Liberalism, Intolerance and University Society in South Africa

Written by: Tariq Khan Liberalism is an ideology that the university society of South Africa stands to benefit from. Having the values of this ideology woven into the social fabric of our university societies is highly desirable as it complements the virtue of a university....

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Written by: Tariq Khan

Liberalism is an ideology that the university society of South Africa stands to benefit from. Having the values of this ideology woven into the social fabric of our university societies is highly desirable as it complements the virtue of a university. One virtue or “function” of an institution of higher learning is to be a platform that thinkers can use to engage with others about issues that actors have produced in broader society, for example.

Liberalism has always had a firm anchor in South Africa, and multiple organizations like the Helen Suzman Foundation and the Africa Liberal Network stand in defence of its principles, which are also enshrined in the Constitution. Although this ideology has a presence in South Africa, our university societies are deprived of its influence. The left in South African student politics have a hegemony over the mindsets of most of our student activists. It leaves me wondering why liberalism has lost its gravitas on campuses.

According to Andrew Heywood, an internationally renowned political scientist, what makes liberalism “liberalism” is the belief in individualism, toleration, consent and reason. Its these values that underpin the platform one expects to find at an institution of higher learning. With these values, among others, being woven into the fabric of our university societies, what is produced is an openness to new ideas which broader society can benefit from. Ideas are powerful things. They are the essence of everything that man has produced from constitutions to piped water. An idea can have an impact which exists in service to progress, but it can also have an impact which exists in service to regression. This explains why they – the ideas – ought to be engaged with on a platform based on values like reason and tolerance, with a commitment to human rights.

University society is comprised of different student communities found at our universities. For people in university society, namely the academics and the students, to disagree with each other or within their respective groups is normal. There’s no society in the world where people agree on anything unanimously. This is a result of human individuality; each person has their own preferences which their freedom happens to entitle to them to. Although this is a norm, sometimes people react to deviating views as if their existence is abnormal and such views are an attack their identity or character. What this usually entails is a barrage of insults, aimed at making someone feel bad for disagreeing with them.

This is a tactic that many university students on the left have begun to rely on in the debates they’ve had over social media – I’ve noticed, especially, when it’s an ideological one like “capitalism versus socialism” or even about race. Instead of using their data to gather facts to empower their arguments, what becomes a priority is making sure that the opponent is left feeling hurt, while the arguments stands untouched.

The purpose of the debate then is not to be challenged intellectually. Rather, it’s about trying to establish a new regime of political correctness, based solely on popular ideas. It’s ironic that this is what can fester at university; a place where ideas are meant to be grappled with. This approach to disagreeing with someone has never bore any positive legacy for any forthcoming generation to benefit from.

On the 18th of November 1993 negotiations for South Africa’s constitution produced an agreement between political parties from across the political spectrum. Some of the principles this agreement sought to promote were an inclusive democracy for all South Africans and for the country to be divided into at least nine provinces, each with a representative provincial government. The legacy of coming to this agreement is experienced in having an independent judiciary as well as other chapter 9 institutions that exist to keep the government accountable, together with parliament and civil society. This agreement was not conceived by a negotiating body that endorsed immature, personal insults. Negotiation requires reason, tolerance and fairness to be applied consistently between all the stakeholders, and so does debate and discussion.

If we believe in change that moves South Africa forward, intolerance must be minimised. It manifests through behaviours that threaten personal freedom like homophobia and attempts to force people into supporting certain beliefs based on their affiliation to a race group. I am a coloured South African and a member of the working class. Too often have these dimensions of my identity  been used against me in discussions and debates on Facebook to try getting me to change my beliefs as a classical liberal. I reject reducing what could be an interesting conversation based on fact to a silly discourse about identity politics.

Charlie Peters wrote that “The student left’s culture of intolerance is creating a new generation of conservatives” in the context of British student politics. How long will it take before the same intolerance in South Africa gives rise to a newer, bigger generation of student liberals in our country? Shifting debate onto a platform that values liberal principles will certainly engender progress. The shutting down of views cannot be tolerated anywhere, especially at universities, where critical enquiry towards everything is supposed to be part of the status quo.

Author: Tariq Khan is a youth leader and classical liberal, reading politics at Stellenbosch University. He is also a public speaker on social issues. Last year he spoke on youth, education and globalization at the African Confederation of Principals. He writes in his personal capacity.

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  1. Steven van Staden Reply

    Thank you for making these important points, though of course they fall on deaf ears where they most need to be heard. What I find inexplicable is that in the face of a dire need of intellectual progress in South Africa, the lowest mentality is demanding and being given the upper hand. Liberal tolerance of the intolerant is suicidal and murderous. If we allow the obstinate bigotry and ignorance of the retrograde mindset to be violently enforced in schools and places of higher learning, as is happening, obviously South Africa’s future prospects plummet with it. We all fall with ‘fallism.’

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