In April I called for the Vice-Chancellor of UCT, Max Price, to be removed from his position because of the way in which he had handled student protest.

My article – Max Price Must Fall – argued that he had given in to students who demanded the right not to be offended. As I argued then:

Students come to university to debate, discuss and above all to learn.

Students receive no guarantee that they will not be offended at some time during their education.

Conservative Christians might not like the teachings of Darwin. Conservative Muslims might object to seeing photographs or paintings of people. That is the price you pay for studying at a liberal University.

By allowing the myth to develop that students can have any lecturer or art work removed because they are offended by them, Max Price has abandoned a central tenet of higher education: tolerance of difference.

How long will it be before offending books are removed from the library or defaced? Once such a suggestion would have seemed fanciful; absurd. But no longer.

For these reasons I believe the Vice-Chancellor should resign or be removed. He has outstayed his welcome at my university.

Since then the protests have only become more vociferous and more damaging. The university has been closed and violence inflicted by the Fees Must Fall movement that grew out of the Rhodes Must Fall protest. This was entirely predictable.

The Vice-Chancellor also accepted the insidious “transformation” agenda, which attacks the intellectual heritage upon which the institution was built.

Elisa Galgut – from the university’s department of philosophy – has published a penetrating critique of what this has led to, which I reproduce below.


A messianic fever at UCT

Elisa Galgut says calls to ‘transform’ and ‘decolonize’ the university are trumping rational engagement and deliberation
Transformation in GorayIn Nobel-prize winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel, Satan in Goray, the citizens of Goray, a small town in 17th Century Poland, await the advent of the Messiah, whose coming, in the form of the charismatic Shabbetai Zevi, is eagerly awaited. Anticipating his imminent arrival, and the salvation that the Messianic Age will bring, the citizens of Goray abandon the laws and rules that govern their daily lives.This is done in part to hasten the advent of the Messiah (destroy the old to make way for the new), and in part because the Messianic Age will usher in a new dawn in which the current laws and rules will be neither necessary nor desired.

The title of the novel tells us how the story ends. This is so not because Shabbetai Zevi is a false messiah; rather, Singer cautions that all messiahs are false messiahs. Redemption is not won by magical thinking, and the means of achieving a just society are inseparable from the resultant ends.

Replace the word “Messiah” or “Messianic Age” with “transformation” or “decolonization”, and we have an allegory that is depressingly apt for much of what is currently happening at universities in South Africa, including my own university, UCT.

Just as no one knows what a Messianic Age will bring, or even how the Messiah is to be identified, so no one – including those who call for it most loudly – really know what is meant by “transformation” or “decolonization”. They are words imbued with magical properties, place-holders rather than fully worked-out concepts. And yet the appeal to “transformation” has been used as the justification for radical changes at UCT – from the removal of dozens of artworks to the revision of curricula.

In UCT’s Draft Strategic Plan, which outlines UCT’s vision for the next few years and informs policy, transformation imperatives feature prominently – it is claimed that the university “affirms, protects and advances the transformative values of the Constitution”, despite the fact that there is no mention of transformation in the SA Constitution.

“Transformation” also has normative force – in the Draft Strategic Plan, UCT “holds leaders, including HODs, accountable for implementing institutional transformation objectives” and recommends “integrating transformation indicators into the criteria for allocation of funding and grants and linking academics with international networks.”

The fuzzy nature of the term “transformation” is not necessarily an intractable problem – many terms with ethical or normative force are difficult to define. Nor am I arguing against change – even radical change – at UCT. Indeed, I myself and many of my colleagues have been working for many years, often at great personal expense, to make improvements at the university.

What is of serious concern is the way in which calls for transformation often conflict with democratic values and good practice, violate the university’s policies, and – most worrying – brook no debate. For example:

A statement in May 2016 by the Academic Freedom Committee (AFC), objecting to calls to suspend a lecturer for his views as a threat to the violation of his academic freedom, was interpreted as a lack of commitment to transformation.

In May 2016, the AFC was requested by UCT senior management to disinvite its nominated speaker for the annual TB Davie lecture on academic freedom on the grounds that inviting this speaker would run counter to transformation. When the AFC refused, the University Executive overrode the decision and disinvited Rose anyway.

UCT Executive ordered the removal or covering up of dozens of artworks, some by well known South African artists, on the grounds that they were contrary to transformation. Dr Price wrote that the removal of the artworks was in line with “UCT’s accelerated transformation process.” Note that the views of the UCT community were requested only after many paintings had been removed. Despite claims that the removal of the paintings was “temporary” (the issue was allegedly curatorship, not censorship) they remain to date either covered up or hidden away.

UCT management has engaged in countless meetings and negotiations with groups that have been pushing for “transformation” (such as RMF and FMF) but which have no formal standing at UCT. This not only side-lines those not party to the negotiations, but by ignoring formal rules and procedures, UCT’s Executive actively undermine the democratic structures of the university.

What this illustrates is that, regardless of the virtues that some believe a transformed UCT to have – and I have no doubt that some of these aims are laudatory – the call for “transformation” is not only not well thought through, but is used as a tool to stifle, rather than encourage, debate.

University procedures and policies are being undermined in the name of transformation, and any opponents or perceived opponents to the “transformation agenda” are treated as heretics. The terms “transformation” and “decolonization” function as mantras, religious incantations that are meant to divide the believers from the unbelievers.

The past few weeks UCT has descended into chaos. Although it would be simplistic to claim that the undermining of university procedures and policies has been the main cause of the chaos, it is certainly a contributing factor. The calls to transform and decolonize the university trump rational engagement and deliberation.

Even when protesters have resorted to violence and intimidation, the University authorities have been reluctant to take decisive action against those who break the law and violate the rights of others. This sends a very clear message that violent behaviour is indeed tolerated, as long as it’s done in the name of transformation.

But transformation into a better society cannot function in the absence of order, principles and structures. The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion argued that thoughts need to be contained – held by a unified mind – in order for an individual to think; at the group level, the container is provided by social structures, without which thinking unravels.

The psychoanalyst Hanna Segal stated that groups often behave in ways that are inimical to rational thought. In a paper in which she discusses the events of September 11th 2001, she notes that: “All groups tend to be self-centred, narcissistic and paranoid. If individuals behaved like groups they would be classified as mad.”

Individuals who identify strongly with a group in the grip of a messianic idea tend to allow illusion, even delusion, to overwhelm them. This also results in what psychoanalysts call “splitting”, where the world is divided into good and evil, “saints” and “devils”, and those who do not walk in step with the group or who criticize it are demonized. “The real battle”, Segal writes, “is between insanity based on mutual projections and sanity based on truth.”

What “sanity based on truth” requires is the very opposite of what drives messianic projects. Sanity and truth require clear and careful thinking, the avoidance of rushing to conclusions, and prioritizing calm reflection over impulsive action. This is why preserving the rule of law is so important.

But another lesson that psychoanalysis teaches us is that those in the grip of a messianic fantasy feel omnipotent: they are unwilling to listen to reason, because reason always puts a brake on desire – that is part of its function. Hence it is no surprise that Socrates was executed by the Athenians; those who refuse to engage in collective groupthink, and who subject its claims to the scrutiny of reason, are viewed with deep suspicion and demonized.

Universities are one of the few places that society has set up to protect, preserve and foster the claims of reason. I am deeply concerned that the very opposite is now happening, not only at UCT, but at other universities around the country as well. Many of the issues that some of the protesters are raising are important ones, but they are not being raised as topics for debate and discussion; on the contrary, disagreement is viewed as betrayal, and dissenters are silenced or condemned.

We have seen examples of this “groupthink” before in history, and the results are never pretty. Unless the transformation agenda is tied at the helm to the tenets of both rationality and liberal democracy, we, like the citizens of Goray, invite not the Messiah, but his nemesis.

Elisa Galgut is a member of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town.