Opinion

UCT must engage “one settler, one bullet” constructively instead of silencing it


Nkosikhulule Nyembezi

As an academic and a human rights activist, I have noted with interest the mixed responses provoked by Masixole Mlandu’s use of the words “one settler, one bullet” in the acknowledgments page of his unmarked politics honours dissertation continue to stir the waters as we close the 2018 academic year at the University of Cape Town (UCT).  

I also believe that universities are spaces where diverse ideas should be encouraged and moulded. What is required in the expression of diverse ideas is good faith and that ideas expressed be in the interests of advancement of intellectual development. It has been cogently stated that the university, in fulfilling its role in the society, must always be mindful that it is permitting otherwise suppressed societal grievances to be heard. This approach encourages discourses that enrich the development of better approaches to reach intra-community compromises and mutually-inclusive solutions, instead of the prevailing bullying by the privileged dominant groups. This sensible contention applies equally to the Mlandu case, irrespective of whether one agrees or not with the “one settler, one bullet slogan”.

But as the continuing criticism has shown, such suppressed societal grievances have been given little airing. Instead the narrative is one of invoking colonial privilege and misusing the legal framework of protection against hate speech. At this rate, UCT will be lucky to still be in place as a leading academic institution is it fails to handle the matter in a proper decolonisation context. Confidence that the institution can properly handle the matter – let alone pass it – is fading fast, given the tone of the official response issued by the executive.

In the context of the current national land debate, I am reminded that there comes a point in every party – as dawn breaks, the hangovers are kicking in – when the last revellers realise that anyone still on the premises risks being stuck with the job of clearing up the mess.

Standing now in the corner of this rancid-smelling land debate kitchen created by our history of settler colonialism, the worrywarts have realised that they do not want to be that person. These worrywarts are those criticising Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Pakeng for congratulating Mlandu’s submission of his honours dissertations, those calling for UCT to take disciplinary action against Mlandu in what they call hate-speech, and others who have poured undue criticism on Mlandu in social media.

But the party is drawing to a close. The music has stopped. The place is strewn with cigarette butts and empty beer cans. The black bin bags are being passed around. The faces still in the room are wan and haggard. They know that there is nothing left to do but survey the damage, count the cost, and expect action that will be in the best interest of the nation. Is it any surprise that the worrywarts are making excuses and heading for spite instead of becoming part of constructive engagement?

What then? As every option will in due course be beaten to a pulp, comments in social media show that there are deep-seated challenges that UCT must address urgently in order to truly promote academic freedom that gives space to diverse views, including views that we might not agree with. Mcebo Dlamini had the best line in a recent column: “The Mlandu incident is a gesture of what is the reality of our country. There are certain things that cannot be said and there are certain people who cannot be offended without consequences. This is mainly a result of the tilted power dynamics of our country.” 

Nkosikhulule Xhawulengweni Nyembezi is a human rights activist and a member of UCT community.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of Vernac News

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