A review of former University of Cape Town Vice Chancellor Dr Max Price’s memoir Statues and Storms

In his memoir, ex-VC Price (2008-2018) self-portrays variously as: a ‘calm’, ‘courageous’, ‘resilient’, ‘seasoned transformer’ who fought on ‘both sides of the barricades’; a ‘man in the arena‘ (sensu US President Theodore Roosevelt); white parrot in an absurd looking hat; a decisive ‘Horatius-at-the-Bridge’ defender of UCT’s anti-apartheid heritage; and a ‘leader through change’ of a ‘complacent’ UCT in a transformational incremental ‘rut’.

Hence, he had to make ‘tough decisions’. Some of his decision-making required ‘compromising principles’ to achieve a ‘greater good’ and his resilience involved participating in a ‘long card game’ which forced him to ‘play a poor hand well’. Finally, he describes the Fallist Movement sensu lato at UCT as a ‘watershed period in higher education in South Africa, with ripple effects around the world’ that was ‘triggered by’ ‘legitimate protest’ against the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the centre of the UCT campus acting as a seminal event’. This allowed UCT to become ‘a trailblazer in this regard’ and ‘the history and debates at UCT are of interest globally.’

However, many (most?) generally un-consulted past and Fallist-Era-affected UCT academics, students, alumni, support staff and donors think differently. They did not respect, let alone celebrate or revere Rhodes the man or politician. Yet all and sundry were willing to accept land for Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens and the Rondebosch campus of UCT and (like Price and his daughter) Rhodes Scholarships to better the lives of all South Africans. They steadfastly, peacefully and strategically resisted (some for over decades) the Apartheid Regime and ineffective and/or corrupt post-apartheid governments. Simultaneously, these dedicated Ikey folk and many who preceded them also strategically transformed UCT from ‘a second-tier, colonial, male-dominated, whites-only, athletic institution where intellectual advancement [was] not altogether discouraged’ into an eminent international centre committed to non-racialism, academic freedom and excellence in education and research.

In reality, Price’s principled-principal predecessors left him a ‘strong hand’ to play. Tragically, during his decade at the ‘card table’ more often than not Price ‘folded’ to Fallists who had perpetrated illegal acts of intimidation, physical violence and arson. While he was ‘negotiating’, Ikey constructive transformers were largely ignored (in some cases arguably abandoned/victimized/betrayed) by him and his Executive and intimidated and, at times, terrorized by small numbers of sjambok-wielding and stone-petrol-bomb-throwing Fallist recidivist law-breakers. When and wherever they expressed views critical of increasingly unrealistic, unappeasable, multi-alternative-truth, often outright illegitimate Fallist accusations and demands, they were defamed as racists, socio-academically ‘cancelled’ by Fallists and some colleagues and alumni who defended and enabled Fallist law-breakers in their thuggery. Tragically, in some cases they were driven from their posts and even to commit suicide.

The engagement between the Price and members of his Executive and Fallists and their academic and alumni supporters/enablers resulted in:

  1. situationally suspending university teaching and research;
  2. shutting down entire campuses;
  3. unilaterally excluding a speaker invited to present the international renowned annual TB Davie Freedom Lecture;
  4. selectively hiring/defending/promoting chosen staff and ignoring/betraying others;
  5. subjecting uncooperative students and alumni to racially motivated intimidation; and
  6. removing or covering up – under the guise of ‘curation’ – selected artworks that some ‘protestors’ found offensive.

This Ikey ‘silenced majority’ ‘who experienced’ Price-tolerated near anarchy and choreographed, blitzkrieg-like devasting effects of Fallism and his Executive’s actions and inactions would not describe his memoir as a ‘gripping defence‘ of his VC-ship. Indeed, eminent UCT scholars saw/see Price rather as an ‘intellectual coward’ and a ‘disaster’ and/or an unjustifiably self-certain, ‘two-faced‘, situationally ethical social engineer/consultant brimming with hubris. He contextually and situationally compromised academic freedom by ‘progressively’ and increasingly propitiating a small, fractious assemblage of racialized extremist Fallists, while avoiding, evading, ignoring and/or distorting desperate colleagues and their well-argued and documented evidence. [For well-evidenced details, see philosophy Professor David Benatar’s book The Fall of the University of Cape Town and my 77 pieces published from an evolutionary biologist’s perspective in Rational Standard – especially Vice Chancellors as Mirrors of the History of UCT: Max Price, and 102 pieces in my blogsite – https://timguineacrowe.blogspot.com]

Memoir-Price attempts to justify his administration’s actions/inactions on the assertion that they were necessary to energize a ‘complacent’ UCT and to prevent lethal violence and widespread destruction and arson perpetrated by thousands of rioting Fallist extremists that would have toppled.

Alarmist-Price’s fears were unjustified.

Arguably from 1950, and certainly from the late 1970s, starting with Prof./Dr Stuart Saunder’s VC-ship, virtually to a person, members of UCT’s administration, departments, faculties, Senate and Council pursued steady, peaceful, strategic reconstructive transformation during and after legalized apartheid. Only two persons were seriously injured during Fallism – two unarmed security personnel sneak-attacked by weaponized-Fallists. They had to be hospitalized when they did their jobs to prevent – at most – dozens of ragtag thugs using violence and destruction to shut UCT down during brief and localized bouts of violent and destructive ‘protest’. With regard to UCT’s international status as Africa’s preeminent university. Thanks to the efforts of the abovementioned ‘complacents’ and their allegedly equally complacent predecessors, She became and has remained no.1, despite the perceived threats of marauding Fallists.

Yet, in order to prevent his feared ‘fall into a violent abyss’, during his last three years in office, Price ‘negotiated’ – again and again – with (capitulated to, colluded with?) handfuls of personally-selected, non-representative, unapologetic, law-breaking, bailed-out, multi-pardoned, extremist Fallist protesters and imagined violent Muslim radicals.

Last and ‘worst’, Negotiator-Price and three of his team – who had previously been held hostage for hours in the hot sun by Fallists – contracted with a handful of the most virulent Fallist extremists (one of whom had to be bailed out of prison). Law-breakers were granted provisional clemency for their Ikey-intimidation, hate speech, destruction and arson to date and UCT was committed to creating and facilitating the functioning of an ‘independent’ Internal Reconciliation and Transformation Commission (IRTC).

The IRTC was mandated to:

  1. look into ‘institutional culture and practices, including decolonisation and any that entail unjust discrimination, domination or violence including sexual violence’ and to make relevant recommendations in this regard, in particular in relation to ‘institutional culture, transformation, disability and any other matters which the university community has raised over the years or may wish to raise and
  2. deal with the issue of amnesties for students who were granted clemencies by the Price-Executive, and to make recommendations on how to deal with the outstanding cases in the spirit of restorative justice.

With regard to Mandate 1, in its Final Report the IRTC:

  1. Concluded that the Price-led ‘university management to the protests that unfolded in 2015, 2016 and 2017 was inadequate and inappropriate, to say the least, and as such failed to take account of students’ experiences of racism, structural violence, discrimination or psychological abuse’.
  2. Effectively endorsed an evidence-free, inchoate Alumni Constituency Proposed Framework (Annexure B) not discussed – let alone debated – by the IRTC Steering Committee. 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 concludes that racism and multi-facetted violence at UCT dating back to Her beginnings ‘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. This endorsement was used in a scurrilous piece published in Nature, ‘one of the world’s most-read and most prestigious academic journals‘ with ‘an online readership of about three million unique readers per month’ to confirm to the scientific world grossly defamatory, totally evidence-free allegations that long-standing racism remains ‘rife’ and ‘entrenched’ at UCT and needs to be ‘erased’.

With regard to Mandate 2, it:

  1. vindicated the illegal physically violent and destructive acts of eight unapologetic Shackville Fallists by recommending their full and unconditional amnesty; and
  2. failed to address the issue of what constitutes legitimate protest at UCT.

It’s not my fault

Then, in the ‘postscript’ to his final chapter, Memoir-Price retrospectively complains that the IRTC process was a ‘missed opportunity’, ‘complete travesty’ and ‘huge disappointment’. Its Commissioners – he now claims – ‘reinterpreted the period in a one-sided, simplistic, even naïve trope, an unhealthy narrative of divisive binaries’ that ‘ignore[ed] and misinterpret[ed] facts, court evidence and alternative explanations’.

Sadly, instead of directly challenging the damning, evidence-free conclusions in the Nature piece, he ‘made my [his] own submissions from afar’. They were buried in an obscure and largely unread ‘Feedback and responses’ document to the IRTC Report.

In short, Price failed to defend the ‘complacent’ UCT he ‘curated’ and endangered her ‘silenced majority’ by undermining academic and freedom and unfettered civil debate founded on polices that had been in effect at before he was born. There was no justice, restored or otherwise, except for a handful of admittedly guilty, unapologetic – let alone repentant – Fallists who claimed victory: ‘We have managed to push Max Price and his UCT management to agreeing to our internal demands. But it’s not over yet.’

Indeed, as I write this piece, those who succeeded (indeed were recruited by) him as UCT’s ‘curators’ are involved in vicious infighting and subjects of yet another Independent Investigation – this time into UCT’s ‘governance’. Four members of the panel of investigators assisted by three ‘Evidence Leaders’, have concluded that Price’s successor and members of UCT’s Council (including its two past Chairpersons and most recent Deputy Chair) behaved ‘unprofessionally by engaging in activity involving unfairness, breaches of labour law or UCT statutes that is prohibited in the UCT workplace’ by ‘improperly using their positions to gain an advantage for themselves or someone else’.

We are not guilty!

All of those identified as ‘breachers’ strongly deny allegations made against them and forcibly-resigned Chair of Council Babalwa Ngonyama has accused the Panel and Council of attempting to ‘tarnish my legacy at UCT, but the facts will speak for themselves in due course’.

Her predecessor, Sipho Pityana, describes the Report as ‘a lost opportunity in light of the broad challenges confronting the Higher Education sector’. The Portfolio Committee on Higher Education has called on Minister Blade Nzimande to appoint an independent assessor to essentially review the report and advise on how to proceed.

Let’s wait and see what happens in due course, probably in the courts and scarily maybe in Parliament. But note; the current Council still is factionally polarized; the new UCT Students’ Representative Council is super-dominated by the Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command that shows total fealty to demagogue Julius Malema; and there seems to be no ‘complacent’ candidate in the running to replace outstanding interim VC emeritus Professor Daya Reddy – who to my mind would have made a great VC back in 2008 (when he didn’t even make the shortlist).

Time and, perhaps sadly, powerful identity politics will tell.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Timothy Crowe is an emeritus professor of evolutionary and conservation biology. During his 50 years at the University of Cape Town as a student, educator, researcher and administrator, he has educated students who have gone on to become professors/lecturers, museum directors and conservation biologists in their own right; authored more than 300 scientific papers in peer-reviewed publications; and been elected a Fellow at UCT and president of the southern African Societies of Wildlife Research and Systematic Biology.