What is the Price of today’s Revolutionary Activism?

The short answer is billions of Rand on a national scale and a damaged system of tertiary education. But, in a  public intellectual article, Chumani Maxwele chooses to ask a different question: What is the Price of Revolutionary Activism for Student Activists?

The short answer to this is “amnesty”. Furthermore, Maxwele’s article begins with conflation at best and deliberate (inadvertent?) confusion and misinformation at worst. Recent actions initiated and promoted by Maxwele are neither revolutionary, nor do they constitute activism. Genuine South African revolutionaries (e.g. Oliver Tambo, Bram Fischer, Robert Sobukwe, Breyten Breytenbach, Nelson Mandela, Neville Alexander and Steve Biko): burned Pass Books; organized peaceful demonstrations; conspired to bring down internationally condemned laws and governments; conducted non-life-threatening sabotage; created internationally respected, but illegal, political structures; and initiated community programmes focussed on improving healthcare and education. For this they had to flee the country or be prepared to be jailed or even killed. The activities of genuine activists (Helen Suzman, Mamphela Ramphele, Geoff Budlender, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Beyers Naudé, Trevor Manuel and Cyril Ramaphosa) challenged authority aggressively, but more subtly.  They employed inspired, often politically motivated oratory/writing; unionization and community service to effect constructive political, environmental, economic, or social change without flagrant law-breaking, violence or destruction. They were harassed by Apartheid security personnel, risked banning and, fortunately, lived to contribute to the constructive transformation  of South Africa after the collapse of Apartheid.

The ‘activism’ of Maxwele, Mlandu, Hotz and other radical Fallists at the University of Cape Town (UCT) at best ‘challenges’ (not exposes) perceived/nuanced/invisible “institutional racism” at Africa’s still (but for how long?) top-ranked university. At worst, it comprises illegal actions ‘focussed’ generally (but not always) on ‘non-POC’, irrespective of their ‘racism’. They involve senseless massively costly, defacement of treasured national monuments (e.g. to war-dead) and destruction of key resources (e.g. educationally important rooms, books, buildings, busses and bakkies), and often inoffensive (e.g. flowers in a vases/jugs) artworks (some even created by POC). They defame, intimidate (even assault) peaceful and defenceless students, academics, officials (including the VC) and the Illegal invasion of residences, threatening legitimate residents (especially international) and staff and stealing food. Even womxn and POC are not spared. They helped to drive the POC Dean of Science to commit suicide and the POC Dean of Law to resign. In short, they caused UCT to cease the academic ‘activism’ that made her great.

Yet, as long as it was within his power, ex-VC Dr Max Price multiply pardoned these ‘activists’ and even praised their ‘activism’ as “outraged protest”. Fellow VC Prof. Jonathan Jansen portrays Price’s ‘management’ correctly as being clearly “played” by pseudo-activists within a highly publicized reconciliation process within which there was no intention of pursuing reconciliation to begin with.

The follow-on adjudicators of ‘activism’ at UCT (the Internal Reconciliation and Transformation Committee – IRTC) continue to employ social-restorative justification of additional, law-breaking ‘activities’. It continued issuing blanket amnesty to Maxwele et al., with no attempt to ‘restore’ relationships between activists and ‘recipients’ of ‘activism’. The Commissioners are “satisfied that the incidents were acts associated with their objective of raising awareness of the [students’] dissatisfaction … with the institutional culture at UCT which they perceived to be racist”. They conclude that the revolutionary activists have “fully paid their dues” because of their “pain and suffering”, and “the loss of academic years and opportunities through their expulsions, rustications and exclusions from the University, as well as the financial loss incurred”.

After all this amnesty, Maxwele complains that he and other “activists are [still] paying the price for fighting for free and decolonised Education (sic)”. This is because some activists (including him) have failed to escape criminal charges in magistrate courts and suspension, expulsion, rustication and interdiction within universities for blatant illegal ‘activities’ (e.g. hate speech, arson, physical assault). Now, Maxwele and the other ‘revolutionary activists’ are seeking ‘payback’ outside of respected courts and university tribunals from powerful politicians in government, including the Justice Minister Mike Masutha and President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Let me say this to you Mr “Postgraduate (sic) student” Maxwele, now inexplicably accepted as an Honours student at UCT, despite taking nine years to earn a less-than-3rd-class, three-year B.A. degree. You are no Neville Alexander who, in a similar number of years at the UCT obtained a B.A. in German and History, Honours and M.A. in German language and, after winning an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation fellowship, gained his Ph.D. at University of Tübingen. In his final years at UCT, Alexander defended non-racialism and meritocracy-based education for liberation. Also, contrary to Maxwele’s words about him and Steve Biko, Alexander had not “recently been released from prion”. [A prion is a misfolded protein characteristic of fatal neurodegenerative diseases in animals and humans, or a small marine seabird.]

Moreover, you are no Steve Biko. Biko opposed violence as a means to ‘black’ liberation/ development. He was strongly/effectively involved with ‘black’ self/community-development projects nationally and supported many individuals in his Eastern Cape township, especially with regard to advancing their education. Maxwele and fellow ‘revolutionary activists’ effectively stopped education at UCT and are committed to its destructive “decolonization”.

Furthermore, you are no Frantz Fanon. Fanon was a wounded and decorated soldier during WWII, and a highly competent a medical doctor and psychiatrist as well as an internationally recognized revolutionary activist. Rather than being ‘tormented’ by statues of imperialists and nuanced/invisible racism at university, Fanon was subjected to the blatant, vicious racism that epitomized assimilation French coloniality. Subsequently, in war-torn Algeria, he experienced, if anything, more reprehensible overt racism and professional discrimination while he developed novel ways to deal with the psychopathology of racism in general and colonialism in particular. Regardless of one’s views on them, Fanon’s ideas were well-thought out and attempted to justify, even sanctify, violence by colonized ‘black’ people against the foreign colonizer as necessary for their mental health and political liberation.

Less than two months after his initial ‘activism’ (defacing Rhodes pseudo-iconic statue with human excrement) Maxwele challenged Price’s warning not reoffend. He  assaulted a defenceless ‘white’ female lecturer in the Mathematics Building, barraging her with hate speech, stating (witnessed by two others) inter alia:

  1. that she was “a white woman who takes all the rights of the black students”;
  2. “the statue fell; now it’s time for all whites to go”; and
  3. “We must not listen to whites, we do not need their apologies, they have to be removed from UCT and have to be killed.”

At the time, the “University considered Mr Maxwele’s alleged actions to be threatening and intimidating, and to have been unprovoked” and considered him to be a “potential risk to staff and students”. Nevertheless, in the intervening two years, this founding Fallist repeatedly (I hear at least eight times) evaded subjecting himself to a just, fair and reasonable disciplinary process within UCT.  Indeed, Maxwele accused the assaulted woman lecturer of racism, but offered no corroborating evidence or witnesses.  She was required by the UCT Executive (and willingly subjected herself) to undergo adjudication and was vindicated of these charges unconditionally.

Less than a year after the incident in the Maths Building, Maxwele allegedly assaulted another woman in Johannesburg, this time a POC, lesbian activist, known as “the Honourable Spigga” or “Thenjiwe Mswane”.  As recently as April 2018, a few days after his being granted amnesty by the IRTC, he made a mockery of a UCT graduation ceremony and berated the outgoing and incoming VCs, calling the former an “exploiter”.

Yet, Mr Maxwele claims that he and “others are moving towards unpacking the works that inspired Fanon himself”, and “are willing to pay the price for fighting for free and decolonised education in our life time”. As evidence of this, he offers some examples of ‘price-payers’, e.g. Comrade Khaya Celishe (in prison for torching of a police van). However, instead of having to ‘pay’ for his ‘activism/outraged protest’, Maxwele was ‘rewarded’ by Price with a dispensation to attend and disrupt his own graduation ceremony and, subsequently, by the Faculty of Humanities with an invitation to continue his activism as an ‘Honours’ student.

Maxwele now seeks ultimate political payment on a national level from Minister Masutha  and President Ramaphosa that will erase the balance of his past illegal activism.  How will they and UCT’s new VC deal with ‘revolutionary activism’ to come? Price is gone, but the entire UCT Community and South Africa still continue to pay its ongoing ‘price’.

Prof Tim Crowe

Professor Tim Crowe is a descendant of oppressed Irish freedom-fighters from the United States working class. He is a first generation university graduate, non-settler immigrant alumnus, Elected Fellow and emeritus (40 years’ service) professor at the University of Cape Town. He is a Ph.D.-educated expert on evolutionary biology (covering everything from ‘race’ to deeply rooted evolutionary trees) and conservation biology (especially regarding sustainable and economically viable use of wildlife). He has published nearly 300 peer-reviewed scientific papers/books and is regarded as the world’s leading authority on game birds (chickens, turkeys, guinea fowls, etc.). About 70 of his graduated students have published their research and established themselves in their own right, including four professors.

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