Is the New UCT on the Right Side of History?

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Jeremiah Pietersen via Pixabay.com

The first goal of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Strategic Planning Framework is to “forge  a new inclusive identity that reflects a more representative profile of students and staff, and the cultures, values, heritage and epistemologies of the diversity of [her] staff and students”.

Given this demographic strategy; the appointment of a new, decisive and principle-driven principal/Vice Chancellor (VC); and many pending senior leadership appointments, UCT may be on the brink of her own institutional Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. However, depending on principles brought to bear by the VC (and the balance of her large and costly Lekgotla), UCT’s Council, Senate, faculties, academics and Students’ Representative Council (SRC), and the extent to which academic power is centralized within an allegedly hyper-managerialized and uncaring administration, this historic qualitative transformation could be an African tragedy or a Renaissance with local/continental/impact.

History as a “key“

I agree with UCT alumnus, PhD-educated historian and UCT Executive Director Russell Ally‘s view that key to what UCT ”could be” requires an appreciation of her history. Most recently, Ally offers two perspectives on history: Winston Churchill’s “something written by the victors” and Martin Luther King’s “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”

Ally also states that, although Churchill’s view “has taken root almost as common sense in popular thinking”, “both ideas hold a portion of truth”. Two other (amongst many) arguably more sensible perspectives are: Haile Selassie’s – “Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph.”  and Otto von Bismarck’s – “The main thing is to make history, not to write it”.

Three (of many) relevant historical events at UCT (two directly involving Ally) occurred early during the Fallism “movement”. The first was a long-scheduled seminar UCT Talks: Heritage, Signage and Symbolism held and videoed on 16 March 2015 (a week after founding Fallist Chumani Maxwele  – here and here  – defaced the Rhodes Statue with human excrement).

It was chaired by Transformation Deputy VC Crain Soudien, Africa’s preeminent scholar on race from a sociological perspective. The meeting’s panel included a heritage impact-assessment specialist and a historian familiar with the topic. While he was attempting to discuss the seminar’s pre-determined terms of engagement, Soudien was interrupted by dozens of Fallist protesters who raised their hands, displayed placards and demanded for the last scheduled speaker, SRC President Ramabina Mahapa (now UCT Research Officer), to speak first. Soudien reluctantly agreed.

Mahapa did not speak. He and Fallists sang liberation ballads and shouted Amandla! This was followed by a speech in which he characterized UCT as a white-supremacist, institutionally racist university run by an uncaring Executive. There was no engagement relating to heritage, signage or symbols.

Mahapa then led most of the Fallists from the venue and Soudien sought advice on whether to continue the seminar. There was a mixed response, but discussion continued to allow others to express their concerns and to allow the Executive to respond. At 32 min 50 sec, Law professor and deputy chairperson of the Black Academic Caucus (BAC – see here, here, and here) Loretta Feris spoke of “gorillas in the room” that hadn’t been effectively consulted by management and called for a cessation of discussion, even though many black students/staff remained.

Representatives of non-academic staff also complained about an unresponsive, uncaring management. The common message from black, white, young and old attendees was that the Executive had not listened to student and staff grievances and they had “no faith” in management. Students, in particular, called for the Executive to drop any punitive action against Fallists. At 44 min and 39 sec of the video, one student ventured to say that the Executive treated students as “criminals” despite their specific rejection of illegal/violent protest.

At 46 min 35 sec, a clearly shocked Soudien replied to this “provocative” statement: “It’s not true. It’s not true. It’s not true!” At 47 min 10 sec, Ally commented that: “Whether it’s true or not is not actually the issue.” He said that there was much more “fundamentally” and “quite sad” wrong at UCT. “There is so much dis-trust.” So much for truth. VC Price (present throughout) said nothing.

A month later, Soudien respectfully criticized Fallist academic and organic intellectual Xolela Mangcu’s views (see here and here) on the ‘race’/racism debate. He expressed his “surprise” and “worry” at Mangcu’s various statements, summarizing them as “an attack on the legitimacy of UCT as a structure dedicated to investigate competing ideas based on evidence debated in an open, rational, respectful manner”. He said that Mangcu’s evidence was “characterised by assertion and argumentative short cuts”.

Soudien further expressed his concern that Mangcu wanted the ideas of certain eminent scholars (because of their temporal, racial, gender-based and geographical provenance) to be eliminated from UCT’s curricula because of their “rationalist conceit”. Most tellingly, Soudien expressed his fear that some students and faculty members (including Mangcu) prefer “action” to rational debate and “that there are sections of the UCT community [which] should not be involved in the matter of this debate.” He summarized: “We should hear all the views, even those we disagree vehemently with” and “to disavow the need for debate is to disavow the lifeblood of the university.”

In his ‘rebuttal’ Mangcu:

  1. dismissed Soudien’s comments as “personally offensive” and “the kind of statement that has sowed a culture of fear among many [‘black’?] academics at UCT” who are “reluctant to speak out publicly about the university’s policies;”
  2. claimed that, because of his “position of authority”, Soudien “can reign in legitimate academic debate;”
  3. accused Soudien and other advocates of a ‘disadvantage-based’ policy for student admissions of “insulting and patronising” him and ”black” applicants because use of family socio-educational-economic disadvantage to assess applicants fails to consider race-based “oppression”;
  4. summarized the situation of ‘black’ students at UCT as “despised by their classmates, despised by their lecturers, despised by the university administration”;
  5. advocates abandoning rational discussion as an “assault on the very dignity and the very humanity of our [‘black’] children”; and
  6. implied that Soudien is a ‘baas’ who wants him [Mangcu] to become an “Uncle Tom who sings for his supper”.

Not long after this defamatory attack, Soudien resigned. He was the first of many eminent UCT leaders to leave her employ unexpectedly, in some instances with short or no notice. This culminated with the suicide of a similarly harassed Dean.

‘Event’ three occurred in September 2015 when eminent UCT graduate and long-serving outspoken anti-Apartheid MP Graham McIntosh indicated that he could facilitate a major donation to UCT if the Executive led by VC Max Price chose to “re-affirm its [liberal, anti-Apartheid] values that were established in the dark days of National Party rule” and remove the “climate of fear” that was engulfing UCT under the banner of “transformation” that is little more than “crude race based social engineering” and “quota thinking”. To that end, McIntosh offered “a few ideas for consideration, not hard proposals”.

Responding on behalf of UCT, Ally stated that UCT is “not for sale” to donors who are “gift horse[s] in the mouth”, “ass[es]” who wish to take UCT “for a ride” by “dictat[ing] the terms of their donations”, “bending UCT] to their wills” and “feeding of individual egos”. In closing, he indicated transforming UCT’s new ‘terms’ for donors. If MP McIntosh should “decide sometime that you want to be on the right side of history”, he is welcome to invest in the “transformed” UCT’s future.

History in practice

In practice, most professional historians view history as a scholarly inquiry involving gathering archived, substantiated evidence and objectively presenting it as a cause-and-effect narrative.

I use this ‘warts-and-all’ approach in my mini- histories of Rhodes, Smuts, Verwoerd , Fanon and Biko. Contra Ally, I do not subscribe to the notion of ‘portions of the truth’. Being humans with ‘lived experiences’, even legitimate historians only have perspectives on the truth. I also disagree with Ally’s conclusion that “UCT was borne [sic] at the height of the colonial conquest by Britain and the Dutch”. Yes, UCT was founded during colonial conquest in 1829 as the South African College, making her the oldest higher education institute in South Africa. But, she ‘speciated’ into a degree-granting university in 1918 due to major post-conquest bequests by Rhodes and his unabashedly fellow colonialist business associates – Sir Otto Beit and Sir Julius Wernher.

Rhodes’ vision for the university was to effect a reconciliation between male colonialist uitlanders and long-resident Afrikaner settlers through the cultural assimilation of the latter. Also, by 1918, the Union of South Africa was a semi-independent Dominion within the British Empire ruled by local ‘white’ English-speaking and Afrikaner male South Africans. Furthermore, Ally is incorrect when he concludes that during “the struggle against oppression and the eventual toppling [collapse?] of the apartheid regime”, although UCT continued to evolve, it did not “often present to the public a conflicted face regarding these central issues”.

It has acquired and discarded distinct institutional ‘personas’, punctuated by several noteworthy “Affairs”, that coincide with changes in the ‘visions’ of her VCs. Lastly, acting DVC for Research and Internationalisation Michael Kyobe misrepresented UCT’s history at a December 2018 graduation when he referred to her “complicity during Apartheid in denying many past [African] students and staff full and dignified participation in the life of the university”. UCT’s early history (1918-1948) is documented, discussed and evaluated in detail in eminent UCT-‘laureate’ historian Howard Phillips’ 1993 account of her formative years. The second volume in this series (covering 1949-1968) will be published in 2019. Then, there are my investigations (see here and here).

UCT’s latest attempt to chronicle her history is a lecture series run during 2018 by Ally’s department discussing contributions of some (why not all?) of her past VCs. These lectures were apparently attended by fewer than 100 mainly aged members of the UCT Community. The only archivable evidence of that Ally provides are links to poor-quality audio recordings for six of these lectures. Curiously, he excludes the videoed lecture on TB Davie by Phillips.

In other pieces, I will offer a readable and a well-rounded ‘mini-history’ (based on Ally’s audio recordings and my own investigations) covering all UCT VCs. Hopefully, UCT will circulate it more broadly to allow more than just limited “conversations”.

I close with a modified Churchill quote to describe UCT Fallists and its Executive.

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much done by so few to so many.”

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