/ 13 May 2011

Taking cheap shots at UCT

Taking Cheap Shots At Uct

I am a University of Cape Town academic neither based in the humanities faculty nor with any connection to the controversy over the future of the Centre for African Studies (CAS), which has received a surprising amount of coverage in the Mail & Guardian.

I am deeply supportive of inter-disciplinary research and teaching and have voiced this position at UCT in defending interdisciplinary work — always a tricky matter for institutions to engage with. However, I feel compelled to respond to the lengthy and, at times, meandering attack on UCT’s handling of CAS’s future (“Lessons in continued oppression“, M&G, April 29).

This is not because I hold any particular view about the restructuring involving the incorporation of CAS within a new school, but rather because I see a series of half-truths, untruths and, frankly, irrelevant points being used to justify an unmerited public attack on the university as being responsible for “continued oppression”. This would be a ludicrous conclusion if it were not so damaging and it is perplexing that the M&G really thinks it newsworthy.

On one point, in particular, the authors have misled the M&G‘s readership. This is on the claim that vice-chancellor Max Price was deliberately dismissing the students’ claims when he referred to concerned CAS students as an “anonymous group” (“No threat to African centre, M&G, March 18“). The truth of the matter is that the students did conduct their lobbying and agitation quite vociferously as an anonymous group.

When I was first sent a petition earlier this year, calling on readers to sign up against what was then described as the closure of the CAS, it was clearly anonymous and offered no option or contact details for further inquiry. Last week’s opinion piece in the M&G by Siona O’Connell and Natasha Himmelman was the first communication I and colleagues have seen from the “collective of students” opposed to the disestablishment of CAS in which members of the group have identified themselves by name.

There may well have been cogent reasons for this anonymity. If students felt intimated to speak out in their names, I can understand why they may have been uncomfortable to do so until late in the consultation process. But electing to lobby anonymously was also a choice and students will have been aware of its implications.

Taking responsibility
Part of democracy is being able to take responsibility for acting to change things that are wrong. It is enormously difficult to take up complaints if no one is prepared to stand by the complaint publicly. Most of our Chapter 9 institutions, set up to defend democracy and human rights under the Constitution, expect complainants to be willing to stand by their complaints publicly as part of the mutual process of establishing fair resolution.

So it is somewhat disingenuous to imply that, by pointing out the lack of a public face to the complaint, Price was deliberately undermining students’ rights to complain. What else should a vice-chancellor say when, as I understand, students went straight into the public domain as an anonymous collective to air their grievances?

It is easy rhetoric to link that to a claim to be institutionally disempowered but, despite the hue and cry, it is not evident to me that students were deprived of opportunities to have their say. Perhaps the answer lies in another difficult aspect of democracy — that is, when a process, in seeking to be fair, considers all views, including those of cogent departments and academics, other students and stakeholders, then your view might not be the one that prevails. That is, after all, how ­democracy should work.

There is no doubt that discussions about the institutional restructuring related to CAS have raised complex sensitivities and anxieties, including differing perceptions about the relative priority of Africa-centred knowledge in the process. But that is the point of engaging — simply having your view prevail is not the definition of a democratic process.

Strangely, the idea that universities should be preparing students to be active citizens in a democracy does not seem to appear in O’Connell and Himmelman’s account of what a university should or shouldn’t do. It’s easy to dispute whether the process was fair when the way you engage with a process undermined the inclusivity of the process from the start.

Of the rest of the article, I was puzzled. Most of it appeared to furnish a wide range of questions arbitrarily linked to their grievance about institutional restructuring. The writers’ only purpose appears to have been to smear UCT with the brush of racism.

There is no doubt that UCT has much to answer for in its collusion with apartheid over many years. But O’Connell and Himmelman appear uninterested in efforts made at UCT to do exactly that. For instance, the faculty in which I work, health sciences, spent four years painstakingly (and sometimes painfully) researching collusion in apartheid health as part of its transformation work. This culminated in the adoption of a faculty charter and a transformation programme and UCT held a special series of events to begin reflecting on the shameful treatment of professor Archie Mafeje both during the apartheid era and in the mid-1990s.

This kind of introspection is not easy, and not unique to UCT, and it is by no means an end in itself. But the students’ claim that “time and again, some of us find that who we are — our histories, pasts, memories — is disavowed” suggests an experience not shared by all students at UCT, as the article implies.

To imply that failure to agree with the views of a formerly anonymous and now recently named group of disgruntled students is evidence of “deep-rooted power structures that oppress us” is sloppy analysis. Rather than evidence, it is simply rhetoric.

As for the claim that “UCT’s dismissal of us engenders and perpetuates a deep sense of not belonging”, I am forced to wonder what is at the root of such disaffection. If a state of not belonging is “perpetuated”, then it must have predated the discussions regarding the supposed disestablishment of CAS. How did the group feel they did not belong?

I turn to the research of a PhD student I am co-supervising whose examination of the experience of black students in a white milieu, as UCT undoubtedly is, speaks cogently to questions of being “at home” or not being “at home”. These are difficult questions, not reducible to retorts about power. I wonder how my PhD student’s respondents would feel about having their complex sense of being at home or not at home (or some mix of both) recruited to serve the agitations of a group of students with an ­institutional grievance.

I find it deeply patronising of O’Connell and Himmelman to ask “what other persons and groups are so absented”, as if the struggle around race, for example, is equally invisible. It most certainly is not! The question of race is very visible on campus and subjected to serious research questions and transformation processes that have made many people, including those in power at UCT, deeply uncomfortable — appropriately so. It is ingenuous to imply you have discovered the fault lines of power because your views about the supposed disestablishment of the CAS have not prevailed.

There are numerous other questions throughout the piece that invite responses, if only to establish what their logical relevance is to the students’ arguments. For example, no one representing UCT claims to deny UCT’s collusion with apartheid or that it was “in the right” during apartheid (whatever that may mean); and it is not clear what “deafening inaction” the authors wish to replace with what “action”.

At face value, the claim that the disestablishment of CAS shows a lack of “commitment to the study of Africa and to meaningful transformation” cannot be reconciled with UCT management’s explanation that CAS will be part of a “new school for critical inquiry in Africa” — unless, of course, the authors have prejudged that effort as inadequate.

The senior leadership at UCT may not agree with the “concerned” students, but does that mean that “authority figures dismiss student concerns”? I would want to hear from other students before accepting that generalised conclusion about student sentiment on campus.

Lastly, the throwaway criticism that 70% of UCT’s professors are white men is, of course, entirely true, but how rejecting the supposed disestablishment of the CAS might change that is surely one of the greatest mysteries of the universe. Cheap shots are just that — easy to take, but making no substantive contributions to argument.

In the end, one must wonder what agenda is served by the M&G persisting in a debate that is not a debate. There is no question that we agree on the need to pursue critical inter-disciplinary work and to challenge traditions that may bring to the surface difficult conceptions of the university and of UCT. No question either that we need to seek and value diversity in our student and staff body, both in person and in intellectual contributions; to develop stronger grounding to theorise freedom and what it means for our democracy; and to draw on intellectual traditions from, and build a knowledge project that looks to, Africa and the South rather than privileging our colonial heritage and countries of the North.

Democracy is about exercising one’s capacities within a fair system for resolving difference and living with the outcome of the decision. No one would agree that Laurent Gbagbo was justified when he resisted handing over power to his democratically elected opponent because he disagreed with the outcome of the elections in Côte d’Ivoire. Why should we think that when we engage around ideas, we should have different standards? That would truly be setting the bar lower.

Leslie London is professor of public health at the University of Cape Town and formerly held the portfolio for transformation and equity in the university’s health sciences faculty