/ 9 February 2011

Letters to the Editor: February 4

M&G readers share their thoughts on various reports in our newspaper.

Education council’s credibility zero
I found the response by the chief executive of the Council on Higher Education (CHE), Ahmed Essop, to David Macfarlane’s queries (“Controversial UKZN audit under wraps“, January 14) on the failed University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) institutional audit rather lazy.

The UKZN case has set an awful precedent, and Essop should have been alert to the consequences of the CHE’s capitulation. The murkiness that has accompanied much of UKZN vice-chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba’s career has been allowed to spill over into the CHE. Shirley Brooks (“University dispute causes a crisis of credibility“, January 28) noted that “the poison at the UKZN has sadly spread and is now infecting a national body tasked with conducting independent assessments of the country’s higher-learning institutions”.

I believe this will have dire consequences for the future of the CHE, which has undermined its own processes and its credibility in its quest to appease the vice-chancellor. Who is going to take a future audit by the CHE seriously again? The reasons for the withdrawal as posted on the CHE website are not convincing.

The impression given is that the decision was preordained and that the web posting is a clumsy attempt to cover this up. One must ask: Why did the CHE kow-tow to the vice-chancellor? Aside from Makgoba personally, who or what stands to benefit? How was Makgoba able to orchestrate this trick? How high does this rot go?

I doubt such a brazen disappearing act could have been performed without the knowledge and approval of key individuals in high places. It seems to me that the review panel was set up only as a front to give credence to this questionable decision. A high-stakes political game is being played out and I cannot see how there can be any winners in the end.

In a bizarre way, this fiasco could well have a positive outcome for a sector within higher education. Many have felt that the CHE, with its responsibilities to oversee quality assurance and quality promotion within higher education, including programme accreditation, institutional audits, programme evaluation, quality promotion and capacity building, is too intrusive and has a negative effect on institutional autonomy, which is a pillar of academic freedom.

The better-run universities — of which there are only a handful — want to manage themselves with little government interference.

Many of the good universities know what their social responsibilities are and what their imperatives should be, and they are working conscientiously to address the broad needs of our society while maintaining high levels of good governance, collegiality and scholarship.

They don’t need to be constantly prodded on by the government. Perhaps with a discredited CHE, and with the CHE having already played its transformative role, it will begin to slide into oblivion? This recent debacle has certainly helped it on its way. The irony, of course, is that the CHE should be focusing its energies on assisting poorly managed universities such as UKZN to get up off their knees. — Nithaya Chetty

As a member of the panel that audited UKZN I would like to thank you for the article on the suppressed CHE report on UKZN. The panel consisted of eight senior administrators and academics, all with different expertise, all sympathetic to the problems of leading our universities, and all independent-minded.

Our conclusions were based on the university’s self-assessment, hundreds of documents, site visits, and interviews with a wide cross-section of the university community.

We were rigorous and diligent in our work and balanced in our assessments. As chairperson, Professor Martin Hall was a model of fairness and integrity, and both his verbal report to the university and subsequent letter were agreed upon by the committee as a whole.

In suppressing our report, the CHE has done an injustice to the professionalism and hard work of both the panel and those members of the UKZN community who gave us their time, prepared documents and answered questions.

Further, it has buried the numerous commendations and recommendations that could have assisted the university in its development, and has prevented the public from judging the work of a committee it funded and whose findings it deserves to know.

I have already written to the CHE expressing my unhappiness, but have received no reply. So, allow me now, through your pages, to call on the CHE to reverse its decision and make public the report of the panel that audited UKZN. — Professor Peter Alexander, South African Research Chair in Social Change, University of Johannesburg

The suppression of the interim audit report of UKZN will surprise no academic staff member who works there. Far from being “The Premier University of African Scholarship”, the institution has become a university only in name. It has been described aptly by many there as an academic factory. The student is now a paying client, management are the factory bosses, the vice-chancellor is the overpriced chief executive and the academic staff are the floor workers.

The factory product is twofold: first, lettering (but not necessarily educating) students — management deals only with numbers and is not concerned with quality. Inordinate demands are placed on academic staff both to teach and to produce “research”, the quality of which is immaterial as long as it is published (no matter the obscurity or parochiality of the journal it appears in) and garners for the institution the requisite financial reward from government — to fund managerial bonuses.

The tragedy of UKZN could be laid solely at the door of the vice-chancellor, but it should be remembered that the senior professoriate of the university, and its students, have been complicit in what has aptly been described as its “vertiginous decline”.

The overweight and overwhelmingly incompetent management of the university is largely drawn from academics of rank who have chosen silence, obsequiousness and financial reward above loyalty to any academic ideal.

It is the junior academic staff, with the most at risk, who have spoken bravely against the poison seeping through the institution from the office of the vice-chancellor. If anyone wishes to understand the mechanics of this and of the audit-report suppression, they should read the recently published, self-laudatory history of the UKZN merger.

Its racist underpinnings and absolute failure even to refer to the academic staff who drive the university endeavour reveal the contempt in which the minister for higher education, the UKZN vice-chancellor and his managerial lackeys hold the academic staff of all South African universities.

The only hope for UKZN to return to its status as an institution of quality is its utter collapse and subsequent renaissance — or a revolution by its students and staff. Meanwhile, it is evident that the CHE cares nothing for the institutions under its aegis and less for the future of their students. — Name withheld

Doherty whitewashes the bush-war experience
In “Representation of war wakes us from childhood dreams” (Friday, January 20), Bronwyn Law-Viljoen paints a naive picture of Christo Doherty’s latest exhibition at the Resolution Gallery of Digital Art, BOS — Constructed Images and the Memory of the South African “Border War”.

In spite of its title, this exhibition does not seem to be about all South Africans, or about their memory. Doherty engages in something of a whitewash by speaking on behalf of some whites as if he were speaking on behalf of everyone. In his explanatory notes, posted on the gallery website, Doherty writes: “The exhibition will explore the emotional consequences of the war for the young white conscripts who were sent to fight in a war that was never properly explained or justified to them and which many were never able to talk about subsequently.”

Such historical revisionism transmogrifies the victims of the apartheid death machine from butchered black bodies to spectral white ghosts. It is nothing less than a martyrology, turning the foot soldiers of apartheid into victims. To claim that white conscripts never had the “war — properly explained or justified to them” is an outrageous misrepresentation of the truth. This lie is immediately hidden by the call to sympathise with their subsequent trauma.

Doherty’s exhibition would appear to perpetuate white exceptionalism, for whether victims or perpetrators, the question remains: Why did these young conscripts not make use of the moral, psychological and political healing process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? — Paul Wessels, Grahamstown

Tick, tock, tick—
The metronomic qualities of Nic Dawes’s “Nodding along to Stiglitz’s tune” (January 21) will hopefully get policymakers in South Africa to sharpen their green pencils and find a way to escape the grip of our filthy energy (from coal and oil) economy.

There are jobs to be created on solar-energy farms in our creeping deserts, farms with the capacity to supply the whole of sub-Saharan Africa with clean electricity. The government’s flirtation with the idea of Optimal Energy’s Joule electric car should be made more penetrative with the development of not only cars, but also electric bakkies and trucks for the local market and for export. There are many creative suggestions out there to enable us to shed our reliance on electricity from polluting power stations and the use of vehicles with exhaust emissions from hell.

While the ANC remains heavily invested in Hitachi Power Africa and holds rights to coal-mining licences, the prospect of getting real about the worthy ideas of Joseph Stiglitz are gloomier than the haze around our biggest coal-fired power stations.

The inherent conflict of interest will have South Africans holding their breath, not for the clean-energy alternatives that become policy, but because the irresistible profits in the dirty-energy status quo will render our air polluted to the point of not being worth breathing. — Paul Hoffman, SC, director, Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa

Threats didn’t stop Livni
The same foreign-affairs labour dispute that prevented a visit to Israel by German Chancellor Angela Merkel also prevented a visit by Israel opposition leader Tzipi Livni to South Africa (“Livni cancels SA trip after arrest threats“, January 21). Yet the writers of the article, Ilham Rawoot and Jazmin Acuna, evidently endorse the claim by anti-Israel radicals that it was the threat to arrest Livni that prevented her coming.

That anti-israel lobbyists did everything in their power, from smear campaigns to seeking legal action to prevent this trip from taking place, is incidental to the story. Rawoot and Acuna, however, give it the central role.

It serves as a good morale boost for those who believe intimidation tactics are a successful way of silencing alternative viewpoints (and of course for promoting their own propaganda). What it does not do, however, is reflect the reality. — Charisse Zeifert

Buthelezi abused
South African politics is complex and confusing. On the one hand, Madiba is ill and the world is worried. On the other, Mangosuthu Buthelezi — who co-governed KwaZulu-Natal and, instead of letting it become a “homeland”, brought the province to the heights of glory and economic development — is dragged down by the people of this country and the snot-nose, entry-level reporters in the media (“Ex-IFP leader draws real support“, January 28).
It’s a true saying that a prophet is never acknowledged by his own people. Strange indeed. — Esther Bawden