The University of Cape Town Alumni met last week to discuss the state of the university.
I proposed a motion critical of the way university life was being conducted. Unfortunately it was not passed. But the issues that were raised will not go away.
Below is the resolution and the speech I made. But I would point to just three key issues.
First: the fall in the standing of the University in the international rankings: it has fallen by more than 50 places in the past ten years. This is easily verified.
The Times Higher Education World University Rankings places UCT at 155th in the world.
This is really sad: the university has slipped nearly 50 places in the last ten years. It’s a shocking indictment of the current Vice Chancellor Phakeng and her predecessor. Of course she does not suffer from this. It is the students seeking to get into universities abroad and it effects UCT’s ability to attract the brightest and the best academic staff. That is when the price is paid.
Second: The university failed to respond adequately to the damning conclusion of the UCT Ombud, Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa, whose report labelled the Vice-Chancellor, Mamokgethi Phakeng, a “bully”.
Third: And most importantly, the tragic death of Professor Bongani Mayosi – who was not adequately supported by the administration when he came under ferocious attack from a section of the students. UCT’s own report quotes a member of the Dean’s Advisory Committee who admitted that they sat through meetings with Professor Mayosi during which he “showed all the signs – all of the signs of anxiety and depression – and I did nothing. We all knew he was sick.” Professor Mayosi attempted to resign, but this was not accepted. Overall, the consequences of this terrible incident has not been faced by the administration. Yet the chair of the alumni AGM described attempts to raise this question as “grandstanding”.
Below is the resolution I proposed, followed by the speech I gave.
“The Alumni of UCT have witnessed with growing concern the resurgence of intolerant racial essentialism at the university. Where once this was enforced by the apartheid regime it is now promoted by a “woke” administration. Ever since ‘Fallist’ protestors were allowed to rampage across the campus without facing real sanctions – terrorising staff and students and destroying cultural objects in their attack on ‘colonialism’ and ‘whiteness’ – an atmosphere of fear has hung over the university. The Alumni also note with alarm the concerns raised by the outgoing university Ombud about bullying and the fear of retribution this provokes, undermining what should be a university ‘community’. Academics have been prevented from lecturing on the campus, have had their research condemned as racially offensive without any prior due process, and many have resigned. Most tragically of all, the suicide of Professor Bongani Mayosi has been attributed in large part to the lack of adequate support by the university and especially to aggressive condemnation on the part of Fallist students for supposedly being a race traitor. We call on the university administration to take active steps to address what is clearly becoming an increasingly racially divided and divisive culture of condemnation and bullying on campus. Urgent steps must be taken to rebuild a culture of non-racialism and to ensure that UCT becomes a place where study, research and teaching can continue unimpeded by intolerance.”
Speech as written. Needs to be checked against delivery
It is an honour and a pleasure to be with you. The last time I appeared before an entire university community was back in 1976, during the Soweto uprising. My university then – Wits – was attempting to throw me out. I was part of a small group who had criticised the university administration for attacking our demonstration in support of the children of Soweto. William Kentridge and I took on the Vice Chancellor and the Professor of Philosophy. It was a daunting experience, but one I do not regret.
UCT has a long and honourable tradition. We can count Nobel prize winners among our alumni. And we fought against the rising tide of racism. In 1957, when apartheid came lapping at our doors, we came together with Wits to resist it- fighting for our academic freedom.
Yet the government of the day forced through the 1959 act which deprived us of our right to teach and be taught by whoever we saw fit, irrespective of their racial classification. In 1968 – despite the legislation – UCT appointed a black lecturer. Archie Mafeje was eminently qualified and when the university – responding to government pressure – withdrew his appointment I, along with 600 students did not take it lying down. We began occupation of the Bremner Building demanding the reinstatement of Mafeje by the UCT Council. We failed and Professor Mafeje paid a terrible price.
I paid one too – as did many others – and it took me years to return to the university and gain a degree. But I never flinched from the fight against racism in all its forms. It was with the greatest happiness that I witnessed Nelson Mandela walk free and apartheid finally ended. When I returned to UCT to conduct research that led to a biography of Dr Abdullah Abdurahman – surely one of Cape Town’s most illustrious citizens – I witnessed a campus on which young men and women of all colours mixing and mingling freely. What a joy that was to behold!
Yet all was not well. What has befallen UCT is ugly indeed. A new form of racism, introduced under the guise of “Wokeness” has taken hold. Anyone who challenged this all-pervasive cancer would be singled out, denounced as a racist, pilloried on social media, threatened and even physically attacked. It has become a religion whose veracity is above criticism.
The Rhodes statue – that always made me feel uneasy, and did me good for remining me of our contentious past – was daubed and then removed. Art works were burned. Lecturers were abused, attacked and some even driven from the campus. The work of the Ombud in revealing a pattern of bullying was not embraced as it should have been. Finally – and most tragically – the death of one of the country’s most eminent scholars, Professor Bongani Mayosi.
This state of affairs is not one that we can celebrate. It is one that must change. UCT must become what it always should have been: a beacon for South Africa in which academic excellence is pursued. It must be a place where men and women are encouraged to flourish, irrespective of their race or ethnicity. I will end with the words of George Orwell: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
It is a stand I took when I faced Wits after the Soweto uprising. It’s the stand I take today.