I sympathise with the students, but there are more important battles to be fought than Adam Habib’s contextualised and qualified use of the N word.
Many column inches and irate contributions on social media have already been expended on the topic of former Wits Chancellor Adam Habib’s recent suspension as Vice-Chancellor of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London.
In case further background is needed, in a virtual meeting with students, one of the participants questioned SOAS’s commitment to erasing racism and said a staff member had used the N-word without consequences. Habib responded: “If someone used the word ‘n*****’ against another staff member, then it would violate our policy and action would be taken.”
The use of the word, even in a very specific context affirming that it was not acceptable, was clearly too much for the institution as Habib has since been suspended. He has since apologised, saying that “context matters”.
As a proud South African alumnus of SOAS, I do feel a few points have been missing from the debate. I spent two years at the school which taught me a lot about it and how it interacts with the broader world.
First, SOAS is a unique institution, but as with almost all institutions of higher learning, it can exist in somewhat of a bubble. Esoteric understandings about the world are wonderful, but not when they detract from the ability of students to relate to reality. My professors were almost overwhelmingly pale and male. There is a very important discussion about the transformation and relevance of higher education institutions all over the world, particularly in a once colonial country like the UK and in institutions like SOAS which have essentially imperial histories.
While SOAS might have more effectively transformed itself over the last few years, a cursory glance at the faces in the departments suggests not as much as one would have hoped or, indeed, expected. I feel sympathy for the concerns and frustrations of current students, but suggest that their anger is misdirected. There are more important battles to be fought than a contextualised and qualified use of the N-word.
Furthermore, I actually cannot think of a person better suited to addressing the realities of systemic and structural racism at a British institution than a South African of Indian descent with the impeccable struggle credentials of Habib. The facile level of name calling debate seems to detract from these realities and the more critical realities.
Second, SOAS faces some truly existential crises. Financially it has been in trouble for years and was largely dependent on European students from countries like Italy and Spain that could access the low European Union level fees and EU research and study grants. That is no longer the case. In a post-Brexit world, SOAS will have to reinvent itself to survive. Adam Habib was the man hired to turn around this institution, and he should be allowed to get on with the job.
Finally, Habib is a Marmite type of figure. He divides opinion today, as he has always has done. This week his old nemesis of the EFF from the Wits SRC has weighed into the debate, confirming that he is a racist and should be fired.
READ: SOAS asks Adam Habib to step aside over n-word row
South Africa is a country of free speech, and therefore the EFF is welcome to have all the opinions on this matter as they like. However, it is not clear to me how helpful it is as a way to frame the issue as it relates to the appointment and the future of an institution that many, I include, love and would love to see flourish.
If it has been decided that Adam Habib is the man for the job, let the university get on with reviewing the matter and deciding whether to let him do it or not. That has nothing to do with the EFF.
Commentators would do well to see this as what it is and discuss it in these contexts, and not as an excuse to wheel out the tired vendettas of the past. If so, all will ultimately lose out.
Yesterday Thuli Madonsela, Justice Malala, Palesa Morudu, and Barney Pityana penned an Op-Ed piece in the Daily Maverick saying that Habib should be reinstated. As a South African SOAS alumnus, I would wholeheartedly agree.