Statement from the Department of Historical Studies

7 Oct 2016 - 22:00

Click here to access the pdf file.

 

At the Department of Historical Studies, the members of the academic and PASS staff have been and continue to remain engaged in a serious, deep and sincere conversation around the major issues that the students’ movement has brought up. As practitioners of history, we do not want to trivialize the historical significance of this profoundly complex moment by reducing it to a binary of yea-sayers and nay-sayers. On each of the questions raised and discussed, there are a variety of positions and approaches within the Department cutting across any given faultline. We wish to maintain this discursive climate where colleagues and students can frankly share different views and openly debate each other’s intellectual positions; but at the same time we feel it to be our duty to inform the other members of the university community of the broad principles we are in agreement on as well as the key issues we are in debate over.

 

We collectively express our unequivocal opposition to the use of force to settle political issues and all forms of violence on campus. We are convinced that no sustainable solution to the current crisis can come from sidestepping or undermining a transparent, consultative, and binding democratic process that involves the entire university community. We further recognize that such a process must address the very real economic needs of the students, shaped by various practices of economic exclusion in the society, including chronic underfunding of institutions of higher education by the government. We urge all the stakeholders in the university, including ourselves, to sincerely commit to a reconciliation process where main principles of restorative justice are upheld and a culture of trust, mutual respect, and democratic process is rebuilt. In this moment of crisis, we consider it important to emphasize that the space of university is a space for debates and disagreements, and intimidation and use of force are unacceptable.

 

The following is a sample of the different issues under active discussion in the department. Please note that this is an indicative, rather than comprehensive, sample. We encourage each other to bring newer concerns and approaches to the field, to think critically and historically about the situation, and to reinterrogate and unsettle any unexamined assumption inherent in every question. We are committed to carrying on this conversation precisely because we are open to be persuaded by each other’s logic, and in fact, over the course of the debate, some of us have revised and reconsidered our positions. We remain particularly mindful of the need to build long-term, sustainable and institutional practices based on the agreements achieved through this conversation.

 

Decolonization: What has decolonization meant in a range of different historical contexts? What varieties of decolonization are possible and desirable in our own context? What sites of actual changes can be identified as being in need of decolonization in the specific context of the university? – Curriculum? – Staff demography? – Pedagogical mode? – Staff-student hierarchy? – Funding structure? – Sensibility? Is decolonization the only or even the ultimate horizon in the light of which we must determine the value of everything else? Are there undecolonizable elements in the very institutional notion of a university? How do processes of decolonization at South African universities relate to those in other parts of Africa, and globally? …

 

Pedagogical engagement: What is lacking in our standard approaches? Where and how can more creative and inclusive engagements happen? Can academics be legitimately expected to sign any manifestos that promote any programme other than academic freedom? Is it not a primary responsibility of historians to extend and engage in the public life of history beyond the confines of the university? Can one equate the bluntly exclusionary educational system of the brutal apartheid state with that of the democratically elected post-apartheid regime? Has trust been “lost” in the academic space? …

 

“Nativism” and “Essentialism”: Who under what conditions has the legitimate authority to speak about what pasts? Is the colonially constructed notion of the native paradoxically being given a new lease of life in the rhetoric of decolonization in the time of neoliberalism? Who gets to decide on the markers, registers and boundaries of “African-ness”? Is what is being deployed in the current movement a “strategic essentialism”? Is any and all talk about identities bound to end up being “nativist”? ….

 

The University: Is the university a culture-neutral institution? How have universities transformed in other places in response to political change and social trauma? How does this student movement fit into a longer history of student movements in South Africa and abroad? What historical analogues can we look to for guidance when assessing the implications and impact of calls for free higher education? Where do administrative staff, workers, campus security staff, temporary and contractual teachers, and many others in relatively disadvantageous positions feature in the map of the university we want to see? …

 

Archives: Should not historians be united in their principled opposition to the burning of libraries/ archives and artworks in which some protesters have engaged? Are not the protesters also creating new archives, particularly through social media, video recording and self-curating? How does the burning of libraries and artworks compare with the rather common practice of insurgent peasants burning records of debt on the one hand and the Säuberung of the Nazis on the other? If it is justifiable to burn "colonial" archives, will it be equally justifiable to destroy or hack the student protesters’ digital archives under construction simply because one disagrees with them for whatever reason?  …

 

Trauma and pain: Do these categories reveal the very limits of historicist thinking, showing how the discipline has been and continues to be complicit in normalizing colonial violence? Is not the acknowledgement of trauma and experience of pain the only way through which the dispossessed, the violated and the victims can speak of the pasts which have been written out of academic memory? Are these categories being framed through an essentialist understanding of an “original” colonial violence to instrumentally justify a contemporary politics of victimhood? Is the emphasis on subjective experience necessarily irreconcilable with a public and democratic politics? ….

 

Intersectionality: To what extent does the plurality of voices within the movement render the traditional politics of representation (based on the notion of stable and distinct constituencies) as well as traditional social science categories (such as class, gender, ethnicity etc) inadequate and/or redundant? How equipped as historians are we to address the repeated invocation and deployment of an epistemology otherwise than the European by the protesters? …

 

Narratives and power: What role can historians play in interpreting the conflicting understandings of current events in the media and through university? How can we equip students to understand the relationships between the production of knowledge and power? How do we, or do we at all, complicate the public perception, shaped by big media, that this is simply a two-sided struggle between the UCT Executive and a student movement represented by one particular faction? How do students of history critically engage in a situation where rumours, stereotypes, news, propaganda, and silence make knowledge more contested than usual? …

 

Fear: Are we afraid of the students? Are students afraid of us? Is naming and shaming an intimidating tactic? Can the fears of the university management be the fears of the academics? Is a small radical minority bullying the larger community into silence? …

 

It should be clear from this sample that we see the current moment not simply as a problem that needs to be managed but as an opportunity to renew and revise our thinking, and to critically reassess our teaching, research and administrative practices when appropriate. We reiterate our commitment to deepening and broadening the scope of this conversation, and the democratic process that it necessarily requires. As an immediate sign of this commitment, the Department proposes to hold daily sessions for discussion and elaboration of the texts and other matters of historical interest which have relevance to the moment, involving all our staff, students and associates. We invite everyone interested to participate in the preparatory meeting on 11 October 2016 (Tuesday) at 13:00 in Beattie 240, subject to, of course, the developments over the next few days.

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