Opinion

OPINION: Clever Coconuts Don’t Cry Over Spilt Milk

Lebogang Hoveka

Take the meanest and most restless nigger, strip him of his clothes in front of the remaining male niggers, the female, and the nigger infant, tar and feather him, tie each leg to a different horse faced in opposite directions, set him a fire and beat both horses to pull him apart in front of the remaining nigger. The next step is to take a bull whip and beat the remaining nigger male to the point of death, in front of the female and the infant. Don’t kill him, but put the fear of God in him, for he can be useful for future breeding. – Willie Lynch

On 13 June 2018, the Cape Times ran an article I had long-titled; “A mediocre Whiteman, the noble savage and the not-so-good native” over Professor Ramugondo’s disappointment saga. I had written this piece to be disruptive. I wanted to explain what UCT does to black professors and students. What they do to break them, subjugate them and convince them they are not good enough.

Now Prof. Mayosi is dead.

Minutes after writing that piece, I received a call. It was my mother. “Lebo Abut’ Errol is no more”. It was a bitter twist of fate.

The facts are stranger than fiction. So bear with me as I explain.

Like Prof. Mayosi, Prof. Errol Tyobeka was an accomplished scholar. He was treated appallingly by his peers in plots with thieves appointed to university councils.

Uncle Errol was not only the first black PhD graduate in Biochemistry at Wits University, he was also the first to head a Department of Biochemistry at a South African university.

He had a remarkable innings, at one point he was Deputy Vice Chancellor at Wits Tech and later became Vice Chancellor of Tshwane University of Technology. One of his latest accolades was the procurement oversight of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). It was completed in record time, within budget and not a single cent went missing.

TUT was his heart-break. He was improperly removed from his position through a slew of manipulation and political intrigue. He woke-up on a Sunday morning to read in the CityPress that a position he had held until Friday afternoon, was vacant.

The advert read: TUT seeks “a visionary, seasoned administrator with an impeccable track record to provide strategic leadership.” This was farcical turn of phrase. He was replaced by a fellow with unaccredited qualifications, the institution was nearly bankrupted and funders were set to flight.

There was no visionary. None was intended. Nor was there anything close to an impeccable record. When he fought back they ruined his reputation and politically-blacklisted him. He was virtually unable to find work at any of our universities. He went into “exile” under a democratic South Africa.

And so as my aunt mourned her husband, a steady stream of academics came contrite, apologising for not speaking out. At his funeral his dear friend, Dr Khotso Mokhele, concluded his eulogy “if you are from TUT shame on you”.

Despite the fact that Uncle Errol was dismissed long before #FeesMustFall, many of his colleagues told harrowing tales of students. “It is the students… they collude with council members to push us out and steal resources”, they said.

As a former student leader I was split with emotion. For my part I knew that we could be vicious but were we really that malicious in our struggles?

I think familiarity breeds contempt. I will take my fair share of blame. But black academics and politicians must take their own. They make of students easy targets.

I have one especially fond memory of Uncle Errol. Sometime while he was VC, and I provincial secretary of the South African Students Congress (SASCO) in the Western Cape, there was at the time a protest at TUT. I was home for vacation and so I joined in solidarity. After meeting with him, we dived into a watering hole. As sobriety disappeared, my counter-part, treated us to some dramatis personae. He would lift his hands to his head and belt out: “Yoh! Cdes you don’t know that Errol Tyobeka. That thing is extra-ordinarily arrogant. He dealt with me. But Cdes that man is smart.” He said this with a glint in his eye, with a wrought sense of appreciation, the “stop-it-I-like-it” kind.

At UCT we also taunted Prof. Njabulo Ndebele. I was prone to saying: “I’d rather spend my Friday afternoon reading Mail&Guardian than meet with him.” Council meetings were usually held on Fridays. Rumour had it that whenever he spoke, people pulled out their newspapers. They would fold them immediately when a West or Amoore started speaking.

But trust me, when it came to admiration of Ndebele’s academic credentials and literary prowess we were never in doubt. In the light of day we called him names but as bibliophiles, in the privacy of our residences, we feasted from the cusps of Fine lines from the Box; Fools and other stories. We revered him for humanising the cry of Winnie Mandela.

For all our sins we never denigrated black academic’s credentials in the manner their own peers and white counter-parts did. When it came to their academic standing, we admired them. Heyi akubolekiswana ngalezonto, we understood what they mean.

But clever coconuts don’t cry over spilt milk.

When I child I started my schooling at Auckland Park Preparatory School. We later moved to Polokwane. As a private school preppy, moving to Polokwane had its challenges. Black people were not allowed into white schools. I predominantly spoke English and was just functional in vernacular. I was put into a so-called-Coloured school. My first experience of being called a kaffir came from a chap with Prof. Jansen’s complexion. We were fighting over my lunch box. This was confusing. I could see not racial difference between us.

When one studies the socio-economic triangulation of the Polokwane there are 3 nodes—Lebowakgomo, the Legislative Capital; Turfloop; the University Town and Polokwane, the city. So the black middle-class there were generally equal, wealthier and sometimes more educated than the Afrikaans-speaking communities. So we ended up in private English medium schools with no inferiority complex to white people whatsoever. I kid you not, I grew up thinking that racists were uneducated Afrikaners and so-called-coloureds who were jealous of educated Africans.

High school was relatively similar. There were some smart white kids just as there were black ones. We never really mixed socially, we thought it was out of the influence of their parents. Whatever it was, whiteness was not something we aspired to or recognised. There were a few nutcases that we thought deserved the Salem treatment, but we lived despite and in spite of white people.

And so there are degrees of difference in my experience with racism. It is only when I went to UCT that I really realised that there existed English speaking whites, who were perfectly intelligent, well-educated, did not call black people kaffirs, but thought they were arbitrarily superior. Throughout my life I thought I could stomach racism as a function of a low-IQ; I was never ready for the psychological violence of being told suddenly “whatever you do, or were taught, you are not good enough.”

So I had my first pencil-test at UCT. I was placed in an academic development programme where those from the Eastern Cape and Limpopo were to attend compulsory English classes— classes that were not accredited for the degree. Jerrr. Tjeses. I refused to sit in a class to be taught what a noun is. I struggle with phonetic dyslexia but being of pleasure to the queen was not one of my aspirations.

I wrote to the programme convenor in protest. She insisted that I should attend until I submit an essay to prove my case. It was humiliating. I hit back. I did what I used to do to my Afrikaans teacher in high school. I attended the first few classes, brought a novel to read and looked as bored as possible. I wrote a loquacious essay to be released.

For those who felt they needed those lessons, it seemed like I was a petulant twerp. I guess I also craved and relished the silent approvals of those who appreciated a black person who stands up for himself, and them. I never knew it then but I would leave varsity with the alias “Havok Hoveka”. I had developed an extra-ordinary penchant to wreak havoc for whiteness.

Hayi kabi, I find the idea that black students were not deferential to Mayosi dishonest. Black students are generally respectful of the well-educated. They generally appreciate the opportunity to learn and usually have little room to throw middle-class tantrums. They usually have no means of opting out.

Moreover, I think nonsense of the trite notion that students have collapsed higher education in SA. Just as I was oblivious to English-White Supremacy upon arrival at UCT, I can say without fear of contradiction that the poor student, the #FeesMustFall student, does not enter University to undermine a Mayosi or get rid of a Tyobeka.

Children live what they learn. There are no tenders, SRC cars, entertainment budgets and instant gratification in high school. There are no learners that sit on appointment committees. They leave their homes eager to learn. They arrive to find leaders like the despot and alleged franchisee at the north. To campuses of Sodom-and-Gomorra where paedophiles, blessers and the wretched of the earth target their vulnerability. Lecturers who have made “one round, one pass” an academic standard. The council members, political appointments and academics who buy jobs for pals and cronies.

Students are a strata in transition. They are not a permanent feature of a university. It is the academic fraternity that has allowed university-decay. The students found the rot there– voetstoots and all.

A full-two years after #FeesMustFall students are being made to carry the psychological burdens that they found and left there? We insult Mayosi’ intelligence. Do you think as a child of a Medical Doctor, a coconut if you like, did not know what it means to commit class-suicide? Le sele ha ba le tjwetse.

Professor Mayosi has dedicated all his life to teaching, learning, thought-leadership and black-excellence. When he stood with #FeesMustFall in his regalia he was sending a message. He understood every phrase in the “Gaudeamus Igitur”:

May those who are invited to learning always heed her invitation;

May those who hold the purse, always be ready to disburse the funds required to teach;

May truth and sincerity reign;

May you, the scholars, the fraternity, the wise and learned, forever flourish!

Vivant academia!

Vivant professores!

But he was waiting for the barbarians.

It has become fashionable for white-paternalists to claim we have no right to criticise black academics. They seek to lecture us on how to critique our own as if black-agency is under attack. Nonsense. We don’t go around calling black academics incompetent or unappointable. We call them out for disappointing us and not fighting as hard as we think they should.

In this connection, I think Phakeng’s revelation that it was Mayosi who nominated her is telling. Neither is it rocket science that Mayosi, if Phakeng was removed mid-term, was the next-in-line. Just as Mayosi was told it would look bad for him to resign, the University could ill-afford another Ramugondo challenge. This may also explain why a scholar and administrator of Mayosi’ experience was suddenly made to look incompetent. In the end they broke him.

Perhaps what killed Mayosi is hidden somewhere in the former council chair’s response to my refusal to endorse Max Price’s appointment:

“The selection committee raised with Price the fact that he did not have a PhD”.

He explained that after he had completed his medical degree, he had studied at Oxford University. He said he had considered studying for a PhD in the medical field, but had wanted to broaden his learning and not enter into a narrow specialization. He therefore took a degree in politics, philosophy and economics.

Price’s experience included heading a highly respected research and policy centre at Wits University and serving very successfully as Dean of the Wits Medical Faculty.

The selection committee recognised that appointing a vice-chancellor without a PhD would be unusual. However, far from concluding that he was unqualified, it concluded that he was well qualified for the position of vice-chancellor. Qualifications do not exist only on paper.”

He is supported in this view by some Prof. Anna-Lise Williamson:

“Price was very active politically in 1976 as vice-president of the Wits SRC. His “struggle credentials” are beyond reproach.

His prior experience at Wits as dean of health sciences for 10 years – where he was also not a professor – fitted him very well for his job at UCT, as he created an enormously valuable research enterprise there.

To deprecate his standing as a scholar and an administrator because he wasn’t a professor and because he has no PhD is therefore simply uninformed, if not malicious.”

Mxm! I tell you, mediocrity has run rampant. I am not some political novice who does not know what a PPE degree from Oxford means to whiteness. Nor am I oblivious to the white-paternalism that made Steve Biko drift from NUSAS.

There was a time in SA university history when, the Registrar at Turfloop University would boast “My vel is my graad”— I don’t need degree to hold a senior position, I am qualified by the colour of my skin.

When I arrived at UCT I found Hugh Amoore— the Registrar with just a BA. Then they gave us Price.

In black academia the standard is excellence and scholarship, not political credentials and certainly not borrowed robes. Black academics such as Mayosi, did not even walk through the door without a PhD. They were never afforded the niceties, the privileges of whiteness, of being asked why you don’t have a PhD. They had to prove themselves. Some years ago, when Mayosi applied for funding to do trials on his ground-breaking research, he was told it was a futile exercise. Africans they said, had no capacity to perform a study of that scale. He rubbished them.

Black people work twice as hard and dedicate a life-time to scholarship. For them excellence is a function of necessity. They strike back not only by being better but by being the best – black-excellence is a struggle. In the process petty-peer-jealousies emerge. They cross-swords with councils of thieves, old-boys clubs and political journey-men.

Somewhere else I write of what I call “the black curse of genius.”

“All my life I have been refused the right to be. I was forced out of schools when I challenged errand teachers.

In other instances I stopped participating in the classroom when I realised that I was being used as an excuse to denigrate the children of others. I kept my hand down, cherished my silence and made “I don’t know” my creed.

I have learned to keep to myself in the workplace, and in politics, for I know the viciousness and pain of the words “he thinks he is better than us” when I actually don’t.

I have learned to keep my peace as men of intellectual vice target my job instead of engage my ideas.

I still feel the loss of comrades who have the temerity no longer to speak to me for refusing to take communion from pseudo-intellectuals and thugs in borrowed robes.”

For black intellectuals talent is just not a gift, it is grief. They long for a sense of common humanity.

Thus the idea that Mayosi’s depression was just caused by #FeesMustFall is more than inches shy of the truth. It is intellectual laziness.

For example, behavioural scientists speak of The SCARF phenomenon– Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness— this is what human beings crave.

The depression and pain of black intellectuals stems from a deprecation of their STATUS relative to the importance of the mediocre white man and the blissful collaboration of their black competitors.

After a lifetime of endless effort and determination, they lose a sense of CERTAINTY about the future.

Despite understanding what needs to be done to liberate the black-child they are frustrated by a lack of AUTONOMY or authority to provide a sense of control over events.

Betrayed by their own, they lose a sense of RELATEDNESS and safety amongst friends.

Finally, they are aggrieved by the lack of FAIRNESS and JUSTICE of it all. So they give up.

So they took Mayosi, the meanest and most restless black, disrobed in front of his students and peers, tarred him and feather him, tied him to two horses faced in opposite directions, set him aflame and beat both horses to pull him apart.

Next they took a bull whip and beat Phakeng within an inch of her life in front of the infant– the #FeesMustFall students– so that they may put the fear of God into the next generation, that they may be useless at protesting in the future.

And so like BW Vilakazi, take Mayosi and bury him.

Bury him where the grasses grow

Below the weeping willow trees

To let their branches shed upon him

Leaves of varied greens.

Then, as he lays there, he shall hear

The grasses sigh a soft behest:

” Sleep, beloved one, sleep and rest.”

Bury him in a place like that:

Where those who scheme and give their tongues

To plots and anger, never can

Displace the earth that covers him

Nor ever keep him from his sleep.

If you who read these lines should chance

To find him, then bury him

Where grasses whisper this behest:

“Sleep, beloved one, sleep and rest.”

Godukani, Maqaabane, iphelil’ intw’ ebithethwa.

Ukufa kwakhe kunomvuzo nomvuka

Godukani, Comrades, ningalali!

*** Lebogang Hoveka is the author of the forthcoming title: They Think and Speak for Themselves: Memoirs and letters to the children of the ANC.

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