The Daily Friend rarely shies away from entering the South African political ring. Readers and writers alike get right down into the arena.

Whether a piece of commentary rubs you up the wrong or the right way is not what is relevant; what’s important is that an opinion rubbed you up at all.

A recent piece by Terence Corrigan has done just that. His ‘Another “controversial” speaker’ on Professor PLO Lumumba, a legal academic who recently spoke at the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) anniversary celebration at the University of Cape Town (UCT), opened the door to some interesting thinking (in the comments section, and for me, too). If you have yet to read it, I recommend doing so now for the sake of context.

As tempting as it might be to address the big, nasty, and dangerous elephant in the room – Lumumba’s endorsement of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment and legislation – perhaps it is best to address the other elephant. This elephant is how academia – the sum of theories, hypotheses and research, and of those who practice and develop ideas – can be manipulated for personal, often political, agendas.

In South Africa’s history, we see evidence of politics entrenching racism and discrimination in academia and intellectual life. Before Verwoerd was an active politician, he was a professor of Volkekunde at Stellenbosch University, the home of Apartheid ideology.

Ethos of politics

By all accounts, he was an intellectual of great ability. And, truly enough, academia and education have always prized their claim to being above politics, the academy often presenting itself as neutral, and academics as objective scientists. Regardless, the ethos of politics influences education. In this social truth, as Emile Durkheim might call it, lies a clever ruse to cover up the political agendas of academia.

In my experience of education, maxims that have stayed with me include ‘Education is power’ and ‘Victors write the history books’. 

Universities should be fertile ground for cultivating different intellectual perspectives, as they act agents of socialisation by exposing (predominantly) young adults to opportunities to engage with all manner of knowledge, familiar or unfamiliar, comforting or conflicting. With its challenging questions and stimulating answers, no field of academia is better equipped for this than the Social Sciences; this is the area with which I am most familiar. 

Universities also provide fertile ground for politics. Protests, vigils, party political student organisations, solidarity forums, and international human rights organisations are all as much a part of campus life as sports, cultural and social clubs and their various activities. 

‘The pursuit of knowledge’

This is as it should be for an environment aspiring to educate. Different opinions and beliefs deserve to be heard. Corrigan’s article reflected exactly that, highlighting how ‘a university should above all else be devoted to the pursuit of knowledge’.

The pursuit itself is equally as important as the knowledge; as we are often told, it’s not the destination but the journey that matters. Though this is not wholly apt (because the destination is important in the academic exploration), the journey – the pursuit of knowledge – plays a defining role. Let the road be paved with evidence and substance, debate and engagement, the destination always challenging.

As an institution of learning and socialisation, UCT – no less than other tertiary campuses – needs to consider what the rules of a fair ‘fight’ are. Academia offers the quintessential opportunity to change the nature of any given contest of ideas from being a fight on the street to an engagement in the ‘boxing ring’ of intellectual debate.

I propose that the fighting spirit of academia, which drives the pursuit of knowledge and inquiry, should not be disarmed or pacified but rather be given room to play out in such a way that participants can compete on equal grounds.

The hard school

Only then can the battle of ideas take place in conditions of fair engagement, and in the spirit pursuing knowledge, with all voices being given a reasonable opportunity to be heard. If one stream of thought in an academic sphere is introduced on the academic stage, another stream should be allowed to square up as well. Let the contenders compete by the standards of the hard school of evidence, logic and reason.

It is fitting that institutions of higher learning should be the arena, and the ethic of intellectual contention the referee. And on a final, crucial note, the academy must ensure that the fight is conducted in the open, visible and accessible to all fans of knowledge and learning. Ensuring a vigorous battle of ideas keeps academia strong and in fighting shape, ready and willing to see its notions and findings challenged, refuted, expanded on, adopted or cited. By exposing itself in the ring, academia keeps itself honest and protects itself from being weaponised for self-serving agendas.

Here, though, the Lumumba episode is an example of a fight that could – and should – have played out in the intellectual boxing ring, but did not.

Missed opportunity

Lumumba was not invited as a guest lecturer for a course provided by the university for the sake of ‘knowledge and engagement’. But it was a missed opportunity for UCT to engage Lumumba in debate and challenge his views and whatever ‘evidence’ he could marshal for them, as an academic supporting such extreme and dangerous measures as Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law. This is a man whose academic status affords him influence that carries political weight. Policies and laws are born in ivory towers with real-world outcomes. Yet, there was no opportunity for debate. Protest alone was inadequate in challenging this academic’s ideas.

Regardless of my personal opinions about which fighter I’d place my bets on, putting Lumumba in the ring with another academic pugilist would have provided a lively, regulated and politically important, engagement. That is, if he were up to stepping into the ring.

[Image: Plato and Aristotle, detail from Raphael’s fresco, The School of Athens, in the Vatican]

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Genevieve Labuschagne is a Master's Political Sciences candidate focusing on political risk analysis, and is currently an intern at the Centre for Risk Analysis. Her interests lie in ESG, political economy, conflict, and civil unrest.