College of Humanities

Open Dialogue on the Unrest: Perspectives on the Humanities and Socio-Economic Transformation in KZN

Under the leadership of the Chair of the Humanities Institute, Professor Jannie Smit, UKZN’s College of Humanities recently hosted an open dialogue on the recent unrest, focusing on perspectives on the Humanities and socio-economic transformation in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).

Opening proceedings, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Humanities, Professor Nhlanhla Mkhize said, ‘Despite 27 years of democracy, youth unemployment is at an all time high and there is an evident breakdown in socio-economic transformation. South Africa was praised worldwide for its ability to transition to democracy peacefully in 1994 and for the values enshrined in our Constitution’. What has become evident, is that these do not ‘reflect the experiential realities of everyday South Africans. As the Humanities and Social Sciences, we have the responsibility to engage on these issues and hold open discussions for solutions and healing.’

Reflecting on ‘KwaZulu-Natal Social Unrest: Manipulation of Socioeconomic Factors for Personal Egos’, Independent economic analyst and an Advocate of the High Court, Professor Bonke Dumisa, looked at the militaristic precision in the way the criminal economic sabotage was carried out, aimed at undermining both ‘political certainty’ and ‘economic certainty’ in South Africa. He also pointed out to that fact that the social media was flooded with messages to create the false impression that there was a groundswell of support for this sabotage.

He argued that there was a false impression, created, namely that ‘the cause of this ‘social unrest’ was the South African population’s general frustration with the high levels of poverty, unemployment, and inequality in the country.’ These are realities in themselves, but he said that his preliminary analysis is ‘roughly along the lines adopted by President Cyril Ramaphosa that this was a failed insurrection.’

Unpacking the potential causes that might have resulted in the actions of looting, violence and racial attacks, that we have experienced during the unrest, Professor Chatradari Devroop (Academic Leaders, Research, School of Arts) focused on understanding the dynamics involved in the event. He said, ‘Some in society may dismiss such events as mindless, or conclude that society is driven towards chaos and destruction. Whilst a once-off event could be dismissed as an accident, a repeated event is symbolic of a more profound historical process unfolding.’ He illustrated his critical perspectives by utilising insights one may gain from some seminal artworks, also arguing that we need to intervene in the potential causes of the unrest, and engage the event so as to prevent a similar one from occurring in future.

From the School of Education, specialist in Economic Education, Professor Suriamurthee Moonsamy Maistry (UKZN), took as his topic, ‘Socio-economic inequality and civil unrest in South Africa: Assessing education’s complicity and (un)responsiveness.’ He argued that the ‘neoliberal economic ideological imperatives that underpin education policy, have (un)wittingly contributed to fashioning the contemporary socio-economic architecture of South African society; a societal asymmetry that we quickly reverted back to as uncontested and normal.’ He challenged participants to ‘[r]eimagine and consider how education might envisage a critical democratic citizenship and an economically equitable South African society.’

Dr Bridget Horner, Dr Viloshin Govender and Professor Cathy Sutherland (UKZN) examined constructions of the social unrest in KZN through the lenses of some members of the Built Environment and Development Studies school. As representatives of affected individuals and communities, staff and students of the School, they offered their observations, experiences and thoughts on the week of unrest, as these especially related to transformation as ‘understood as stretching across multiple scales, as individually experienced, as agency or manipulation of the population at large, and as questioning the authority of governance in the country.’ They propose a ‘rhizomatic approach to allow for multiple, non-hierarchical means of interpreting and representing the data,’ so as to ‘avoid overly simplistic explanations for the unrest that would have no bearing on preventing this from happening again.’ 

Among some of his perspectives, Professor Sagie Narsiah (School of Social Sciences, UKZN) said, ‘It is apparent that transformation generally and socio-economic transformation in particular, by all measures, has produced at social formation which is increasingly polarised. Socio-economic transformation is uneven and this has created fertile ground for events such as the unrest during July.’ He argued that ‘the Humanities have failed to respond in a substantive, if not qualitative way to socio-economic transformation. Poverty, unemployment, inequality, and gender-based violence, among a host of other challenges, remain stubbornly entrenched, in our society in KZN.’

Dr Dane Arumugam (Finance Manager of the College of Humanities, UKZN) delved into a vision for economic transformation in KZN while focusing on higher education and what the Humanities could do to uplift and transform a mid-educated section of society. The effects of the rapid rise of the cost of living was also critically evaluated. Arumugam asserted ‘that much of the blame for South Africa’s current state [of discontent], rests on the shoulders of Government, more so, every ‘honourable’ parliamentarians for their non-delivery, inhumane and poor leadership, lack of vision, ignorance, inefficiency and poor policies that simply kill growth towards equity.’ Titling his presentation, ‘KZN and Socio-Economic Transformation: Yes, we can!’, he proposed a plan of action for the university, he proposed ‘keys to success’ with regard to strategies through which KZN might become ‘Government’s Pilot Province for South Africa’.

Proposing a ‘typology of complexity’ for analysis, Dr Kerry Frizelle (Applied Human Sciences, UKZN) noted that the unrest was characterised by the looting and destruction of many shops, businesses, and warehouses. She said,

‘There was a clear binary in the ways in which people attempted to explain the looting behaviour. Some referred to poverty as the driving force while others spoke of political incitement. Both explanations are problematic and limited as stand-alone explanations. The former serves to criminalise poverty and overlook the role of political incitement for example, while the latter, overstates the influence of political incitement and underplays the influence of affect related to ongoing systemic inequality.’

Arguing that we should not oversimplify the complexities involved in the event of the unrest, she said, ‘[through this typology we can comprehend the multi-layered phenomenon of the recent looting, avoid criminalising the poor, and avoid blaming individuals for wider systemic driving forces, while also acknowledging the psycho-politics involved, including the role of affect.’

Representing an initiative by the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics, Academic Leader Research, Professor Herbert Moyo, together with colleagues, Dr Nothando Shandu, Professor Lilian Siwila, and Dr Beatrice Okyere-Manu (UKZN), addressed the unrest from perspectives about ‘public mob violence and looting’, and the resultant ‘moral injury’ that gave rise to the event, but was also perpetuated through the event. They proposed strategies for moral repair and nation building. They also reflected on the culture of violence and arsonist behaviour in service delivery protests, and socio-economic violence as symptoms of the existing moral injury in society, and posited that this symptom ought to be repaired for nation building from theological and ethical perspectives, amongst others.

Academic and seasoned journalist, Professor Nicola Jones from the School of Arts, set the recent ‘riots’ in South Africa in a global context, before discussing specific South African dynamics. She argued that ‘the current global chaos we are living through, may (and should?) not result in a new political order, but that the idea of configuring some new ‘creative chaos,’ should be explored, in which we learn to flow with life’s current, rather than forcing it into bureaucracies and programming it into algorithms.’

Together with Academic Leaders Community Engagement, Dr Angela James (SoE), Dr Ismail Mahomed (SoA), Professor Lilian Siwila (SRPC), Professor Lauren Dyll (SAHS) and Professor Yanga Zembe-Zondi (SoBEDS, UKZN), Social Sciences Community Engagement Academic Leader Dr Desiree Manicom, presented the closing topic for the indaba. The topic was, ‘Towards Post-Unrest Social Cohesion Community Engagement.’ They explored post-unrest social cohesion in community engagement. They noted that ‘unsettling upheavals in communities have presented many fears, uncertainty and further social ills.’

Their consultations with government, and community and University actors revealed opportunities for possible actions that are practical, sustainable and enhancing. These include a College social cohesion task team, connecting with external and internal actors, listening to Community Forums and peace and reconciliation workshops.

They then put forward a provisional proposal that will lead the College of Humanities in a focused, College-wide, College Social Cohesion Signature Project, aimed at promoting and fostering research and community engagement for social cohesion in KZN.

Finally, and echoing comments of the Dean of Research, Professor Pholoho Morojele, Smit said that despite the immense trauma caused by the unrest, loss of jobs, destruction of property, and also social fears, the event of the unrest is also a timely wake-up call for the Human and Social Sciences in the province to develop and harness the requisite relevant humanities initiatives for the acceleration of the transformation and foundational improvements of the socio-economic quality of life of the people of our province.

Morojele also said that It is not only an opportunity, for the Humanities to ‘step up’, but also establish the ‘centrality of the Humanities’ for the comprehensive wellbeing of the people of our province.

In consultation with the DVC Mkhize and the College Leadership Forum, the provisional analyses, ideas and proposals flagged in the Indaba, will be further developed in each of the six Schools of the College of Humanities, with the possibility of some book publications under the leadership of the Dean, and Academic Leaders Research.

The Academic Leaders of Community Engagement initiative is set to develop into a College of Humanities Signature Project for post-unrest social cohesion building in our province.

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