UCT Must Stop Ludicrous Renaming Campaign

When the University of Cape Town (UCT) has to deal with somethin strange or weird in the neighbourhood, who’s it gonna call? Smuts Busters!

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University of Cape Town UCT

When the University of Cape Town (UCT) has to deal with somethin strange or weird in the neighbourhood, who’s it gonna call? Smuts Busters!

In 2015, during the early days of ‘decolonizing’ UCT, five buildings “that might be considered for de/re-naming were identified by members of the UCT community”:

  • Jameson Memorial Hall
  • Smuts Hall
  • Beattie Building
  • Wernher Beit
  • Otto Beit Building.

Fast forward to 2016

During February, protests by pro-decolonization UCT Fallist students escalated rapidly into violent disruption, race-related and xenophobic intimidation, defacement of UCT’s War Memorial with profanity, and costly destruction of buildings, buses, bakkies and treasured artwork (even that of persons of colour – PoC). Law-breaking actions were perpetrated by a small number of militant radical Fallists, some of whom were amnestied and even released from jail for multiple previous offences. At the height of the disruption, a few these law-breakers defaced the bust of Jan Christiaan Smuts (anti-British-German imperialist/General/ philosopher Holism)/ statesman/scientist/ Prime Minister/university chancellor) at the entrance of Smuts Hall (SH) – UCT’s most well-known residence – and torched a plaque honouring Smuts’ many contributions to UCT, Africa, South Africa and the World. One of these lawbreakers even petrol-bombed the office of the UCT vice-chancellor Dr Max Price.

[Fast-forwarding to March 2019, in its Final Report , in the “spirit of restorative justice” – but despite a lack substantive evidence of racists, racist acts or structural/systemic racism at UCT – its Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission (IRTC) recommended that law-breaking ‘Smuts Busters’ be granted yet another amnesty by UCT’s Council. Amnesty included the “obliteration of disciplinary sanctions, criminal records and civil liability for their actions”. The amnesty also resulted in the University ensuring that the records of all students were “cleansed of all evidence which would have the possibility of impacting them negatively in the future”. This was done to allow them to “graduate, pursue academic studies elsewhere, to be declared fit and proper persons and to be able to pursue future careers and opportunities”. My emphasis.]

Back to 2016

On 31 March, not long after the February law-breaking destruction and arson, VC Price invited students, staff, alumni and members of the UCT community world-wide to present proposals relating to name changes for buildings identified. He emphasized that renaming UCT buildings – especially buildings as central to campus life as Jameson and Smuts Halls – was a “relatively rare and historic” action that had to be underpinned by “transparency and true restorative justice” necessary to make a “definitive break with a past that [UCT is] not all part of, and to help define a future UCT that is much more inclusive and respectful of our different histories, cultures and aspirations”. My emphasis.

The task of soliciting, auditing, consulting, researching, carefully reviewing and assessing proposals for or against the de/re-naming of these buildings was delegated to the UCT Council’s Naming of Buildings Committee (NoBC – chaired by Adv Norman Arendse) guided by a Task Team led by Dr Maanda Mulaudzi from UCT’s Department of Historical Studies. The NoBC and Task Team’s brief from Council was to achieve the above tasks through a “careful, extensive, consultative process”, “ensuring that the names of buildings, rooms and spaces on our campus are a reflection of the multiplicity and diversity of cultures at UCT”. My emphasis. The deadline for submission of proposals – pro and con – for de-naming and alternative names was 30 May.

On 17 June, a joint meeting of the NoBC and the Task Team concluded that it was clear from the evidence afforded by respected historians that Jameson’s “ruthless self-interest manifested in a profound lack of respect for other people” required that his name should be removed from “Jammie Hall”.

There was no mention of the other four “identified” buildings – including SH. Indeed, according to Dr Mulaudzi (e-mail 8 September 2021):

“I know that the Task Team gave no advice in 2016 to the NoBC about either the removal or name change to Smuts Hall.”

Indeed, it seems that the only formal proposal submitted in 2016 vis-à-vis the possible re-naming 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”. In an e-mail Prof. Hattingh (21 August 2021) states that he neither received no acknowledgement of the receipt of his proposal nor any feedback from the NoBC or its Task Team in 2016. When nothing was announced or transpired in the ensuing years, he assumed that the NoBC decided against re-naming SH.

On 18 June, based on the NoBC’s recommendation, Council resolved that only the name of Jameson Hall should be changed and the NoBC and Task Team should meet as soon as possible after 1 July to determine the process whereby a new name could be identified.

Fast forward two years to 2018

On 11 October, UCT News published an article about the local celebration of SH’s 90th anniversary. Earlier that year, SH alumni in the UK held an anniversary reunion in London, hosted by current warden Professor Kelly Chibale. The keynote speaker at the Cape Town event was SH alumnus and major UCT benefactor Neville Isdell. He is former chairman and chief executive officer of Coca-Cola and has maintained close ties with his alma mater. He is the sponsor of the Neville Isdell Rugby Centre at UCT and Smuts Hall’s annual Neville Isdell Leadership Camp for Smuts Hall freshers to foster integration.

No mention was made in the article about de/re-naming SH.

After more than two years of research and consultation and careful deliberations by the NoBC and its Task Team, on 13 December, Council Chair Sipho Pityana and new VC Prof. Mamokgethi Phakeng announced that Council had decided to re-name Jameson Memorial Hall after “Khoi heroine Sarah Baartman”. This name-change was done to “replace” that of Sir Leander Starr Jameson – who was now portrayed as a dishonourable “perpetrator of colonial crimes” – instead of just a “ruthless self-interested” man with “a profound lack of respect for other people”. The name-change was done to “honour [Baartman’s] memory to restore to her name the dignity that was so brutally stolen from her in the 19th century” and “more holistically reflect the history of all the people of our country”. My emphasis.

[For a different perspective on Jameson see here. He died in 1917, a year before UCT was established as a “full university”. The construction costs of the hall bearing his name were raised by his many admirers. For nearly 90 years, Jameson Memorial Hall was the focal point for more than 300 graduation ceremonies at UCT.]

NB: Pityana and Phakeng made no mention about de/re-naming SH.

Fast forward to 2019

During March and April, VC Phakeng revisited the de/re-naming process, re-iterating why the NoBC needs to exist and how it should go about its business vis-à-vis naming and re-naming of places/spaces on campus in a manner that ensures adherence to UCT’s long-term institutional strategy – currently a “holisticVision 2030. She once again called for well-motivated submissions vis-à-vis de/re-naming buildings and set a cut-off date of 19 April, which later had to be extended to the end of June.

Other than a reference to the MR Drennan Anatomy Museum, she did not identify any candidate buildings.

Fast forward to 2021

On 10 June, UCT Council member Michael Cardo revealed that he had discovered from press reports that, on 10 May, the highly politicized, radical and militant Economic Freedom Fighters-Student Command dominated UCT Student Representative Council (SRC) had submitted a proposal to Council via the NoBC to remove Smuts’ name and bust from SH. These reports, Cardo’s interpretation thereof and a lack of any announcements in the UCT NEWS suggested that, without transparency – let alone “careful, extensive, consultation”, the NoBC had supported the proposal and would make its recommendation to the UCT Council at the Council’s next meeting on 19 June.

Because Smuts was an “inescapable part of the university’s heritage”, Cardo opined: “Generations of former students, black and white, might proudly identify as Smutsmen while rejecting, at their core, the racial politics espoused by Smuts, … ”will almost certainly …  have transcended his politics” which is “a cause for celebration”. “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.”

The ‘New Proposal’

This was a two-page, 465-word document that devoted fewer than 140 words to Smuts and the Hall. It was signed by EFF-SC member Ukhanyo Mdakane – Residences and Housing Co-ordinator and Students’ Representative Council Member. [On 29 June 2021, the EFF-SC issued a statement concerning the “resignation of SRC members” revealing that Mdakane “has been alleged to have committed sexual offenses”.]

In brief, the proposal alleged that:

  1. SH is a “centre of colonial prominence on Campus”;
  2. its “architecture and space negates Black humanity and dignity”; and
  3. “its title contributes to the character of its inhabitants” – ”private school matriculants and a greater number of white students.”

There were no supporting references, testimonials, statistical tables, appendices or documents. The only ‘evidence’ is a statement:

“Whether the perception is true or not, it creates the reality.”

I too submitted a piece chronicling Smuts’ personal and professional development in historical context and more detail to UCT’s Executive and Council.

Smuts ‘Die is Caste’

Despite Hattingh’s, Cardo’s and my respectful and evidence-based arguments for further discussion and debate, two things happened on 19 June.

First, UCT’s Council decided that, based on the recommendation of the NoBC and with immediate effect, the name Smuts Hall will be removed from the residence and the interim the name Upper Campus Residence will be used until such time that the process of determining a new name is formally concluded.

When I queried this decision with UCT’s Registrar and Council Secretary, he confirmed:

“[On 19 June] Council considered a recommendation from the NoBC to rename the Smuts Hall. This followed a process that started in 2016 when notice was given to the University community that the Smuts Hall was one of the buildings identified to be renamed. Comments received were considered by the NoBC. The [current] Council noted the advice from the NoBC that there was previous call for comments, and noted the recommendation of the NoBC that the previous consultation of 2016 need not be repeated.” My emphasis.

Second, the EFF-SC issued a communique announcing Council’s decision to ‘de-name’ – “with immediate effect” – Smuts Hall. (SM).

Curiously, it was only two days later (21 June), that Babalwa Ngonyama, Chairperson of UCT’s Council formally announced Council’s decision in the public domain, emphasizing that:  “The changing of names should not be seen as merely replacing what we do not like with what we feel resonates well with us or what we feel we relate better to. It should go beyond the view that the name we are changing is a source of discomfort or pain for those advocating for change. Nor should it be viewed as an act of diminishing, discarding or deviating from history by those who would wish that the status quo should remain.”

Also sadly, on 21 June, EFF-SC members once again pre-empted action by UCT. They defaced Smuts’ bust at the SM entrance and covered it with plastic garbage bags, saying Black students could “no longer” wait while the UCT leadership was “taking its time” to remove the face of “their oppressor”.

‘Exorcising’ Smuts’ and Apartheid ghosts?

On 9 December (71 years after Smuts’ death and 26 years after the ‘passing’ of legalized Apartheid), I will participate in the UCT Convocation AGM. My goals are to ask for clarification on just what the NoBC did and didn’t do between 2016 and 2021 vis-à-vis the de/re-naming of SH and present a motion for members of UCT’s Convocation, especially alumni, to be consulted on NoBC and Council’s treatment of arguably the most influential – and complex/controversial – South African during the first half of the 20th Century.

Unlike the EFF-SC Smuts Busters and perhaps the NoBC, “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.

I will report on what transpires soon after the AGM, given VC Phakeng’s invitation to participate in the process of renaming SH, with a 6 December deadline for submitting proposals to the NoBC.

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  1. Paulo Reply

    UCT has allowed a minority of militant students to dictate the terms on which it operates. The ‘gees’ and vibe that used to exist on campus has been destroyed. It’s really sad and I sincerely hope this will be rectified so that UCT can really be restored to the no1 institute of higher learning in Africa

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