Journal publishes and is damned

An academic row is unfolding around the editorial approach of the official journal of the South African Association of Political Studies, Politikon. On its board are renowned academics and public intellectuals including Adam Habib, Tom Lodge and Susan Booysen. Leading political analyst and public intellectual Steven Friedman has made it clear he will have nothing more to do with the journal. Those on his side include Xolela Mangcu, Jane Duncan and Raymond Suttner. How did it come to this? And why should it be of interest to the public at large?

Academic journals such as Politikon, though published by international commercial publishers guarding access at a steep price, are nevertheless part of important public commons. In political studies, these journals publish the substantiated analyses of political analysts who have a prominent media presence and who form public opinion in that role. Author and editor salaries are largely paid from public coffers.

These journals archive referenced knowledge relevant to humanity at large, a role editors and editorial boards must sustain. This is in the context of an acceleration in academic output driven by international rankings and university funding models based on accredited outputs.

Academic journal content enjoys respect for rigour, fact and originality, ensured through the age-old institution of peer review and editorial oversight. That this excludes nonacademic voices, and in South Africa those barred from higher education through a long and difficult-to-undo legacy of colonial and apartheid policies, cannot be denied.

Like several other journals, Politikon’s latest issue introduces a debates section, a peer-reviewed collection of provocative contributions. It does so after receiving concerns about an unreferenced, unsubstantiated paper in its previous special issue, written by Bandile Mdlalose, entitled The Rise and Fall of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a South African Social Movement. The concerns were not about any wish to exclude a nonacademic community voice, though they were framed as such in the new debates section.

Mdlalose, once general secretary of the shack-dwellers movement, who featured in the Mail & Guardian’s 2012 supplement on 200 Young South Africans, was, according to Abahlali baseMjondolo’s records, removed from this position and asked to leave the organisation in 2014 following a documented disciplinary process. Mdlalose says she left for other reasons, which are, however, factually and chronologically irreconcilable.

Abahlali hasn’t fallen. Its activities can be followed on a Facebook page and website. About 4?000 supporters attended its April 27 Unfreedom Day Rally in Cato Crest, Durban.

Mdlalose’s paper not only misrepresents, in the view of Abahlali and those close to the movement, the course of events, ethical standards and procedures of the movement and contradicts documented evidence, it also attacks academics who have worked in solidarity with, researched and written about aspects of the movement over the years. In Mdlalose’s words, “the academics and left activists coming from the suburbs found shack-dwellers who could be made to look like their dreams and assumptions”.

These statements surprised none of the academics with whom Abahlali has built relationships. Similar arguments have been made for the past nine years, particularly by researchers close to the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Civil Society (CCS) headed by another leading public intellectual, Patrick Bond. The statements began in 2006 when Abahlali took the decision, with the erstwhile Anti-Eviction Campaign, to protest against the centre facilitating a social movement indaba.

At the time, some academics assisting Abahlali were former centre employees. In Abahlali’s protest statements, reported by Niren Tolsi in the M&G, was its insistence of independence from nongovernmental organisations: “Abahlali appreciate the tremendous work the CCS people have done to help us but it should remember that we have chosen the centre and the people we will work with.” This set in motion a seemingly unstoppable objection from those Abahlali had chosen not to work with.

Abahlali has maintained a position not to work with the centre. Mdlalose, for personal or other reasons, began interacting with the centre before and during her departure from Abahlali. She was recently announced one of the centre’s Dennis Brutus community scholars.

Those long criticised about their work with Abahlali cannot help but associate statements in Mdlalose’s paper with positions long held by individuals writing from the centre’s base. Allegations along the same lines proliferated to the extent of near-harassment by Mdlalose since her departure from Abahlali, always blind-copied to all and sundry within and outside of academia.

To a discerning reader it is evident Politikon did not require much substantiation from Mdlalose in her text; it is unclear whether her allegations are true. Some readers had relied on academic editorial standards and took the paper at face value. The extent of distortion is evident only to those close to Abahlali.

Thus resulted concerns submitted to the editors, some from Politikon authors, about an apparent lapse in editorial oversight. Friedman submitted a collective letter cosigned by Mangcu, Duncan, Suttner and 18 others (some, like me, who know Abahlali first-hand, others who do not) raising concern about the editorial approach to Mdlalose’s paper.

Initially engaging individual concerns in a friendly tone, the outgoing editor and the special issue editor wrote a letter reducing all concerns to three lines: “1) Queries about whether due academic process was followed by the editors and publishers, 2) Queries as to why and how the contributor was allowed to publish such a contribution, [and] 3) Ad hominem criticisms of the contributor, a black woman activist.”

They circulated this letter and published an expanded synopsis in the new debates section of the journal.

The letter reports interaction between Mdlalose and the guest editor about the paper’s drafts after peer review. Finally: “[The publisher] Taylor Francis gave the go-ahead after a legal reading, on the understanding that any content concerns would be her [Mdlalose’s] purview and she might need to provide email evidence she has to back up her statements.”

In defence of editorial and publisher’s decisions, the letter includes extensive extracts from letters or emails the editors received in support of Mdlalose’s paper, but no extracts about concerns. They mostly applaud the journal for giving voice to a black woman activist. To the editors, this balances out the concerns.

The published version of the editors’ letter includes mention of “an extraordinary campaign to discredit and silence the journal and to cast aspersions on us as editors. We have seen some of the background correspondence among those who wish to detract from the contents of the special issue, discussing their tactics to go after the journal and editors rather than the author (and the content) of the offending contribution.” Those who submitted concerns are warned: “In time, forums may become available to expose and debate the vested interests.”

Apart from this somewhat defensive letter, the debates section contains Friedman’s collective letter, alongside three contributions in support of Mdlalose’s paper and all citing knowledge of who lodged concerns or citing Friedman’s collective letter.

So the editors had restricted the publication of concerns submitted to them, including Friedman’s collective letter addressed to them and the South African Association of Political Studies with a request for publication in its next issue, to those in favour of Mdlalose’s paper, with no right given to the original author and signatories to reply. This is a no-no in editorial policy worldwide. For Friedman this was the final straw.

Thus, with Friedman, prominent figures in South African political studies are washing their hands of Politikon. The editor’s response is that this is “unfortunate”. What, one may ask, is the point of a debates section in a publicly supported academic journal if there are no rules?

More importantly, as Friedman and others ask, where is the right of reply by Abahlali? The movement developed a response under intense time pressure. After peer review, Politikon’s new editor, having inherited the problem, asked Abahlali to substantiate many of its statements. A much longer article resulted.

The journal edited this down by more than half. Finding its most critical objections to Mdlalose’s paper removed, Abahlali refused permission for this version to be published. The editor told Friedman the requested changes were recommended by attorneys because of legal inaccuracies in Abahlali’s reply.

No standards, double standards or editorial overwhelm? Unwittingly or by design, a debates section, framing the issue repeatedly as being about a “white male academic” wishing to silence a “black woman activist”, appears with no voice from the shack-dweller activists who feel wronged by Mdlalose’s published account. Should the publicly funded institution of academia be supporting this manner of publishing? And what next, when leaders in a field distance themselves from its most prominent journal?

Marie Huchzermeyer teaches in the school of architecture and planning at the University of the Witwatersrand

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Marie Huchzermeyer
Marie Huchzermeyer
Marie Huchzermeyer is an academic and public intellectual at the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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