‘Context Matters’ – Smokes and Mirrors in the Defence of Habib

Photo by Oupa Nkosi for Mail and Guardian.

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In a predictable turn of events, after the initial ‘shock’ of Adam Habib’s suspension as Director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, the South African elite establishment is putting out a stream of defences for Prof Habib and demanding his reinstatement. In the latest edition of this elite defence, the defence team – Thuli Madonsela, Justice Malala, Barney Pityana and Palesa Morudu (Madonsela and Others) – do not even want to wait for the process of investigation at SOAS, and demand that Habib must be “reinstated without delay”.

The strategy adopted by Mandonsela and Others is the same as that deployed by other defenders: first, trivialise the issue of the ‘N-word’; secondly, they argue that “context matters”; and lastly, frighten us with the ‘death of culture’ and the end of civilisation as we know it. Let us look at each of these issues in turn.

Trivialise the N-word Matter
Almost every defence of Habib begins by making the whole affair seem ridiculous. The narrative is that a student mentions the use of the n-word by lecturers, Habib verbalises it fully while supporting the student’s concern, and Habib is ‘lynched’ by the students. How much more ridiculous can we get?!

Yet the reality of the matter is that the n-word became a major point of contestation not because it was verbalised, but because the students read – quite rightly – that Habib’s defence of this use (he could have just unreservedly apologised there and then) – his resort to ‘context’ and his claim that where he comes from “we do actually use the [n-]word”.

By their own account, Madonsela and Others acknowledge that the n-word was raised against the background of the institutional racism of SOAS. The use of the n-word was linked to the Black Lives Matter statements that SOAS makes on the one hand, and to the underfunding of the Africa Department on the other.

The students were not just raising an issue of “personal” injury, but one of institutional racism. And how does Habib respond to this? He responds by muddying the waters – ‘context’, ‘we use it in South Africa’ etc. Are we supposed to believe that someone of Habib’s political experience did not understand what the issues were? To the students it was clear that Habib was positioning himself as a defender of the SOAS hierarchy, which has ignored and pushed back against students’ struggles against institutional racism in SOAS. His “context” comments were rightly read as constructing a fire-escape for the SOAS hierarchy to continue on its path of institutional racism.

“Habib is not a racist”
The problem of how Habib positions himself in the struggles against institutional racism in SOAS is not resolved by testimonials about Habib’s political character, or assertions that Habib is not a racist. What matters is not Habib’s history, or his “inner-convictions”: what matters is how he is positioned in the anti-racist struggles at SOAS taking place. This is particularly important in the current UK context where the British ruling class is white-washing racism in its recently released report on institutional racism in the UK.

As a well-read, ‘worldly academic’ and experienced political operator, Habib failed his first real test at SOAS miserably – he showed himself to be on the side of the elite. Imagine if the eloquent Habib had began his response by discoursing with the students on the problems of institutionalised racism in the global academy, including SOAS. Even if he had made an “error” with the n-word, the students would have known that they have an ally in him. The students read Habib correctly: he is an ally of the institution’s management and elites.

Context Matters
If one wants to murky the waters in a debate, then invoking “context” is the classic tactic. The variations are many – ‘quoted out of context’; ‘broader context not taken into account’, ‘context changes’ etc etc. A common denominator in the use of this tactic is that we are never told what the actual context being referred to is. It’s enough to hang the word ‘context’ in the air. Confronted with the push-back by the students, “Habib became defensive, and even clumsy, saying the n-word does get used ‘where I come from… in context” (Madonsela and Others). If the defenders of Habib want to leave us with a vague notion of context, we are not compelled to follow their lead. Let us look at the context of this SOAS debacle.

The N-word, K-word and other similar ones as Institutionalised Violence
Most of us, including Habib, know that the n-word and other related ones represent an exercise of power and violence against dominated classes and peoples. Even if a black person uses it in reference to another black person as a term of endearment, they cannot extricate the word from its history of violence against black people. After all, the n-word does not refer to skin colour, but to social positioning in society. Habib’s defenders have yet to enlighten us as to the context in which these violent words are transformed into words of endearment. This is the first element of the context of the SOAS debacle: it is about 500 years of violence, and no attempts to trivialise it must be allowed to pass.

SOAS, and the meeting itself, as Context
Habib did not have this discussion in a student bar with his friends. He participated in this discussion as Director of SOAS, as the leader of the institution. The defence offered by Madonsela and Others is a rather poor one indeed. Habib, we are told, has “only been at the school for six weeks, and Habib and his students need time to know one another.” As with most institutions of higher learning, SOAS has a long history of institutionalised racism that we have to presume Habib would have studied and understood. As a representative of the institution presented with a critique of institutional racism in SOAS – Black Lives Matter, funding of black studies, the use of the n-word – Habib was enjoined to respond as demanded by the context of him as leader of SOAS.

Habib’s six weeks at SOAS as Context
Attempts to portray Habib as a novice who does not know the students is contradicted by the workers who swiftly joined the students in the calls for dismissal. In a joint statement by the Students Union, the University and College Union (UCU) Executive Committee and Unison Branch Committee, they point to Habib’s conduct since assuming leadership of SOAS.

According to them, Habib’s conduct in the meeting “… is consistent with his behaviour in other contexts, resorting to hostility, disrespect and dismissiveness when any objection, criticism or disagreement is raised. We note that such behaviour – in its repetition and consistency – is tantamount to bullying; we are concerned that SOAS’s Code of Conduct, Dignity and Respect policy and duty of care towards students has been breached and call on the School to investigate accordingly.” They continue, “We also note that Habib’s problematic behaviour has been a feature of his interactions with working class members of staff, most notably in his hostile and dismissive interactions with (among others) the Justice for Workers campaign.”

While there is little discussion of these issues here in South Africa, it’s clear that they form an important element of the context in which the students read Habib’s interventions in the meeting. Habib, in a short space of time, has positioned himself as a force that is hostile to students, academic and non-academic staff.

It is indeed true that context matters, but not in the manner of using the word ‘context’ to obfuscate the issues. Context should be examined concretely. When we do that in the SOAS context we can see that Habib behaved recklessly and with arrogance in the interaction with students, he failed to position himself as an anti-racist leader, he positioned himself as a defender of the establishment, and therefore objectively behaved in a racist manner. In this context, his ‘inner-convictions’ are a moot point.

Fear of the Thought Police
Long discourses have been written about how students’ objection to the use of the n-word, and we presume also others like the k-word etc, raise the spectre of the thought police, of “authoritarianism”, of the death of the university, of the death of culture, of book burning, etc. There is no question that there is and has been heated contestation about a range of issues since the (recent) resurgence of the anti-racist and anti-capitalist movements. What is disingenuous about the people that ‘cry wolf’ about this contestation is that it is not positioned in its historical context (again context matters!).

A short walk down history-lane will help us put this issue into context. The rise of the Black Consciousness Movement in the late 1960s led to a major contestation about the self-identity of black people in South Africa. Like all ruling classes, the apartheid ruling class has imposed all manner of violent identities on black people – Bantu, non-whites, non-Europeans etc. The Black Consciousness Movement mounted resistance against this, leading to the rejection of ethnic identities and their related structures. Back then, SASO and other Black Consciousness forces objected to Gatsha Buthelezi’s presence at the funeral of Steve Biko. I am sure Helen Zille may see this as a case of the thought police, and together with the Institute of Race Relations they may wax lyrical about the death of ‘free speech’ and the end of civilisation.

Actually, what was happening there, and had been underway since the rise of the Black Consciousness Movement, was a process of a movement forging the kind of identity it needs to wage a bitter and uncompromising struggle. Did this fierce rejection of violently imposed identities lead to ‘book burning’, the ‘death of universities’, to the ‘death of culture’? Ironically, it was those fiercely opposed to these violent identities that proved to be the most determined fighters for free speech, for a radical and progressive culture, and so on.

We may not all like or agree with the historical process through which the new movements are defining themselves – it will be rough, it will be highly charged, and it will be controversial. History teaches however, that historically progressive movements – because they are movements of mass emancipation – do find ways to draw these lines in the sands and also drive historically progressive political and cultural trajectories. If Madonsela and Others want to fear the end of civilisation, they should turn their eyes to the white supremacist right and neoliberalism – both forces that are dominant in the South African and global academy, including SOAS.

To Resign or Not to Resign?
The staff and students at SOAS have called for Habib to resign. Sections of the student movement in South Africa have also called on Habib to be fired or to resign. Madonsela and Others demand reinstatement without delay. In the South African context, when faced with ‘Zuma Inc’ and the ‘RET forces’, all four authors are known to be big on “due process”, on legality, and on the rule of law. How is it then that the authors, when faced with a process at SOAS, do not bow down before due process?

The reality is that like all ruling classes and ruling elites, due process and the law are okay as long as their interests are not threatened. In my last article on this issue (here) I made the point that the non-Zuma section of the elite in South Africa is in reality no different to the Zuma elite. Habib has failed spectacularly at the first hurdle to lead an institution like SOAS in times of global turmoil. In South Africa he could rely on his links to the ruling elite (the so-called anti-corruption bloc) to wade through violence and repression against students (both police and institutional) and be assured of a supportive press and broad elite.

Will he resign? It’s not in the culture of South Africa’s elite to resign as a form of accepting public accountability – even if you think you are in the right. “Where I come from, we ride roughshod over any opposition by the dominated classes and marginalised people”. Such is the message given out by Madonsela, Pityana, Malala and Morudu.

This article was submitted on 8 April 2021. You may republish this article, so long as you credit the authors and Karibu! Online (www.Karibu.org.za), and do not change the text. Please include a link back to the original article.

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