College of Humanities

Lukhona Mnguni
Lukhona Mnguni

Heritage & Student Protests

Opinion Piece by Lukhona Mnguni – Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and Researcher at the Maurice Webb Race Relations Unit.

Mnguni was the Guest Speaker at a recent UKZN webinar on Heritage.

When I presented on the topic “My UKZN! My Heritage!: the efficacy of student protests?”, I was called upon to dissect the meaning of UKZN heritage and how students relate to it. A historical review of the institution called a university and the specific history of UKZN allows us to interrogate what we mean by UKZN heritage.

Not all heritage is to be celebrated. At times we must rethink or denounce certain aspects of heritage. It is also important to note that not all history becomes heritage. The history of UKZN is marred with the history of colonialism, World War I and II. The campuses of UKZN are on land that was violently, immorally and illegally dispossessed from natives. The Howard College Campus for example came about because TB Davis had lost his son, Howard, at the battle of Somme, France in 1916 during World War I. He then donated money for the Howard College building in memory of his son to jumpstart a new Durban campus for the then Natal University College. The Memorial Tower Building (MTB) was built as a monument to commemorate students who lost their lives during World War II.  Therefore, while situated in South Africa, the University of KwaZulu-Natal was founded on Eurocentric roots.

The concept of the Heritage Cycle diagram is important in teaching us why we should appreciate heritage. This diagram, according to Simon Thurley (2005), gives us an idea on how we can make the past part of our future. It reads:

 By understanding (cultural heritage), people value it; By valuing it, people want to care for it; By caring for it, it will help people enjoy it; From enjoying it, comes a thirst to understand; By understanding it….etc.

However, important in our understanding is that heritage “is a human creation intended to inform” (John Feather, 2006). Two things become important when we view heritage as a social construct. Firstly, the people who have power to curate heritage through choosing what aspects of history are translated into heritage and which parts are not. The second important thing is how those people are trying to inform future generations, put simply – what consciousness do they wish to build in the minds of future generations through the heritage they have selected to educate future generations on and about. It follows that unlike family or community heritage, institutional heritage is highly contested, worse still when dealing with universities.

It was Ali Mazrui between 1978 and 1980 who described “the African universities of the time primarily as institutions for the promotion of Western civilization” (Brock-Utne, 1999:91). For Mazrui the post-independence African university needed indigenisation in order to be rooted in the African experience. Today we talk about the need for decolonisation of higher education including the spaces that house this education. These calls are lamentations that decry the overarching dominance of Western civilisation in our institutions because that dominance denies African students and scholars the ability to exist and express their identity in fullness. The identity of Africans is subordinate or at worst rejected by western civilisation because Africans needed to be civilised by westerners. That rejection of African civilisation continues to permeate in the curriculum we teach, the research subjects we undertake and the rubric we adhere to for international rankings.

A rebellion against western civilisation quickly gets denounced as uncouth conduct, ungrateful behaviour for the opportunities of conduct or at times it leads to institutional castration rendering one persona non grata in the hallways of higher education. At times, some people (especially managers) embrace the language of transformation and decolonisation for public political mileage while in private they suppress efforts for transformation. This leads to stunted institutional outcomes and it breeds frustration among those who are at the most brutal part of the receiving end of this dominance of western civilisation. Even academics are aware of this, especially those whose research interests find no resonance with their colleagues, with journals for publication and in the era of “publish or perish”, the academic is forced to abandon their true intellectual calling in order to “fit in”.

Having fought the system and failed, this academic goes on to dispirit students who agitate for change because the academic is in service of the need “to fit in”. Here the student’s intellectual aspirations are dumbed down and drowned by the pervasive western civilisation. The student in this instance is turned into a different being but one they can never be and a part of them is stripped – the student becomes an embodiment of competing intellectual and heritage forces rendering him or her an incomplete being. This sparks an identity crisis. When a critical mass of students could identify with this identity crisis, it prompted them into action to call for the decolonisation of higher education. Nationwide protests were seen, they resonated with many in society. Beyond decolonisation they called for free quality education, this too resonated with many people given our wealth disparities and how many deserving people miss out on opportunities simply because of their poor backgrounds. The problem came when criminal and violent elements accompanied the student protests. Uninspired by this violence people began to denounce the protests and the student body as a whole – this was a cardinal mistake.

Yes, violent student protest alienated support because some people believe that it takes away from the reputation of the institution. However, the outcomes of student protest depend mostly on how those in power respond. The management’s response generally determines the direction of student protest. If management is repressive, students will retaliate with violence. We cannot measure student responses without interrogating the mannerism of those who are in management. Worse still, we must interrogate how much students relate to the institutional heritage within which they exist. Because at times due to the contested nature of the heritage, students have little to uphold as their “own’ – elements of history they can identify with. As a result, they decide to rebel and find no identification. Simply put, the university must spend time identifying its heritage and building collective consciousness within the university to improve people’s attention to the institution’s heritage.