UCT: Racist/Sexist/Colonialist? 1973-1980

My association (as a Ph.D. student) with UCT began in 1973.  It coincided with the formal incorporation (actually on my and Rhodes’ birthday – 5 July) of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology (Fitztitute) into UCT’s Department of Zoology.  This action was not favoured...

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My association (as a Ph.D. student) with UCT began in 1973.  It coincided with the formal incorporation (actually on my and Rhodes’ birthday – 5 July) of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology (Fitztitute) into UCT’s Department of Zoology.  This action was not favoured by the vice-chancellor (Richard Luyt) for financial reasons and actively opposed by the dictatorial HOD (John Day) from a politico-academic perspective. It was also not welcomed by many other powerful professors of science.

It was facilitated by UCT’s visionary, recently appointed Dean of Science (‘Jack’ de Wet).

In its 56 year history, Fitztitute researchers have published nearly 8000 peer-reviewed scientific and public intellectual papers and books. More than 80% of its nearly 500 M.Sc., Ph.D. and post-doctoral students to date have found relevant employment at, and have become leaders within, scores of academic/public/private organizations. In terms of government-required demographics, 21% of these postgrads so far have been ‘black’ and 52% female. In all, they hail from 46 countries – 23 African. Based on the quality of this academic delivery, in 2004, the Fitztitute was proclaimed one of a handful of South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology and National Research Foundation’s Centres of Excellence.

So, Luyt, Day and the other dictators were wrong and Jack was right.

My historical messages are that, at this time, staff/students and even departments at UCT, had to (in the words of UCT’s first registrar) “justify their existence” within a highly competitive institution, and one powerful leader (de Wet) could have an enormous impact on an institution’s academic trajectory.  Similar things were happening at Medical School – the key point-persons being Jannie Louw, followed up more radically by Stuart Saunders, who became Jack’s close friend and academic transformational ‘partner-in-crime’.

Within the Faculty of Science, Jack was much-loved or, in some instances, hated. He demanded academic excellence and, to achieve this, he recruited a cohort of brilliant young professors. Extant ones who didn’t deliver got little support and/or suffered his wrath. He also clashed with the growing centralized administration when it interfered with his vision.

Other things were changing as well.  Undergrad education ceased to be an “essentially ego-centrifugal” process.  Many lecturers not only lectured – they inspired, frequently working side-by-side with their students in the field. Some things remained largely unchanged. Post-grads (now with growing numbers of women) associated with powerful professors had somewhat of an edge, but virtually all still had to work without close supervision, let alone ‘nurturing’.  For them, it was ‘sink or swim’.

But, there were still no ‘blacks’. UCT remained anti-apartheid in principle only. If they had been admitted, given the reality of psychologically emasculating Apartheid in general and their Bantu Educational background in particular, they would have been hopelessly at sea in such a challenging, sometimes uncaring, competitive environment. Nevertheless, a few months before my arrival, Jack, with characteristic vision, criticized the UCT Council and Executive in an address to the UCT Students Representative Council saying, inter alia:

“I am an Afrikaner and my impression is that … the Government is lagging behind the people. The Bantustan policy is farcical and will never be economically viable. South Africa will eventually become a Black State. The sooner we realise that the better.”

Partly because of this, de Wet decided to leave UCT and take up a position in England. Fortunately, this did not pan out and he was persuaded to return to UCT as Dean and Assistant Principal, also serving on Council.  Characteristically, after making “derogatory statements of and concerning the Registrar and officers of the administration,” he was required by Council to give a written apology and retraction. While all this was happening, this ‘stirrer’ (pardon the pun) engineered the first offers of Rhodes Scholarships to ‘black’ South Africans. One recipient, Loyiso Nongxa, went on to become VC at Wits. In his capacity as chairperson of UCT’s Research Committee, Jack also generated significant increases both financially and in human capacity. Jack left UCT in 1982, after being retained as dean for years beyond retirement age.

But he was not done.

Immediately upon his retirement, he was head-hunted by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research to become the “architect and intellectual driver” of its research programmes. His last academic brainchild was a rating system for researchers based on the quality and impact of their research assessed by international peers.  It transformed South African university/museum research from a relatively mundane, idiosyncratic, project-driven exercise into an internationally renowned, globally competitive individual/innovation-driven activity.  Ultimately, Jack’s “baby” evolved into the National Research Foundation Rating System.

UCT uses its large contingent of highly NRF-rated researchers to attract funding for research and promote its status as world-class research university.

1973 was Day’s penultimate year as HOD and, by that time, his power had been eroded, largely by polymath Prof. Alec Brown. The Fitztitute’s new director Roy Siegfried (a former Day acolyte and, now like Brown, a ‘traitor’) was in the process of transforming the Fitztitute from an effective colonial outpost for bird natural history into a modern centre of avian biology.

As an M.Sc. graduate fresh out of the University of Chicago (where things were much more egalitarian) and an uitlander, I was baffled by the UCT ‘ethos’. My initial meeting with Siegfried (“the boss”) was formal and intimidating. I had walked up the hill to campus through the bush that still remained and discovered a dead Helmeted Guineafowl – my Ph.D.’s ‘study animal’. I cut off its head for subsequent anatomical examination.

Siegfried (then 38) greeted me challengingly by asking: “How many guineafowl have you seen so far?”  My reply was to show him the severed head, saying “Just one.” This moment set the tenor of our relationship for the next 25 years. In general, older (>45) post-grad supervisors at UCT kept their distance from, and dominance over, postgrads.

After completing my Ph.D. field work in 1976, I took up a junior lecturer’s post at the Fitztitute. My first clash with the UCT ‘system’ came when an examiner of my Ph.D. dissertation complained that it was comprised of already-published manuscripts in inconsistent journal format – violating normal protocol. Dean Jack de Wet summoned me to his office and I expected a ‘hiding’. In fact, he shook my hand and told the examiner to go to hell because: “That’s what my graduates are supposed to do!”

The latter half of the 70s saw enormous changes in the Science Faculty. Headships became rotational. Brilliant young academics began to be promoted to associate professor (de facto professor) and established independent research programmes. Biochemistry, conspicuously, remained Prof. Claus von Holdt’s (a former U-boat commander) fiefdom.

The end of the decade saw the ascendency of Stuart Saunders (first as Deputy VC) to the vice chancellorship and the end of Apartheid at UCT.

This unauthorized distillation is biased towards events in UCT’s Faculties of Science and Health Sciences.  The major sources are: Zoology Prof. Alec Brown’s Centennial history of the Zoology Department, University of Cape Town, 1903–2003: A personal memoir, University of Cape Town at 150: Reflections edited by Alan Lennox-Short and David Welsh, my and Prof. Roy Siegfried’s as yet unfinished Genesis and Development of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology Prof./Dr Stuart Saunders’ Vice-Chancellor on a Tightrope and C.L. ‘Kit’ Vaughan’s On the Shoulders of Oldenburg: a Biography of the Academic Rating System in South Africa.

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  1. Harald Sitta Reply

    excellence is a reactionary prejudice 🙂

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