Who Does UCT Honour and Who Dishonors Her?


Let me begin by saying that I and nearly all of those within and without UCT with whom I communicate are greatly encouraged by actions to date of UCT’s current Vice-Chancellor (VC) Mamokgethi Phakeng and her Leadership Lekgotla, including honouring past and current members of ‘Her’ Community and increasing the pace of constructive institutional and academic transformation. In short, “real change can happen at our institution”. Our concerns discussed here relate more to some of her actions and ‘inactions’ vis-à-vis the comments and behaviour of those ‘honoured’.

Honour well-placed but not returned

“If anyone doesn’t know what we stand for, they just need to take a look at who we honour.” – VC Phakeng.

One excellent example is ANC/Umnkonto-we-Sizwe Rivonia Trialist Denis Goldberg who was recently honoured with a DScEng (honoris causa) by UCT. Goldberg is not just an anti-Apartheid activist. He is an anti-Apartheid warrior who, in marked contrast to recently unconditionally and anonymously amnestied Fallists, “put his life on the line for freedom”. However, his various recent UCT-published communications (here, here, here) can be interpreted as extending the recent characterization of ‘Her’ (his “sweet mother” alma mater) by UCT’s Senior Leadership being complicit in denying many past students and staff “full and dignified” participation in the life of the university. This reinforces comments recently published in Nature – the world’s leading scientific journal and by the Black Academic Caucus (BAC) and other ‘parallel forces’ within UCT that racism is “rife” within Her and She was/is institutionally racist going as far back as the 1950s

First, Dr Goldberg maintains that, during his time at UCT, right-wing ideology was “alive” on campus and, in his engineering classes, his classmates “made it clear” they supported the apartheid regime. Yes, UCT engineering students and staff are perhaps among the more conservative politically. Indeed, the sole opponent of the appointment of Archie Mafeje as a UCT academic in 1968 was DC Robertson, a supporter of the National Party and an engineer elected to UCT’s Senate. Moreover, soon after the excremental desecration of Rhodes Statue, engineering students and staff overwhelmingly supported retaining the statue on campus. Their and similar stands by the Faculties of Science and Commerce were ignored by Fallists, their academic supporters and the those in power within Senate, the Executive and Council. Having said all this, it was the Engineering faculty that pioneered faculty-driven academic support programmes at UCT before the centrally-controlled version and took in the first cohort of black students in the early 1980s – the Shell Scholars. The Faculty DID something instead of shouting slogans. But, even if racism were/is “alive” at UCT, there is absolutely no evidence that it was/is rife since the 1940s. 

In fact, Goldberg was a student at UCT during the TB Davie Era. In 1950, VC Davie nailed’ his and UCT’s academic principles to the ‘mast’ as an “open/real university”. She should be populated by “those fitted by ability and training for higher education” … “aiming at the advancement of knowledge by the methods of study and research founded on absolute intellectual integrity and pursued in an atmosphere of academic freedom”.  This should allow Her the autonomy to decide: “who shall teach” (determined by fitness and scholarship and experience); “what we teach” (the truth and not what it is demanded by others for the purposes of sectional,  political, religious or ideological dogmas or beliefs); “how we teach” (not subject to interference aimed at standardization at the expense of originality); and [most importantly] “whom we teach” (individuals intellectually capable and morally worthy to join the great brotherhood which constitutes the wholeness of the university). She should also ”reflect the multi-racial picture of the society it serves”; “give a lead to the cultural and spiritual development of the different race groups as part of the developments of the community as a whole”; “aid the state by providing training for and maintaining standards in the learned professions and public services; and “serve the community in the true sense of the university, i.e. as a centre for the preservation, the advance, and the dissemination of learning for its own sake and without regard to its usefulness, to all who are academically qualified for admission, irrespective of race, colour, or creed.”  

Despite this, Dr Goldberg also maintains that, during his time at UCT, “not one black student studied at the so-called open university”. In fact, in 1955 (the year he graduated) there were 311 black students registered at UCT (more than double the number when Davie took office) according to official statistics. 

Although Dr Goldberg admits that “a lot has changed in South Africa” and “I do see nice things happening here and I am optimistic”, he makes no reference to the profound constructive transformation at UCT during the ‘reigns’ of VC’s Stuart Saunders and Mamphela Ramphele. Of course, if one believes the many tributes to VC Max Price published in UCT NEWS during June 1918, even more good things happened during the Price Decade. Others, including the Commissioners of the ‘independent’ Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission (IRTC) do not share this belief and provide strong evidence of poor leadership, vision, administration and even face-to-face discrimination.

Still, in the end, Goldberg offers some wise advice. “It takes years to turn a tanker [UCT] around.” VC Phakeng, Prof. Loretta Feris (past BAC Vice-chairperson and current DVC for Transformation) and her fast-track kindred spirits in the Broederbond-like BAC (see here, here, here) and its educational ‘wing’, the Curriculum Change Working Group (CCWG), should take cognizance of this before they formally propose: rapid transformation of UCT into a ‘Pluriversity’; further ‘unfreezing’ Davie’s principles to the point of ‘evaporation’; using the Davie Academic Freedom Lecture to foster political action; or take TB Davie lecturer Mahmood Mamdani’s advice to  ‘decolonize’ UCT by “subverting that process from within” as “a multi-linguistic project”. If so, the search for desperately needed ‘progressive’ academics could be further restricted to destructive decolonists guided by CCWG’s solution-free Framework Document who can lecture in an official African language. If this transpires, a rephrased bit of Goldberg advice may apply: “You can corrupt a [university] in a few years but to overcome it… it’s going to take a very, very long time. Maybe generations.”

‘Honour’ mis-placed and dignity destroyed

After many lengthy, unproductive and often turbulent meetings of the highly costly (>R3 million?), IRTC Steering Committee (watch the videos – I did) and its Commission that often met in secret, all that was actually ‘achieved’ was to condemn (at least the Price-led) UCT as institutionally racist and ‘honour’ eight unnamed lawbreaking students who perpetrated their acts on or about 16 February 2016 during the Shackville ‘protest’. On the basis of highly-questionable “social restorative justice”, they were recommended to receive unconditional amnesty. At least two of the students whom the IRTC recommended for amnesty [Chumani Maxwele – see here, here and here – and Masixole Mlandu?] have had criminal charges filed against them. This ‘honour’ was granted to allow lawbreaking Fallists to “regain their dignity”. However, there was no face-to-face ‘involvement’, let alone reconciliation, between those amnestied and their victims. Neither was there restitution or recommendations to create measures to prevent a recurrence of similar incidents. There weren’t even guidelines as to what constitutes “unacceptable” protest or meaningful ‘decolonization’. The IRTC’s recommendation for ‘honour’ was put into effect, also unconditionally, by UCT’s Council. To “move on from the events of 2016 and 2017”, without evaluation by IRTC Commissioners, a further 33 unnamed lawbreakers were also subsequently ‘honoured’ with unconditional amnesty by Council. These ‘tailgaters’ had also admitted to: making threats and perpetrating intimidation that created a hostile environment, lecture disruption, racial and verbal abuse, assault, forceful entry into UCT venues, damage to property, forcing Jammie Shuttle drivers out of their buses, triggering fire alarms for disruptive impact, discharge of fire extinguishers, disrupting a meeting of the residence cleaning staff, and disruption of activity in the UCT Libraries. Nothing was achieved vis-à-vis addressing, let alone “advance institutional healing” of non-Fallist “alleged victims and complainants in these cases”. 

So much for helping them to retrieve their honour and dignity.

This piece will also be submitted to UCT for publication. If history rings true, it will not be published.

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Professor Tim Crowe is a descendant of oppressed Irish freedom-fighters from the United States working class. He is a first generation university graduate, non-settler immigrant alumnus, Elected Fellow and emeritus (40 years’ service) professor at the University of Cape Town. He is a Ph.D.-educated expert on evolutionary biology (covering everything from ‘race’ to deeply rooted evolutionary trees) and conservation biology (especially regarding sustainable and economically viable use of wildlife). He has published nearly 300 peer-reviewed scientific papers/books and is regarded as the world’s leading authority on game birds (chickens, turkeys, guinea fowls, etc.). About 70 of his graduated students have published their research and established themselves in their own right, including four professors.