/ 14 May 2015

Wits: Difficult issues should not be stifled

Saving face: Axed Wits student leader Mcebo Dlamini should rather have been 'rehabilitated'.
Saving face: Axed Wits student leader Mcebo Dlamini should rather have been 'rehabilitated'.

Allister Sparks believes apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd was a smart man. Sparks is routinely referred to as intellectual and veteran journalist with more than half a century of speaking truth to power.

Mcebo Dlamini admires Hitler’s developmentalism. Dlamini is a social science student at the University of the Witwatersrand and its former student representative council (SRC) head.

Mcebo has fallen, removed from office by vice-chancellor Adam Habib for putting Wits into disrepute. Sparks stands. He enjoys certain privileges that Dlamini lacks.

If Sparks’s comment is a mere value judgment, as some have opined, and not necessarily acclamation of Verwoerd, the question arises: do value judgments have values?

In other words, can someone, without administering an IQ test, affirm another person as being smart, even if the balance of evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that his supposed above-average IQ was morally bankrupt to the point of condemning a country to racial polarisation and socioeconomic injustice?

Conscientious people are bound by normative standards or values to make judgments based on the totality of experience and effect. This means we should judge Lionel Messi’s smartness by the extent to which he uses his talents to help his team win games and to advance football in general.

Verwoerd’s smartness as adjudicated by Sparks did not advance South Africa or any progressive human endeavour. He made South Africa the skunk of the world.

But this article is more about the authoritarian leadership of Habib than about the hypocrisy of Sparks, palpable coincidences notwithstanding. The fallout from Dlamini’s “I love Hitler” comments and his subsequent removal from the SRC presidency has added fuel to the raging transformation discourse in South Africa.

The Dlamini saga cannot be treated as an isolated case: it coincides with mass campaigns demanding qualitative transformation in higher education. At the epicentre of the storm are historically white universities – Cape Town (UCT), Wits, Rhodes, KwaZulu-Natal and Stellenbosch.

These were citadels of white privilege under apartheid, and the charge from students and academics is that they remain so.

As student leaders in the mid-1990s, during the mass campaigns led by the South African Students’ Congress demanding the transformation of higher education, we are compelled to take a look at the latest developments.

What is happening represents the unfinished business of the struggle for transformation. This discussion should not be limited to the latest events but should deal with the entire ecosystem of higher education, from the discourse on academic freedom, curriculum design and student welfare to general governance issues.

Our contribution is not confined to the Dlamini saga, but it would be remiss not to comment on certain subtexts that have a long-term bearing on the governance of higher education. Two significant issues emerge from the press release issued by Habib announcing the removal of Dlamini from the SRC.

Habib’s unilateral decision to remove a sitting member of the SRC without canvassing the views of other SRC members, student organisations and the student community in general is tragic.

Even if his right to remove an SRC president emanates from the SRC constitution or the rules of the university, we still argue that such a provision is out of sync with the gains of students’ popular struggles to open the doors of learning and culture and for meaningful participation in the governance of higher-education institutions.

Democratic student representative bodies were born on the terrain of struggle and thus are central to the discourse of transformation and academic freedom. The latter should not be hypocritically limited to academics: students are full members of the academy and they too should enjoy the right to express themselves freely, as long as they do not violate the constitutional rights of others.

Habib should know this, given his role in the sometimes chaotic episodes at what was then the University of Durban-Westville in the 1990s.

He should have led by example, allowing all stakeholders to express their views on an issue affecting them. Where they demonstrate poor comprehension of history, he should rehabilitate them using the best weapon in the university’s arsenal: knowledge.

Now that he is removed, Dlamini will not learn history on the streets. Academic freedom (and freedom of expression in general) and student governance are not divisible: they reinforce each other.

Yes, there was a previous charge and conviction for alleged harassment against Dlamini, but that was not executed. That process, we are told, was exhausted. But earlier this year Dlamini was a national hero when he led a successful fundraising campaign to support poor students.

In Habib’s words, Dlamini put Wits into disrepute. But which due process made that finding? Academics advocate due process when they challenge state authorities, so they cannot be excused from normative undertakings such as transparency, inclusivity and due process.

There is nothing illegal about Dlamini’s views in the South African legal context, though it does show political naivety for someone from the congress tradition to align himself with a man who saw black people as subhumans and killed at least two million of them, besides the millions of others he killed. This was an evil man.

Still, Dlamini did not break any law, and it is doubtful that Wits’s own code of conduct outlaws such expressions.

Wits has many other students and academics who openly express racism and prejudice. They too will have to be expelled, like the engineering lecturer who told his students that blacks fail engineering because they cannot think in 3D.

South Africans remain divided in the appraisal of our history. There is no consensus on who are the heroes to be celebrated by all South Africans.

Paul Kruger, for example, is revered in the Afrikaner community but seen as a colonialist by black people, which explains the “Kruger must fall” campaign to have his statute removed from the Pretoria city centre.

It is also offensive to black people when some white Afrikaners wave the old apartheid flag that for many black people is no different from the Nazi swastika.

Instead of getting bogged down with Hitler, we have to come to terms with our own Malans, Verwoerds and Bothas.

The university, as the foremost meeting place of learning for people from different backgrounds, should play a facilitative role instead of using bookish managerial languages to manage difficult issues and stifle possible debates. UCT has done much better at this in recent times.

Understandably, since 1994, universities have become big businesses, and therefore compete with each other to gain and maintain good reputations so as to attract sponsors and partners throughout the world. This is a good thing.

But when it is overdone, this “look good” perspective may have unintended consequences as universities start to shy away from controversies and do everything possible to avoid negative publicity.

Once a university takes such a posture, the nation is doomed. Universities are supposed to construct and deconstruct long-held beliefs and ideas in society. The university’s general leaning towards postmodernism, which allows renewed social enquiry into traditional approaches to life and things around us, should enable discourse even on difficult and complicated issues. This should be done within and outside the classroom.

We argue that Habib’s statement on Dlamini was more about marketing the university than dealing with simmering dynamics in the broader society, dynamics that unavoidably find space in the university.

Placing the university in the right frame of mind is key to the unfinished business of transforming higher education in South Africa.

Other matters, such as the increase in the number of black academics and the need for a curriculum that supports national research, development and industrialisation needs remain crucial.

As former student leaders, we argue that a university should be the last place from which students are expelled for their views.

Universities should help students understand society, teach them responsibility and guide them in the journey towards self-discovery.

We, too, made gross mistakes and were forgiven by society. We were young and reckless. We went through political education. We learned.

The idea of exclusion remains archaic, undemocratic and uncharacteristic of the apex of human endeavour – the university – where we expect responsible intellectual discourse to bloom without bureaucratic considerations.

Busani Ngcaweni is the deputy director general in the private office of the deputy president. Robert Nkuna is a ministerial adviser