The Evolution of Institutional Toxicity at UCT

This follows on from Part 1 of this series that addressed the reality and magnitude of recent ‘losses’ amongst the academic and administrative leadership at UCT, currently Africa’s leading centre of higher education.

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University of Cape Town UCT

Part 2. Uselessness Capitulation Tricks

This follows on from Part 1 of this series that addressed the reality and magnitude of recent ‘losses’ amongst the academic and administrative leadership at UCT, currently Africa’s leading centre of higher education. It attempts to identify the ‘whens’ and ‘whys’ of institutional ‘toxicity’ that long pre-dates that which allegedly developed only during the VC-ship of Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, supported by her ‘hit-person/champion?’, the Chair of the UCT Council – Babalwa Ngonyama.

My collective credentials as a bearer of relevant UCT institutional memory

This is an attempt to avoid my being dismissed once again as an old, white, foreigner, ‘Jim Crow’ racist killer of Black people.

I am a student of UCT’s history since its origins within the South African College School. My thoughts are outlined in >70 public intellectual pieces in my blogsite (, the Rational Standard, politicsweb, BizNews and UCT News.

I have been with UCT since 1973 –as a Biology PhD student, academic (junior lecturer to full professor), “internationally acclaimed” researcher, administrator, and now Life Fellow and emeritus professor.

I have taught, mentored and/or published peer-reviewed research with nearly 2000 under- and post-grad students. My collaborators include staff and under/postgrad students from the Faculties of the Science, Humanities, Commerce and Health Sciences. My 66 post-grad students include 14 women, 14 ‘blacks’. Twelve became senior lecturers and 14 institutional directors and/or professors.

I designed, staffed and launched the Department of Biological Science’s highly successful Conservation Biology MSc Programme in the early 1990s and coordinated its ‘evolution’ until 2006 (see here and here). In terms of government demographics, 25 percent of CB graduates so far have been ‘black’ and 52 percent female. They hail from 43 countries, 23 African.

When one CB grad, Elelwani Nenzhelele, who came from the University of Venda was asked to comment on the CB Programme, she said:

“It is important because we learn a lot from each other more than we did in the class. We learn from each other’s experiences and knowledge about conservation issues, culture and traditions from all the people of different backgrounds. It is so nice to be in a diverse class because as much as you think you are different, at the end of the day we are the same HUMANS and our common goal is to make a world a better place.”

My spouse was also associated with UCT from 1973 to 2010 as a student (BSc, Hons, MSc and PhD) and researcher in the Faculties of Science and Education, and as an educator in both faculties.

Our daughter earned her undergrad degree in the Faculty of Commerce.

Some examples of pre-Phakeng ‘toxicity

In the early 1980s as the power of the Apartheid Regime eroded UCT was able to aggressively recruit significant numbers of ‘non-white’ undergraduates. Initially, these recruits received much of their first-year education from a small number of mainly contracted educators within pioneering Academic Support/Development Programmes. They were directed by employees within UCT’s administration. These educators were tasked with helping largely African Black students to ‘bridge the gap’ created by disenabling apartheid education. This pedagogical strategy allowed many tenured UCT academics within its core academic departments, including those in the School of Education, to minimize and/or evade mentoring black students.

Despite herculean efforts by many AS/DP-educators, for two decades these programmes failed to deliver. Once AS/DP students entered the mainstream educational process at UCT, they were still unable to perform equally well. As many as 75% failed to obtain Bachelors degrees in the allotted time with as much as half dropping out or being excluded without obtaining any degree.

In 1986, visiting lecturer and eminent diplomat, politician, writer, historian and academic Conor Cruise O’Brien – a long-standing and implacable opponent of Apartheid – criticized the merits of the academic boycott of South Africa. For this, politically and racially motivated radical members of the Azanian Students Organisation (AZASO) – including a future dean of Humanities during the Fallism movements – first heckled him and then threatened to violently disrupt one of his lectures sponsored by UCT’s Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies. Violating UCT’s foundational principle of academic freedom, VC Stuart Saunders capitulated to these radicals and cancelled that and all further O’Brien lectures.

In the mid-1990s, first there was the appointment of Mahmood Mamdani as the inaugural AC Jordan Professor and subsequently selecting him as Director of UCT’s Centre for African Studies. Although he was/is an internationally-acclaimed scholar of colonial and post-colonial African history and university decolonization, the central and pervasive thesis underpinning Mamdani’s thinking is that imperial, decentralized despotism predisposed the failure of colonial institutions in liberated Africa. In short, from virtually day one, he portrayed UCT as a perverse, authoritarian, post-colonial relict populated by racists who stood for maintaining the status quo.

Moreover, much-maligned UCT grad and would-be staff member Archie Mafeje had also coveted the Jordan Chair but was not even formally interviewed. During 30 years in exile, Mafeje’s scholarship had crystalized and matured, covering topics such as democracy, development, academic freedom, urban/rural government and land and agrarian issues. Therefore, he was arguably a much more constructive ‘transformation applicant’. All UCT offered him was a one-year contract position at senior lecturer-level.

Had UCT appointed both Mafeje and Mamdani as full professors a quarter century ago, given their profoundly different views on what constitutes decolonization and how to implement it, one might argue that vigorous debate at UCT may have helped to avoid more toxicity to come.

VC Ramphele – 1996-1999

During her all-to-short tenure – covered in detail in her memoir Laying Ghosts to Rest: Dilemmas of the Transformation in South Africa – Ramphele and her strongly managerial team implemented rapid and decisive major structural transformation at UCT.

Her most ‘toxic’ transformation action included:

  1. the creation/empowering of a highly paid, centralized, corporate, business-oriented, administration, including non-academic ‘Executive Directors’ and powerful DVCs;
  2. combining several disparate faculties into an enormous ‘smorgasbord’ Humanities Faculty; and
  3. attempting to force faculties to create an academically more career-oriented, transdisciplinary, collaborative curriculum ‘Programmes’.

Many departments in the mega-Humanities simply refused to implement Programmes and the Faculty of Science dropped them soon after Ramphele’s departure.

To deal with student demands, Ramphele developed a new mission statement for UCT, improved trust between all parties and promoted an ebbing of skepticism. But she had a bottom-line vis-à-vis student involvement with university policy:

“Given their status as a transient population … students cannot be allowed to participate in decisions where conflicts of interest are so glaring as to make a mockery of the integrity of higher-education institutions.”

Then, after being scorned and harassed by some non-academic workers and unions who persisted with disruptive/destructive/violent behaviour that had featured strongly during the Saunders Administration, Ramphele acted decisively. When a major union made a strategic negotiating error, she fired/outsourced hundreds of grade 1-4 workers, making way for increased salaries for academics. This policy was ‘justified’ on the basis that it gave priority to UCT’s primary mandate – education/research.

However, it also planted ‘toxic seeds’ for the ‘blossoming’ of violent Fallism to come much later.

Last but by no means least, in terms of UCT’s institutional structure, Ramphele was also critical of UCT’s Council, which she felt was controlled by “an old boys’ network that had paid more attention to continuing traditions than to management and maintenance”. This legacy of neo-colonialism frustrated her efforts to transform the university. To cope with this, she supported and instigated the transformation of Council into a broadly inclusive entity.

Sadly, this inclusion-strategy arguably has allowed the current Council to be become factionalized and infiltrated by ideologues. For example, somehow Council allowed the highly controversial Dr Lwazi Lushaba (see here, here and here) to be appointed to act as a representative of UCT’s Students Representative Council, despite the facts that he is nearly 60 years old, is a member of academic staff and appears to never have been a registered student at UCT. Indeed, the other two unnamed SRC representatives appear to be members of the Julius-Malema-controlled EFF Student Command. Also, one faction appears to condone the actions of (or be intimidated by) radical pro-Fallist students and academics and possibly even by members of the UCT Executive and political parties who have and continue to promote and implement the racialized deconstructive (destructive?) transformation of UCT’s fundamental structure.

For more on this, read forthcoming Part 3.

VC Ndebele – 2000-2008

In 2000, the key act of academic transformation by the Ndebele Team was the launch of a separate, new, ‘horizontal’, faculty-like entity, the Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED), with a staff of 100+. This greatly expanded the original aims, scope and responsibilities of the Saunders-initiated Academic Support Programme. Sadly, although I have not been able to find published data, it seems that many African Black CHED students still take 4-5 years to complete a Bachelors degree and many drop out or are excluded for unsatisfactory academic progress.

In retrospect, academics and AS/ADP students whom I have interviewed are persuaded that the creation of CHED was a wrong decision since it further reduced the responsibility for academic support/development in the Core Departments and in the School of Education. Core departments could thereafter even more effectively avoid adapting their staff and curricula to deal decisively and constructively with constructive decolonization and nurturing education of Black (sensu lato) graduates who could have become future academic staff.

Real violence

Ndebele’s administration was also shocked by a brutal murder on campus. In January 2005, Assoc. Prof. Brian Hahn was, without provocation, attacked and brutally beaten (soon thereafter dying from his injuries) by a disgruntled affirmative-action lecturer, Dr Maleafisha ‘Steve’ Tladi. Tladi – after a fair academic evaluation – had been denied a permanent appointment.

Tladi initially admitted his guilt and was portrayed as fit for trial by his personal psychiatrist. Yet, he was found “unfit for trial” and “not guilty” due to mental illness that only became ‘apparent’ during his appearances in court and after his spouse (a lawyer) accused him of assault.

Nevertheless, Tladi was adjudged to be “a danger to society” and declared a “State Patient” to be indefinitely “detained in a psychiatric institution or hospital with such a facility”. But, after less than two-years’ confinement, he was inexplicably released from custody and employed for a decade as a senior academic at the University of Limpopo. In widely circulated e-mails he claimed to have been “totally cured” from mental illness as a consequence of a “miraculous religious experience”.

Regardless of the merits of a murderer’s release, the UCT Executive made little effort (beyond a memorial service) to counsel the UCT Community on this horrible act or use it as a watershed moment. Former UCT Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela – a senior researcher in trauma, memory and forgiveness who served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and that which investigated the tenure of Health Sciences Dean Bongani Mayosi – commented at the time: “What really concerns me is why we are, when we are faced with a violent murder on this campus, not talking about, first of all, what led to this incident, and not talking about why the only reaction that is vocal about this incident is reaction that seems to be condoning this behaviour”. Soon after this, she left UCT.

There was never any “talking about” or attempt at restorative justice. Indeed, by 2015, pro-Fallist, Feminist author and Wits Prof. Pumla Gqola (now Dean of Research at University of Fort Hare) characterized Brian’s murder by Tladi as possibly “an incident of self-defence”.

Exposing the institutional ‘handicap’

One of Ndebele’s major administrative achievements was commissioning a 2007 survey: Matters pertaining to heads of academic departments at the University of Cape Town. The survey was headed by Emeritus Prof. VC ‘Cliff’ Moran (a highly respected former UCT Dean of Science) in collaboration with Prof. Cheryl de la Rey (DVC for Research) and Assoc. Prof. Andy Duncan, one of UCT’s most savvy senior academics.

Key recommendations of the Moran Report are:

  1. The University can contribute fully to the social and economic development of South Africa only if it is internationally competitive. This requires that the institution “Promotes academic excellence and the attainment of the institutional goal of becoming a world-class African University”.
  2. The number and demographic mix of its graduates can best contribute to the country’s needs if the qualifications earned by its undergraduate and postgraduate students have increasing value and currency, locally and globally.
  3. The above objectives can be realized only if the academic departments in the University are functioning optimally, which in itself is possible only if the HoDs pursue a clear plan for the development of teaching and research in their respective disciplines and only if they are willing, motivated and effective academic leaders, managers, and administrators.  Presently the performance of the majority of academic departments is perceived by many at UCT as being sub-optimal and it is common cause that many, but not all, of the HoDs at the institution are, for various reasons, reluctant to do the job, demoralized and frustrated.
  4. Without the concerted will to acknowledge the centrality of academic departments as the cornerstone of the institution, and to bring academic departments and HoDs back into the mainstream of the University’s focus and activities, the University cannot enhance the value of its degrees, nor can it achieve its mission.

In short, inordinate power concentrated in an arguably unaccountable, ‘managerializing’, fiscally-focused, commodified, centralized administration needs to return to faculties, academics and students, the people who are responsible for UCT’s core ‘business’ – education and research.

Neither VC Ndebele nor his successor acted decisively on the findings of the ‘Moran Report’.

VC Price – 2008-2018

I have published many pieces (search for “Tim Crowe” and “Rational Standard”, “Politicsweb” or “BizNews” and consult my blogsite – outlining the Price Era at UCT, especially his calamitous, chaotic and tragic last four years. For a succinct summary, see my piece Vice Chancellors as Mirrors of the History of UCT: Max Price.

Perhaps the most ill-considered and ‘toxic’ acts and policies of the Price Team were:

  1. Abandoning VC Ramphele’s strategy of focusing on admitting relatively more Black post-grads to build up UCT’s ‘timber’ vis-à-vis academic staff, it massively increased the admission of the by then even more educationally disabled, African Black undergrads without having built up the number of relevantly experienced and nurturing academics. In combination, the Ndebele & Price administrations increased UCT’s undergrad population to levels 70% above levels during the Ramphele Administration.
  2. Evading dealing with arguably racist symbols at UCT during his first term by failing to move, remove, rename or ‘contextualize’ offensive colonially-connected symbols (see here and here).
  3. Failing to stop (or get ironclad guarantees from) lawbreaking Fallists from disrupting lectures, administrative offices and Council/Senate/Convocation/SRC/University Assembly meetings and intimidating those who do not share their views.
  4. Issuing multiple ‘Price-Pardons’ and amnesties based on questionable ‘restorative justice’ to unapologetic, recidivist Fallist lawbreakers.
  5. Creating a myriad of costly working and task groups and commissions and appointing ‘special advisors’ and outsourced decolonialist speakers that/who usurped the duties of in-house academics and statutory university structures/committees/personnel.
  6. Negotiating’ (see also here and here) the November 2016 Agreement for non-violence with non-representative, politically extremely radical, lawbreaking Fallists, one of whom had to be bailed out of jail.
  7. Supporting the creation and facilitating the functioning of a costly and potentially enormously influential ad hoc structure, the Internal Reconciliation and Transformation Commission. In the end, it recommended further and now total amnesties for unapologetic lawbreakers and ‘confirmed’ UCT’s “institutional racism” in the absence of substantive evidence. The ‘findings’ of the IRTC Final Report formed the basis of a scurrilous opinion piece published in the world’s most widely read scientific journal Nature that severely damaged UCT’s international image.
  8. Extending (without debate in Senate) formal recognition of the racially-structured, secretive, oligarchical (effectively run by a five-person “Executive Committee”) Black Academic Caucus as an “independent Interest Group” within UCT.
  9. Failing to support intimidated academic/non-academic staff, deans and even DVCs and himself who were defamed, ostracized, and even assaulted by Fallists – leading to many precipitous resignations and one dean’s suicide.
  10. Personally confirming the existence of “institutional racism” at UCT expressed in a “host of everyday institutional practices on campus [that] are experienced by many black students and staff as discriminatory and seen to perpetuate racial stereotypes of superiority and inferiority”.
  11. Supporting the publication of the author–evidence- and recommendation-free “Framework Document” by the blatantly pro-Fallist Curriculum Change Working Group.
  12. But, Price’s most telling ‘toxic achievement’ was the result of tragic inaction.

In 2013, the year that President Mandela died, Price chose not to implement non-racialism favoured by Mandela and Price’s predecessors Davies, Luyt, Saunders, Ramphele and Ndebele.

He emasculated a proposed non-racial students admission policy based largely on economic disadvantage and academic merit (and not primarily on ‘race’) developed in 2012 by the recently deceased, anti-apartheid struggle veteran Dr Neville Alexander and Prof. Crain Soudien.

Soudien stressed the need for UCT to abandon race-based practices in his final public address as an employee at UCT in July 2015. According to Soudien, ‘race’ in humans has no essence or ontological status biologically, culturally, socially or politically. He elaborates on this in his book Realising the Dream: “Race is an invention … only being framed in opposition to whiteness … an ideological smokescreen … viscerally inscribed in our heads and in our bodies”.

In short, race is a toxic relational concept and has no inherent reality in the absence of whiteness.

Sadly, soon after the ‘rise’ of Fallism and his being bullied and defamed by sociologist Associate Professor Xolela Mangcu – who characterized him as a patronizing, authoritarian co-conspirator in a ‘white’-supremacist, anti-black racist institutional hegemony which has no appreciation of what it means to be a ‘black’ university student – Soudien resigned to seek more peaceful professional pastures.

If a picture is worth 1000 words, a video must be worth 100000. To get a sense of the toxicity at UCT inherited by Price’s successor, watch videos of:

  1. The bullying at the 16 March 2015 seminar, Heritage, signage and symbolism, chaired by DVC Soudien.
  2. The bullying, ejection and character assassination of VC Price and Convocation President Barney Pityana from the University Assembly held later that month in a jam-packed Jameson Hall. This assembly was subsequently described by Sociology Professors Jeremy Seekings and Nicoli Nattrass as “hijacked by a well-organised group of Fallists implementing a carefully-prepared plan”.
  3. The invasion of the 2016 UCT Convocation Annual General Meeting by Fallists who prevented discussion to consult alumni vis-à-vis the Executives dealings with Fallists. The video may be viewed by clicking on the upper right-hand box.

For much more evidence of Price-linked toxicity at UCT from another perspective, read UCT Prof. David Benatar’s evidence-packed book The Fall of the University of Cape Town.

In short, to paraphrase a statement made by John Dean, US White House legal counsel during the 1970s Watergate Scandal:

There’s no doubt that there is a cancer within UCT close to the executive that originated four decades ago and arguably metastasized – without treatment – during the VC-ship of Dr Max Price.

The terrifying task of dealing with this cancerous toxicity was a hospital pass to his successor.

To find out how I think she has handled it, read Part 3 in this series.

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