Some public figures have come in defense of Adam Habib, former vice-Chancellor at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) and current director at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, after he was suspended for the use of the “n-word” during a Zoom meeting with students.
Former chair of the South African Human Rights Commission Professor Barney Pityana and South Africa’s former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela have said Habib is not a racist and should be immediately reinstated while black student bodies at SOAS have called for Habib’s dismissal saying he is a “danger to learners” and “is not fit to hold his position”.
SOAS Black Student Body said the embattled professor is not fit to hold his position because the institution must still deal with issues of black students’ wellbeing, university fees, student debt, surveillance as well as bordering and policing.
“Adam Habib is a danger to learners, he has shown more than once that he will inflict violence on his students who all pay fees which guarantee his salary,” said the student body.
They said Habib’s “history of reaction” in relation to questions of economic justice, including calling the militarised police on #FeesMustFall student protesters at Wits University when he was Vice Chancellor, shows he is not fit to be the university’s director.
The student body added: “To pay such exorbitant fees and have one’s welfare compromised is a derision.
“The Board of Trustees headhunted Habib and spent £200,000 (just over R4 million) in their search. Habib’s position costs another £230,000 (R4.6 million) a year as salary, some of this money could have been used to fund the Africa Section which was dissolved earlier last year or to improve the efficiency of the library,” said the student body.
In a radio interview, Pityana said anyone in their right mind cannot call Habib a racist.
“In their ears and eyes, it was the fact that he used the word, as if the use of the word is that which defines the racism of the user in all circumstances,” he said.
Pityana said: ”In the context in which Adam [Habib] was engaging with the students, the opposite in true. He said if somebody actually used this expression, disciplinary processes would follow, which is exactly what the students needed.”
Inside Education found the 12-minute recording of the virtual meeting that was circulated on social media.
In the video, a participant read a question from another student asking how SOAS could make statements about Black Lives Matter while underfunding the Africa Department… and allowing lecturers to say the n-word in class.
Habib responded by using and verbalising the actual “n-word”.
Habib’s use of the word was noted as problematic because “he is not black”.
A black student in the same meeting is recorded saying: “You are not a black man, you cannot use the word, regardless of your lived experience,” he says. You have not faced the trauma and the oppression of black bodies, what we go through 24/7 for the last 500 years. You do not embody our history, therefore, you cannot use the word.”
In response, Habib said: “I am sorry I offended you. I come from a part of the world where when someone use it, context matters.”
Habib also questions the student’s “African-ness” in the video.
“So actually, you don’t speak for Africa. I come from the continent, I was born there. I worked all my life there. And I will put together an agenda that is an African programme in a cosmopolitan sense… I am sorry it doesn’t meet your needs but I can tell you in my conversations with people on the continent, it meets many of their needs,” he says in a raised voice.
Another participant, the chairperson of the meeting, asks Habib not to make assumptions about students’ ethnicities.
This video was posted on social media and with it came heavy criticism. In response, Habib typed a 17-tweet thread, re-using the n-word in its fullness. He said this was his attempt to explain himself and provide context to the virtual meeting.
Habib would later delete the tweet with the full n-word choosing instead to use the globally more acceptable shortened “n-word” version.
According to Art and African Minds, another student body at SOAS, instead of Habib apologising after the incident, “he has taken all the opportunities to re-emphasise and rationalise his use of the n-word”.
Adding that, “Currently, the black student of Somali descent, whose identity was re-classified, whose existence was erased by Habib, is deferring his BA in African Studies and losing a whole year of his studies”.
Habib has since been suspended from his post.
On 23 March SOAS staff overwhelmingly backed a vote of no confidence against Habib with 98% of members present voting in favour of the motion, 0% against, and 2% abstaining.
The EFF also called on SOAS to fire Habib.
The EFF said instead of withdrawing his remarks, Habib went on a “maniacal rage, raising his voice to defend the indefensible”.
“We call for the immediate removal of Habib from his position as director of SOAS University as he has exhibited extreme bigoty and is unfit to lead a department that ought to intellectually lead social change,” said the EFF in a statement issues by its national spokesperson, Vuyani Pambo.
This is the backdrop against which Pityana, Madonsela, journalist and commentator Justice Malala and writer Palesa Morudu have called for Habib’s re-instatement.
In a letter penned to SOAS, the four said the above-mentioned incident reflects a global trend in which much of the discourse on racism is reduced to identifying the pecking order of historic oppression.
According to the four, Habib exercised poor judgement in verbalising the n-word.
“He’s only been at the school for six weeks, and Habib and his students need time to get to know one another. But context is everything, and Habib is no racist. He should be reinstated at SOAS without delay,” they said.