Are academic freedom and non-racialism dead at the University of Cape Town UCT? – mixed messages

The recent publication of a ‘warts-and-all’ interview with UCT Council/Internal-Reconciliation-Transformation-Commission-Steering-Committee (IRTC SC) Chairperson Sipho Pityana was enlightening and encouraging for UCT’s, future since he used bold words like: “alienating, non-inclusive culture … decolonization and inclusivization as clichés … trust deficit … never-ending conversation … definitions of...

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The recent publication of a ‘warts-and-all’ interview with UCT Council/Internal-Reconciliation-Transformation-Commission-Steering-Committee (IRTC SC) Chairperson Sipho Pityana was enlightening and encouraging for UCT’s, future since he used bold words like:

“alienating, non-inclusive culture … decolonization and inclusivization as clichés … trust deficit … never-ending conversation … definitions of parameters of engagement of ideas however offensive they may appear … fourth industrial revolution must not be left behind … tolerant of different views … responsible leadership … thought policing … UCT committed to the SA Constitution and a non-racial society … leaders equipped to fulfil their mandate … racial chauvinism … I am entitled to this (and to do this) because I am ‘black’/’white’ … wider community is hungry for conversation”.

However, the virtual simultaneous publication of a disturbing article – UCT’s climate turns toxic – by eminent UCT scholar and head of its Department of Philosophy, Prof. David Benatar, and the creation of the Archie Mafeje Chair in Critical and Decolonial Humanities (funded initially by the A.W. Mellon Foundation) make one feel very confused about UCT’s commitment to ‘real’ academic freedom and non-racialism.

Pitanya and Benatar the Younger

Unlike his elder brother, BCM pioneer Prof. Barney (who has consistently sided with/capitulated to Fallists), Sipho Pityana seems to be ready, willing, and able to influence UCT’s future in a constructive, non-racial manner, emphasizing academic freedom.

However, that David – the son of an equally eminent UCT health scientist, Prof. Solly Benatar – chose to use an article in a cyber magazine to expose some of the many noteworthy vicious/toxic events that have plagued and continue to plague UCT is not enough to aid Pityana in his quest. Therefore, I am referring Benatar’s findings to: Chairperson Pityana, Prof. Loretta Feris (UCT’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) charged with decolonization and discrimination and a key member of the IRTC SC); Prof. Penelope Andrews (Dean of Law and key promoter of decolonization), and Francois Botha, Director of the Discrimination & Harassment Office (DISCHO) demanding a constructive response and action.

The vast “silenced majority” at UCT “matters” at least as much as a cabal of lawbreaking Fallists who “demanded” “clemency” in November 2016 for committing acts or intimidation, vandalism, assault and arson against them.  Furthermore, as I write now, a handful of  Fallists are once again holding UCT to ransom illegally occupying Bremner Building’s Archie Mafeje Room  and “demanding” further still that: “No black student should be academically or economically excluded!” 

The Archie Mafeje Chair in Critical and Decolonial Humanities

In stark contrast to the positive proclamations of ‘Pityana the Younger’, UCT’s Faculty of Humanities has suspiciously engineered the creation (which required approval by the Sipho-led UCT Council) and implementation of processes relating to filling the Mafeje Chair (determined by centralized UCT and Humanities Faculty Executives – and the Mellon Foundation?). This prestigious and potentially highly influential academic position was created to memorialize Archie Mafeje, one of Africa’s most prominent (but much-maligned) scholars and pan-African activists. His publications traversed a broad range of subjects including ethnography, tribalism, democracy, social development, academic freedom, land and agrarian issues. However, the history behind the creation of this chair is not transparent, and the actions/decisions underpinning it appear to be potentially deconstructive and (if not outright illegal) contrary to  UCT’s “current” principles of academic freedom and non-racialism.

First, the Chair is “racially”-restricted and potentially xenophobic. It is limited to a “black” (generic BCM or “African black”?) South African. Second, it is also potentially racially and geographically biased de jure since the successful candidate “will be expected to develop work responsive to decolonial and critical humanities in African continental contexts” [my emphasis]. This strategy immediately excludes, for example, the leading “decolonialist thinker” Cameroonian Prof. Achille Mbembe. It also can be interpreted as an attempt to significantly promote the development of Critical Race Theory at UCT.

Although it’s difficult to determine the racially and philosophically-biased aspects of the Mafeje Chair’s role from its job description, one wonders why the Chair is to focus on “critical”, potentially deconstructive, “decolonisation” and not on pursuing novel Afro-relevant, humanities-related research embodying Mafeje’s theory-challenging innovative idiographic approach.

Critical Race Theory (CRT)

At its very best, Critical Theory is an offshoot of a European neo-Marxist philosophy developed by “white” men in Fascist Germany and Italy in the 1930s. Its goal is to “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.” It focuses on critiquing and changing society as a whole, in contrast to traditional philosophies aimed at understanding or explaining it, i.e. what Mafeje was “all about”.

At its “second best”, CRT is a theoretical movement that arose within university schools of law in the USA during the mid-late 1980s. To the extent that its ideas are unified philosophically, it has three common themes:

  1. white supremacy and racial power continue to prevail and are enshrined in law;
  2. this supremacy can only end by transforming the relationship between law and racial power; and
  3. non-racial meritocracy has no place in this transformational process.

At its worst, CRT is little more than “black” power-related, anti-Semitic/Asian, evidence-free, dead-end, untestable narrative and storytelling by radical legal egalitarians determined to reinforce racial stereotypes, rejecting unfettered exchange of ideas between competing disciplines.

Is partly “white-male-sourced”, Euro-Americo-centric CRT what South Africa and UCT need now (if ever) as a theme for a Chair memorializing Archie Mafeje, or anyone?

Dangerous decolonization?

Focusing the Chair’s education/research activities onto poorly defined (within the advertisement or anywhere else within UCT) “decolonisation” (described as a ‘cliché’ even by Chairperson Pityana) is also of considerable concern. In the extreme, the appointee could support decolonialist demands such as:

  1. “a new molecular deployment of race … out of genomic thinking”;
  2. abandoning the concept of a “university” seeking broadly applicable ideas/laws and, ultimately, the “truth”;
  3. “decolonizing” it into a “pluriversity” with seamless boundaries (if any) between faculties and disciplines;
  4. self-identification-based quotas for student admission and staff appointment/promotion; and
  5. greatly de-emphasizing the roles of rationality, logic and unfettered debate in choosing which ideas to discuss (let alone debate/teach/research).

I could go on and on.

In twitter-short summary, filling the Mafeje Chair with a Critical Race Theoretician and ardent Decolonialist could be a major step towards sending UCT back to racist, authoritarian, Balkanized practices that prevailed in the 1930s.

So, I am referring this matter to UCT Acting DVC Daya Reddy (responsible for Teaching and Learning), Prof. Lungisile Ntsebeza (A.C. Jordan Chair in African Studies, Director of UCT’s Centre for African Studies and likely ‘architect’ of the Chair) and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for comment.

To close with a “parting shot” that characterizes Mafeje by Professor Kwesi Kwaa Prah (renowned pan-African social scientist): “If you want Archie to stand up in his grave, then [it is] this sort of Africanism – practical solutions to our problems – that you must pursue, solutions that will help us lift Africa from where we are now to equality with all other people.”  [my emphasis]

Otherwise, Mafeje could be spinning in his grave and Verwoerd dancing on it.

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  1. Harald Sitta Reply

    at Universities always weird things had been taught but today’s social or human sciences are top of the mob…..

  2. Bruce Reply

    We need more men with courage like you, Prof. Keep fighting the good fight.

  3. Gillian Benade Reply


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