Freedom at UCT is teetering

Sara Gon | Jul 23, 2019
Everything that a world-class university is meant to do – above all, to encourage critical thinking, debate and free speech – is under attack.

Over the three traumatic years of #RhodesMustFall and then #FeesMustFall, we wrote extensively and critically about the University of Cape Town (UCT). The anarchic and intolerant groupings that held sway at UCT lit the flames of disruption at universities countrywide.

The Fallist Movement was the opportunity for academics on the left, steeped in social justice and identity politics, to take control of many of the institutions of management.

The violence is largely a thing of the past. However, the Fallist Movement’s ongoing purpose is to try to get UCT management to restrict academic freedom through policy. The movement seeks to achieve control by ‘decolonising’ the university.

Everything that a world-class university is meant to do, above all else to encourage critical thinking, debate and free speech, is under attack. The Movement is fed by a toxic mix of identity politics, a culture of victimhood and historical anger. This can change UCT overnight.

The more absurd an academic’s views, the more likely it is that he or she will attempt to impose it on colleagues. Moderate academics have largely been intimidated by allegations of racism, by aggression and even by threats. They are afraid that this is the new orthodoxy and if they challenge it they will lose their jobs.

Students don’t engage in great numbers in campus politics. Added to that, the Fallist years were very traumatic. So many students are not prepared to get involved. This milieu has allowed the Economic Freedom Front’s Student Command (EFF-SC) to virtually take over the Students’ Representative Council; and pursue the Movement’s aims with enthusiasm.

A classically liberal student organization, ProgressSA, started organising this year at UCT. Their core five principles are liberty, opportunity, non-racialism and non-sexism, a market economy, and the rule of law.

On the day that ProgressSA was launched at UCT, they tweeted to the Vice-Chancellor, Mamokgethi Phakeng, asking her what she was going to do to protect academic freedom. Phakeng blocked them and ignored them for the rest of the week. That same day the EFF-SC and the ANC-aligned South African Students’ Council (Sasco) protested outside her office, and she met with them. Phakeng continued with the appeasement of protest action and threats that had been established by her predecessor, Dr. Max Price.

Co-founder of ProgessSA Tami Jackson describes UCT as continuously entertaining the loud minority as if they represented all students, describing it as a “dictatorship of the minorities”.

The decline in academic freedom was graphically displayed when the ironically named ‘Academic Freedom Committee’ (AFC) arranged the annual TB Davie Memorial Lecture intended to celebrate academic freedom in 2016. The AFC invited Flemming Rose, the culture editor of Jyllens-Posten in Denmark, who had published the ‘Mohammed cartoons’. The then Vice-Chancellor Max Price overrode the committee and disinvited Rose out of fear of the reaction it would provoke from the left and the Muslim community at UCT.

A more recent example is yet another attempt by the Palestinian Support Forum (PSF) to get UCT to support a boycott of Israeli academics. In 2018 the AFC approved the PSF’s proposed boycott of Israeli academics. This approval was then submitted to the Senate which also supported a boycott. Amongst those sitting on the AFC and the Senate are members of the board of Boycott Disinvestment Sanctions SA.

As another example of the high levels of intolerance at UCT, the Senate and AFC refused to consider any representations by the South African Union of Jewish Students or any other part of the broader community. The UCT Council, however, eventually decided to send the issue back to the Senate for proper consideration.

The immediate threat to academic freedom is the high water mark of the Fallists’ programme - the Curriculum Change Framework (CCF). The view of classical liberals at UCT is that if the CCF influences policy at UCT, this will be an end to academic freedom. The CCF is an existential threat to academic freedom.

After the #RhodesMustFall campaign, UCT started moves to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum. The current CCF Working Group is made up of radical academics and student leaders from the radical movements.

One particular problem is the Humanities faculty, which Jackson describes as an ‘asylum for the left’. Students are not allowed to record certain lectures in the Humanities, particularly in politics. Departments such as politics use their lectures for propaganda purposes and lectures sound like Economic Freedom Fighter rallies. Lectures are racist and provocative.

A requirement of the CCF Working Group is that its members can only be African or coloured. According to Jackson and the co-founder of ProgressSA, Scott Roberts, the CCF talks ‘gobbledy gook’ and its arguments make no sense.

The CCF states that certain things shouldn’t be taught - anything colonialist or heterosexual, and unacceptable power relations should be censored in some way.

To go from the ridiculous to the utterly ridiculous, lecturers of the ‘wrong’ colour shouldn’t be able to speak on any subjects at all; this is because they don’t understand ‘black pain’: they have the wrong ‘epistemological’ perspective. They can’t teach African literature because they’re somehow incapable of transmitting the truth in this literature.

ProgressSA says UCT hasn’t clarified the status of the CCF and it has submitted an open letter to query its status. It wants UCT to support academic freedom and to ensure that no colour bar exists in lectures.

The Movement controls every discourse at UCT and it sets the agenda. It is ludicrous that trying to restrict thought and history of thought is even being considered.

The acid test for UCT will lie in how they deal with Dr. Lwazi Lushaba, a lecturer in political studies. There has been a long and tumultuous process to try and fill the post of the Head of the Humanities faculty. Various attempts to proceed with the process have failed for a variety of reasons, particularly procedural.

The most recent attempt by all accounts was procedurally sound. The members of the relevant committee cast their ballots. Lushaba then proceeded to ‘lose it’ by tearing the ballot box apart and eating some of the ballot papers.

Lushaba had previously been suspended from the University of the Witwatersrand over allegations, inter alia, of racism, before being employed at UCT.

He was very active and visible during the Fallist period and often made virulently racist statements. During 2017, at an open-air meeting between UCT and students he uttered a racist, inflammatory diatribe which in most normal environments would have seen him dismissed.

ProgressSA asked Phakeng what action was being taken against him.  She replied that it was confidential. She either didn’t know or chose not to know that while the content of any hearing is confidential, the nature of the disciplinary proceedings is not.

Either way, this will be the acid test for Phakeng for the tolerance of intolerance at UCT.

This article includes a precis of an interview that Tami Jackson and Scott Roberts gave on the Renegade Report on 26 February 2019.  

 

Sara Gon is the head of strategic engagement at the IRR.

 

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