At South African tertiary institutions, all employees – both black and white – lived in terror of it.
It was (and still is) at the very least a career limiting indictment and, at worst, it could mean public disgrace or suicide. This fear is the fear of being (falsely) accused of racism or being associated with any form of white supremacy.
My concern is not about bona fide allegations of racism as defined the ordinary, dictionary definition of racism and based on objective facts. Surely, in those circumstances calling it out will not be problematic, but it would, in fact, be a civic duty. Of concern to me are those instances where persons are accused of racism without a shred of proof or by applying definitions which do not fall within the ordinary meaning of racism.
I have first-hand experience of claims of racism as I had the dubious privilege of being the manager of the staff disciplinary section at a tertiary educational establishment in South Africa. It was my duty to investigate, amongst other things, allegations of racism and to take the appropriate steps against offenders, which would almost always result in a dismissal. It is a very grave form of misconduct and it should be too.
However, during my stint as an investigator of misconduct and prosecutor at disciplinary hearings, I encountered many white colleagues, who intimated to me how they lived in fear of being branded a racist. In order to protect themselves, they would frequently overlook the misconduct and poor performance of certain direct reports who had strong black nationalist tendencies. One even admitted to me that, in order to avoid confrontation with such individuals and to keep his department running, he would rather perform the duties of a direct report himself, than address the misconduct, which may lead to mass protest action. Just one (false) accusation of racism might cost you your employment. And in a country with an unemployment rate of approximately thirty percent, losing your job is no laughing matter, therefore people tend to rather grin and bear it than make any political waves.
And being black did not exempt you from being accused of anti-black beliefs or conduct. Racism allegations were also levelled against black colleagues in that they were called, amongst other things, Uncle Toms and coconuts. Such allegations are, of course, themselves racist and they are used with impunity, because there seldom are any repercussions. The only recourse an individual has is to go through legal avenues, but they are expensive and emotionally taxing.
Then, for good measure, the black nationalist lobby group also regularly accuse dissenting black people – especially black liberals – of being the agents of ‘White Monopoly Capital’, an Africanist conspiracy theory in the true sense of the word. The supporters of this theory claim that all of South Africa is being ruled by a sinister cabal of white people who calculatingly undermine all attempts to uplift black people. Of course, as with all such conspiracy theories, they are a bit thin on facts, but they are psychologically potent and impossible for a person to defend herself against. The theory is widely accepted as the truth by many on the left, just as far right wingers believe in the narrative of the world being secretly controlled by Jewish bankers.
But matters became worse at tertiary institutions on 9 March 2015 with the rise of a protest group dedicated to the toppling of the (in-)famous Cecil John Rhodes’s statue and using the hashtag #RhodesMustFall as the rallying call for the movement. This new brand of activists was called the ‘Fallists’, a crusade spawned from different strands of woke philosophy, black nationalism and the decoloniality movement. All were woven into one front. At first their energies were directed only at the destruction of ‘colonist and apartheid’ statues and symbols, but then it rapidly evolved into a self-declared war on ‘whiteness’ and ‘white privilege’. The absurdity of the movement soon became apparent when they lobbied for the removal of all depictions of white people in academic spaces, even those who had no political associations, such as previous white vice-chancellors and non-political white academics.
After the statue of Rhodes went to the rubbish heap along with representations of other white people, the next manifestation of Fall-ism was the battle cry for the abolition of tuition fees and then a host of other political grievances followed, such as the decolonization of the curriculum.
The Fallists protests left a trail of destruction at tertiary institutions, which not only destroyed taxpayer-funded infrastructure, but also gave academic education’s decorum an enormous blow. Universities were no longer centres of learning, but battlegrounds for woke ideologies where academic standards of enquiry were no longer relevant and mobs ruled campuses.
The orgy of destruction was well reported by journalists and debated in the media by opinionmakers. Ordinary, non-academic citizens lamented the wanton destruction for which they footed the bill in the form of higher taxes. Furthermore, ordinary students were also devastated by the disruption caused to their studies.
But the worst consequences of the Fallists, in my view, are on employees’ mental health due to the verbal abuse staff had to tolerate. Fallists use an array of ideological and psychological weapons to discredit and undermine opponents. A particularly sharp weapon in the Fallist arsenal is the false accusations of racism. It does not require much reflection to appreciate the seriousness of such an allegation, especially in a country where race relations are already extremely strained and, with the history it had, no-one wants to be even vaguely associated with racism. Racism attracts the opprobrium of the majority of society and usually leads to ostracization and criminal charges.
I can name many instances of white employees’ careers being destroyed by unsubstantiated claims of racism, but these would simply be dismissed and invalidated by woke mobs as ‘white tears’ or ‘white fragility’. So, I would like to relate the story of Professor Bongani M Mayosi, head of the University of Cape Town’s medical school. Professor Mayosi, in short, was a brilliant, black academic with an impressive track record of research as an A-rated National Research Foundation researcher and who made invaluable contributions to South Africa’s policy and strategy for health research.
During his time as head, he had engaged with the Fallist activists and had sympathy for and understanding of the basic call for racial transformation at the university. However, his earnest sympathy did not prevent Fallists from continuously accusing Professor Mayosi of being, amongst other things, a ‘coconut and sell out’.
Not only were these remarks hurtful and racist, but Professor Mayosi, who also suffered from depression, was particularly vulnerable to such attacks. For a sensitive person this cut through him like a hot knife through butter. At a number of occasions Professor Mayosi had tendered his resignation from his position as head and requested to return to his professorship instead, but every time it was declined. Not only was Professor Mayosi assailed from the Fallist front, he was prevented from retreating to safety by management.
The verbal abuse that Professor Mayosi had to endure reached a crescendo in July 2018 when he committed suicide. It shocked many people that a brilliant (black) mind as his would end his life in the midst of such huge successes as an academic.
After his death, Fallist activists – who immediately recognised the cruelty of the situation they created – and university management – who became aware of their failures to protect their employee – went into high gear to dismiss his death as a case of depression taking its toll. His own family, who, of course, knew him personally and all observers with a shred of common sense, were not convinced. In fact, Professor Mayosi’s sister, Advocate Mayosi, made the following statement, which encapsulated what most people probably thought:
The vitriolic character of student engagements tore him apart, the abrasive do or die scorched earth approach adopted by navigating what was a legitimate cause completely vandalised Bongani’s soul. Put simply this unravelled his soul. To be clear, he supported the students cause, but the personal insults and abuse that was hurled at him without any justification whatsoever; this cut him to the core.
This is the crux of the problem I have with woke activism: The tactics utilised to convey their message and not protesting in itself. I fully support freedom of speech, the right to protest and stand in solidarity with any person who is suffering under the silencing of his or her voice, even when their views are diametrically opposed to mine. And I also expect my fellow citizens to stand in support of me if my right to free speech is being undermined even when my views are in contradiction to theirs.
This much I believe is an essential part of liberalism and generally conducive to the free exchange of ideas in an open society.
Though, common wisdom dictates that there are rules of engagement applicable when one ventilates opinions and these rules are intended to protect freedom of speech. There cannot be a safe space for open discussion when there is a state of fear – fear of being cancelled, fear of being mobbed into resignation from your position or fear of being character assassinated.
Tactics in the engagement of discussions that should never be permitted are those calculated to inflict psychological harm, in the same manner that physical violence should not be permitted. Verbally abusive behaviour should under no circumstances be tolerated against a party, especially not in the case where such a person is psychologically vulnerable. Of course, participants can be critical of individuals and convey that criticism in a non-abusive fashion, but when it resorts to name-calling and false statements there should be repercussions.
My experiences in South Africa have shown me that the consequences of ignoring psychological stress caused by woke verbal assaults can be dire. I also believe that management simply does not do enough to protect employees from verbal assaults, including – and especially – false allegations of racism. It is hurtful and not fair play in any discussion, which in turn can also cause serious mental harm.
Cases like that of Professor Mayosi will continue to happen unless management ensures by all legal means possible that the environment at universities – and other organisations, such as businesses – are without physical and psychological harm.
South Africa can serve to the United Kingdom as a case study for the dysfunctional race relations resulting from protest action and ample warning what the logical outcomes of woke reasoning is.
Let us hope there will never be a British Professor Mayosi’s.
Dedicated to Professor BM Mayosi (https://pilotfeasibilitystudies.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40814-018-0348-7)
Johan M. Labuschagne is a South African lawyer currently residing with his family in the United Kingdom. He read law, psychology and German literature at the University of Pretoria and worked in various fields of the law.