Those of us who worked under Adam Habib should hang our heads. We are guilty of allowing the normalisation of his bullying, misogyny and facilitation of a toxic culture at Wits.
Although we could theorise on how the neoliberal university enables cultures and practices of bullying, harassment and abuse, we were unable to shift this from the responsibility of the individual to act as a collective. We whispered in corridors, bemoaned the situation and used humour to get through it while we witnessed colleagues being dismissed, overlooked for promotion, yelled at, undermined, wrongly accused and lied about in books.
While we allowed the policies and practices to brew in their toxicity, we left many victims to fend for themselves.
We weren’t always entirely silent. A few vented on social media, and many of us obfuscated with statements that displayed our fear of saying things as they are. But ultimately, it took Habib going all the way to London for his intolerable and demeaning behaviour finally to be publicly exposed.
At a meeting with students at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Habib used a racial slur illustratively in a meeting and then claimed the word was used differently in the South African context. As the bullying that transpired unfolded around us, those who know the truth continue to be silent. Given the high levels of precarity, joblessness and the academic drive for tenure, this is inevitable. So we share WhatsApp messages of how awful he is, reminiscent of the messages we sent each other when we were infuriated at his book Rebels and Rage: Reflecting on #FeesMustFall.
Who defends him? The South African elite, his self-proclaimed nemesis Helen Zille, the known bullies in the academy, and even the academic “revolutionaries”’ who have suddenly developed amnesia on a fundamental trade union value, worker control.
And indeed, on 5 May, SOAS announced that Habib would return to his role as director following an initial suspension and now the recommendations of an independent inquiry. Habib has apologised and accepted the report’s findings.
Habib allegedly told his executive team I had threatened to lay a charge of gender bullying against him while at Wits. Perhaps he was afraid that I would, as the gender equity office, which I headed, had dismissed one of his star professors for gender bullying. He closed ranks and continued paying the professor while he brought in two former Constitutional Court judges to adjudicate an appeal. The dismissal was upheld.
Habib was wrong in his alleged accusation against me. Oh yes, he upholds patriarchal gender norms and has a phenomenal impulse to defend perpetrators (alleged and otherwise). He never defended victims and those in his institution facing pushback for fighting sexual and gender-based violence (GBV). But he is not a gender bully: his bullying is blind, ubiquitous; it transcends gender and race; it’s plumed for those who challenge him and dare ask questions that may place his position at risk, a risk he constantly elevated at the expense of complainants and those doing the work to challenge institutional racism, sexism and anti-transformation.
Union activist Sandy Nicoll from SOAS reflected on university management’s lip service to transformation: that rhetoric was alive and well under Habib’s tenure. In one recorded meeting where I was under attack by him I referenced the research on transformation rhetoric. Without having read any of this he proceeded to inform me, in what Nicoll has accurately described as “his version of enlightened social justice”, that South Africa was different and that these studies did not apply here. Facts did not matter. It is easier to dismiss these and hide behind an ideological critique of identity politics and the politics of spectacle.
Habib is a bully. I have experienced this repeatedly, at first hand. Everyone who has had the misfortune of working with him knows this, including the chancellor, whom I had informed of this. Even my “comrades” now defending him know this; they told me on my arrival at Wits, to uncomfortable guffaws, that “he is a problem, but we could have far worse”.
Habib has a history of burying investigation reports and has developed the skill of executive summaries that water down what investigations have actually found. His habit of sweeping of reports under carpets is so widely known that even his executive team jokes about how if he doesn’t like the outcome of a report he either establishes a second investigation or buries it so deep that many forget.
I know of eight reports where this was done, three of which I know of intimately, two because I was part of the investigation team and the third was in the office I headed while at Wits. In one instance where my own investigation report came under his attack and disapproval, he appointed a second investigation committee. Its report, to his chagrin, confirmed the initial investigation, but in far more detail and in terms far stronger than my own. And then it was buried. In the investigation of the office I led at Wits, he simply and inexplicably refused to share the report.
He was known to overlook established university policies, openly claiming that he had the right to do so, as it was within his executive authority. He is on record asserting this ludicrous and illegal claim.
Habib presided over Wits for eight years. He dedicated an entire chapter in his book to transformation, which illustrates his misunderstanding of institutional racism and sexism and what it means to address this. Many of us can cite “live” examples, from the apparent mundane handling of a residence television remote control dispute through to a disconcerting misconstruction of the violence of rape in chapter four of his book.
Habib’s conduct and its normalisation created a template for others. One of the first incidents I had to deal with was where a dean and his head of human resources were attempting to re-employ a senior academic who resigned two years earlier in the face of allegations of antisemitism, racism and sexism. The faculty head of HR argued why this candidate was the best choice: “What he did wasn’t so bad, he just tapped her on her bum.”
What has changed to shift institutional racism and sexism following Habib’s eight years at Wits? And can he be trusted to lead this at SOAS?
Some would argue my judgment is clouded. Many will read my anger. Some have expressed confusion on how the gendered lens is relevant. Some have argued the class lens is inappropriate. Some have held up his antiracist credentials.
When did progressives start compartmentalising oppressions? When did we stop recognising what Alison Phipps described as the power generated by the systems of neoliberalism with patriarchy and other structures that perpetrate harm and avoid accountability? If we claim to advance justice and equity, we must start with the neoliberal academy and how systems of domination and power intersect in it.
The story of how this system failed victims of GBV will be told. Given the high rates of violence in our country, the anger is justified.
Is Habib a racist? I can’t answer that. But many at Wits, the sexual harassment committee, and those working on transformation know his bullying and misogyny. The aggression he showed to students during the online SOAS meeting is precisely how he reacted to anyone who dared to challenge him at Wits.
The critical difference has been that within Wits this had become normalised. Those who challenged Habib have paid in ways I would like to write more about in future.
Finally, one of Habib’s biggest challenges towards those of us fighting GBV was around his accusation that we flaunted “due process”, that we would not allow “natural justice” to take its course. Adam, how do you feel about the importance of these tenets now that you have been on the receiving end of an investigation yourself?
Wits rejects the allegations and personal attacks made by Crystal Dicks, a disgruntled former employee who is involved in a dispute with the university in a matter that is currently serving before the Committee for Conciliation and Mediation — a matter in which the former vice-chancellor and principal, Professor Adam Habib, recently gave evidence. — Senior executive team, Wits University