Professor Jansen, do you want ‘concomitant action’? #RhodesMustFall

With unbelievable insensitivity Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, has labeled a section of the protesting students as gangsters. This comes only three years after the Marikana massacre, when a similar criminalisation of protesting workers by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa played a role in creating conditions for the police to kill thirty-four mineworkers in a single incident. The consequences of criminalising protestors have either passed over Prof. Jansen’s head, or he actually does not mind the killing of black protestors as much as he minds a school girl laughing at what she perceives as her white teacher’s overreaction to the death of a dog.

Jansen put forward this libelous label on 9 October this year when he delivered the inaugural Stephen Ellis Memorial Lecture at the Netherlands Embassy in Pretoria. After starting off with the story of the black school girl laughing at her white teacher Jansen displays great determination to paint some of the protesting students as callous balls of undirected anger which culminates in the following tirade:

“There is no ideology or memory or history here, only a hodge podge of pro-black/anti-white sentiment on the tip of an angry tongue that finds expression in the lashing out at public gatherings and memorial lectures, in newspaper columns of especially the Sunday Independent though with more balance in City Press, and in the occasional book production.

It is an anger that is particularly vicious of its critics. In its milder forms of dismissal the critics are old, representing a bygone generation that simply by virtue of age is out of touch and irrelevant to the struggles of youth. They should allow the space for political articulation to be occupied by those who really know, the newly angry young activists. In its harsher version, the older critics of the new anger are trounced as everything from right-wing reactionaries to white-loving establishment figures who have done nothing to advance black professors in the academy or decolonise the curriculum or change institutional cultures.”

This is just one of the many untruths about the protesting students that Jansen managed to cram his lecture with, even while being forced to concede that the aims, methods and outcomes of the protests were just. Before I untangle this small sample of professorial lies, let me note Jansen’s basic trick. He speaks about a group of students, particularly the #‎RhodesMustFall movement at UCT, who have expressed searing anger at the everyday racism at former white and English universities, who have put forward radical critiques of whiteness and who have drawn on thinkers such as Franz Fanon and Cornell West. He also speaks about a group of students who have used violent and intolerant methods to suppress people they disagree with. Without a grain of evidence, he speaks of these two groups as one group. He is thereby able to taint his ideological opponents with the label of gangsterism. Jansen’s main beef with the #RhodesMustFall movement is not any particular action of theirs, but the fact that they have radically broken with his mainstream mix of conservatism with small dashes of liberalism.

Now let us look at the above somewhat randomly selected paragraphs. One might disagree with the ideology and memory of the #RhodesMustFall students, but to say they do not have these things is simply not true. They have a fairly well-defined ideology and view of history, which could be described as Black Consciousness combined with anti-imperialism, feminism and, to a lesser degree, socialism. Their ‘anti-white’ sentiment has been clearly explained and motivated. They hate ‘whiteness’ as the embodiment of racism and privilege. Maybe the professor thinks this is not enough reason to hate, but then he should explain why. He does not like the angry tone of the students, but an angry tone does not invalidate an argument professor, even if it upsets some white people.

It is also not true that the #RhodesMustFall activists have dismissed critics simply based on their age. In fact, it could be argued the student movements have been very respectful of black academics at these institutions, many of whom do not share the radical politics of the students but are intent on using this moment for their own purposes. There have been many reading and discussion groups where older people have been invited to share their thoughts with the students, and even when the older academics were critical of the students the engagements were respectful and constructive. Yes, students have accused some of their detractors of being rightwing reactionaries, but that does not mean they were wrong. Are there no rightwing reactionaries on university campuses? Or is this one just hitting too close to the bone, Professor?

You complain about ‘violence’ but you are helping to set up the students as targets for state violence.


(Photo Credit: Ra’eesa Pather / The Daily Vox)

About Ronald Wesso

Ronald Wesso lives in Johannesburg and has worked in trade unions, social movements, and nongovernmental organizations.