Last month, Daily Nous reported that the Philosophical Society of South Africa (PSSA) was on the verge of collapse because of charges of (among others) internal racism, the society's lack of representation, the dominance of European philosophy in the society's activities, and the ineffectual and inadequate responses of the organization to such charges. A number of articles on the subject have appeared in the South African press and on social media, including here, here, and here. The latter article, by the esteemed philosopher Magobo More, has recently been reprinted (with slight modifications) at The Con under the title "Racism and Academic Philosophy in South Africa." Here is an excerpt from Magobo More's article at The Con:
In the midst of the turmoil taking place in the Philosophical Society of South Africa (PSSA), I read with interest the problematic article penned by Rafael Winkler in the Mail & Guardian. The problem for me is the transformation of a meta-philosophical issue into an epistemological issue. Winkler takes it upon himself to question the legitimacy of the complaints raised by young black South African philosophers about the treatment meted out to them by the PSSA. He questions their authority to talk about who and what they are. He implies that since they do not have the authority to talk about their experiences they, by that very fact, do not know who and what they are. According to the philosophy professor, the issue was prompted by an all-white panel discussion on South African identity. What he, in bad faith, avoids confronting straight on, is the fact that black philosophers questioned not only the constitution of the panel. Their main challenge was addressed to the persistent marginalization of everything black (philosophers, philosophy, students, etc.) by the PSSA. They were questioning the latent and subtle anti-black racism endemic within the PSSA itself.
The racism confronting the PSSA today is not new, not at at all. Let me demonstrate this by way of my experiences as a member of the PSSA, experiences which in Winkler’s view can neither speak to my identity nor command epistemic validity (truth). I have, over the past 42 years of teaching philosophy in this country, endured indignities in the PSSA by virtue of my black identity (to call myself black, according to Winkler is, strangely, to objectify myself). The main problem, to use Charles Mills’ characterization, is that philosophy in South Africa is “So white you’ve got to wear shades”. For example, in 1976 the Third Annual PSSA conference was scheduled to be at the University of Pretoria. On learning that two black philosophers (George Mashamba and I) were attending, the then head of department refused to have the conference hosted by his department and university. Black people were not welcomed at Tukkies even though they were members of the PSSA. To accommodate us the conference was moved to UNISA. Both Mashamba and I refused to attend.
In 1977 at the Fourth Congress of the PSSA held at Potchefstroom University a white woman cashier called me a “Kaffir” at the cafeteria. She did this in the presence of my white colleagues. None of these philosophers made a fuss about the incident except to quietly mumble a few embarrassed words to the hostile cashier that I was part of the group (a different “kaffir”). Being the only black at the conference, the hostile and unwelcoming gaze of the ordinary Potchefstroom whites was piercing to the bone. It was dehumanizing. A deluge of self-consciousness overwhelmed me. I felt that I was a curiosity, a phenomenon, a happening. I felt that I was exoticised and patronised. I was virtually a piece of rare Africana objet, subjected to statements such as: “I‘ve never met an intelligent black person like you before – I mean a black man who is actually a philosophy teacher”. But then, despite this seeming acknowledgement, I was philosophically completely ignored. Instead, questions about the intentions of black people – given the ‘76 Soweto Students Protests – were at the top of the agenda in any conversation with me. How would I, a single person, know the thinking of all black people? Was it a case of know one know all? The attitude of the philosophers was related to the familiar rudeness of white people who will say: “Our maid is black and she says that blacks want this and that.” Thinking back on the experience I am reminded of George Yancy’s 2008 book: Black Bodies, White Gazes which, according to its author, is an attempt “to explore the Black body within the context of whiteness, a context replete with contradictions and mythopoetic constructions”.
Tired of being a lone “School Kaffir” among white men with an attitude and tired of being constantly insulted in many ways than one, I stopped attending these annual philosophy conferences from that year. I think I remained the only black philosophy lecturer in South Africa until Joe Ndaba became a philosophy lecturer at the University of Zululand and Vincent Maphai joined the Department of Philosophy at Wits University. Maphai’s presence encouraged me to attend again when Wits hosted the annual philosophy conference in 1983. When I got there I realised that things hadn’t changed a bit so I stopped participating in academic philosophy conferences in South Africa.
Read the entire article at The Con here.
posted by Shelley