"We don’t want to reproduce the repressive structures we are fighting against" - Webinar on Education Not for Sale: Fighting Racism and Capitalism

January 16, 2021

Nick Estes, Shaeera Kalla, Maria Santiago and Linda Tabar discussed different strategies to end racism and capitalism on campus as part of the student conference, “Decolonising our campuses: students unite against oppression,” organized from 13-15 November 2020.

Shaeera Kalla, former representative of the students’ council at Wits University and co-organizer of the Fees Must Fall campaign in South Africa, explained how being part of the Palestine Solidarity Committee and the workers solidarity committee made her see they are part of the same struggle. Shaeera explained how racial capitalism works and how it emerged and functioned during the apartheid system.

The Fees Must Fall campaign protests started in 2015, the same day when workers were going on a general strike- the solidarity of workers and students was one of the most important pillars of Fees Must Fall. The police used violence against students, using armed vehicles imported from Israel, making all the connections of oppression very obvious.

The campaign’s victory managed to change the perception towards free education, a demand that conservatives used to dismiss as a joke and now see it as a possibility.

Shaeera also talked about colonialism and how decolonial discourse has done more for  university establishments than for decolonization itself: University buildings are named differently, for instance, but there is surveillance, biometrics monitoring and more. We must make sure colonialism isn’t just being covered up and that real decolonisation is taking place. We need to pay careful attention to how our movements evolve. The reality is often tokenizing, and it's because universities are not democratic in nature.

She ended by reaffirming how collectively outraged we all are at the injustice we see around us, and that Mandela didn't just mean never again for South Africa, but never again for anywhere in the world. 

Maria Santiago, student at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid (Spain) and organizer of the Apartheid Free Zone campaign, explained how the Apartheid Free Zones campaign is a vehicle for institutions and organisations to commit to human rights, abstaining from relationships with companies that are complicit in Israeli apartheid. The AFZ campaign exposes how universities participate in the racist colonial system. 

The aim is for their university to become an AFZ, which would translate to having no contracts with companies that are complicit in Israeli apartheid, ending exchanges with complicit Israeli universities, and promoting academic relationships with Palestinian universities. Having a network and an organized group of students helped get the campaign running. They don’t want to reproduce the repressive structures we are fighting against. Therefore, a key factor is intersectionality. Feminist, anti racist, LGBTQ+, when they approach student groups they try to make them see how Palestine fits into all of these intersections, and how Israeli oppression, tested on Palestinians, is exported to the world.

Activism in universities can become a bubble, Maria said, so it is really important to continue with this work with intersectionality and solidarity to end capitalism, racism and Israeli apartheid outside of campuses as well. 

Linda Tabar, professor at Birzeit University (Palestine) and author of the forthcoming book "Palestine, Memory, Decolonization: Native Encounters with Modernity and Imaginaries of Liberation” mentioned how privatization of universities has opened up campuses to outside influences, meaning that universities are modeling themselves after corporations and treating students as customers. This has enabled policing on campuses, reproducing colonial and racial violence. During Linda’s involvement in the academic boycott campaign a lot of her work centered on challenging liberal conceptions of academia, privileging academic freedom above other freedoms and the complicity of universities  in systems of oppression.

Linda also mentioned how BDS work is crucial for the struggles against capitalism and racism on campus. She argued that the call to for South African universities to cut ties with university of Haifa, is reminiscent of collaboration between both settler colonial states, and how South African universities are still invested in apartheid through their ties to a university that supports racist practices.

It is time to have a global conversation, said Linda. She mentioned the example of Birzeit where the union that represents faculty and staff has set up its own infrastructure for a different type of economy. They have a solidarity fund which allows them to take interest-free loans. This fund reinvests in communities and allows them to develop an alternative to predatory lending.This is why it is so important to envision the society and economy we want. She ended by reminding the importance of deepening alliances, at a time when protests against systemic racism are growing: we must build the universities that we want.

Nick Estes, Assistant Professor in the American Studies Department at the University of New Mexico (US) and co-founder of The Red Nation, started off by saying that when the international arm of the American Indian movement was recognized at the UN, the first thing they did was ask to get rid of Columbus Day and instead have recognition of indigenous people. It was at the same time that the UN committee established that Zionism is a form of racism. In 1982, Spain and the Vatican proposed a commemoration of Columbus’s voyage, but in solidarity with indigenous people, the entire African delegation got up and walked out of the room. In 1994, the UN declared a decade of world indigenous peoples. Even though it is symbolic, there is a long history of international solidarity.  

Nick said that BDS has taught him that universities are sites of struggle, not only anti colonial, but class struggle. As an example he cited universities like Cornell that have benefitted from a million acres of indigenous land. He added that social movements are legitimate sites of knowledge production.

The panelists said it is very important that students do not stay closed off during campus organising. They suggested it is easier to do so if students are also active on other issues outside the university. They reminded students that relationships are built in the smaller, more intimate events that are held more regularly over the big events, advising them not to neglect the day-to-day interactions and weekly events. Also, building these relationships will really help when groups are targeted or face repressive backlash.

The speakers added that not staying within the confines of the university can also ensure that everyone has access to knowledge, seeing how universities are becoming a more elitist space. Faculties can be involved in alternative popular education. The importance of students learning from movements like Fees Must Fall the idea of free education needs to be put on the social and political agenda. We need to bring to the fore how capitalism works on campus. While we are being inundated with the fear of deficits, told there are no resources for better more just education, there are all these tax havens and tax evasions for the rich. For example, in the Spanish state, after the crisis of 2008 very severe austerity policies were implemented, and more than 4,000 students had to drop out of university. Private companies are running services on campuses, and tuition fees are rising as part of the neoliberal capitalist wave that is overtaking public institutions.

Shaeera shared what roles student representative bodies should have. For her, going into student leadership was about challenging the university management within the structures we had, even though we knew the structures were built against us. Student bodies have more access to the problematic ways in which decisions are made. When the structure itself becomes limiting, you must remove yourself from that structure. That is what the Fees st Fall campaign in South Africa did when university administrators refused to negotiate further. They protested, engaged in popular education and mobilized the student body to make them aware of how undemocratic these structures are. The role of student leadership is not to create hierarchy. The importance of horizontal structures within activist spaces is important, inculcating a more participatory democratic space where decisions get made. All decisions, for them,  were made in mass meetings. Students must create their own spaces. You are not accountable to the university, you are accountable to the students. 

The webinar ended on the need to rethink the question of decolonization, and thinking about neoliberalism not only as an economic project but as a political project. Prior generations of struggle have seen the horizon of struggle. Decolonization has been deformed into liberalism. It has created a politics of injury - the truth and reconciliation processes have been administered by perpetrators themselves. The Black Lives Matter protests have shown that we are not going to wait anymore. We are not going to ask for permission.

If you missed this webinar you can still watch it here.

January 16, 2021


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