UCT Isn’t Racist, But Decolonisation Is Destroying It

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A recent article in Nature, “the world’s most cited scientific journal” discusses two reports (here and here) that concludes that Africa’s top-ranked centre of tertiary education, the University of Cape Town is “entrenched” with racism founded in a “divisive legacy of colonialism” that needs to be “erased”. Evidence-based research (here and here) refutes this decisively. From 1950, it openly defied Apartheid and was non-racial in principle. UCT became known as “little Moscow on the hill” and “private property” signs were erected in an attempt to keep Apartheid forces off campus. Since the 1980s, it led the country in circumventing laws preventing the admission of PoC students. Since the 1990s, it became aggressively anti-Apartheid in practice and recruited PoC students and staff and decolonized faculties and departments. But, yes, with less interference by, and more financial support from, pre- and post-Apartheid governments, UCT could have done more to redress the effects of colonialism/segregation/Apartheid.

During 2008-2018, under the leadership of Vice Chancellor Max Price lost decolonization momentum, alienated (watch the video) PoC and ended up siding with radical, destructive Fallists and their supporters, primarily populating the secretive, oligarchical [ruled by five anonymous members of an “Executive Committee”] Black Academic Caucus (BAC). This laid foundations for the current attempted ‘capture’ of university governance by a racially motivated and nationalist Fallist/BAC cabal. This ‘capture’ was mediated by VC Price’s executive decisions and the actions of VC-appointed task and working groups and ‘special advisors’.

An “independent” commission

The article describes an “independent commission” and its Final Report that emanated from UCT’s costly Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission Steering Committee (IRTC-SC) and Commission established as a result of a 2016 agreement implemented to curb ongoing violence/destruction/institutional ‘paralysis’. The agreement was forged by VC Price and nine selected Fallists mainly from PASMA, an authoritarian, radical revolutionary movement “guided by the philosophies of Pan Africanism and Marxism-Leninism”. Former UCT Students’ Representative Council (SRC) president (now Member of Parliament) Gwen Ngwenya described the ‘agreement’ as “a series of decisions by an executive, grounded in the appeasement of unelected and unrepresentative student lawbreakers and ideologues who have been party to violence on campus and who have not been able to articulate their philosophy in any manner as to result in its common comprehension”. For this she was defamed (like the late Dean Bongani Mayosi) by Fallists as a “sell-out” “house ni**er”.

The IRTC and its Commissioners

IRT Commissioners were eminent activists well-suited to dealing with applications for amnesty from lawbreaking Fallists. This task was completed rapidly (but only partially) using questionable “restorative justice”. But, reports of unjust discrimination, domination or violence are lacking corroborating evidence and cloaked in confidentiality. Also, “Attempts by the commission to establish the existence of a cabal, structure or organisation, secret or otherwise, which could be responsible for the creation of the atmosphere of fear and mistrust at the university, did not yield any results.” One  Commissioner stated: “I am afraid I cannot agree with much of the theoretical bases or the definitional approach set out in Chapter 6 [on racism] nor can I agree with many of the factual conclusions drawn.” Furthermore, there was an analysis co-authored by VC Price and led by UCT’s Robert Morrell, head of UCT’s Next Generation Professoriate. It addressed allegations of institutional discrimination against women and PoC vis-à-vis ad hominem promotion and concluded in June 2017 that there was/is none. These results that dispel the article’s conclusion that UCT is “rife with stories of better qualified black academics being passed over for employment and promotion in favour of white academics” were suppressed because of objections from the BAC. They are not mentioned in the Report.

The only other ‘evidence’ in the Report of “systematic suppression of black excellence in recent years” at UCT stems from another evidence-free, inchoate Framework document (Annexure B) by IRTC-SC Alumni Representative and President of the UCT Convocation Lorna Houston. This document asserts that violence at UCT “must be recognised as more than physical” and can be “cultural”, “symbolic”, “structural”, “psychological”, “invisible”, “epistemic” and “emotional”. It was never discussed, let alone debated, at an IRTC-SC meeting and virtually taken as rote by the Commission.

The Framework’s authors assert that “many of us are personally aware of black people who left UCT and current staff who experience denial of institutional racism”. No ‘aware/oppressed/denied’ individuals are listed. No offensive policies are identified. But, the Framework still concludes that racism and multi-facetted violence at UCT “have a cumulative effect and results in black people being pathologised or criminalised for expressing justified anger and or protests”. This “justified”  the actions of the violent and destructive Fallists.

Racist leadership

Dr Tiri Chinyoka, the UCT mathematics lecturer who has “spoken publicly [and supportively] about the report’s findings”, is acting chair of the BAC. Chinyoka asserts that “Until the structures change, we aren’t going to see any significant change.” Once again, this is an evidence-free ‘finding’. For example, ‘othered’ people are not under-represented in current VC Mamokgethi Phakeng’s revitalized Leadership Lekgotla. The vast majority of senior ‘decision-makers’ (the VC, DVCs, Executive Directors and Faculty Deans) are women and/or PoC.

Curriculum change

The IRTC Final Report does not discuss or make recommendations on curriculum change. The “tensions” surrounding efforts to decolonize UCT’s academic programmes mentioned in the article have been largely confined to the mega-Faculty of Humanities which former VC Mamphela Ramphele administration created from five previous ‘colonial’ faculties and required it to develop meaningful ‘programmatic’ curricula. These ‘tensions’ emerged in the 1990s during the Mamdani ‘Affair, the last real academic debate at UCT. Ramphele encouraged Prof. Mahmood Mamdani‘s efforts to develop a controversial, broadly pre-colonial historical, Afrocentric foundation course (“Problematizing Africa”). However, colleagues in the Social Sciences objected to its syllabus and favoured an alternative course. Ramphele attempted to mediate the dispute, but the alternative, arguably Eurocentric, course [described as “Bantu education” by Mamdani] was implemented.

During 2008-2013, outside of Humanities, there were no calls for radical transformation of curricula, or anything else for that matter. Indeed, suppressed polls in the Faculties of Science, Engineering and Commerce taken during 2015 supported retaining Rhodes’ Statue on campus, and their curricula have been Afrocentric since the 1960s. Nevertheless, to address localized demands for radical curriculum change, VC Price created the ad hoc Curriculum Change Working Group (CCWG) to drive curriculum decolonization. The CCWG is led by “black academics and students traditionally excluded from formal institutional structures and processes of curriculum oversight“, “intimately intertwined with student mobilisation” and “embrac[ing] a particular consciousness around coloniality”. One “clear and practical example” of the CCWG’s achievements involved persuading the Dean of Health Sciences to agree to Fallists’ demands (provided that they resumed attending classes) after they had occupied his offices for two weeks. [The protesting students did not return to class and the Dean later committed suicide.]

Thereafter, former BAC Vice-chairperson (now Transformation DVC) Loretta Feris, the CCWG team and other “academics and students who wanted to get involved” used a theoretical framework based on controversial “critical realism” to get to work. The bulk of the CCWG “data sets” emerged from the Faculty of Health Sciences and sections of the Humanities. The only ‘explicated’ examples of CCWG-supported curriculum change early on were the disastrous “Raju Affair” (here, here, here and here) involving a strategy to decolonize mathematics and a Davie Memorial Lecture by Mamdani.

Decolonist CJ Raju, asserted that UCT needs to:

  1. discard Western/racist mathematical myths (e.g. ‘Euclidean’ geometry and logic-based Newtonian calculus);
  2. erase the false history of math and its purported Greek origins;
  3. revert from formal logic-based math to teaching ‘normal’ math which makes all math (not just calculus) more “practical” and a whole lot “easier”.

No UCT-based mathematics-dependent academic (including Chinyoka and two DVC mathematicians) supported Raju’s strategy.

Two core recommendations came from Mamdani’s lecture:

  1. ‘If you regard yourself as prisoners in this ongoing colonizing project, then your task must be to subvert that process from within.”
  2. Decolonization must be a multi-linguistic project. UCT must develop new African “language centres”, and that these languages should feature strongly in mode-of-instruction, buttressed by massive translation programmes.

So, it’s necessary change UCT’s curricula via subversion and drop curriculum-components developed in the ‘Western World’, and the ‘neo-curriculum’ must be communicated by academics who speak IsiZulu, isiXhosa, etc.

An academic way forward?

The CCWG published a Framework document that “sets out the need to forge a new identity for UCT”. It offers only decolonization rhetoric and calls for more open resistance, disruption and disobedience of unmentioned discriminatory ‘colonial’ rules and exposure and eradication of “colonial lies embedded in disciplines”. Raju is mentioned only once in the document as a ‘visiting scholar’, as is DVC Feris  – whose surname is misspelled.

One can determine the document’s purpose by considering its recommendations. In short, like the abovementioned Alumni Framework Document, non-physical ‘violence’ features strongly in descriptions with UCT’s institutional culture. The current pursuit of tentative, falsifiable truths must shift to discovery of situational and relational ‘understandings’ relating to one’s ‘being’ (Dasein?). Logical rationalism founded on unfettered debate must be replaced by social practice ‘driven’ by context-based ‘conversations’. Examinations sensu lato should be replaced by socially conceptualized narratives. Last but not least, UCT needs to abandon VC Ramphele’s dictum vis-à-vis students as drivers of change at UCT:

“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.”

Written responses to this Framework have been almost exclusively negative. But, Chinyoka dismisses them as “knee-jerk responses” from people “worried about semantics”. Read the Framework and responses before agreeing with his assessment.

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