My first year of study at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1964 was as a part time Bachelor of Commerce student. One of our courses was English Literature (ordinary). This was taught by Jonathan Paton (son of Alan) who did everything in his power to enthuse and inspire the tired students who had attended lectures starting at 7.30 am, spent a full day at work and then had to endure another one and a half hour lecture in the evening.

And, there were many in his class who were at varsity to get a useful degree, as an entree to a well paid job in commerce, rather than to spend time ‘philosophising’. I was one such student.

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill was one of our prescribed books. It clearly fell into that category of useless philosophy. Much more useful were the practical lectures on good report writing, minute taking, business letters, succinct language and linguistic logic.

One evening Paton was waxing forth on liberty and the universality of human rights. Given the increasingly charged political storms at that time, this subject matter was beyond mere intellectual nicety and philosophy. It was at the root of our political, social and, for us more importantly, economic and commercial futures. I do not remember what he said that prompted me to ask a question of him that evening, but I do recall the question as if I had asked it yesterday.

I first introduced the belief held by Christians that unless a person had “found Jesus and God” that person was destined to a life in purgatory. I criticised this belief on the basis that if an African in a remote village had never been visited by a missionary and, therefore, had not been introduced to Jesus (or the colonisers’ God) how could it be that he would literally be doomed to an eternal hell?

In the same vein, I questioned the right of Europeans to assume that ‘universal human rights’ as evolved in Europe, over centuries, should be imposed on African society.

Jonathan Paton stood silent for a few seconds, his face erupted red. He threw his notes into his briefcase and then rushed towards the door. “You are a Machiavellian atheist!” he shouted and slammed the door behind him.

The class erupted in applause, the only standing ovation I ever received.

This was not in celebration of some philosophical enlightenment, but rather that the lecture (only 10 minutes into it) was clearly cancelled. Pops Cafe and other attractions in Braamfontein beckoned. That they were standing as they cheered was just to get out, all the quicker.

I understood the term atheist but being ‘Machiavellian’ was a new and vaguely understood epithet.

A school friend was in residence, in his second year and studying Political Science. He was very kind (whenever my hunger demanded and my petty cash was low) he would smuggle me into the dining hall. I popped down campus and I told him what had happened. He laughed and handed me a copy of The Prince.

I devoured it with relish! It was, by far, a better meal than the res grub.

I abandoned the B.Com. at the end of that year and changed to a BA. I majored in Economics, Politics and Public Administration.

In the ensuing years the term ‘Machiavellian’ made more sense as my own foray into student politics and wider reading contextualised his ‘lessons’ for the Prince. But how could it be that I was described as Machiavellian (cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous, especially in politics) for asking a lecturer a simple question?

The truth is that I was an early victim of what is now termed political correctness. In the current, postmodern, chaotic, and yes, Machiavellian world, truth is what we want it to be and political correctness smothers rational discourse. We are inured to the harm it causes.

I never thanked Jonathan Paton for changing the direction of my education so profoundly and for the fun that altered journey provided me. And he never answered the question, maybe because there is no answer.

Now that decolonisation is a popular topic in the academe (and polity) we should ask that question again.

If a population does not want ‘human rights’ and the rule of law, who are we to foist that upon them under the guise of some ill founded missionary zeal and/or political salvation?