Space, truth and being
Law professor, former Black Academic Caucus (BAC) vice-chairperson and current Deputy Vice Chancellor for Transformation, Loretta Feris, describes decolonization at the University of Cape Town as a transformation into “a pluri-versal space”, “where there is more than one central truth, where there is more than one dominant culture and where there is more than one way of being as a person”.
Weren’t pluralism and pluralistic spaces central pillars of Apartheid?
What is the current, single “central truth” at UCT? According to Feris-invited speaker Prof C.K. Raju, there is not one in mathematics, physics, or biology. With regard to the latter, there is the perennial nature vs nurture debate and, more specifically, there is molecular reductionism and genetic/selective determinism versus Smutsian ecological holism and historical contingency. At UCT, some of these debates go back to Lancelot Hogben in the 1920s and are ongoing. Let’s hear more on this from other scientists, social/humanitarians, philosophers and medics!
Isn’t Truth supposed to be the one objective reality excluding individual, religious, mythological, ideological or political biases. That was UCT VC T.B. Davie’s vision in 1950. Is this to be abandoned in favour of some Nietzschean vision of choosing among interpretations depending on who currently has power?
Didn’t Mandela call for an end to “dominant cultures” of any kind? Is the Old Boys’ network to be complemented or replaced by a ‘Xhosa Nostra’? Is the BAC a ‘melanised’ blend of the Afrikaner Nasionale Studentebond or Broederbond? Despite searching the internet and asking Price, Feris, and the BAC Chairperson, I have yet to see a copy of the BAC Constitution. May a ‘white’ join it? When and where does it meet? Who is it helping other than lawbreaking fallists?
With regard to Feris’ call for institutionalized ‘multi-being’, there always have been political parties, cultural societies, the communist/capitalist divide and science vs ‘séance’ debate (at least until 2015) at UCT. Does Feris now wish to add ‘restoratively justified, law-breaking anarchy’ to the mix? With regard to gender/sexuality issues, Saunders strongly supported the formation of UCT’s Gay and Lesbian Association more than 30 years ago.
What does the Executive actually do? Plead to populism?
Perhaps because Feris has to spend so much of her time chairing the Rapid Response Task Team (RRTT) and the Strategic Executive Task Team (SETT) and serving on the Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission Steering Committee (IRTC SC), she demurs that UCT is “steeped in bureaucracy”, and “it is often difficult and cumbersome to make decisions”. Yes, the “slow pace of transformation” is due to a UCT “ruled by committee”, which “puts the brakes on decision-making.” It seems that all Feris, Price and the fallists want to do is to create more committees to deal with art, symbols, re-re-admission, curriculum-cleansing and amnesty, while they undermine the Academic Freedom Committee, freedom of speech and artistic expression and Faculty Readmission Committees.
Given her misgivings, why hasn’t Feris broken ranks with the Senior Leadership Group (is there a junior one?) and cut through the bureaucratic Gordian Knot?
Feris believes that UCT “needs to interrogate rules and procedures”, but fails to apply them when dealing with lawbreaking fallists. When they violated the November 2016 Agreement and invaded the Mafeje Room, she chose to “appeal” to them in order to “keep pace with a changing student profile”.
Is the Pluriversity of Cape Town going to have fewer and better rules?
In short, why is Feris’ vision of a dynamic decolonization so placatingly populist?
Facing up to socio-economic challenges by ‘playing chicken’
Feris complains that “black students, rural students, students from quintile 1, 2 and 3 schools” are lacking in “economic, social and cultural capital”. “Students are hungry and cannot afford accommodation” which has “a profound impact on their ability to function in a learning environment”. But, given the progressively lower support from government and highly unlikely elimination of fees (except perhaps for the poorest and brightest), let alone finding additional support for monthly living expenses, when will she or anyone else in the Executive admit the reality that the Executive’s strategy to fund many subsidy-earning students partially, and not fewer students comprehensively, generates their “profound inability to function”?
(For a particularly insightful commentary on the “Welfare University”, see Chapter 8 of Prof Jonathan Jansen’s 2016 book: As by Fire: the end of the South African University.)
In Africa, this r-selection biological strategy is employed by its most widespread bird, the chicken-like Helmeted Guineafowl, which lays up to 20 eggs; but is rarely capable of rearing more than a handful of the chicks that emerge from them. In sharp contrast, Africa’s most widespread eagle, the Martial Eagle, employs K-selection; laying just one egg and investing enormously in the resulting chick which almost guarantees it survival. By the way, this bird of prey is also the Helmeted Guineafowl’s most feared predator.
Wouldn’t replacing UCT’s chicken-strategy for students with an eagle one better “take into account the hardship of the daily grind of many of our students”. Indeed, to what extent might the “psychological problems” so prevalent amongst under-supported students be alleviated if their needs were met fully?
From an academic perspective, is it morally defensible to admit (and bureaucratically re-admit) thousands of educationally ‘disabled’ matriculants, many of whom fail to cope, despite academic ‘support’ and counselling? More than half of these kids with ‘great expectations’ never obtain a university degree and more than 80% take more than four years to do so, often ‘earning’ poor results and incurring massive debt.
Why has UCT never published statistics indicating the career success of these ‘long-haul graduates’. Is this good educational practice? Does it liberate the oppressed masses, or just a few? Does it maintain excellence and produce leaders/innovators?
These ‘betrayed’ kids are fodder for radical fallists bent on destroying UCT.
Why does Feris believe that the “university needs to constantly review our decision-making processes”? Why not become “fair” and “consistent” and choose an ‘eagle’ one that actually “takes into account social and economic context”, rather than focusing on the ‘chicken’ one that sucks in effectively doomed students in order to get government subsidies?
Is it because it brings in the most money, some of which is used to pay huge salaries and bonuses to members of its Executive, other highly paid centralized admin officers and post costs for CHED Academic ‘Developers’ who would be better deployed, managed and nurtured in core departments?
Why must “everyone flourish”, regardless of their background?
Rich kids (regardless of how they self-identify) will always be better resourced, whether it be at UCT or anywhere else. The UCT Executive’s goal should be to ensure that poor kids coming from an education-disabling school system receive adequate comprehensive support so their kids can “flourish” and acquire their own wealth.
Re-readmission Appeals Committees (RAC)
Feris views the Executive’s concession to Mafeje Room-invading fallists to implement automatic, bureaucratic, centralized re-evaluation of faculty-based RAC decisions as a “historical way of decision-making in a committee” that “corrected actions” (exclusions) initially “detrimental to students”.
Perhaps she and other “senior leaders” should accept that their chicken-strategy to fund fewer students only partially is the root cause of their inability to cope at UCT. Using bureaucratic power to override carefully-considered reviews by subject-specialist, faculty-based RA committees that studiously act in a fair, consistent and compassionate manner, helps no one, least of all struggling students and the academic/admin staff who undertake this painful task.
The current members of the Science Faculty RAC resigned in protest. Who will replace them? If the fallists shut down UCT again, who will fill the breach to make up for missed lectures?
What would a ‘pluriversity’ look like?
Feris says a pluriversity will allow room for “a range of epistemologies”. But, what and where are they? UCT launched its Centre for African Studies (CAS) more than 40 years ago. Why did it fail to produce or help to foster the development of students, staff and novel curricula necessary to expand this epistemological “range”? Why was the CAS’ disestablishment considered seriously in 2011?
It’s been five years since the ‘new’ CAS was “re-launched” and it has only introduced undergraduate courses this year. Why take so long to produce so little? CAS director, please reply.
What about the Centre for Higher Education Development’s (CHED) Academic Development Programme (ADP) (now with some 60 staff) that has been around since the 1980s? Does Feris support pouring more money into this programme that has “marginalized” ‘black’ students, never ‘filled the education gap’, let alone maintained excellence (something Feris never mentions). CHED dean, or Feris, please reply.
What has the Black Academic Caucus been up to? The BAC was founded in 2012, with the purpose of “challenging the slow pace of transformation” and claiming to be “well-placed to recognise the obstacles to decolonisation within the institution and work towards overcoming them”. What are its “important gains” vis-à-vis adding to epistemological diversity and overcoming “obstacles (other than demanding blanket amnesty for lawbreaking fallists)?
Then there is the Curriculum Change Working Group. What has it achieved in the two years since it added to UCT’s committee diversity?
Nearly 20 years have passed since the “Mamdani Affair”. Two years ago, the Dean of Humanities convened a faculty-wide assembly and asked for input from students vis-à-vis new transformed curricula. All he got were complaints that the UCT’s Academic Development Programme had “marginalized” them, and a suggestion to implement Mamdani’s unchanged, outdated one for “Problematizing Africa” from the 1990s.
The IRTC SC, which absorbs much of Feris’ time, seems to be more focused on granting amnesties to fallists than “unpacking the limits of acceptable protest”. It hasn’t consulted and engaged with various ‘constituencies’ vis-a-vis restructuring curricula. Indeed, the criteria it has identified for IRT commissioners are conspicuously lacking in terms of capacity relating to curriculum development.
My own department, Biological Sciences, is nowhere near consensus on what to do with its curriculum in the face of falling student numbers and high failure rates. Progress to date suggests an intention to continue gearing it towards producing graduates who will pursue postgraduate study, rather than creating pathways for school biology teachers. This is especially worrying, given the Executive’s policy of “freezing posts and other budget cuts impacting on the university’s employment equity targets”. How many biology Ph.D. graduates find jobs and have productive careers?
How can UCT grads “have a career trajectory and a possibility for growth” under these circumstances, let alone aspire to excellence and become “retained role models”? Also, will the Executive’s New Strategy to bias recruitment in favour of South African ‘blacks’ (or any ‘group’ for that matter) and particular theories (e.g. Critical Theory) irrespective of merit maintain academic excellence? For example, the currently advertised new Mafeje Chair is restricted to South African ‘blacks’. It is therefore unavailable to eminent ‘decolonist’ Achille Mbembe because he was born in Cameroon and is ‘critical’ of Critical Theory. Indeed, my guess is that hyper-empiricist Archie Mafeje would also be one of its critics!
When does a demographic “African lens” become xenophobic blinkers that undermine diversity and “extensive collaboration across Africa and the globe”? Why should non-South African academics be treated a ‘visitors’ and not potential career colleagues? This is reminiscent of VC Beattie’s views on women and non-whites 90 years ago.