Students at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) are calling for the removal of Adam Habib as the director of the school. This comes after Habib, the former vice-chancellor of Wits University used the n-word during an online meeting with students.
During the meeting, Habib used the full n-word in response to students expressing concerns about a lecturer who had used the word as well as the school’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement. In a Twitter statement, Habib said, “A student did question SOAS’ responsiveness to anti black racism & suggested a staff member used the word without consequences.”
Habib claims the video – which has been shared on social media – has been unfairly “cropped”. One of the students in the call – a black student of Somali descent – told him that he could not use the word. Habib then said: “You do, I don’t actually. I come from a part of the world where we use the word.”
When Habib was further called out by the student, he apologised. “I am sorry I offended you. I come from a part of the world where when someone uses it, context matters,” he said.
The n-word is a racial slur that was used to refer to enslaved people. Speaking to the BBC in 2020, Kehinde Andrews, professor of black studies at Birmingham City University said, “It’s really tied into the idea that African people aren’t really human beings.” Race expert, Dr Jacqui Stanford explains: “Black people have successfully divested the N-word of its original offence and in our struggle to survive the devastation it occasions, gave it new meaning, made it approachable, survivable.” However, it is still considered racist for anyone besides a black person to use the n-word regardless of the context.
In a petition that is publicly circulating among black students from SOAS a call has been made for removal, resignation and, or, dismissal of Adam Habib within the next 31 days. The petition says that Habib’s action is “emblematic of the experience that Black students go through at SOAS”. It says that this points to “the structural racism embedded within SOAS”.
The petition further states that students do not want an apology from Habib and seek only his dismissal. “For us as a Black student body, we shall not accept leadership from a director who is racist and does not understand the African condition, African History and why there are Black Africans in the diaspora,” the petition says.
In his response to the controversy, Habib denied that he had said South Africans use the N-word. “This is a deliberate distortion used for despicable political agendas,” he said.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have also called for SOAS to remove Habib from his position. The party said in their statement that Habib has no right to use the word as he has no historical and social experience of it.
The philosophers society at SOAS are also calling for Habib to be removed.
Habib was the vice-chancellor of Wits University during the Fees Must Fall protests of 2015-2016. He resigned in 2020 after seven years as the Wits vice-chancellor to join SOAS in January 2021 as director.
[UPDATE AS OF MARCH 16] Habib spoke to the SOAS Spirit, a SOAS independent newspaper on March 12. He told the SOAS Spirit that “I am sorry that people feel offended. I really am sorry about that. I think that there’s a distinction between using the word and mentioning the word in the way I did.” During the interview, he was asked about his use of the term “blacks”. Habib told the Spirit “he used the term ‘blacks’ to ‘straddle the divide’ with his South African followers who were engaging with his tweets.”
A group of students, academics and technical experts from universities across South Africa, including Wits University have put together a petition against Habib. Speaking to The Daily Vox, Zanele Mabaso, a three-time Masters student said she was approached by students and academics who had encountered Habib during Fees Must Fall to start the petition. “I didn’t expect that it would be signed by close to 5,000 people in about 48 hours. That tells you about the gravity of Habib’s influence which is negative to people that he has encountered,” said Mabaso.
On Friday, they plan to send the petition to the board of trustees of SOAS and other senior management at the University of London. Mabaso said they hope Habib will be removed from his position or resign. If neither of those actions happen in 31 days time, “collectively with students in London, we are exploring the possibilities of shutting down SOAS where they will protest and engage in peaceful demonstrations,” said Mabaso.
[UPDATE AS OF MARCH 18] The SOAS board of trustees have announced that Habib will be stepping aside as director of SOAS for the duration of an independent external investigation.