The University of Azania House

@jaredsacks – 27 March 2015

On Tuesday I attended a gathering at the #RhodesMustFall student occupation of Bremner building, the administration block of the University of Cape Town.

Since Friday of last week, hundreds of students, almost all black, have taken over the administrative building to demand real transformation of the University. Their call has been timely — even the Vice Chancellor Max Price has been at pains to pretend he supports the protests going so far as to move all administrative work to another building and virtually giving the students free-reign over Bremner. Price has also, in theory, already agreed to the demand to remove the contentious statue of Cecil John Rhodes on campus.

Yet, since the protests are about more than just a statue, they continue to grow. Tuesday evening’s gathering invited a number of black UCT faculty members to address students who have now bestowed upon Bremner building a much more appropriate name: Azania House.

This was not a normal lecture though. The entire space was not only packed to the brim but lacked any hint of the traditional patriarchal classroom structure. There was no head of the room, no centre, no spatial hierarchy. The discussion, facilitated by the Zethu Matabeni (the outspoken Senior UCT Researcher who focuses on African queer issues), spoke to the theme: what would a transformed university would look like?

Lecturers, sitting amongst the crowd rather than in front of an old-fashioned seminar room, stood up and addressed the need to transform curricula, hire and promote more black, female and queer professors, and build a different kind of classroom based on co-learning.

“Students are not empty vessels” exclaimed one faculty speaker.

One introspective student asked the crowd whether all patriarchy was bad and how he, as a black male, could challenge the oppressive aspects of his own masculinity.

Another, more challenging student, engaged in constructive criticism of the occupation itself. He noted instances of blatant patriarchy and the suppression of queer voices. Yet, the meeting welcomed rather than suppressed such criticism — a refreshing change from less reflective activist spaces I have seen.

The most pointed response of the evening was by Adam Haupt, Associate Professor of Media Studies, who indicated that the occupation itself was the best example of educational transformation.

Sitting through almost three hours of talks by teachers who acknowledged their presence as also a learning experience and students who demanded recognition of their ability to teach, I was inspired and also a bit jealous. My university experience years back at UCT and the University of California at Berkeley in the United States was nothing like this. In fact, at no time during my education can I confidently say that the actual structure of the university classroom was challenged at all.

The only radical spaces of popular education I have ever witnessed were not in universities but during the 20 month land occupation of Symphony Way in Delft and my participation in the all-night youth camps at the University of Kennedy Road.

Inside the alternative university that Azania House has become, I have glimpsed what a true liberatory university education might be like if extended past those walls.

One of the most common bigoted condemnations that some white commentators have made of #RhodesMustFall campaign is that the student protesters are lazy and disrespecting their education by demanding change; that they should go study instead of wasting their time disrupting the normal workings of the university.

Yet what many people do not realise is that there is nothing more scholastic and empowering than what that these students have created inside Azania House: an inclusive, transformative and democratic space were everyone’s voice matters and no form of oppression is left unchallenged.

The University of Azania House has become the most enlightening site of learning in the entire University.

Let us hope it spreads further beyond the confines of this ivory tower to the rest of Azania. We could all use a real education.

A version of this article was also published in the Cape Argus and the Cape Times on the 27th of March, 2015. Note that it was written in March and therefore the situation has changed though the facts remain the same.