(PUBLIC LECTURE, UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN CAPE – 10/09/2017)
Issa G. Shivji
I often joke with my South African comrades that whereas we in Tanzania had first 25 years of nationalism and subsequently another 25 years of neo-liberalism, you guys were born in neo-liberalism! (Don’t ask me where we are at now because I don’t know – we are going through a period of grand confusion, deep uncertainty and incomprehensible eclecticism. But that is a story for another day. Let me come back to what I was saying.) I’m saying you probably missed out on post-independence nationalism and what it entailed in terms of decolonization of different spheres of life – including culture and education, language and literature, politics and pedagogy.
I suspect your movement to decolonise universities, presumably starting with #Rhodesmustfall, combines elements of both nationalism and anti-neoliberalism. I say elements because I haven’t seen a coherent articulation of this struggle, either as a nationalist or as an anti-neoliberal project – but then I don’t know enough and, therefore, dare not say more. What I want to do this afternoon is very simple – to share with you our experience of DECOLONISING our University, now called the University of Dar es Salaam – I’ll refer to it by its pet name, the Hill. It is so-called because it is located on Observation Hill, the highest point in the otherwise sea-level Dar es Salaam.
I would like you to keep one point in mind as I narrate the story of decolonisation of the Hill. This is that while the dominant tendency was nationalism, which had been harnessed to the nation-building project, there was another tendency – albeit a minority tendency – which I’d call DEBOURGEOISIFICATION of education and academic disciplines. In practice, of course, there was co-operation and conflict between the two tendencies as always happens in any struggle.
The University was established just a couple of months before our independence in December 1961. It was part of the University of East Africa, which in turn was linked to the University of London, which validated our products. During the first 6 years of the University, the university closely followed Oxbridge traditions and ethos – with gowns, and high table in the canteen, knives and forks and I presume white napkins around necks. So there we were – sons and daughters of peasants being inducted into bourgeois table manners, cuisine and culture.
The decolonisation narrative is marked by three turning points – each one marked by a student demonstration followed by mass expulsion of students -1966, 1978 and 1990. The interval of 12 years between each has no significance – it’s just co-incidental – unless you are a believer in witchcraft or white magic!
In October 1966, the Hill bussed into one of our main roads in Dar es Salaam called Independence Avenue. [It was called ACACIA AVENUE under colonial rule – INDEPENDENCE AVENUE after independence, then it became SAMORA MACHEL AVENUE after Mozambique’s liberation. Recently one of our main roads adjacent to the Indian Ocean, and at a right angle to Samora Avenue – was named OBAMA ROAD after Obama’s visit – so you can see the three phases in our political trajectory -nationalism, liberation and neo-liberalism] The student demonstration was protesting against compulsory national service. National service meant they would have to spend 6 months in military camps and then 18 months in their respective jobs but at 40 percent salary. Students were opposed to it. They said it was too big a sacrifice to make contrary to the expectations of their families to benefit from their education. So they carried placards – one of them said “Colonialism was better” – which enraged Mwalimu Nyerere a lot. Anyway, they were directed by the police to the state house where they sat on the ground. They were cheering and singing because they thought they would finally get a hearing from Mwalimu.
Mwalimu walked in with more than half his cabinet. The spokesperson of the students stood up and read out their statement. In English – very strident, very acrimonious. The students ended by saying that if they were forced, their bodies would go “but our souls will remain outside the scheme. And the battle between political elite and educated elite will perpetually continue.” Mwalimu listened to them attentively. And then he began talking in English – first in a low tone and then raising his voice. He thundered:
You are right when you talk about salaries. Our salaries are too high. You want me to cut them? (some applause) … Do you want me to start with my salary? Yes, I’ll slash mine (cries of ‘No’.) I’ll slash the damned salaries in this country. Mine I slash by twenty per cent as from this hour. …
The damned salaries! These are the salaries which build this kind of attitude in the educated people, all of them. Me and you. We belong to a class of exploiters. I belong to your class. Where I think three hundred and eighty pounds a year [the minimum wage that would be paid in the National Service] is a prison camp, is forced labour. We belong to this damned exploiting class on top. Is this what the country fought for? Is this what we worked for? In order to maintain a class of exploiters on top? …
You are right, salaries are too high. Everybody in this country is demanding a pound of flesh. Everybody except the poor peasant. How can he demand it? He doesn’t know the language. … What kind of country are we building? [quoted in Coulson 1982, 181-2]
And he ended: “Go Home” and left the compound. As the students came out, police buses were waiting for them. They were all taken to the Campus to collect their belongings and transported to their home areas. Almost 400 students had been expelled en masse. This was in October. At the end of January the party adopted the Arusha Declaration, Tanzania’s blueprint of socialism and self-reliance, Ujamaa. In between Nyerere used the period to prepare the nation for the Arusha Declaration, visiting regions and villages, making speeches.
The 1967 intake at the University was the first post-Arusha generation, to which I belong. Internally, the situation was ripe for debates and externally this was the period when revolution was on the crest of the wave. Civil rights movement in the US, anti-Vietnam demonstrations in Europe and elsewhere, southern African liberation movements, many of whom were based in Tanzania. At the Hill, the expulsion resulted in a lot of soul-searching – what are we teaching? What kind of students are we preparing? Are we preparing our students to serve socialist Tanzania? What should be the role of the University in socialist Tanzania? This opened up space for the new students and the diasporans, including the more militant Faculty like Walter Rodney, to propose more interdisciplinary, holistic approach to teaching. It was in this context that some students – who included from Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania and elsewhere, to transform their socialist club to the University African Revolutionary Front – USARF – whose first chairman was Yoweri Museveni – who is currently the president of Uganda. Same name, same man, but not the same revolutionary!! People change – and power changes people absolutely!
USARF was a small organization in numbers but had an overwhelming presence. It organized public lectures and debates. It commented, with incisive analysis, on important events happening in Africa – whether this was the banning of Odinga’s KPU by Jomo Kenyatta or the succession crisis in Frelimo after Mondlane’s assassination. Revolutionaries and militants from all over the world spoke on USARF’s platform. Stokely Carmichael of Black Power, the great singer Mariam Makeba from SA, Dos Santos from Frelimo, Ebrahim Gora from PAC, the grand old man of the reputation of Black Jacobin, CLR James from Trinidad, Chedi jagan of Guyana whose government was overthrown by the CIA. One of our most prominent revolutionary speakers was of course Walter Rodney. Another from outside the Campus was Abdurrahman Mohamed Babu – a Zanzibari Marxist who belonged to the first generation of African Marxists.
USARF militants thought, theorized and acted. They thought globally and epochally, and acted locally and imminently. In the Faculty of Law, a compulsory first year course was introduced called Social & Economic Problems of Africa – where we read: Marx, Engels and Lenin – Fanon, Nkrumah and Cabral. Nothing was out of bounds – we read everything and learnt to read critically. What we did not read in the classroom, we read in our Sunday ideological classes – where we read and debated. No one was beyond criticism – not even Walter Rodney. There were no icons, only iconoclasts. Our motto was: question everything. But we scrupulously avoided factionalism.
We took to heart Hegel’s dictum: ‘The truth is the whole’ – arguing against bourgeois compartmentalization of knowledge. We valued revolutionary theory – citing as often as we could Amilcar Cabral’s great dictum: I have seen many revolutions, but I have yet to see a successful revolution which is not led by a revolutionary theory. We debated with bourgeois lecturers on their eclecticism and empiricism. And if they ignored us in the classroom, we organized public debates and invited them to explain their case. Many of them declined!
Most of our practical actions were preceded by theoretical analysis. Let me give you one example. There was an Oxbridge tradition at the Hill called Rag Day. This was when students dressed in rags and descended on the city to beg for the poor. We said: No! We cannot allow this mockery of the working people. So we planned to sabotage the Rag Day. The day before we had a long discussion to understand the role of charity in a capitalist society. This is when Rodney first gave his famous definition of charity: He said: Bourgeois charity is giving by ounces and taking by tons.
Oral debates were not sufficient. We needed to reach far and wide and put pen to paper. So USARF started its theoretical magazine called Cheche, a Swahili word meaning Spark. The name was after Nkrumah’s journal called The Spark and Lenin’s called Iskra.
In 1970 the University of East Africa was broken up – a disastrous decision by politicians in my opinion. (Although we did not see it that way at that time: keep this in mind – how at certain moments nationalism becomes reactionary!!) Each country – Kenya, Uganda Tanzania – established their own independent universities. Thus was established the University of Dar es Salaam. Mwalimu as the Chancellor of the University appointed a party cadre as the Vice-Chancellor. The Green Guards – party youth wingers – escorted him to the Campus. Only a few months later – in November 1970 – the leaders of USARF and the editors of Cheche were called by the VC. He announced to them that USARF was proscribed and Cheche was banned because it carried a foreign name and preached a foreign ideology – Russian socialism. We suspected at the time that the orders had from come from Mwalimu – now research has established that indeed it was Nyerere’s decision. Apparently the pressure came from the Catholic Church, with considerable political clout in the country. Bishops were warned that the Hill was being painted red and becoming atheist. They particularly resented Sunday ideological classes, which they said had reduced attendance at Sunday church services. A couple of years later, Nyerere assured the Bishops that communism would never come to Tanzania. “We know better societal relations than the bishops:” he said, “we know robust methods of checking communism. I believe communism will never come to Tanzania if our methods succeed. Recently, I intervened to stop a group of students who wanted to start “Cheche,” on the Russian lines”.
But comrades continued to publish the magazine. They changed the name and called it MajiMaji referring to the 1905 rebellion against the German colonizers.
A year later there was another interesting event, marking a further development in the process of decolonisation. This is called the Akivaga Crisis. Akivaga was a Kenyan, a former cadre of USARF. He was elected the president of the Students Union, equivalent of your SRC. At the 1971 graduation ceremony, Akivaga read out a long statement accusing the VC of bureaucratic tendencies. The VC wasn’t amused. He prepared to rusticate Akivaga. Students surrounded the VC’s office demanding that he come out to explain his decision to the students. The VC called in the police – the infamous Field Force Unit. This was the first time the police entered the Campus. Akivaga was carried bodily and bundled into the police truck and put on the next flight to Kenya. This time the students were wiser. They did not demonstrate nor go on strike, in which case they would have been expelled. Instead they adopted a very innovative method – work to rule and non-cooperation. They wouldn’t participate in sports or any competitions, they wouldn’t sit on Faculty boards or the senate or the council, they would not agree to be on university delegations. Their major demand was ‘bring back Akivaga’. This was a huge embarrassment to the University administration and its management of student affairs. The stalemate continued for some 8 months. Then in one public meeting called by students – radical students and young faculty (including former USARF cadres) argued that the question was no more the question of Akivaga. The question really was: whose University it is? Is it people’s university or a university of imperialism and its local agents? Only people can decide. So they proposed a public debate down town to discuss the question – Whose university? This sent shockwaves through the University bureaucracy and the powers-that-be. They dispatched a professor immediately to Kenya to bring back Akivaga – to take the wind out of the sail of the student struggle. Akivaga was returned to the campus. He was in power only a few months. He was overthrown in a coup by a group of party youth wingers on narrow nationalist grounds. The VC approved the coup wholeheartedly and ceremoniously received the coup makers – early signs of the party’s domination of the University.
I’ll not go into any details of the period between 1971 and 1978 except make three observations: 1) that radical debates were increasingly driven by the young faculty rather than students themselves; 2) that MajiMaji, the successor of Cheche, increasingly became eclectic in the selection of articles and the contents and 3) there was an acrimonious debate among the so-called Marxist-Leninists on the faculty – which has been presumptuously dubbed ‘the Dar debate’. The debate was dogmatic and demagogic, specializing in name-calling, which fractured the unity of the Left on the Campus while at the same time pushing students to become by-standers rather than active participants. When the 1978 demonstration by students came, the Left faculty on Campus was taken by surprise and was equally divided in its support and opposition.
By late 1970s, the hegemony of the Arusha Declaration had begun to decline. The economy too was showing early signs of a crisis. And the state bureaucracy increasingly became insensitive to people’s plight – flexing its power muscles. Members of parliament and ministers passed a resolution increasing their salaries and perks. This enraged students on the campus. The militant leadership, which had then been elected to the student union, organised a demonstration against it. But this time around they took their demonstration to the streets – outside the campus. They passed through working class areas with their placards – all of which touched on national issues rather than their own bread-and-butter questions. The demonstrating students were supported and cheered by working people. Mwalimu sent his FFU to break up the demonstration. Somehow, some students using people’s pathways, found their way to downtown city where they read out their statement in front of the offices of Government newspaper. As soon as they had finished, they were bundled into police trucks and expelled by the Chancellor, Mwalimu Nyerere. Next day the Government Daily News carried an editorial, probably inspired by the State House, justifying the expulsion on the ground that students were opposing to become village managers. It did not wash. Unlike 1966, people neither demonstrated in opposition to students nor condemned them.
Meanwhile, the student union was proscribed and substituted by a national student organization under the control of the Party Youth Wing. The campus was infested by what we in Tanzania call mashushu – meaning spies and informers. Radical debates died down.
If the 1966 demonstration was the curtain raiser of the militant student struggles, radical nationalism and the Arusha Declaration, the 1978 demonstration marked both the end of the nationalist phase and the beginning of the neo-liberal phase. In the 1980s, as the Washington Consensus began to take grip, the University was increasingly starved of resources, as the country experienced one of its worst economic crisis since independence. Debates changed both their orientation and venue. More and more debates happened in the town – in hotels and workshops rather than on the Hill. And the debates were more oriented to liberal issues of democracy – constitutionalism and human rights, multi-party etc. On campus the active, organised body was much more the staff association – UDASA – rather than students because students had lost their autonomous organization. Of course, within the democracy debate there were different tendencies – the dominant tendency being liberal, advocating democracy, human rights, good governance etc and the minority tendency arguing for participatory people’s democracy.
Mwalimu to his credit stepped down in 1985, still respected by the people – perhaps not as popular – but his integrity untarnished. His successor, Mzee Mwinyi, began the transition to neo-liberalism – which on Campus meant cost sharing. Matters came to a head in 1990. Student opposition was undoubtedly to cost sharing but students lacked any coherent leadership and articulation. The debate degenerated into personal insults and abuse of the head of state on wall newspapers. The result was that students were expelled and the University was closed. Mwinyi dismissed the VC who had been quite democratic in allowing student participation and staff debates. His successor came with the agenda of university transformation in the image of neo-liberalism. The rest is history in making, work-in-progress, which we shall chat about some other day.
Let me end by summing up some of the fundamental features of the struggle of the Hill students which hopefully we can learn from.
First, during its militant phase, student struggles to decolonize and debourgeoisify academic disciplines and debureaucratise University structures were led by a radical theory and ideology. Students thought and analysed before acting. They planned and strategized. They had a longer view of history and a bigger picture of society as their backdrop. Although radical students were not in a big number, they were the most articulate and they provided the leadership.
In this regard, the period of militant struggles between 1966-1978 stands in contrast to the liberal struggles of 1978-1990.
Second, the leadership scrupulously avoided factionalism, which can be very fractious. They may compromise politically, where necessary, but never compromised on theory, vision or ideology – but always trying to ensure unity.
Third, they avoided violence – as far as possible – realizing that violence would provide an excuse to the powers-that-be to discredit them, close the university and disperse them.
In this regard, the Akivaga crisis of 1972 when students did not go on strike, and the 1990 closing of the University stand in stark contrast. In 1990 students refused to budge from their positions resulting in their expulsion and defeat.
Fourth, – and this was the soft underbelly of student struggles – although students waged their struggle in the name of workers and peasants, they did not build, either individual or organizational links, with the working people – neither with the workers on the campus nor workers outside the campus. Mwalimu was an astute politician. He was quite conscious of this. So long as students carried on debates – however critical – on Campus, he would tolerate and take them on at intellectual level. But once they stepped out of the Campus, as in 1978, he clobbered them decisively.
After the 1978 expulsion of students, and when the students were finally readmitted, Mwalimu visited the Campus talking about many issues including democracy etc. Sometimes Mwalimu used the Hill as his sounding board for the ideas that were brewing in his mind. After he had finished and the students were given the floor one student stood up. The question went something like this: Mwalimu, you talk about democracy but when we demand and demonstrate for democracy you send the FFU to clobber us. There was pin-drop silence in the Hall. The Faculty and students were equally afraid of the fate of the questioner. Mwalimu stared at the questioner for a minute or so, as was his wont. His reply was something to this effect: I am head of state. Do you know what state means? The state is the instrument of violence. It has the monopoly of violence. If you demonstrate against the state, of course, I will send FFU – of course I will clobber you. But does that mean you shouldn’t demonstrate for democracy? Democracy is never given on a sliver platter. You have to struggle for it.
We all clapped, including the questioner! There was a thunderous applause. Mwalimu was one person who could have his cake and eat it. Mwalimu stood up and left the assembly Hall. And I have finished my story and take my seat. Thank you.