Taking on Adam Habib: an interview with Sandy Nicoll

ROAPE speaks to the socialist and trade unionist, Sandy Nicoll, the Secretary of the trade union, UNISON, at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) about Professor Adam Habib, the new head of SOAS.

In a webinar with students from SOAS in March, Habib used the ‘n-word’ and then tried to justify himself. Nicoll’s union branch had an emergency meeting and carried a motion of ‘no confidence’ in Habib. 98% of those who attended voted for the motion and the other 2% abstained. The students and the union demand that Habib must go.

There are many reasons why people at SOAS think he should not be the Director. Firstly, it was unacceptable to use the ‘n-word’ in any context, with the possible exception of African Americans who have suffered the hurt associated with its use, and this alone, many argue, is enough for him to be sacked. He aggressively justified himself, attempting to cover his tracks by saying: ‘I come from a part of the world where we actually do use the word,’ which was taken as an excuse for using the word. Yet, as many commentators in South Africa have noted, this claim is simply inaccurate.

Habib never apologized for using the ‘n-word’ but merely for causing offense and discomfort. In addition, many claim, he was blatantly dishonest, arguing, for instance: ‘I did not say we use the word in South Africa,’ when it is very clear he was claiming exactly this. Others have criticised his astonishing arrogance, defending his statement, among numerous other examples, by saying some students ‘deliberately misrepresented [the] conversation.’

In this blogpost we post the original footage from the meeting, and – trigger-warning – the moment when Habib uses the ‘n-word’ in the meeting, and the immediate reaction from the students. We also include the full interview with Sandy Nicoll and his commentary on the meeting, racism at the university, the crisis at SOAS, and the efforts to push back against further restructuring and cuts.



  1. Marvellous interview. Thanks Sandy and thanks Leo. Sandy is so subtle and sensitive in his analysis, yet principled and firm in his conclusion that Habib must go. The more trade unionists and activists that see this the better, as it shows how class politics and opposition to oppression, specifically racism, are intertwined. It was also interesting to see how Sandy constructed the link between Habib at Wits and Habib at SOAS, showing a high level of knowledge and internationalism from an influential union leader. Perhaps wavering academics at SOAS will be persuaded to shift their position.

  2. This is clearly a very controversial issue. It is important, in my view, that before listening to/reading the interview with Sandy Nicolls and endorsing his position, readers listen VERY carefully to the WHOLE webinar with students.

  3. an external review has now concluded that Prof Adam Habib should not have used the n word in his discussion with students, but that he was not ‘racist’. He is apparently being re-instated. No doubt this will continue to be a controversial issue, at SOAS and beyond.

  4. The investigation was also critical of Habib. He was not found guilty of ‘racism’, but few people made that claim (including Sandy Nicoll). However, there were allegations of dishonesty and bullying which were not tested. On the former, see here for a detailed and damning account by a former junior colleague of Habib, a gender officer: https://mg.co.za/education/2021-05-06-adam-habibs-bullying-antics-go-on-abroad/ . Prof. Jonathan Jansen, one of Habib’s supporters has drawn the conclusion (I quote from South Africa’s Sunday Independent, but the original was on the University World News site: ‘what Habib has to ask is whether this board [that governs SOAS] has his back going forward. “In other words, is it worth his while staying on in such a compromised enrironment?”‘.Good question. I agree with David Seddon about the value of watching the webinar. I also think people should read Habib’s Twitter intervention that followed. I feel very sad about my alma mater, and the ongoing problems it faces. I rarely agree with Jansen, but on this occasion I do: Habib lacks sufficient credibility to be its Director – time to move on.’


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