BACK in the mid-1980s, when the anti-apartheid struggle was at a height, a group of Pietermaritzburg youngsters set up a group called Forward Youth. It had a socialist agenda and lived up to it by running a poultry co-operative. When some of its members were detained in 1986 under emergency regulations they were interrogated about egg input and output statistics by the security branch who suspected the figures might be some form of code.[1] One of the detainees was Adam Habib who after a stellar career as academic, university administrator and political commentator is now director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), a constituent college of the University of London.[2]

Well, that was the intention. Since mid-March, just a few weeks into the job, he was suspended (or stepped aside according to current jargon) after a virtual meeting with students. He uttered the N-word, purely in the context of a reply to a question about use of racist language for which he would naturally support disciplinary action. His audience claimed that as he is not black, Habib had no right to utter the N-word and he, typically, argued back from his South African perspective. He later apologised; unnecessarily.

Sterile standpoint theory linked to prescriptive identity politics limits discourse to lived experience. In other words, boundaries are placed around the right to express a view (or even, apparently, to say one word) on the basis of racial, sexual and other categorisation. For Habib the result has been a typical, frenzied social media storm in which he has been vilified as an anti-black racist, termed vicious and callous, and called a ‘war criminal’ among other insults; while a campaign for his removal has gathered steam. The student with whom he engaged has withdrawn from SOAS surrounded by claims that he was publicly assaulted and injured and now requires mental health care. Just so.

A ragbag alliance of about twenty student organisations has linked up with the union, UNISON, to demand that ‘Adam Habib must leave’. One of them is the Art and African Mind Society (step up, Dr Verwoerd). Then there is another apparent colonial throwback, the South African Natives Forum; the Economic Freedom Fighters (more of them later)[3]; and a bizarre outfit calling itself ‘Tribe Named Athari (London)’. Several long-winded statements have appeared with predictable content about pain and oppression, and one particular telling usage. ‘Black folk’ suggests American influence, emphasised by another phrase ‘non-white folk’. In South Africa ‘non-white’ is regarded as highly racist.

The first point to dispose of is that in South African terms Habib is indisputably black. Not only that, but he was an active participant in the struggle and is held in high esteem in a number of areas of public life as his compatriot supporters like Jonathan Jansen[4] and Zeblon Vilakazi have emphasised. It should not be necessary to point this out, but powerful forces are busy re-racialising public discourse.

Increasing numbers of self-righteous and bellicose voices are operating as thought and speech police. This endangers academic freedom in particular and the freedom of expression in general. It is linked to a demand by self-proclaimed victims for safe spaces in universities that is the very antithesis of the robust diversity inherent in the idea of academia. The current climate at SOAS is so toxic that an academic interviewed for a newspaper article required anonymity. The idea of an academic not putting a name to a view is both absurdity; and absurd reality.

The apparent presence of the EFFs at SOAS contains potential humour: the boiler-suited, red bereted teletubbies in Russell Square nogal. Do the British appreciate what neo-fascist entertainment they might be in for? But this also suggests that the SOAS incident might be a set-up, a continuation of the campaign started at Wits against Habib for robustly standing up for the rights of a majority of students who were against disruption and wanted to pursue their studies. This was conclusively tested in an online opinion poll. The accusation that ‘Habib inflicts violence on students’ is impossible to sustain from six weeks at SOAS and was presumably imported from Johannesburg prior to his arrival in London. Habib perpetrated no violence at Wits; many students did and thus have no right to a place in any university anywhere.

Yet again we see the malign role of social media: contrive some supposedly racist situation, edit some video footage, manufacture added outrage, watch it go viral, and wait for a stream of vile abuse to descend on the victim. It’s a recipe that works time and again and is now par for the course in South Africa.[5] The justification in this case is the ‘plight, pain and trauma’ inflicted on certain SOAS students by the ‘liberal middle class’. This is mindless propaganda. The real agenda is more complex, the potential damage far-reaching.

Before Habib’s appointment there were rumours circulating that SOAS was in severe financial difficulty and would not survive lockdown. If he departs, no one of any worth will be prepared to take on the job of director and SOAS will fold or be absorbed and downsized by another institution, probably its neighbour University College. Perhaps this is a fate its students and board of trustees now deserve.

My advice to Adam Habib: chuck it in, demand compensation for lost income, leave SOAS to its squabbles, and come back home. We need every combative, intelligent South African here to fight for non-racialism, the rule of law and the Constitution.

  • Adam Habib was cleared of racism, made another apology (for what?), and resumed work on 10 May 2021.

[1] Information gleaned from an interview by this writer (probably in 2009) with the late Lyov Hassim, a detained member of Forward Youth.

[2] I have a particular interest in this story as a former, lowly member of staff in the library at SOAS from 1973 to 1974. It was a happy and highly significant year, but SOAS was a very different place then.

[3] THE EFFs routinely use the N-word (as in house n*****) to denigrate other black South Africans of whom they disapprove.

[4] Jansen appropriately describes the suggestion that Habib is not black as ‘bullshit’.

[5] One commentator has noted that these bursts of outrage have a life span of about a fortnight.