point of his article was about upholding the law and was not a “racist trope” (in fact he never once used the word “black”).
    3. He did not, implicitly or otherwise, say “…the university is encouraging black students to have a sense of entitlement over education…”. If you can infer this in what he wrote then you can infer just about anything you want.
    4. etc
    The author of the above article has mislead the reader on points of fact (which can be easily checked) of what David Benatar actually wrote. No one likes to be lied to, they want the truth so that they can make up their own minds. It is belittling and patronising to the reader. Once the lie (or a few in this case) is exposed, then what follows loses its value (“what else is not true?”), the argument is lost and any future article written by this person will be treated with some mistrust.

    1. frombelow says

      I suggest you read all the articles he has written, not just the one you refer to. Benatar is very clear he is referring to all protesting students

  3. John says

    Wow, that was a total waste of 10min. Always a drag reading a thoughtless prattle with no convincing evidence of its still critism and regurgitating of the works of others. Let me know when South Africans educated here starts complaining about how much success they enjoy because of that education. Its those who burned down schools at home that complaining for the lack thereof. By what knowledge can anyone demand a change over a system they themselves dont yet understand but feel the need to improve. Lets keep the standards were they are and the fools where they are

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