On 22 August, the University of Cape Town’s 2017 T.B. Davie Memorial Lecture on Academic Freedom titled “Decolonising the Post-Colonial University” was given (over the objections of several UCT academics) by one of the world’s top 10 public intellectuals and arguably the world’s leading authority on African colonial and post‐colonial international politics and the decolonization of African universities, Mahmood Mamdani.
First, what’s a public intellectual? Here’s my definition:
- an undisputed expert and critical thinker a subject (e.g. Ernst Mayr and Stephen Jay Gould – not Richard Dawkins – on evolution; Noam Chomsky on linguistics and political action; Salman Rushdie on humanism and cultural relativism);
- a translator who can distil academic verbiage into accounts that can be understood and appreciated by laypeople;
- a dissenter who can rattle the cages of tradition and normality without bias towards a particular ideology;
- a rational debater who participates in respectfully-competitive discussions beyond endless ‘conversations’;
- a knowledge gatekeeper who can ensure effective communication and understanding without constraining it in twitter-sized packets of hyper-simplified jargon; and
- ultimately a revealer of truth, even when it contradicts overwhelming power.
Why the requests?
UCT’s Executive, led by Vice Chancellor Max Price, cancelled (with short notice and over strong objections from UCT’s Academic Freedom Committee and many staff/students/alumni) the 2016 Davie Lecture. Price acted because the invited speaker (journalist Flemming Rose) was anonymously defamed (without published evidence) as a “bigot”/“blasphemer”/”Islamophobe”, and Price feared that Rose’s potentially unconstitutional address (the topic of which never discussed – but probably self-censorship) might provoke unspecified (hypothetical?) “violent protest”.
The objectors felt that no further Davie Lectures should be given until Rose was allowed to present one.
Why did Mamdani refuse?
Mamdani maintained that Rose and the publishers of cartoons of Mohammed, especially with a hand grenade in his turban, are Islamophobic, and because they refused to publish similar cartoons of Christ.
No. According to Rose, Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper concerned, published several cartoons similarly ridiculing Jesus, even by Kurt Westergaard, the artist that did the cartoon of the Mohammed.
Jyllands-Posten and – according to Mamdani – cartoons drawn by South African cartoonist Zapiro – are also Islamophobic because the offensive cartoons are ‘reminiscent’ of those published in an anti-Semitic Nazi tabloid for which the editor was executed. Mamdani also indicated that the newspaper’s and Rose’s actions remind him of those of journalists, radio broadcasters and intellectuals who encouraged the genocide in Rwanda.
Being ‘reminiscent’ of something proves nothing. Der Stürmer, the vehemently, anti-Semitic, German tabloid Mamdani refers to, was published by Julius Streicher, the man justifiably executed. The paper was not an official publication of the Nazi Party. Indeed, Hermann Göring regarded it as an embarrassment to Nazism and Joseph Goebbels tried to ban it, since it was too salacious, even for him. Der Stürmer was published privately by Streicher and made him a millionaire. It also ran sexually explicit, anti-Catholic, anti-Communist, and anti-monarchist propaganda and, in its editorials, Streicher relentlessly called for the annihilation and extermination of the Jewish race.
Cartoons depicting Mohammed may offend self-proclaimed jihadist terrorists (such as those who murdered employees, police and bystanders at Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper) and Mamdani and remind them of actionable Nazism/anti-Semitism. But, how can a couple of cartoons be a stepping stone to genocide? Moreover, the horrific acts in Rwanda were the result of a concerted, well-coordinated conspiracy that had a strong basis in politics and socio-economics, in addition to tribal/racial hatred. Rose, the relevant cartoonists and newspaper publishers produced one product and have never been proven to be hatemongers.
In short, neither Mamdani’s inference nor unsuccessful legal action by Muslim agencies prove Islamophobia or a connection between Rose and clarion calls for group-based discrimination or genocide.
Amos n’ Andy
Also, for the umpteenth time, Mamdani referred to Amos n’ Andy, the longest-running and one of the most popular radio shows in US history as a comparable example of anti-‘black’ racism. The show a was an offshoot of failing minstrelsy and highly popular even with African-Americans. Nevertheless, some eminent citizens objected to it because its white actors stereotyped their folk as “inferior, lazy, dumb and dishonest”. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) national office initially declined to endorse their objections.
A subsequent TV version of the show, with a highly-talented, all-‘black’ cast ran for two years until its sponsors withdrew support based of objections/boycotts from the NAACP. Nevertheless, its reruns continued for another 13 years despite further objections.
Whether Amos n’ Andy was an anti-African-American racist portrayal is by no means generally accepted by African-Americans and radio/TV critics/historians. The documentary Amos ‘n’ Andy: Anatomy of a Controversy, looks at its history and the show’s characters from its inception on radio to the first all-black cast show on American TV. Hosted by African-American comedian George Kirby, this documentary features rare archival clips and interviews with former TV cast members, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Redd Foxx, Marla Gibbs and former NAACP leaders of that era. None of the interviewees take the Mamdani ‘position’.
This pioneering situation comedy depicted black actors portraying upstanding judges, lawyers, police officers, business owners, home owners, and strong and opinionated women; admittedly alongside other flawed individuals who mispronounced and misused the English language. Rev. Jackson said: “We had enough sense to see that these brilliant actors were comedians playing out roles”. “Perhaps what was missing were other more serious shows to establish balance.” What was missing then, and now, is a balanced focus on education instead of poverty; appreciation of art instead of burning it; resolute mass action rather than gang violence; sober, rational and respectful discussion rather than profanity; love instead of pathological hatred and, especially, respect for the rule of law and women.
On the last score, Price chooses to quote American ‘activist’ Stokely Carmichael on nuanced institutional racism, but ignores his notorious comment: “The position of women in the [Civil Rights] movement is prone.” He chose to help radical, ideologue and PASMA commissar Masixole Mlandu escape detention by the SA Police Service so they could ‘negotiate’. Price even suspended UCT’s 2016 Student Representative Council elections because candidate Mlandu was interdicted from being on campus. This is despite the fact that Mlandu has been accused of malicious damage to property, housebreaking, intimidation and sexual harassment and described by a judge as “unrepentant”. The pro-fallist Daily Maverick describes him as determined to “destroy Rhodes, his legacy and all he represents” by “bring[ing] the struggles and vagaries of township life and black pain to the affluent centres of South Africa’s elite establishment”.
As for me, I watched Amos n’ Andy TV re-runs as a teenager simultaneously with the equally hilarious Honeymooners, which depicted ‘whites’ as severely lacking in character and intellect. Think also of the similarly-deficient Archie Bunker and today’s Black-ish. Perhaps Mamdani should also listen to Amos’ words describing the Lord’s Prayer to his young daughter.
Mamdani also maintains that Amos n’ Andy was finally cancelled in 1965 due to the “political influence” of “inarticulate” Watts Rioters – 30000+ rioters; 34 deaths; $40 million damage – in Los Angeles. The riot was, in fact, triggered by an altercation between allegedly racist police and an African-American motorist. A subsequent commission of enquiry makes no reference to the show.
What, then, is Mamdani’s evidence? Both events took place in the same year: 1965. But, so did relatively non-violent protests in Selma, Alabama, and the passage of pivotal US civil rights legislation. Perhaps peaceful, coordinated actions have more effect in the longer term than riotous acts.
Mamdani ended his riposte by asking the pro-Rose, UCT e-mailers if they would stand up and answer the question: Would you also invite Streicher and the promoters of the Rwandan genocide to give the Davie Memorial Lecture? Then he declared that the “Islamophobic” Rose had no democratic right to have the honour to give the Academic Freedom Lecture at UCT and “congratulated” Price for banning Rose.
Since these e-mailers were not present, they were unable to answer Mamdani’s question with an unequivocal “NO”! With regard to ‘democratic rights’, Price has steadfastly refused to conduct democratic, anonymous, vote-based surveys of the UCT Community on any aspect of decolonization or fallism, let alone defining and defending academic freedom. With regard to ‘honour’, the unilateral action by the Price-led Executive to override a decision by the Academic Freedom Committee (whose job it is to select Davie Lecture speakers – including Mamdani) without consulting Senate confers none on UCT’s leadership.
The Davie-Rose-Mamdani ‘affair’ is, at best, the misuse of public intellectualism to undermine Davie’s vision, defame Rose and eminent UCT ‘universal scholars’ and contribute to the collapse of academic freedom in order to promote destructive decolonization.