#RUReferenceList: The “I” vs “we”

Last week, my politics lecturer, Leonhard Praeg, from the University Currently Known As Rhodes (UCKAR) Politics Department, asked the few of us who dotted the lecture room why we were there and not outside protesting with our fellow students.

This was met mostly by silence and a few disgruntled students who complained about the protests. Before the debate could go much further, a chorus of singing could soon be heard from outside, and it drew closer. “They are coming for us!” said Praeg. We had already vacated our seats when the protesters arrived at the door.

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#RUReferenceList protesters walking around campus disrupting lectures. Rhodes University, 2016. Photo by: Sam van Heerden

That day, hundreds of students swarmed across campus attempting to recruit others to join their cause, centred on the #RUReferenceList. It is a movement against sexual violence on campus, which also addresses broader issues against rape culture and the institutional reinforcement of rape. This was following an initial protest on Sunday in which alleged sexual offenders were called out and some were pulled out of their residences.

Throughout the week, people weighed up the right to education against the need for political solidarity. Rights and ethical obligations went head-on in a cacophony of different opinions. In response to this, Rhodes University management did not just wave their batons, but pulled the plug on the protests altogether— an interdict was served against the protesters.

The interdict supposedly negotiates the shaky middle ground between different rights and interests: it allows ‘peaceful’ protests, but hinders the infringement of other rights — to education, safety and security, and the use public roads.

Protesters allegedly infringed upon these rights by disrupting lectures and classes, pulling alleged perpetrators of sexual offences out of residences, intimidating students and staff, and putting up barricades at the university’s entrances. The interdict justifies itself by upholding the law and referring to the usual human rights discourses.

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Dr. Mabizela, Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University, talks to police during the Naked Protest which occured at the the barricade on Prince Alfred Street. Rhodes University, Tuesday 19 April 2016. Photo by: Sam van Heerden.

But what is important during these times of contestation is not what is said, but is what is left unsaid. “If the interdict states what is in the law, then the law would be enough. An interdict is a political statement,” said Brian Garman, a Journalism and Media Studies lecturer, at the talks between students, staff and management last Saturday afternoon. During times of crises, cultural norms and values, which are usually left implicit, become visible — like the tension between liberalism and communitarianism.

“Political acts can often not be expressed in rights discourses.”

In class, Praeg explained that liberalism is the Western political doctrine that emphasizes freedom, equality and civil rights. It was a result of the French and English Revolutions in the late 1700s and is the cornerstone of modern democracies. During the #RUReferenceList Freedom Day program,  Richard Pithouse (from the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes) said that liberalism was brought to South Africa by the British settlers and was initially tied up with the colonial project. Liberalism was used to ensure that civil liberties were enjoyed by some but not others. The political doctrine of this university is founded on liberalism, as adopted by the British.

Communitarianism is the political doctrine that privileges the ‘common good’ of the people — it is more commonly recognisable in communism, socialism, and socialist democracies. Communitarianism fundamentally holds that the greater good of the ‘we’ should outweigh the ‘I’. Some African cultures have values of communitarianism, but we must not fall into the trap of framing all African cultures as communitarian. Democratic states today attempt to strike a middle ground between individualism and communitarianism by promoting the common good and protecting individual rights.

“I have a problem with ‘I’s – those people who say ‘I want an education’, ‘I’, ‘I’, ‘I’,” said Lwanda Maqwelane, a politics student in Praeg’s lecture. “[Some students] don’t want to jeopardize their education, but they will also benefit [from the protests], like in Fees Must Fall.”

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#RUReferenceList protesters gather outside the main library and cafeteria at Rhodes University. Photo by: Sam van Heerden.

“Political acts can often not be expressed in rights discourses,” Praeg explained. Given the endemic nature of sexual violence, some protesters implicitly hold that if a few human rights violations have to occur to reach the common good of ending rape culture, then it is justified.  The need for political solidarity is greater than the potential loss of some class time.

After all, strictly speaking, liberalism holds that our rights are protected by the notion of the social contract. The individual gives up some of his/her rights in return for protection from the state. But today the justice system is failing victims of rape. The social contract is fragmented. What other recourse do rape survivors have?

“I have a problem with ‘I’s – those people who say ‘I want an education’, ‘I’, ‘I’, ‘I’.”

Praeg holds that communitarianism and individualism need not be mutually exclusive. The binary between them has generally led to extremism. He argues that there is no liberalism that is not somehow grounded in communitarianism – every liberal idea is grounded in some tradition, and therefore a community of thinkers.

The point is that we cannot understand either collective action or human rights discourse as being ahistorical. As Praeg said in his lecture, “[E]very political fight or revolt comes to us in the language of cultural values.” What is considered legitimate will depend on the political culture.

Protesters, far from simply being entitled, disruptive or radical, are actually speaking the language of communitarianism, of solidarity. Opposed to this, Rhodes has a liberal political culture, which is also the norm nationally. By defending individual rights and liberalism, Rhodes is not just following the law, it asserts itself as being grounded in certain Western values.

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Students, management and staff in conversation during a #RUReferenceList meeting. Photo by Sam van Heerden.

Perhaps Garman is right: the interdict is a political statement — a political statement that positions the university ever more fully in the Western culture of liberalism, arguably negating African communitarian values. This is significant in a time in which communitarian values are echoed in the increasing call for substantial democratisation and participation in the university, as well as in questions of decolonisation.

“[E]very political fight or revolt comes to us in the language of cultural values.”

As we vacated our seats last Tuesday, some found themselves joining the clarion call of protesters. Others attempted to go class, and some packed their bags for a long weekend.

Some shouted ‘I’, others exclaimed ‘we’. The actions students, management, and bystanders took during the protests speak the language of political discourse. It is only those listening carefully that will hear.

This article was originally published on Activate Online. See the article here. 

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