Former University of Cape Town (UCT) student Kolosa Ntombini, who completed her studies in 2018, caused a stir back in 2017 during a UCT conference titled the Great Texts/Big Questions Lecture Series hosted at the Baxter Concert Hall.
Acclaimed post-colonial thinker Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who is to some the leading decolonial scholar on the African continent, was invited to speak at this event, which was moderated by Professor Xolela Mangcu from the UCT’s Department of Sociology (1). Importantly, this event was open to all students from UCT.
There were several interruptions during the course of Ngugi’s speech, including one black student who thought it would be respectable to invade the professor’s space on the stage with a placard reading “South African education is exiling poor black disabled people.” Ngugi did not object and the student remained on the stage. Another interruption, which is of interest to us here, came from Kolosa who too took to the stage and addressed Ngugi respectfully as “father” and “tata.” She proposed that he instruct all the white members in the audience to leave. Her reasoning was that she and others did not want to converse in the presence of the “oppressors.” However, Professor Mangcu quickly intervened, took the microphone, and urged the audience to “show respect” by allowing Ngugi to deliver his address uninterrupted, which he did up until the end.
In light of this, it is no secret what Kolosa thinks of white people, as well as her fellow white students at the time. She belongs to the same crowd who towards the end of the lecture shouted down a white individual who rose to ask a question. They refused to let him speak even as Mangcu implored them to. Mangcu felt it was best to conclude the lecture then and there, dismissing any further questions.
There is so much wrong with this whole episode, so let’s consider a few problems in way of reflection. First, these anti-white liberationists who interrupted Professor Mangcu and Professor Ngugi violated the very function of the university, which is to cultivate a space for freedom of expression within the boundaries of the institution’s own legislation and the rule of law. Because these liberationists shouted down the white individual we all lost what could have been a valuable and constructive discussion or response to a question.
Further, if anti-white liberationists morph decolonial thinking into a force of white hatred and alienation it would be to its own detriment. Why? Because whites and blacks live in the same societies, attend the same universities, and share ideas. There are many reasons why whites should partake in these discussions and labeling them “oppressors” is one way to encourage them not to. Because of the shouting down of the white student we failed to hear from one of Africa’s greatest thinkers, which ultimately undermined the purposes of this lecture. It also evidences the disrespect of the anti-white liberationists, of whom Professor Mangcu released a scathing critique, especially regarding those who disrespect their elders and want to ostracize whites and spew racial hatred their way. According to Mangcu,
“These so-called radicals will denigrate African values as “traditionalism”, and describe their own mimicry of European-American jargon as ideology. With such colonial thinking, who needs decoloniality? This mimicry of Euro-American culture is characteristic of almost everything they do.”
But these faux liberationists fail to respect even those in their own camp as accusations were hurled in Mangcu’s direction. He was chastized for being “nothing more than a liberal”, who imitates his master and treats “radical black intellectuals” as children. He was the so-called “house negro.” In fact, one of the people to accuse him of such things was the BLF’s Lindsay Maasdorp, a very moral human being who openly celebrates the death of white children and would side with a rapist if the victim was white and the perpetrator black.
As students ourselves and members of society, these reactions leave us with many questions. For one, Ntombini presented blatant racism at a public event advertised and hosted by UCT, but UCT states in its legislation that it aims for “The elimination of racism at every level of institutional governance”, to promote “respect for human dignity and diversity”, as well as “value all members of staff, students and the broader community…”
If these black liberationists want an exclusive blacks-only space then why is a university that promotes inclusivity and non-racialism thought to be the place to do this? If UCT agrees that this is inappropriate then it should condemn such ideas when and where they emerge. If blacks want a space where the presence of white people is unwelcome, such a space does not belong at a public institution that claims to represent and respect all persons independent of their race, religion, culture, ethnicity, and so on. How was the dignity of white fee-paying students respected in the face of blatant racism propagated at this event? Is racism okay and tolerable as long as it comes from a black student? If so, does the university agree that its white students are oppressors? Is it okay to silence alternative voices? UCT professor Jeremy Seekings is one voice to condemn the shouting down of the white student at this event; he writes,
“Even more worrying is the fact that protesters at the lecture prevented a member of the audience from asking a question, apparently on the basis of his skin colour or presumed ‘race’. This would seem to be a clear violation of several of UCT’s values: “openness to alternative ideas and respect for other views”, “inclusiveness, embodying respect for … differences and acknowledgement of the value of diversity in society”, and “refrain from speech or conduct that demeans or humiliates people”. The protesters were not expressing their own opinion; they were preventing someone else, at a publicly-advertised UCT event, from speaking. Professor Mangcu probably did the right thing in immediately bringing the event to an end.” (2)
Seekings further bemoans the lack of responsibility that the university took regarding this,
“How did UCT respond? Neither the Acting Vice-Chancellor nor the Acting Dean of Humanities issued any kind of public statement, even after the event attracted considerable comment on social media. Both UCT managers tried to wriggle out of any responsibility. Asked in UCT’s Senate on Friday, 31 March why the university had been silent, the Vice-Chancellor suggested that this has not been a normal university event. The Acting Dean of Humanities then muddied the water by suggesting that it had not been a faculty event either. There had, he suggested, been some issue to do with the organisation of the lecture. Pressed further at a meeting of the Humanities Faculty Board on 5 April, the Acting Dean of Humanities seemed to suggest that the event was Professor Mangcu’s personal initiative and had nothing to do with the faculty – despite the facts that the event had been advertised (and later reported) as part of UCT’s premier public lecture series, the audience had been welcomed by the Director of the Institute for Creative Arts, and the Acting Dean himself had introduced the speaker! In a telling aside, the Acting Dean remarked that it would have been “provocative” to hold the protesters to account. In Senate, the VC did concede that the event was ‘seen’ by the public to be a university event and as such the university had erred in not issuing a statement. Neither the VC nor the Acting Dean has done anything to date.”
“By remaining silent, they became complicit not only in racial intolerance at a public UCT event but also in behaviour that is degenerating into openly racial hate-speech. It seems that the university does not value its values.”
In many ways, I think we are left without answers to important questions, largely because the university has failed to take responsibility. On a final note, Kolosa was given an award, accompanied with a R100 000 prize, by the Canon Collins Trust. The recipient for this award is selected for being someone who “can meaningfully contribute to the Trust’s vision of an open and just society.” Open and just society indeed from our young, white-hating black liberationist.
1. UCT. Postcolonial Scholar Visits UCT. Available.
2. Seekings, Jeremy. 2017. Does UCT value its values? Available.