Smuts Hall: Erasing History

Denaming, defacing places and spaces and erasing people at the UCT: Smuts Hall, a fait accompli, failed due diligence or just another character assassination of a major player in South African history?

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Jan Smuts Hall

Denaming, defacing places and spaces and erasing people at the University of Cape Town (UCT): Smuts Hall, a fait accompli, failed due diligence or just another character assassination of a major player in South African history?

First, I thank the UCT Alumni Relations team for making available the unedited footage of the “important discussion” captured in the virtual webinar RENAMING PLACES AND SPACES AT UCT, held on 7 July 2021, and chaired by UCT Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng. I also want to thank the VC and Sidney Van Heerden Acting Executive Director: Development and Alumni Department who ensured that his team would “respond with dedication and honesty to all the questions” received about the Naming of Buildings Committee (NoBC), its terms of reference and how it goes about its business.

NoBC – Raison d’être

The NoBC was created during the VC-ship of Dr Max Price at height of the Fallist Movement (see here vs here). Its 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, when it is done well, must involve a careful, extensive, consultative process, that “helps make UCT 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.

In a video dated 24 April 2018 Advocate Norman Arendse, then chair of the NoBC, discussed the significance of renaming buildings at UCT. He emphasized his commitment that the NoBC would “consult the whole university community” and effect a “healing process”.

Name changes are especially necessary when the existing ones uncritically honour those whom history has shown to be dishonourable. For example, there is the former Jameson Hall whose construction was funded totally by admirers of Sir Leander Starr Jameson [1st Baronet, KCMG, CB, PC -1853–1917]. However, it was claimed by VC Price that “respected historians” now conclude that Jameson was driven by “ruthless self-interest manifested in a profound lack of respect for other people”. In support of his condemnation, Price decried Jameson’s “deliberate misdiagnosis” to the detriment of black labourers of what was actually an outbreak of smallpox in Kimberley in 1883. Furthermore, in the proposal motivating for changing the name to commemorate Sarah Baartman, Jameson is further vilified as a “mercenary and perpetrator of colonial crimes”. However, an inquiry at the time and the much later published piece relating to his alleged medical malpractice provide no solid evidence of his unethical behaviour and, indeed, describe him as: “by far and away the best trained doctor in the town and perhaps on the sub-continent”. Neither was there any mention of Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling ‘s choice of Jameson as the model for his poem “If—” that outlines characteristics he recommended young people to live by, his service as premier of the Cape Colony, or the conclusions of ‘other’ historians, e.g.:

“The wide sphere of [Jameson’s] work and achievements, and the accepted dominion of his personality and his influence were both based upon his adherence to the principle of always subordinating personal considerations to the work in hand, upon the loyalty of his service to big ideals. His whole life seems to illustrate the truth of the saying that in self-regard and self-centredness there is no profit, and that only in sacrificing himself for impersonal aims can a man save his soul and benefit his fellow men.”

In reality, Jameson had to go because of his inextricable connectivity with the megalomaniac, imperialist, voracious capitalist, unscrupulous businessman, misogynist, white supremacist Cecil John Rhodes. Both died before UCT was established, and they are buried side-by-side atop a mountain in Zimbabwe’s Matobo National Park. The final decision to remove Rhodes’ faeces-festooned statue from Upper Campus was precipitated by a powerful motion to Senate by the late Prof. Bongani Mayosi and the invasion of a meeting of UCT’s Council by +-50 Fallist protesters. They intimidated chairperson Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane when he asked the students to leave, climbing up on to tables, spitting and shouting “You are disgusting!” and One Settler, One Bullet”.

Now UCT has the NoBC to handle such matters.

Modus operandi

The NoBC is supposed to consider proposals for the naming and renaming of places/spaces on campus to ensure that UCT adheres to Her long-term institutional strategy – currently a “holistic” Vision 2030. Proposals for the renaming of buildings with existing names must be accompanied by a well-motivated motivation for why the name was originally applied historically, why it should be removed and, ideally, a suggestion for a new and more appropriate name. Proposals are then screened by the NoBC and, if they have merit, they must be circulated broadly within the campus community – especially to stakeholders who may oppose the name change – for comment/debate.

The NoBC will then make a considered, final recommendation after comments have been given fair treatment.

Who’s who

The NoBC is appointed by – and reports to – the UCT Council. Its chairperson (currently architect Malcolm Campbell who succeeded Advocate Norman Arendse) is a member of Council which also appoints a second member. Alumni are represented by the President of the UCT Convocation and a person nominated by the Alumni Advisory Board – chaired over the years by long-serving Council Member Ms Dianna Yach. Two members are appointed by Senate, one of whom must be a full professor. The UCT Executive is represented by the DVC for Transformation. The students are represented by a nominee of the Students Representative Council. Non-Senate academics and non-academics also have representatives.

Why/how was Smuts Hall de-named?

One webinar questioner queried why Smuts name should be erased – and his bust be removed – from the men’s residence given his “pivotal roles” academia and in global, South African and UCT’s history. I outlined some of these ‘roles’ in an earlier piece.

VC Phakeng replied that Smuts has a “complex history just like many other leaders” and “it depends which perspective you’re looking at”. In the end, “the name of Smuts was not felt to be inclusive.” “That is why he didn’t win the vote to stay on.” She then turned proceedings over to NoBC Chairperson Campbell to expand on this matter. He began by admitting to being “fairly new” to the committee, serving for less than a year, and that some of his inputs “may be a bit thin”.

In March 2016, via its “Task Team”, the NoBC called for comments on the names of buildings. The Task Team’s job was to conduct or commission an audit, assessment and analysis of the names of buildings, rooms, spaces and roads that may be seen to recognise or celebrate colonial oppressors and/or which may be offensive or controversial. The six-person team included academic and non-academic staff and two students. It was chaired by Dr Maanda Mulaudzi (Lecturer – Historical Studies) who specializes in African history and agrarian social history, focusing on the history of encounters between European colonists and African societies and, in particular, how rural societies were unevenly incorporated into a capitalist world. In short, the Team was set up to look for reasons to de/re-name buildings and spaces.

Price also invited interested and affected parties “to submit the names of other buildings or spaces that you wish the task team to consider. These will then be publicised for consultation in the third cycle after June, but the names must be submitted by May 30‚” He emphasized to staff‚ students and alumni of UCT that:

“We [Council] think it 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.” Having said that he provided focus:

“In offering your views‚ the first task is to identify and remove names of people whom we think the university should not be honouring or revering. The second is to propose new names honouring other individuals for their historic role in the university or in broader society. There is also a view that we should rather name buildings to signify ideas and values that we would like to see UCT represent and strive for.”

The Task Team focused its research on the following buildings that might be considered for re-naming: Jameson Memorial Hall, Smuts Hall, Beattie Building and Wernher Beit – Otto Beit Building. The Task Team was to consider the following matters in assessing comments and proposals:

  1. legal opinion and heritage implications;
  2. history and significance of the existing name; and
  3. “moral” questions and circumstances necessitating the change in the name. (my emphasis)

Then Task Team was supposed to construct a proposal for the name change as well as a counterargument, after which the comments and views of the UCT community were to be canvassed.

Once the above was completed during 2016, recommendations were to be submitted to the NoBC for recommendation to Council.

This process seems not have been employed for Smuts Hall.

Campbell maintained that, in the case of Smuts Hall, back in 2016, the name had been discussed, but made no mention of a formal proposal for de-re-naming that followed the modus operandi outlined above. Indeed, as far as I been able to determine, the only formal proposal submitted in 2016 vis-à-vis the possible renaming of Smuts Hall – Submission to the University of Cape Town Task Team on the Naming of Buildings, Rooms, Spaces and Roads with regard to the possible renaming of Smuts Hall – was from Johann Hattingh, an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law. He argued for retaining the name, recommending that “measures should be taken by the University to contextualise the naming of the building in an inclusive and educative environment that is conducive to critical engagement with the history of South Africa, the University and the person of Jan Smuts”.

Campbell also mentioned that the most numerous response vis-à-vis de/re-naming Smuts Hall was from alumni who were also opposed to the name change.

Yet, in the end, he said that the NoBC appears to have concluded in 2016 – after receiving input from other “stakeholders” and “constituencies” – that Smuts’ name had to go. However, unlike what happened vis-à-vis Jameson Hall, no summary of pro- and con-arguments or the process involved was placed in the public domain. In the meantime, with much fanfare, the Graduate School of Humanities Building was re-named the Neville Alexander Building, The New Science Lecture Theatre was re-named The Chris Hani Lecture Theatre and the Arts Block building was re-named the AC Jordan Building.

Why was the ‘Smuts Hall Story’ not told?

Fast-forward to 2019

In articles Naming of UCT buildings and UCT may rename more buildings, VC Phakeng clearly re-iterated why the NoBC needs to exist and how it should go about its business. She called for well-motivated submissions and set a cut-off date of 19 April, which was later extended to the end of June. She made no mention of any candidate buildings.

Fast-forward to 2021

In June, UCT Council member Michael Cardo revealed that the University of Cape Town (UCT)’s Student Representative Council (SRC) had, on 10 May, launched. via the NOBC, a formal bid to rename Smuts which had “apparently given the nod to the process” and would make its recommendation to the UCT Council at the Council’s next meeting on 19 June.

In its submission, the “EFF-SC-led” SRC decried the “colonial, imperialist and racist legacy of Jan Smuts”, portraying him as a dishonourable person. It claimed that naming the men’s residence after him “contributes to the character of its inhabitants”, “usually…private school matriculants” biased demographically in favour of whites. According to the SRC, the occupants are “perceived through their residence and by extension through their residence name [sic] as being racist and classist”. Sadly, the submission provides no evidence to support this ‘perception’.

In short, Jameson Hall is one of several geographical markers that “signify an architecture and a space that negates Black humanity and dignity”, justifying the defacement of Smuts’ statue as “Rubbish [that] belongs in plastic bags”.

Complementing Hattingh’s 2016 conciliatory proposal, Cardo countered the EFF-SC perspective:

“Generations of former students, black and white, might proudly identify as Smutsmen while rejecting, at their core, the racial politics espoused by Smuts. That is a cause for celebration. For it would be a tragedy if the racial chauvinism of the past were to be resculpted and acclaimed as the politics of progress in the present. Therein lies the real threat, and potential source of dishonour, to UCT.”

To eliminate this threat and the perception that that the NoBC and Council, by default, are swayed by the demands of EFF-SC-like ‘stakeholders’ and ‘constituencies’, in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act No. 2 of 2000, I invoke the rights of my and like-thinking members of the UCT Community and those who further afield who consider Smuts as a highly influential leader in local and global wars against imperialism, genocide and Fascism and political opponent against legislated Apartheid to access to all data and documents (spanning 2016-2021) relevant to the de-naming of Smuts Hall .

Otherwise, Council Chairperson Babalwa Ngonyama’s statement that Council’s decision “should not be seen as merely replacing what we do not like” and should not be interpreted as empty rhetoric issued to appease elements of UCT’s Community manipulated by destructive ‘freedom fighters’ who seek to cauterize, rather than “heal”, UCT.

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  1. Jemevans Reply

    Smuts remains memorialised in the institutions that recall his deeds. I’m sure his role in history doesn’t need UCT’s imprimatur, although that would be a pity.

    1. Prof Tim Crowe Reply

      Smuts’ memory is not in question, Nor is UCT’s imprimatur. My major concern is that a Committee created by its Council failed to treat this matter according to its terms of reference and, sadly, did so deliberately, driven by the malice of its members.

  2. Martin Reply

    It is disgraceful that South Africa’s greatest son should be treated in such an egregious manner.

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