Modernity and its outcasts – the role of higher education

Homo sacerRight now there are about 42 million displaced people in the world.   One in every 170 persons in the world has been uprooted by war.  …  About one third of them are officially recognized refugees because they have crossed an international border.  The other two thirds are so-called internally displaced persons, or IDPs, because they are still within their own country.  Of the world’s 12 million or so refugees, about 3.2 million are in Africa.  In addition, Africa has about half of the world’s 25 million IDPs. 80 % of the world’s refugees are women and children who are more vulnerable to their unstable conditions. 


 The origin of this blog is in an encounter I had last week with an unlikely visitor – let us call him Jean for now (not his real name). Jean will be registering his final courses for a chemical engineering degree at the University of South Africa (Unisa) in 2014. When Jean called me last week to set up an appointment, nothing could have prepared me for what followed. His introduction was simply – “Hello, this is Jean from Burundi.”

It turned out that Jean read an account I wrote about another student “John” in which I shared the amazing journey of a young Zimbabwean who completed his bachelor degree in accounting two years ago at Unisa (link here). Reading my account of the John’s journey, Jean wanted to meet to share his journey.  Here follows an abridged version of his journey…

Jean was born in 1991 of a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother in Cibitoke (Burundi), almost on the border with Rwanda to the North, Zaire to the North West and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to the West and Tanzania to the East. In 1994 civil war erupted in Rwanda “resulting in the genocide of 800,000 Hutu and Tutsi at the hands of Hutu militia and the army” (Stearns, 2011, p. 8). The genocide killed a sixth of the population of Rwanda, sent another sixth into refugee camps and created “the conditions for another cataclysm in neighboring Congo” (Stearns, 2011, p. 13). The fates of Rwanda and Burundi are interlinked– both countries were Belgian colonies, both were inhabited by Hutu majority and a Tutsi minority (Stearns, 2011).  A year before the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the Hutu president of Burundi was assassinated resulting in ethnic violence sending thousands of Hutu’s into the neighboring countries. Less than a year later the Rwandan genocide sent another million Hutus into refugee camps.

Jean found himself, with his father, mother, and two younger sisters in a refugee camp in the DRC, across the river Rusizi in 1991. Jean recounts that his father went back to Burundi to sell some cattle where “Tutsi soldiers and one man (X) from my mom’s family came … and killed my daddy because he has married a Tutsi girl who was my mom. And also wanting to kill me saying that I’m a Hutu.” After some time, Jean, his mother and two sisters moved back to Burundi. In 1994 the Rwandan genocide took place. With the huge influx of refugees from Rwanda and the genocide spilling over into Burundi, the family fled, once again to the DRC. War broke out in the DRC in 1998, and Jean, his mother and two sisters fled with some Congolese and Rwandan refugees across Lake Tanganyika to Tanzania, and found safety in a refugee camp at Kigoma till 2003. During this time Jean and his sisters became separated from their mother and he does not know whether she is still alive. A Tanzanian family temporarily ‘adopted’ Jean and his two sisters just before moving to Nampula in Mozambique. After this temporary host family immigrated to the United States, Jean and his two sisters were brought to South Africa in 2005 by a pastor and placed in an orphanage in Atteridgeville, close to Pretoria. Among the challenges Jean faced was the fact that neither he nor his sisters could speak English, and he was warned that he could only stay in the orphanage till he was 18, which was 3 years from then.

Jean found a French-English dictionary and taught himself a basic understanding of English. In 2006 Jean made a choice that changed his life. At that stage he had the equivalent of Grade 8. Knowing that he just had another 3 years left in the orphanage, he realized that he had to ‘skip’ Grade 9, in order to graduate from high school in 3 years’ time. The first day in class was a nightmare. Not being able to speak English, and the fact that the teachers taught in a mixture of English and local indigenous languages presented itself as a recipe for disaster. But Jean prevailed, studying day and night. He passed Grade 10.

It was then that Jean decided to change direction and choose scientific subjects. Despite the fact that he did not have any prior school experience in the sciences, his marks in mathematics were good and he was allowed to take physics and chemistry. He continued to pass Grades 11 and 12. Being 18, he then had to leave the orphanage, with nowhere to go.

Time does not allow me to share Jean’s journey from the time he left the orphanage to his first enrollment at Unisa in 2009. Allow me just to say that his journey reflects a mixture of tenacity, moments of serendipity, and the kindness of various strangers. Reflecting on this time in his life Jean says “I disciplined myself, I avoided doing wrong things. Above all I’m striving to be educated because I know through education there’s a good future. By doing so my dreams shall come true and [I will] fulfill my mission on this planet Earth. I want to see myself coming (sic) from zero to hero.”

If everything goes well, Jean will graduate with a chemical engineering degree from Unisa in 2014. He still has a temporary asylum seeker permit. This brings me to Zygmunt Bauman’s work “Wasted lives. Modernity and its outcasts” (2004).

In a world where citizenship of a nation state and the ability to participate as consumers are the norms for “belonging”, the unemployed, destitute, and refugees (like Jean and millions like him) are (permanently) excluded and “assigned to waste [where] there are no obvious return paths to fully fledged membership” (Bauman, 2004, p. 16). Bauman (2004) refers to Agamben’s notion of the homo sacer – a category of ancient Roman law that defines a certain category of humans as being without value – whether as citizen or even as sacrifice. “Killing a homo sacer is not a punishable offence, but neither can the life of a homo sacer be used in a religious sacrifice” (Bauman, 2004, p. 32). Humans classified as homines sacri are ‘useless’ and they have lost any intrinsic value they once had. They find themselves in permanent liminal spaces, outside the affordances of citizenship – no longer belonging in their original homelands or being accepted by their new hosts. “Refugees are human waste, with no useful function to play in the land of their arrival and temporary stay and no intention or realistic prospect of being assimilated and incorporated into the new social body; from their present place, the dumping site, there is no return and no road forward” (Bauman, 2004, p. 77).

Refugees and asylum seekers “can be oppressed and exterminated with impunity” (Bauman, 2004, p. 33). Bauman (2004) writes that modern society hosts homines sacri in isolated refugee camps or ‘places of safety’ which prevents them from feeding parasitically off legitimate citizens and consumers. They are seen as not only superfluous and redundant, but as “a cancerous growth gnawing at the healthy tissues of society and sworn enemies of ‘our way of life’ and ‘what we stand for’” (Bauman, 2004, p. 41). Asylum seekers are on a journey “that is never completed since its destination (arrival or return)remains forever unclear, while a place they could call ‘final’ remains forever inaccessible” (Bauman, 2004, p. 76).

So what impact can higher education possibly have on the lives of the 42 million that are classified as homines sacri (Bauman, 2004)?

I am not sure I have the answer. I wish I could say that having an education or even a degree would make a difference in their lives. Many foreigners and asylum seekers may find and actually do find that once classified as a homo sacer you are never welcome – no matter what your qualification or educational background. There is no redemption from being classified as homo sacer.

Higher education curricula further prepare students to successfully participate and compete in an increasingly complex game of survival of the fittest. Graduates who do find employment, can’t wait to assume their rightful role as consumers in the malls of life, and while shopping they will do their best to protect their interests and forget the possibility that awaits us all, of being found “flawed” and classified as homo sacer.

For higher education to make a difference, in whatever small ways, we need curricula that empower students to question the grand narratives of the day, graduates who are willing to disrupt neoliberal schemas dictating the rules of belonging and worth. We need a different type of graduate – graduates who are deeply aware of the injustices of current social, economic, legal, technical and political dispensations and who are willing to speak out, live differently and make a difference.

In order for us to have different types of graduates, we therefore need a different type of faculty…


Bauman, Z. (2004). Wasted lives. Modernity and its outcasts. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Stearns, J.K. (2011). Dancing in the glory of monsters. The collapse of the Congo and the great war of Africa. New York: PublicAffairs.

About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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5 Responses to Modernity and its outcasts – the role of higher education

  1. Pingback: Modernity and its outcasts – the role of ...

  2. Pamela Ryan says:

    What an absorbing read, Paul. It’s hard and possibly superfluous to comment. The story stands on its own. Obviously it needs a response but perhaps only after one has absorbed its full implications and marveled at Jean’s tenacity and wisdom. Somehow my brain shut down at your question, so what can higher education do for homo sacer or, I might add, for any marginalized person? Because they are not the problem. The problem lies rather in the machinery of the state, in the selfishness of the self-absorbed, in the ignorance of others. Can higher education change those? Has it ever?

  3. Shana says:

    Even as a skilled migrant one faces many challenges so I cannot even imagine the challenges IDP and refugees face.

  4. Z says:

    So you are saying that faculty do not “empower students to question the grand narratives of the day, graduates who are willing to disrupt neoliberal schemas dictating the rules of belonging and worth” … ?

    It seems to me that that *is* what we do, and that we are being instructed to morph from that to facilitators of commercial products that will train corporate graduates. ?

  5. Good Stuff. Excellent post about education. Am impressed with your way of writing also book marked for your future posts.

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