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Prof Helena Sheehan unbundles class, race, and the production of knowledge at Mzala Nxumalo Memorial Lecture

​Young people have the power and responsibility to critically re-assess the intellectual inheritance of the ages, to re-shape knowledge and to change history. This was the message of Prof Helena Sheehan, Emeritus Professor of Dublin City University in Scotland, during her keynote address at the 2019 Mzala Nxumalo Memorial Lecture on Thursday evening, 14 February 2019, at the University of Johannesburg Auckland Park Bunting Road Campus.

Prof Sheehan

“Many of us who came to the universities from which our ancestors were excluded, at first wide-eyed and accepting, began to raise questions, coming not only from our own development of critical consciousness, but from the social movements of our times…” she said, also citing her own experiences in the US in the 1960s.

“Here we come to the larger and deeper issue in the rise of the repressed. We engaged in questioning that went to the very theoretical foundations of traditional disciplines as well as bringing new fields into being. We demanded history from below, black studies, women’s studies, labour studies.

“We examined our existing world views and constructed new ones. We won many victories and universities are very different today as a result. This is still happening here in SA universities,” said Prof Sheehan, further narrating the lessons from the past.

However, the most recent and relevant one here (in South Africa) is the #RhodesMustFall movement, leading to #FeesMustFall, recalled Prof Sheehan, also recalling that from the first day she set foot on the UCT campus, she was appalled by the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, its presiding position on the campus and the lack of contestation of this. Rhodes, she said, was a symbol not only of white supremacy but of colonial conquest, capitalist expropriation, and ruthless class rule.

“Every time I passed it, I cringed. One day I took a photo as I heard a UCT student – a black female student – showing incoming students around campus, stopping at the Rhodes statue and explaining ‘We honour him for giving us all this’. I wanted to scream that it was not his to give and ask how she could be so blinded by false consciousness. Of course, it was not my place to do that.”

Prof Sheehan recalled that when she constantly raised the question of Rhodes with various colleagues at UCT and even comrades in the SACP, none of them so agitated about it as I was.

“They agreed with my critique of Rhodes, but said it was only a statue and it didn’t matter so much. I thought of what I would like to see happen to it. Options of smashing it or putting it in a museum had their merits, but what I thought it would be a good idea to contextualise it, to build around it a representation of the whole class structure of the Cape Colony over which he so oppressively presided. Nobody seemed very interested in the idea.

“When I heard of #RhodesMustFall, I was delighted. I followed them on various media from a distance. If I had been in Cape Town, I would have rushed out to support them (the protesting students). In these two photos, you can see the transition from liberal inclusion to radical contestation. I was especially impressed that these activists made the point that it was about more than the statute, that it was connected to demands for a drastic decolonisaton of the curriculum.

“There were occupations and teach-ins and a radical raising of consciousness of those involved. There was probing of the relation between race, class and gender. There was support for workers’ demands on outsourcing, wages and working conditions on campus. I was fascinated by SA universities and the sometimes jolting juxtapositions. The whole UCT campus was a mélange of mixed signals, of unreflective and unresolved contradictions, of ragbag eclecticism as well as considered syntheses,” said Prof Sheehan.

Click here to read Prof Helena Sheehan’s speech


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