'Abuse of power' shackles academia

Cause célébre: Barring Ashwin Desai from the campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal was an 'affront to academic freedom'. (Supplied)

Cause célébre: Barring Ashwin Desai from the campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal was an 'affront to academic freedom'. (Supplied)

The reckless and unreasonable exercise of power at the highest levels of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) was illustrated by the so-called Desai affair, which had international repercussions.

In 1996, Ashwin Desai was a sociology lecturer and union official at the University of Durban-Westville at a time of discontent about retrenchments and outsourcing. A disciplinary process ended with the termination of his employment and a ban on his presence on the Durban-Westville campus without the express permission of then vice-chancellor Mapule Ramashala.

Seven years later, Desai was appointed honorary research fellow at the Centre for Civil Society on the Howard College campus of the University of Natal; and, in 2003, the new vice-chancellor of Durban-Westville, Saths Cooper, lifted the ban.
By the following year, 2004, the centre was part of the new University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Since the 1990s, Desai had been involved at the interface of community organisation and academia, specialising in environmental and trade union issues in south Durban. In 2005, he obtained research funding from the Human Sciences Research Council but was told by UKZN to apply for a contract post to pursue his work. However, the selection committee did not appoint him and he was denied his honorary post.

Vice-chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba’s reason for this was that Cooper had only suspended the ban, not removed it. There was, he said, no document to prove the latter.

Unbelievably for a man at the helm of a supposedly brand-new institution prone to discount the past in all its components, he argued that the Durban-Westville ban was irreversible, and that this affected the honorary post as well. Strangely, as a vice-chancellor who appeared to exercise enormous power, he declared himself mysteriously powerless in this context.

‘Semantic nonsense’
Desai described this, with good reason, as “semantic nonsense” and ascribed it to personal animosity. Among the international protesters were the high-profile Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein, who with 400 other objectors signed a petition. The Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa asked Makgoba to reconsider his stance. All agreed that the episode was a blatant attack on academic freedom.

The vice-chancellor denied this: “Nothing could be further from the truth.” But first he chose to describe the committee as an “unknown but self-appointed committee … led by non-Africans, living out of Africa … pontificating upon, acting on behalf of, and defending some anonymous Africans from the comforts of their armchairs in some distant corner of New York”.

Desai, said Makgoba, had been found guilty of serious misconduct in the past and had failed to respond to Makgoba’s request to lift the confidentiality clause that was part of the original Durban-Westville agreement about the end of his employment there.

It was, argued Makgoba, all a matter of standards of good governance: he claimed to be fighting a mafia and its methods inherited from the merged institutions. He blamed “Indian” journalists for biased press coverage, claiming that “African” reporters had been abused for asking awkward questions; and found some inevitable press inaccuracies in order to draw a veil over the broader issues.

Significantly, he took a swipe at the media and “ultra-leftists” for diverting attention from UKZN’s main focus.

Den of tribalism
In an online response to the Mail & Guardian article in which Makgoba put forward these views (“Truth is less sexy than fiction”, M&G February 17 2006), prominent activist and writer Andile Mngxitama described them as “intellectual gangsterism of the highest order”. The university of Steve Biko and Black Consciousness “is now turning into a den of tribalism promoted from the top”.

Where, asked Mngxitama, did Makgoba find time and energy to pursue the appointment of one academic while UKZN was embroiled in a nine-day strike at the time? This was not the last time questions and doubts were to be raised about the vice-chancellor’s priorities. Academic Richard Pithouse was equally robust. He pointed out that the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa was an organisation of academics in exile from repression and institutional collapse in African universities; Desai had released the Durban-Westville agreement publicly; the culture of UKZN was one of corporate authoritarianism opposed by Desai and representatives of the broad left and the anti-globalisation movement; the unbanning of Desai had been entirely legal; and Makgoba was racialising the issue.

Desai himself criticised Makgoba as a promoter of the untrue and the illogical, illustrating this by the fact that he (Desai) had disclosed the confidential Durban-Westville agreement. But his main concern was the “haul[ing] out [of Makgoba’s] very well-worn deck of race cards” and the slur of ultra-leftism thrown at critics.

“But for the fact that Makgoba is African and deploys this quality as a pre-emptive cover for his mismanagement of the institution, he would have been laughed off campus long ago,” Desai wrote.

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