Velvet fist in a glove of iron

June Sinclair, University of the Witwatersrand vice-principal and deputy vice-chancellor, in


JUNE SINCLAIR’S best friend, Etienne Mureinik, used to describe her as “a velvet fist in an iron glove”, she tells me. It’s three months after Mureinik – her successor as dean of the University of the Witwatersrand’s Law School and her closest ally in Wits politics- killed himself, and Sinclair, one of three candidates short- listed for the university’s vice- chancellorship, is once more the target of a virulent demonisation campaign by the South African Students’ Congress (Sasco) at Wits.

Last Monday, Sasco called students to a meeting to protest her candidacy. “She symbolises the forces of darkness at this university,” one student said at the meeting; “She is totally opposed to transformation of any kind,” said another. Citing a red herring -that Sinclair has a conflict of interest by competing in a process which she, as current second-in- command at the university, helped determine – they marched into Senate House this week and handed her a memorandum demanding she withdraw from the race.

A few days earlier, Sinclair and I sit in her home in Morningside and talk about the death of Mureinik. “A university,” she says, “is supposed to breed a diversity of opinion, and what a lot of us are seeing is that that space has been shut down now. If you have a view that’s not the party line, you’re a traitor. You’re not a New South African, not part of the Rainbow Nation, anti-reconciliation … That stuff wasn’t the cause of Etienne’s death – he was ill – but it would be a disservice to him not to acknowledge that that sort of pain contributed to his sense of worthlessness … That destroyed him and it’s a factor that’s affecting the morale of a lot of us.”

Her identification with Mureinik is strong. “I sometimes get terribly depressed … But I come out of it the next day. I say to myself, `You have a responsibility. This is your big contribution in life; the one contribution you can make to this country. They don’t understand you. If they’d only give you the chance, you could show them …’ I’m a fighter, and this [the Sasco campaign] makes me even more determined to prove that people are wrong. I’m not a quitter.”

“Robust” is a big word in the Sinclair vocabulary: it is a quality she admires in debate, in colleagues, in herself. So passionate is her campaign for the vice- chancellorship, so brazen is its ambition, that more than once she turns our conversation into a campaign stump: to run Wits “you need a combination of passionate commitment to the success of the institution, firmness about its values, coupled with a degree of softness. I’m going to be arrogant, and tell you I am that person.”

With a style that is more typical of American hustings than the donnish confines of a university, she engages in her own brand of negative advertising. “He’s gentle, he’s a poet, he’s a lovely human being,” she says of her competitor Njabulo Ndebele. “But I don’t know whether being a lovely human being is the acid test for turning around an institution which is really floundering, on a downhill run. … I think I have a better chance than Njabulo, just on sheer managerial experience and competence. He’s not a team builder – note the wonderful team he built at the University of the North! There’s zippo to take over from him!”

Leave aside the strategic wisdom of such a full-frontal approach to the congenitally diffident and politically irreproachable Ndebele. Why is she fighting with such fervour in the first place?

There’s clearly an element of wounded pride in her motivation. The career she describes is littered with the slights and slurs she has had to endure as an ambitious career woman. She has fought for her autonomy, all the way from a father who refused to pay for her university fees and who felt that she had betrayed her gender by being a working woman, to the venerable Professor HR Hahlo who mistook her for a secretary when she was, in fact, applying for a chair in the faculty. It’s a fight she freely admits to even in her own marriage to a husband who, “although he has an intellectual understanding of the fact I had the right to pursue a career as much as he did, was emotionally still the product of his generation, and saw my responsibility to the children as being primary. There was still that subordination.”

Just under 50, she is of the supermom generation. She was expected to be a full- time parent in an environment where mothers who wanted to advance professionally simply couldn’t take time off: she went back to work when her son was nine days old.

This has had a powerful impact on her own scholarship. Her great victory over Hahlo, in fact, is her ground-breaking new book, The Law of Marriage, which takes the old professor’s Bible, The South African Law of Husband and Wife, and places it within both this country’s new constitutional order and an uncompromising feminist discourse.

Gender roles within the family, she argues, have to be reappraised and relegislated if women are to be given the equity promised them in our new Bill of Rights. The book has been lauded: her scholarship is exhaustive and her arguments persuasive. In generations to come, law students will take out their Sinclairs, not their Hahlos, and will read a force of enlightenment that is as far away from the spectre of “darkness” painted by Sasco as one could imagine.

In fact, her most significant intervention has been the way she has, in the words of colleague Thandabantu Nhlapo, “disrupted the stereotypes about white academics and customary law. She has strong feminist tendencies, and yet she’ll take a dispassionate look at something like lobola, or resolutely refuse to condemn polygamy, because she understands how, as cultural practices, these do often serve the needs of women themselves.” The fact that Sinclair deals with such issues in a discipline that has long ignored non-Western notions of family altogether, makes her scholarship perhaps one of the prime exemplars of what her adversary William Makgoba would call “Africanisation.”

How, then, does one reconcile the incontrovertibly rights-oriented progressivism of Sinclair’s scholarship with her image held by many at Wits as a recalcitrant bittereinder?

Sinclair uses feminism itself to provide an answer. Like Mamphela Ramphele at the University of Cape Town, Sinclair often finds herself demonised by students because “I’m not the nurturing-mom type … A lot of black students have grown up in a patriarchal society where discipline is dispensed by men. I do think that as far as black males are concerned there’s a difficulty – and it’s not their fault, it has to do with the society they come from – in accepting the authority of a white woman.”

She quite correctly identifies as sexist the way she has been gendered by the media as a “Margaret Thatcher”, an “Iron Lady” who is “tough as nails”. “I’m very robust and I’m prepared to go out and fight for the things I believe in. But because I’m a woman, this is considered not good. And so the stigma has never left me. `She’s aggressive. She’s abrasive. She clashes with people’. Those are sexist remarks. They’d be seen as a strong personality in a man.”

And so, whereas Sinclair’s predecessor at Wits Law School, the exquisitely feminine Louise Tager, ran things, according to one academic, “like a cocktail party where everyone felt good but not a lot happened,” Sinclair “brought with her an intellectual rigour and an astonishing efficiency that put a lot of backs up but got a lot done.”

The fact that she really was one of the first people at Wits to agitate for transformation may be one of the major reasons for the velocity of her campaign for the vice-chancellorship. In the face of history, though, there is something about it that seems either desperate or wilfully self-destructive. Even though she has the support of a large slice of faculty and alumni, she is fighting, as if her life depends on it, for a job that current times dictate she stands a slim chance of getting.

Her response is characteristically indignant: “If that’s the case, they should have been honest and said, `Whites need not apply’. If they’re not going to give me the job because I’m white, even if I’m the best candidate, they’re going to have to say it. I’m not going to do it for them. I’m not going to let them off the hook.”

Perhaps one reason for the “robustness” of the Sinclair candidacy is that she wishes to expose, if the university fails to select her, the fact of what people like herself, Mureinik and Charles van Onselen have been asserting ever since the Makgoba row began: that Wits is a sacrificial lamb on the altar of African nationalism.

Sinclair’s troubles, as deputy vice- chancellor in charge of student affairs and vice-principal of the university, began when she was deputising for vice-chancellor Robert Charlton in 1993. The campus erupted in violence, and she called the Internal Stability Unit on to the campus. She is unrepentant. She had no choice, she says, and besides, she did not take the decision alone. No less measured a personage than Judge Richard Goldstone was standing right next to her and told her to call the police when the riots broke out.

“The problem with June Sinclair’s whole approach,” says a very senior colleague who opposes her candidacy, “is that she tends to define strong principles and then to look for things to defend these principles against. And so there’s an overblown fear about the autonomy of the university and the collapse of academic freedom.”

According to this line of argument, if Wits has been polarised into the stereotyped camps of barbarians on one side of the ivory gates and recalcitrant dons on the other, she is more than a little responsible.

She says she is misunderstood because, trained as a lawyer, she uses the “forensic” skills of courtroom debate. Students counter that they want someone to listen to them, not to pick holes in their arguments. For university management in troubled times, says another senior faculty member, “this legal training -with an adversarial approach aimed at trying to trip up your opponent rather than a problem-solving approach, is inappropriate. Wits needs a diplomat, a conciliator, not someone who whips people up through being adversarial.”

A younger female lawyer, who has considers Sinclair a role-model, says that “June is an example of a woman who has paid the price for trying to be a woman in a man’s world. Because she had to be so tough, she often landed up being much tougher than you need to be, and this was read as abrasive, as prickly. She didn’t know – the way men are taught to know – how to put the iron fist in a velvet glove.”

Which brings us back to Mureinik, whose empathetic and incisive observation was that the fist wasn’t iron in the first place – it was simply masked by iron cladding. Sinclair’s adversarial persona is, I sense, a cover; the professional rationalisation of a prickliness borne of never quite feeling appreciated.

June Sinclair has always found the world against her and always overcome that. The irony is that, now, at the final hurdle of her academic career, the very quality that helped her overcome previous obstacles – her “robustness” – counts against her.

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