Former Wits university vice-chancellor Adam Habib recently took up the position of director of the University of London’s School of African and Oriental Studies. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
Former Wits university vice-chancellor Adam Habib recently took up the position of director of the University of London’s School of African and Oriental Studies. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

Prof Adam Habib has stepped aside from his new job as his employer probes racism claims against him after he was recorded using the “N-word” in a discussion with students.

The former Wits university vice-chancellor recently took up the position of director of the University of London’s School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS). But Habib is now under fire after a video began circulating on social media in which he was recorded during an online meeting with students using the “N-word”.

Habib was responding to a student’s complaint that someone had used the word to refer to a student. Students had been complaining that some lecturers had used the slur and that complaints from black students were ignored.

“I come from a part of the world where we use the word,” Habib continued. Immediately after he uttered it, a black student who was part of the meeting told Habib he had no right to use the word.

“You are not a black man, you cannot use the word, regardless of your lived experience,” he said.

SOAS said it is investigating the incident. In a statement on Thursday, SOAS board chair Marie Staunton confirmed that Habib would step aside while the probe is under way — “so as not to compromise the investigation”.

“Adam will step aside as of today, ahead of the commencement of the investigation and until the conclusion of the process,” Staunton said.

In a statement on Tuesday, the school said it was engaging with all affected parties and aspects of the incident, including an “unreserved apology” issued by Habib.

“We know he recognises the significant impact which this has had on SOAS as a community and an institution and we know he is committed to taking all steps he can to address this with colleagues. As trustees, we take these concerns from the SOAS community extremely seriously,” Staunton said.

Habib told Business Day the meetings purpose was to discuss problems at SOAS, and he was challenged about a staff member who had allegedly used the slur.

“I said, ‘This is the first time I’ve heard of it, but if somebody has used the N-word against another human being — and I actually verbalised the word — then it would violate our policies and we would take action, and please bring it to my attention’,” he said.

He insisted his use of the N-word had no “malevolent intention”, saying: “It has become quite a controversy in part because some student leaders have mobilised around it and some SA actors have got involved in it.”

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