Is the University of Cape Town (UCT) ‘folding’ or ‘falling’? OR Is she being ripped asunder by radical ideologists who hate her for what she represents or merely by people who just “don’t like” one-another?
In his review of Professor David Benatar’s recently published The Fall of the University of Cape Town: Africa’s Leading University in Decline, Dr William Gild aptly describes the tome as “a compelling … thoughtful, fact-based and chilling”…“masterful and timely [tome] recounting of the path UCT has trodden from early 2015 through late 2020. That the path is a perilous one is undoubted, as is the fact that its trajectory appears unrelenting”.
Benatar is: an eminent scholar of moral & social philosophy and of applied ethics; a BSocSc(Hons) and PhD graduate of UCT; and a long-serving HoD of its Department of Philosophy (2005-2018). Moreover, he is the son of ‘Solly’ Benatar: another UCT-grad (who resided in Smuts Hall during his student days); an eminent professor of medicine; and Founding Director of the Centre for Bioethics at UCT. Gild is also a UCT-grad – in Medicine – and an inciteful critic of UCT who, as far back as 2016, maintained that She was “folding” under the leadership of VC Dr Max Price – the “appeaser in chief”.
I too am a UCT-grad (PhD in Zoology) and an Emeritus Professor and Life Fellow associated with UCT continuously since 1973 as an ornithologist and evolutionary & conservation biologist. I have published extensively on UCT’s failures and successes going back to Her ‘beginnings’ in 1829. My pieces can be accessed/assessed in my Blogsite, Politicsweb and Rational Standard.
However, unlike Benatar and Gild, I have been – and tenuously remain – optimistic about UCT’s future. This is largely due to my academic ‘lived experience’ within the Faculty of Science and collaborations (and discussions/debates – often at the UCT Club) with knowledgeable, powerful and/or influential members of UCT’s Administration & academic staff and students from the Faculties of Health Sciences, Humanities, Engineering, Humanities, Law and Commerce.
That optimism has been shaken by sad and unpleasant events – peppered with outright intimidation and defamation – dating back to 2016 at AGMs of the UCT Convocation– see here, here, here, here. Watch the video!
More bad news?
This optimism took another ‘hit’ during the ‘virtual’ 2021 AGM on 9 December.
It started very well with the current VC Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng – an eminent scholar/educator in Mathematics Education and highly effective real-world academic ‘transformer’ – re-emphasizing her and UCT’s “holistic” (remember this word) Vision for 2030 that prioritizes “excellence, transformation and sustainability” from a meaningful non-racial perspective. She also reported on UCT’s recent formidable achievements despite recent devastating effects of gender- and race-based violence, wildfire and the COVID pandemic.
Sadly, there is one thing that she did not say.
Given the reality that:
- UCT has had – since 2014 – a Deputy Vice-Chancellor post dedicated to Transformation filled by eminent academics who are ‘Blacks’ [People of Colour (PoC)] determined to implement adaptive transformation.
- The immediate past and recently appointed DVCs-Trans have been founders and/or powerful leaders within the Black Academic Caucus (BAC – see here, here, here).
- Since 2017, the DVC-Trans has been supported by a 10-person Office for Inclusivity & Change.
- Most of the current Deans and many HoDs are PoC and/or members of the BAC.
the time is ripe to reconsider the “formal recognition to the BAC as an independent Interest Group (“IG”) at the UCT”. The formal agreement, inter alia, commits the UCT leadership [characterized by the BAC as a “hegemony … that … reproduces colonial relations of power”] to “cooperate and consult when making submissions on Higher Education policy”.
At the least, UCT’s current leadership should require this secretive “Association” – created in 2012 “to advocate for transforming the curriculum and research scholarship so that it is linked to social justice and the experiences of black people” – to disclose its membership and, especially, the individuals comprising the 5-person “BAC Executive Committee who has the right to decide on membership”.
Next on the AGM’s agenda was my motion (supported by many alumni) that “members of UCT’s Convocation consider recommending that its members, especially alumni, be surveyed (if desirable by UCT-employed “identity”) concerning their views on UCT Council’s recent arguably unwarranted and precipitous decision – on the advice of its Naming of Buildings Committee (NoBC) and its specialist “Task Team” – to de-name Smuts Hall (SH), and the action of the UCT Executive to remove General Jan Smuts’ bust (already defaced by ‘uniformed’ members of Economic Freedom Fighters Students’ Command – EFF-SC) from the entrance of Smuts Hall.”
In my brief oral argument based on 18 uncontested – let alone controverted – points of evidence, I stressed that I was neither attempting to ‘praise’ Smuts’ for his many achievements nationally, internationally and vis-à-vis UCT, nor trying to justify, defend or apologize for his alleged racist views/actions/inactions. My motion focused entirely on the highly questionable process allegedly driven initially by the NoBC in 2016 leading – eventually and controversially in 2021 – to the former UCT Chancellor’s unceremonious ‘removal’ from UCT.
- In 2016, VC Dr Max Price (who attended the 2021 AGM) had declared that the newly created NoBC’s key aim is “to ensure that names and the naming process increase inclusivity and representation, and reflect cultures, values, heritages, and knowledge systems on UCT’s campuses”. The NoBC’s job “must involve a careful, extensive, consultative process”, that helps makeUCT a home to all and provides members of the UCT Community sensu lato with a “deeper understanding” of the whys/wherefores of the names and naming of UCT’s places and spaces. It is “crucial that as many people as possible participate‚ as this will enable a diversity of views leading to name changes that will give our campus an inclusive and diverse character and symbolise the living democracy we strive for.”
- Yet, there was no formal, evidence-based proposal submitted to the 2016 NoBC that argued for de-naming SH.
- There was a formal, evidence-based and well-referenced proposal submitted by UCT law Prof. Johann Hattingh opposing de-naming based on the need to use evidence-based, balanced research/debate on Smuts’ views, acts, inaction and, above all, legacy. This could help the UCT Community to understand Smuts’ career and UCT’s current leadership to guide Her future.
- Hattingh neither received no acknowledgement from the NoBC secretariat of its receipt nor and feedback on how it was assessed.
- Contrary to the NoBC’s terms of reference, its specialist historical Task Team was not asked to investigate the pro- and cons vis-à-vis de-naming SH.
- The vast majority of >1300 comments received by the NoBC from alumni opposed de-naming.
- The only pro-de-naming proposal (signed by an EFF-SC member subsequently “alleged to have committed sexual offenses”) submitted to the NoBC was from the “EFF-SC-led” (politically controlled?) Students’ Representative Council and was submitted only on 10 May 2021.
- The ‘proposal’ was a brief, evidence-free, “perception”-based document calling (“whether the perception is true or not”) for de-naming the “Upper Male Bodied Residence” SH, decrying the “colonial, imperialist and racist legacy of Jan Smuts” and portraying him and SH residents as dishonourable persons.
- Unlike for Jameson Hall, there was no formal announcement that revealed any pre-2021 decision to de-name SH and/or explain the process that led to this decision.
- There was no formal announcement (e.g. in UCT NEWS) of the 2021 SRC proposal by UCT, let alone call for counter-proposals or comments.
- Upon discovering the submission of the 2021 SRC ‘proposal’ in “press reports”, UCT Council Member Michael Cardo published a piece announcing that: “The NOBC has apparently given the nod to the process and will make its recommendation to the UCT Council at the Council’s next meeting on 19 June.”
- Independent of Hattingh’s 2016 proposal, both Cardo and I respectfully requested that Council should not act precipitously on this matter and allow broad consultation and debate.
- Nevertheless, on 19 June, Council endorsed the 2016 NoBC’s alleged recommendation – unquestioned by the 2021 NoBC – to de-name SH with immediate effect.
- Council Chairperson Babalwa Ngonyama commented on Council’s decision: “The changing of names should not be seen as merely replacing what we do not like with what we feel resonates well with us or what we feel we relate better to. It should go beyond the view that the name we are changing is a source of discomfort or pain for those advocating for change. Nor should it be viewed as an act of diminishing, discarding or deviating from history by those who would wish that the status quo should remain.”
- Strangely, Council’s decision was ‘pre-announced’ by the EFF-SC – two days before the formal announcement by the Chair of Council.
- Also on 21 June, uniformed EFF-SC cadre defaced the bust of Smuts at the entrance to SH.
- A few days later, on instructions from UCT’s Registrar, the bust was unceremoniously removed.
- On 17 November, VC Phakeng called for members of the UCT Community “to participate in the process of renamingthis residence”. She also stated that: “The naming of places and spaces at UCT is an important process, which we do not take lightly.”; the “NoBC is responsible for promoting awareness of the reasons behind the names”; and the deadline for Proposals to be submitted to the NoBC 6 December 2021 – three days before the AGM of the UCT Convocation.
Two AGM participants spoke emotionally about – but not against – my motion, emphasizing their belief and evidence-free assertions that Smuts was a dishonourable “segregationist”. One was a gentleman who said that “even a Google-search of Smuts” was sufficient to reach his conclusion. The other speaker was Ms Dianna Yach who also claimed to have done “research” on Smuts.
Yach identifies as being “passionately committed to racial equality, diversity, and human rights”. She is: a UCT-grad (BA LLB) who studied during the 1970s; an adjunct associate professor of Law; and the long-serving chairperson (‘Czarina’?) of the UCT Alumni Advisory Board (AAB) that “seeks to promote support for the university and enable alumni to maintain close ties with the university”. She also serves on the Executive Committee of Convocation; UCT’s Council (elected by donors) and Finance Committee; and, most important in this context, a highly influential member of the NoBC since its creation in 2015.
In short, both ‘opponents’ of my motion clearly ‘do not like’ anti-imperialist General/peacemaker /statesman/nation builder/prime minister/philosopher (“Holism”)/scientist/Chancellor Smuts. They seemed to be bent on reversing the honour of naming the men’s residence conveyed on him in 1950 by VC TB Davie-led UCT during the terrifying early days of Apartheid. It also seems that, despite only having a proposal and comments by alumni opposing de-naming SH, with the possible exception of Ms Yach and colonial historian Dr Maanda Mulaudzi (whose Task Team was not tasked to investigate Smuts) – other members of the NoBC in 2016 and 2021 appear not to have conducted research on Smuts or read Hattingh’s proposal and, like Yach, ‘disliked’ Smuts – or were persuaded by those who did – voted to ‘cancel’ his honorific connection with UCT.
Another AGM participant – long-serving former Registrar – Hugh Amoore asked if the rapid removal of Smuts’ bust was referred to and cleared by the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA). His successor (and AGM secretariat) Registrar Royston Pillay stated that the removal was a “temporary measure to protect the bust from further defacement”. Is this not another example of inappropriate and unauthorized action? It was also announced that the convenor of the team who will handle the re-naming process for de-named SH is Ms Yach!
In summary, regardless of whether the majority of members of the 2016 and/or 2021 NoBC simply ‘dis-liked’ Smuts, their pivotal recommendation is not supported by either a scholarly defensible investigation or a consultative democratic process required in the NoBC’s terms of reference.
If I were to take on the ‘smutty’ persona of a Smuts ‘dis-liker’, I would push back and liken those who wish to ‘cancel’ him, to the Red Queen in the Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland films. This character is a completely spoilt, callous, arrogant and demanding person who coerces her courtiers to agree with every word she says – almost blindly – and known for commanding “Off with his head!“ when dealing with those who threaten her power. But, I won’t and close with a quotation from Ba Jin, a persecuted Chinese ‘counter-revolutionary’ during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, who pointed out that no experience exists in a vacuum and stressed that by reflecting on where we’ve been, we can chart the course ahead to steer us in a better direction.
Only by not forgetting the past can we be the master of the future.
In any event, if Smuts’ ‘cancellation’ is – like other acts of ‘decolonization’ – a ‘done deal’, perhaps the current BAC-described UCT ‘hegemony’ should cease using the word “Holistic” that is so closely linked with Chancellor Smuts in its Vision 2030 and various rhetoric.
A luta continua