This paper contains some of my thoughts on orientation at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Many of these thoughts were constructed after witnessing one particular orientation activity at Kopano, an all-male UCT residence. I expand my thinking to suggest what orientation might reveal about the institution, the hegemonic culture of the institution and that culture’s dominant values. I am arguing from a departure point that the value system of the university is derived from distinctly South African expressions of white patriarchy that are largely rooted in an aggressive heterosexual masculinity in which South African white male sporting culture is steeped. Further, I consider what the orientation process might be like for people who are typically excluded by white patriarchy and what that means in the context of the university. While a lot of criticism (particularly recently in the context of the #Rhodesmustfall movement) has rightly been aimed at the University and its racist institutional culture, a lot of that criticism has been silent on issues of sexism that are as widely prevalent and are, indeed, linked to issues of racism. This paper is attempt to draw those two struggles together by thinking outwards from the space of orientation.
UCT at the beginning of the year is swamped with packs of first years looking something like tourist groups; orientation is the name of the game. It is a time to introduce new students to the university, to help them navigate the institution. It is also a lens into the gendered, racial and class dynamics on which the institution is constructed. Through the orientation process students are confronted with the dominant value system of the institution, and they then have to decide how they will define themselves in relation to those values. Depending on an individual’s background, identity, and ultimately their social capital and ability to navigate that culture, they will have more or less scope (than others from different backgrounds) to do that. In that regard, in terms of how one might define themselves in relation to a particular culture, I think people have three main choices. Firstly, they can assimilate into that culture. This is obviously easier and more possible for certain groups – white people and, although assimilation will never be complete or unproblematic for them, Black people who have been socialised in white spaces. An individual’s lived experience up until that point will determine whether or not they have the social and cultural capital that would make assimilation into the dominant culture of the university any kind of possibility for them. If they are unable to assimilate, or do not want to be a part of the dominant culture they then have two remaining decisions – the first of which is really a non-decision on the part of the individual. The ‘decision’ is essentially forced upon them by the sheer distance between the hegemonic culture and the social and cultural capital to which someone has access. If the barriers to assimilation are too high for a particular individual, they will likely shrink into their shell, convinced that they are not good enough to be a full participant in society: they will be silenced by the dominance of that culture. The last remaining decision, of which this essay is an exponent, is active resistance to the hegemonic culture and the alienating and dehumanising effects it has on those who are excluded by it.
Back to UCT orientation: Earlier this year I witnessed a particular event that was part of UCT’s orientation programme that starkly highlights how the space of orientation proactively reproduces white patriarchy. On Monday 2 February 2015 I was playing soccer in the vicinity of some Kopano (an all-male residence) orientation activities on UCT’s Lower/Middle Campus and witnessed some deeply detestable and highly offensive sexist practices. The first years initially had to run around the soccer field in groups of 8-10 linking hands – an activity that wouldn’t seem out of place at a white all-boys’ school rugby camp. Indeed the hegemonic culture at most male UCT residences is one that is very strongly linked to, and to a large extent derived from, the sporting culture at white private and model C schools; a culture that celebrates particular expressions of masculinity largely based on violent aggression and objectification of the female body. Anyhow, that running activity wasn’t the particularly offensive part of the programme – after running around the field in groups and getting pelted with water balloons thrown by other Kopano residents, all the first years assembled around the back side of Kopano and were led in a call-and-response war-cry/song by, I assume, one of the senior boys (perhaps an elected house committee member) at the residence – one of the ideological leaders of the Kopano sexist movement. This is where the rampant sexism was revealed: I did not catch all the lyrics to the song but what I did catch was enough to turn my stomach. They went something like this: “See that girl over there in red… something something something… and fuck her rotten!” What!!!!!!!!!!!!???????????????? !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! My initial response to this was shock and outrage, I couldn’t believe that this outlandish, blatant, violent sexism was allowed to exist at UCT. In a residence orientation activity nogal!
Following my initial reaction of shock and outrage, I stopped for a second and, still enraged, thought, it actually makes perfect sense that this type of thought exists at UCT and is actively reproduced through its orientation programmes. Witnessing this event took my mind back to last year, 2014, when there was a lot of media attention on a few horrific public attacks in Cape Town. Some of the attacks implicated white male UCT students as perpetrators and all were committed against Black women and men. In a response to a statement released by UCT’s Student Representative Council that condemned the attacks, Vice-Chancellor Max Price penned a response that was published online in a public forum. In his response, amongst other things, he claimed that the majority of the UCT community was involved in anti-racist practice and that the actions of the few white male perpetrators of the attacks should not be taken as any kind of reflection on the University, its student and staff population at large nor its institutional culture: obviously an absurd, deeply offensive, wholly unintellectual, wholly uncritical, blatantly untrue, highly ignorant response. UCT is very directly involved in reproducing racist attitudes and it was incredibly arrogant and offensive for this white male to effectively silence the voices of many Black members of the UCT population whose experiences (which have been very clearly articulated in a number of forums) are evidence of the University’s racist institutional culture.
In exactly the same way that it was absurd for Price to make unfounded, highly ignorant claims about the majority of the UCT population being involved in anti-racist practice, it was absurd for me to, for a few seconds, assume that the value set reflected in the university’s orientation programmes should be anything other than sexist. Regarding both racism and sexism, UCT is embedded in a patriarchal white supremacist capitalist society, the values of which are based on relations of domination and oppression of particular groups- women, poor people and Black people. In claiming anti-racism within this oppressive structure, Max Price did a number of things. By suggesting that the violent white male perpetrators of racist and sexist attacks were outliers to UCT’s dominant culture, rather than extremists of that culture, he attempted to absolve UCT of all responsibility, to preserve UCT’s brand. But in doing so, in attempting to deflect blame away from the institution, he revealed the University’s complicity with the attacks. By failing to critically engage with these incidents and question what they might, in actuality, suggest about the University, he glossed over these people’s horrific, violent experiences by saying that the University is by and large an anti-racist space and as such, is not implicated in these events.
Returning to the orientation event at hand: considering the positionality of certain groups of people within the context of this orientation event further highlights UCT’s complicity in racist and sexist oppression. As an introduction to UCT, for someone who is not a white heterosexual male (perhaps a man who is homosexual, a Black person or a woman) who encountered the abovementioned orientation programme and felt excluded by the sentiment of the war-cry and/or the culture in which it is rooted, this event speaks volumes about who is welcome at the University, how welcome they are at the institution, how the university conceives of and perceives ‘difference,’ and how well the university makes space for that ‘difference.’ What does this event suggest about women at the University? That they are there to be ‘fucked rotten’ by men? What does it say to people whose sexual orientation is anything other than heterosexual, who have no voice in this? And to Black people? It alienates and silences the majority through the dominance of the distinct white culture. Clearly, whiteness and patriarchy are not the most inclusive of cultures and it is here, at orientation, that in the most violent, the most crude fashion, the values of these cultures are preached as truth from the balconies of UCT’s residences.
If this is how students are introduced to the university, in my mind it raises the question of how a UCT student’s experience at the university might speak back to this mode of cultural introduction. To speak to this, I will briefly take us back to why I think Max Price’s claim about the UCT population at large being anti-racist was absurd: There is very little in most students’ experiences at UCT that would ever challenge the values exhibited during an orientation event like the one in question. Unless a student is part of the tiny proportion of students who are fortunate enough to take classes with some of the, still tinier, number of progressive academics working actively to subvert the hegemonic culture, there is nothing about the experience of studying at UCT that challenges its dominant values or (which are the same as) the dominant values of our society. When it comes to relations of oppression and domination, the values on which UCT and our society are based, there is no such thing as a neutral position; and it is evident that – except in a few teaching spaces that (due to the individual work of a handful of committed academics) hold the potential for radical challenge, UCT as an institution is not actively working to challenge sexism or racism. In fact the converse is true – UCT embodies and reproduces those values of racist and sexist oppression. The event I described earlier is evidence of this.
The executive of the University needs to understand that anti-sexism and anti-racism are not default values in our society, they are subversive, radical ways of being, of constantly struggling against a hegemonic system so deeply embedded in the thoughts and actions of almost all people.
If the University is serious about the types of claims it makes about wanting to be a space free of discrimination then it has to realise that to become that type of space is a revolutionary undertaking. The executive of the University needs to understand that anti-sexism and anti-racism are not default values in our society, they are subversive, radical ways of being, of constantly struggling against a hegemonic system so deeply embedded in the thoughts and actions of almost all people. Anti-racism and anti-sexism require critical, deeply reflective personal journeys to unlearn the crooked ways in which gender, sexuality and race differentially constitute our everyday experiences.
If the University is not willing to take up the sword against the hegemonic culture of society and itself, it must stop speaking as if it is committed to values it doesn’t truly understand. If it wants to be a space that is primarily affirming for rich white boys from the suburbs who attended schools like St Johns, Michaelhouse, Bishops or any of the other patriarchal profit centres that instil the type of sexist ideology in which the detestable war-cry/song I mentioned earlier is rooted, then they would do well to ignore or, better, encourage this type of orientation practice. But if UCT is truly committed to anti-sexism and anti-racism, and if it aspires to provide a positive, safe space for those who do not immediately identify positively with the hegemonic white patriarchal value set of the institution, it will have to walk a hard road to get there.
The only way to truly travel that road is, firstly, to LISTEN. LISTEN to the voices of RMF: we, the Black students who have created safe spaces for critical debate on intersectional identity. We, who have dared to imagine a university free from racism, free from sexism. We, who have the radical impulse and revolutionary commitment to realise what we imagine. The University has to make space for the voices of marginalised people of the institution – black people, women, workers, and people from the LGBTIAQ community – not only to be heard but to dictate the transformation agenda. The knowledge of how the oppression of the institution operates is situated in these groups and it is critical that the experiences of these groups – those oppressed by the hegemony of white capitalist patriarchy – are listened to and not argued away by white liberal standpoints that seek to preserve the status quo. It is only through listening to and understanding the daily experiences of these people, and then, taking as a departure point the transformation of the dominant culture and the institutional structures that reproduce those experiences of oppression, that any sort of relevant transformation agenda can be forged. Indeed a transformation agenda that we are driving is the only one we will accept.
Regarding a transformation agenda then, a good place to start might be the value set that is disseminated through orientation. Obviously the orientation process does not define the institution’s culture. It is merely an introduction to it, it is a space of the reproduction and dissemination of white patriarchy. So changing the value set the orientation programme in itself will not change the institutional culture (that has to be done in parallel with challenging it on multiple fronts), but I believe that transforming the orientation space is critical to the creation of a culture where everyone feels welcome, where their identity does not feel as though it is under attack, where people are not violently forced into either assimilating to, being silenced by, or taking up arms against a radically oppressive, exclusionary dominant culture. How might we do this? As I mentioned earlier, the experiences of people who are marginalised and oppressed by UCT’s dominant culture are central to any true transformation programme. A committee should be set up comprised of representatives of these groups of people that both thoroughly interrogates orientation programmes, especially those of all-male institutions, and runs compulsory workshops that explore identity, institutional oppression and how they intersect at UCT. But, a reminder that transformation cannot stop there, with orientation. To become a space free of oppression and domination entails a radical commitment to a programme of ongoing revolution.
1. UCT is also blatantly classist and, while this essay does not speak explicitly to class as a unit of analysis, class and class oppression at the University are as important issues and are very much bound up with oppression based more overtly on race, sex and sexual orientation.
2. This does not purport to be an extensive list, there are other possible choices. The three choices I outline appear to me to be good points of departure for analysis of the topic at hand.
3. See: 1. Max Price’s letter, 2. A potent piece of commentary by Dela Gwala on how response to the attacks largely missed out on their sexist nature, and 3. A critique of Price’s letter and his superficial understanding of racism (image of newspaper clipping below).
4. Sexism and sexuality are issues which, while race is highly politicised on campus, the University in general and Price are noticeably silent. I think that this trend largely mirrors the political dynamics of South African society wherein issues of race receive more attention and are perceived to be of more importance than forms of oppression based on sex or sexuality.
5. One can simultaneously be oppressed as a member of all of these categories. My intention here in identifying groups is not to make an exhaustive list of all people that are oppressed by patriarchal white supremacist capitalism, or the differential and intersecting ways in which these groups are oppressed, merely to illustrate a general point.
*This piece was originally published in the JWTC Salon 9, 2015- Special issue by Rhodes Must Fall. Accessible at: http://jwtc.org.za/the_salon/volume_9/one_stab.htm