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Abuse of power through silencing dialogue

On the website of the National Tertiary Education Staff Union (NTESU), you can see the number of signatures on the petition on ‘Defending Academic Freedom at UKZN” rising every hour.

Browsing through the list, the names of academics and senior students are coming fast and furious from all corners of the globe. Their voices, represented in the brief remarks submitted with their signatures, are loud and clear.

An academic from a university in Denmark comments: ‘Freedom of critique — including critique of university management — is a core value of academic freedom.”

Another one from Brazil decries the abuse of power through silencing dialogue and debate in academic institutions and calls it a ‘continuation of apartheid practices under a different name”. And a professor from The Hague expresses concern that events at UKZN are a reversal of the democratic gains splendidly reflected in the South African Constitution and that they threaten a ‘move in the direction of authoritarianism”. From India, Thailand, Canada, Malawi, the UK, the US and from our own shores, the news of the UKZN management’s treatment of professors Nithaya Chetty and John van den Berg has stirred academics across the globe.

The story of these two professors and the disciplinary fate that awaits them, however, is just the tip of the iceberg of the politics of power at universities. Their experiences have echoes in not only other academic institutions across the country, but also in schools, courts, government, churches, media institutions and the corporate sector. The abuse of power in many of our institutions resembles — in subtle ways — the abuses we have witnessed in government, both our own and our regional neighbours’ governments. There are stories of abuses of power from other liberal institutions that would shock readers if these stories were disclosed in this newspaper.

One finds that when people have been in positions of power in academic institutions for too long, they are sometimes caught up in rigid bureaucratic styles where the only rule that matters is obedience to authority. A spirit of dialogue among colleagues is stifled.

In such an atmosphere, rules serve the purpose of erecting a form of authoritarian control, where action is directed by the priority placed on people to do their ‘duty” uncritically, unquestioningly. Those who dare to speak out on issues of principle are either ignored or immediately silenced without a hearing. And if they persist, they may be punished in a range of ways that are sugar-coated with appropriate language aimed at concealing the element of punishment. Such a leadership style destroys freedom systematically, but very subtly, while introducing fear.

What surprises me the most about the story of Chetty and Van den Berg is that for all the structures that universities have set up to protect its members from discrimination and abuses of power, structures presumably aimed at resolving internal matters amicably, Chetty and Van den Berg have had to ‘go public” with their struggles. This is an indictment of not only senior management, but also of all those who walk the corridors of power at UKZN. This, in my view, is the important aspect. If those in positions of leadership at universities cannot show the courage to stand in the eye of the proverbial storm and to chart the path toward change, what hope do we have for transformation at these institutions?

Transformation must include transforming the meaning of power and leadership in institutions of higher learning. There are moments when senior academics who serve in leadership roles have to show courage and bare their moral stature. In the best of these moments, these leaders will step in to raise their voices about important matters of principle, and thus will raise the debate to a higher level. Elie Wiesel’s statement, ‘to remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all”, should be the mantra for all of us, but especially for those in positions of leadership. Power and authority in an environment that nurtures critical thinking and independence cannot simply be about issuing orders and expecting silence and uncritical obedience.

Institutions of higher learning are required to contribute meaningfully to a new society. I doubt that there is any university today without an institutional transformation programme. Unfortunately, ‘transformation” at universities has focused too narrowly on race and gender, an agenda driven mainly by changing the face of our institutions ­­ more women or more blacks and coloured people in positions of leadership.

Very rarely do questions about the moral stature and integrity of those appointed form part of appointment decisions. Therefore, we find that little is changing in academic institutions. Granted, there are myriad reasons for this: anti-transformation elites who find sophisticated ways of blocking the transformation goals of their institutions; those who push transformation as a law to be enforced, resulting in inevitable resistance; those who feel threatened by change and are simply afraid of facing an unknown future, and so many other reasons.

We cannot know with certainty what passions, fears and/or demons are raging in the hearts of our fellow human beings. However, I believe that if we can create a collegiate environment that encourages dialogue in our institutions instead of silencing it, we can learn to respect one another and treat each other with dignity.

Some of the problems we have witnessed in institutions around the country are part of the larger context of our search for identity in a changing society. They have to do with our deepest and most hidden fears about what it means to be white and what it means to be coloured or black in our changing institutions. These issues require a much more thoughtful debate and mutually respectful dialogue.

The test of progress in our academic institutions will be measured by our ability to learn to talk to one another and really listen to others who may be different from us. Institutional change may be happening too fast for some. It may be too slow for others. Yet many may feel that nothing has changed at all in the academe. These feelings and perceptions may be at the heart of our deepest, unnamed fears. Diversity in our institutions has never been more important than it is now. However, much more is needed.

The call to defend academic freedom should really be a call to dialogue about how to foster compassionate leadership in our institutions; leadership inspired by the desire to empower others to become better human beings. All around us we see the imperfections of our young democracy and the frailty of human justice. We can learn from these examples and take stock in the tradition of Socratic reflection: continual reflection on our actions and continual questioning of the decisions we make in our different roles at various levels of leadership in the institutions within which we serve.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is the author of A Human Being Died that Night and co-author of Narrating our Healing: Perspectives on Working through Trauma. She is co-editor of a forthcoming book, Memory, Narrative and Forgiveness

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Pumla Gobodo
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is the Research Chair in Studies in Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. She graduated from Fort Hare University with a bachelor's degree and an Honours degree in psychology.

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