/ 13 May 2011

Letters to the Editor: May 13

Mail & Guardian readers share their thoughts on alleged plagiarism, Osama bin Laden and more.

Wits plagiarism process was flawed
The Mail & Guardian (“Plagiarism case kept under wraps at Wits“, April 15) published an incomplete story about so-called plagiarism at the University of the Witwatersrand that involved me as a former academic at the university. What are the facts?

After my appointment in 2009, a letter was sent to the vice-chancellor (VC) of Wits accusing me of plagiarism. The VC offered as modes of resolution either arbitration or to take the matter to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).

The refusal to grant my request to follow standard international scholarly procedure raises questions of motive. Had a peer-review panel been set up to assess the allegations, it would have revealed that not only were the allegations made in bad faith, but also that the entire process was a smokescreen for well-known divisions at Wits, which coalesced in their resentment over my appointment.

When interviewed for the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research (Wiser) directorship, I outlined my plans to ensure that the institute graduates the next generation of African scholars; that it builds a pan-African institute that draws on the wealth of intellectual capital on the continent and does not privilege the West; that it works with scholars who take Africa seriously. My plan to change Wiser’s direction disrupted the plans of some colleagues. They therefore marshalled support of scholars in the north to assist in undermining my purpose and its legitimacy.

Guided by a closely knit network at Wits, the VC organised a deeply flawed process, the result of which was predictable. At the arbitration, it was evident that the type of expertise deployed to evaluate the allegations was not that which was required. I resigned from the university before the arbitration process had been completed because it was clear that the process was a set-up. My resignation was accepted. The decision to dismiss me was therefore an act of retribution and an attempt to distract attention from the defective process.

The vindictive and malicious acts by Wits management did not start and stop there, but continued with the leaking of supposedly confidential documents to the media and the writing of defamatory letters to academic and research institutions. The matter has been brought to the attention of the council of the university and the minister of higher education and training. It may or may not stop there.

My resignation from the University of South Australia was to provide space and time to clear my name by ensuring that academic rigour takes precedence over the witch-hunt against me. — Abebe Zegeye

The M&G‘s story (I stress the term “story”) about so-called plagiarism concerned Professor Abebe Zegeye, whom the story transformed into an academic buccaneer who frequently and without hesitation contravened intellectual property rights over a long period of time, despite previous warnings.

The story initially accused Zegeye of plagiarism, then later said he was found guilty of “too-perfect paraphrasing”, which was declared a form of plagiarism by Gilbert Marcus SC, who is a lawyer and not an academic.

This story was based on a confidential arbitration document leaked to your paper. It is not clear if this is the final, signed arbitration between Wits and Zegeye or if the papers cited contain only the accusations.
If the article is based on the result of the arbitration, this should be stated. The position of the accused party should be reported with the same intensity as the accusation.

The small, unreferenced cut-out illustration in which most of the text was highlighted provided no reference or other information for me, as a reader, to check the evidence. — Dr Manfred Dutschke, Cape Town

It astounds me that advocate Gilbert Marcus was allowed by Wits University to assess an allegation of plagiarism in sociology and subsequently determine the fate of a world-class academic scholar, without Marcus having academic qualifications in sociology commensurate with those of Zegeye.

The advocate is a man of the law and as such, his understanding and interpretation of plagiarism is that of a copy typist who makes crude determinations based on the observed number of repeated words and phrases in the relevant articles. He does so with complete disregard for context.

The procedure to select three experts to help evaluate the case, as well as the assessment made by Marcus, is grossly biased, one-sided, shallow and poorly informed. His failure arises from his lack of understanding of the discipline in which Zegeye has excelled locally and internationally. Any reader could feel his contempt for the poor professor.

Wits could have displayed professionalism by giving the task of assessment to a panel of independently identified academic scholars in the field of sociology. Its failure to do so shows that the assessment is fundamentally flawed.

Zegeye’s colleagues at Wits should have shown more professionalism, caution and restraint. The leak was an insider’s job. Is xenophobia creeping into academic institutions? What Wits has done is unprofessional and unethical. The frantic attempt to ruin Zegeye’s professional life shows the level to which Wits has descended, reminiscent of the Dark Ages. — Bezabih Barasa , Open University of Australia, Sydney

Armchair criticism achieves nothing
It is very worrisome that 17 years into democracy, so-called political analysts such as Andile Mngxitama (M&G, April 15) are trapped in the apartheid definition of politics. First, the ANC could never be the same as the Democratic Alliance — this is a fundamental mistake he makes. A second misinterpretation is his lack of distinction between civil servants and public servants. Governments come and go, but the state remains. What, then, should be the role of the state in transformation?

Unless it is a ploy to lead our people away from the polls, one has to conclude that some of us are representatives of the old order in a different skin. We must promote democracy or the result may be what we see up north, in the Arab nations.

It would really help if so-called analysts such as Mngxitama contributed meaningfully to the subject of growth patterns in our economy and to the debates about creating employment. It is not up to the public sector alone to lift the South African poor out of oblivion. It’s a challenge all of us should tackle. We should not be armchair critics with little or no ideological morality. — Sikhumbuzo Thomo, Pretoria

Murdering bin Laden was simple barbarism
The United States’s celebration of Osama bin Laden’s death has thrown the world back into barbarity. We Africans do not celebrate death, even that of the enemy. The Pentagon, the Barack Obama administration and US citizens in general have betrayed the American dream of liberty, peace, respect for human rights and freedom. They murdered an unarmed, defenceless bin Laden. They broke their own vow of upholding human rights.

Article 148 of the Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field (the Lieber Code), promulgated by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, states: “The law of war does not allow proclaiming either an individual belonging to the hostile army, or a citizen, or a subject of the hostile government, an outlaw, who may be slain without trial … Civilized nations look with horror upon offers of rewards for the assassination of enemies as relapse into barbarism.”

The US has become a law unto itself, violating any law, international or domestic, with impunity. It must be dragged to The Hague to face a charge of gross human-rights abuse. That President Obama sat in the ­situation room and witnessed the callous murder of another man brings shame to his leadership. Down with barbarism! — Hector Moyane, Siyabuswa, Mpumalanga

The execution of bin Laden opens up a paradox for Muslims. It is recorded in history that during the time of Prophet Muhammad he ­successfully laid siege to a Jewish tribe, Banu Qurayzah, that had broken a truce with him. In the end the defeated Jews decided to surrender to the prophet. Yet after this peaceful surrender Prophet Muhammad mercilessly sent his army to execute every adult male Jew of the village — even though they were unarmed and had ­surrendered. History records deaths in the thousands. The paradox facing Muslims is how to condemn Obama for murdering an unarmed terrorist who had just surrendered and at the same time be silent about their prophet, who ­committed a far more heinous act of murder. — Fayzal, Mayfair

Speak many tongues
Blade Nzimande’s desire to have African-language proficiency as a requirement for university graduation is important (“A necessary conversation“, May 6). I am an English-speaking South African with a 40-year-long academic career in medicine and 12 years of running a small company making a medical product. To my regret, growing up in Cape Town in the 1940s, I did not learn an African language. But it was also good for my academic and scientific career to be proficient in English.

My first presentation to an international ­scientific meeting was in Rome in 1963. I spoke in English, which was simultaneously translated into several languages. English has since become the language of international conferences and journals. Submissions for presentation and publication come from China, Japan, Korea and other Asian countries — all in English, the world language for all science and technology.

For South Africa to take its place in the modern world a knowledge of English is indispensable. None of the employees of our company is a native English-speaker, but all were well served by our secondary-school system. Acquisition of languages is best in childhood. The resources to produce multilingual South Africans should be invested at school level. Nzimande would do more good by supporting the strengthening of ­language education at both school and university levels. — Dr Robert WM Frater, Great Brak

Israel is not innocent
Salim Vally’s article, “Science in the service of bad politics” (Getting Ahead, April 29), was timely and just. We are well aware of Israel’s complicities with apartheid and the deep racism that policy implied.

Now we have cynical dishonesty from scientists in Israel about innocence, noncomplicity and “pure research”. We in South Africa are far too experienced with such treacheries to be taken in by claims of washed hands and the smoke screen of ­ameliorative charity. The academics, scientists and researchers who plead non-involvement with the policies and practices of the institutions and societies they serve need to recognise that the chips are always down and that an intellectual farrago is no substitute for ethical behaviour.

What surprises me is how this point needs to be made over and over again. What do shifty intellectuals think they can get away with? And why do they persist in such furtive posturing? I congratulate the University of Johannesburg for severing its links with Ben-Gurion University. — Michael Gardiner, Johannesburg

If we follow Peter Alexander’s logic (“UJ’s decision was to show solidarity with the oppressed“, May 6), ­academics should earn their ­academic freedom by supporting the oppressed. Thus academic freedom lies in the fact that we have a choice of oppressed communities to support. It does not have to be a local ­community, which, in this instance, has been denied expert inputs on water management. — Theo du Plessis