Vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, Adam Habib, outside the university's Great Hall (Waldo Swiegers/Gallo)
The vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand has written a book.
It reflects on his experiences of the historic movement of students and workers, and the protests, of 2015-16 that played out partly at our institution.
We are among the academics referred to in the book as “the far-left”, and/or described during the protests as “left-leaning”. We have many disagreements with the substantive arguments of the book. We will engage those as part of the ongoing debate opened by the student-worker movement about the nature and form of the university, the academic project, the possibilities for South African society, and of politics itself. But in this letter, there are some troubling aspects of the book that we are compelled to put on record.
To be clear, we affirm the vice-chancellor’s right to present an account of his experiences, and to offer his personal opinions and political critique of the protests. However, we find the book problematic insofar as it inaccurately presents many facts, disregards ethics and permissions protocols, and disrespects the basic right to academic freedom in the university.
First, although the book is framed as a memoir and the author states that his is not an objective account, it has nevertheless been asserted publicly that the book “sets the historical record straight” and reveals the truth about the student movement at Wits. The author’s claim to provide a subjective account, which is at the same time an historically accurate one, is dangerous, because it elevates one person’s experience — indeed that of the most powerful person at the university — to the status of truth. An historically accurate account, as much as that is ever possible, would have had to emerge from a research process that required the researcher to account for the opinions and experiences of others involved, to solicit ideas and narratives from a range of actors within the framework of internationally-established research ethics.
It would be impossible for a vice-chancellor to provide a historically accurate account of the protests from the vantage point of his office. Whereas the author claims to present the facts, the book is instead littered with factual inaccuracies that those of us who witnessed specific events can attest to. Some are minor. For example, one staff member’s institutional role is incorrectly designated in the ill-advised diagram that opens the book (a diagram that reveals a serious misunderstanding of the alliances and on-the-ground politics of workers, students and academics). But others are serious — and in some instances, defamatory — misrepresentations. These include a potentially libellous distortion of the mediation efforts undertaken by two academics on the concourse of what is now known as Solomon Mahlangu House, the misrepresentation of a physical assault on a junior academic by a senior member of the Wits executive at a Senate meeting, by referring to it simply as a “physical altercation”, and the misrepresentation of the role played by workers, especially in the insourcing process. The list goes on.
Especially where the book refers to events where the author was not present, some of these factual errors could have been avoided by talking directly to those of us who were. But that was not done. And so, as people who are intimately familiar with much of what is related in the book, we must advise any readers, journalists and researchers seeking to use the book as a work of reference on the historic protests to be cautious about its claims.
Second, the book is troubling with respect to its ethics and permissions protocols. The book claims that individuals are only named in cases where they had “put themselves out into the public domain”, and that in “matters that might be sensitive to individual colleagues”, their names have only been used with their explicit consent. In at least one instance, a staff member explicitly did not provide consent for certain aspects of her role to be discussed, and yet she is named and this information is shared in the book nevertheless.
As for the rest of us who are named in relation to sensitive matters, we can attest that our permission was neither sought, nor granted. We can also confirm that no requests were made to, and therefore no permission obtained from, those of us whose private correspondence with the vice-chancellor is used and discussed in the book. Any author should always hold the ethics of publication paramount, whatever the genre. This obligation is especially acute when a vice-chancellor writes about the staff at his own institution, those who are subject to his authority. The publication by a vice-chancellor of defamatory accusations against those over whom he exercises power is deeply concerning.
Third, and most seriously, Rebels and Rage justifies its own political perspective by attacking the perspectives and politics of others, including specific named persons. It does so through vilification and name-calling. The book, and the author’s subsequent public engagements around it, insists on designating — and thereby denigrating — some academics as “the far-left.”
Academic activists are insulted, slurred as “incompetent”, and vilified as violent and inhumane. One staff member is dismissed as “cheeky” and “insolent” simply for calling for a review of executive bonuses. Moreover, the book demonises academic activists by calling them the “Pol Pot Brigade”. This offensive characterisation was repeated by the vice-chancellor during an interview on a national media platform.
Those of us who supported the movement of students and workers, and are caricatured as “the far-left” in the book, in fact draw our political affinities from traditions as varied as Black Consciousness, anti-colonial Marxisms, decolonial non-racialism, black radical feminisms, African indigenous politics, Pan-Africanism, socialism, and critical humanism. We acted in concert only to the extent that we agreed with the critique made by the student-worker movement about the privatisation and continued coloniality of education in this country. More disturbingly, by ominously labelling such an ideologically and politically diverse array of academics as “the far-left,” the book and the author’s subsequent public engagements around it create the erroneous impression that there is a conspiratorial cabal of dangerous extremists working in concert to destabilise and destroy the university.
As we now know, millions of rands were spent by the state security apparatus on spying at universities during the time of the student-worker protests, and the minister of state security revealed in public that a list of academics had been drawn up for special scrutiny. As history attests, this could invite more than just verbal attacks on some academic staff. As we write this, our colleagues in Brazil, Uganda, India, and Turkey are facing threats and imprisonment for what in other times would have been welcomed as vibrant political debate. In this historical context, we find the characterisation of dissenting academics in the book dangerously irresponsible, unbecoming of the office of the vice-chancellor, and undermining of the respectful and collegial culture required to sustain the academic project.
All academics would agree that we belong to a common community, one that was fractured by the events related in the book, and that it is now incumbent upon all of us to facilitate a stronger in-common university community, while valuing and supporting our greatly divergent opinions and positions. The office of the vice-chancellor bears especial responsibility for that task, and for defending the rights of academics to dissent. The book is deeply troubling in its seeming disregard for these obligations.
As educators, and especially as teachers, we had the right to express our strong disagreement with the securitisation of our campus, we had the right to express support for fees to fall, for the university to be decolonised, for executive bonuses to be reviewed, to protest the exploitative practice of outsourcing workers, to challenge the untransformed nature of university governance and to condemn the rape culture on campus. We had the right and the responsibility to critique the vice-chancellor when we felt his decisions were undermining the very academic project we devote ourselves to in our classrooms and research every day. And we had the right to express that dissent without the leader of the university ‘calling-out’ academic dissidents, making defamatory statements about them individually, and characterising them collectively as dangerous extremists.
Amongst the most important of the rights academics enjoy is that of academic freedom. It is precisely this right that allows the vice-chancellor to write and publish his book, and that we have been clear to affirm. But academic freedom also protects the right to engage in a critique of the state and its institutions, and is necessary to guard against the slide into authoritarianism.
It is also the freedom to dissent, especially within public institutions. If we allow that right to be eroded, we risk allowing authoritarian governance to threaten basic democratic freedoms, as is occurring with alarming frequency in many parts of the world today. We must guard against the cult of the infallible leader. We must rigorously defend the right to question the leaders of our institutions, especially on matters of protest and securitisation. If we do not defend the right to dissent now, we will endure the consequences of failing to do so later.
Shireen Ally, Gilles Baro, Jill Bradbury, Hugo Canham, Jacklyn Cock, Siphiwe Dube, Kelly Gillespie, Pumla Gqola, Rangoato Hlasane, Mehita Iqani, Bridget Kenny, Pervaiz Khan, Peace Kiguwa, Dorothee Kreutzfeldt, Donna Kukama, Malose Langa, Sekibakiba Lekgoathi, Kezia Lewins, Zen Marie, Jurgen Meekel, Polo Moji, Danai Mupotsa, Prishani Naidoo, Gabi Ngcobo, Nkululeko Nkomo, Noor Nieftagodien, Ruby Patel, Nicolas Pons-Vignon, Antje Schuhmann, Sanele Sibanda, Dylan Valley, Ahmed Veriava, Karl Von Holdt, Hylton White, Charmika Samaradiwakera-Wijesundara and Eric Worby