Academics condemn ‘silencing’ of SA scientists over Russian invasion

Academics have condemned an alleged instruction by an official from South Africa’s department of science and innovation to muzzle scientists over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Although the department said neither it nor its entities was going to comment on the matter, the decision aligns with the position of the South African government, which has called for negotiations and peace, but abstained during a 2 March vote of the UN resolution that called for an end to Russian aggression.

Furthermore, local and international media reports claimed that President Cyril Ramaphosa is at odds with Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Naledi Pandor over her statement calling for an end to the war.

Last Monday, the president insisted in his weekly newsletter that South Africa abstained because the resolution did not “foreground the call for meaningful engagement”.

Meanwhile, the action to clamp down on voices opposed to the government view from the science community has been roundly criticised.

Daniel Munier, a senior programme officer on the advocacy team at Scholars at Risk, an international network of 850 members across 47 countries made up of institutions and individuals determined to protect scholars and promote academic freedom, told University World News over email that the news out of South Africa was concerning.

“Government dictates to restrict scholars’ and scientists’ voices undermine, if not violate, their right to academic freedom,” Munier said.

“Members of the academic community have important roles to play in response to human rights and humanitarian crises, from studying the scope and impact of such events to devising and supporting efforts that can save lives and bring peace.”

Munier added that this social responsibility is indeed a core value of quality higher education and scientific research, one that, alongside academic freedom, should be promoted, not smothered.

What do government departments say?

News of the attempt to muzzle South African scientists expressing themselves on the Russian invasion was published by global research and policy publication Research Professional News.

The publication wrote that public science organisations were instructed over email on 1 March by a senior department of science and innovation official not to comment in public on the invasion.

Staff members at the department, as well as science bodies, including the National Research Foundation and the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory, were told that they “should not engage in any action of any kind which could be construed as a political commentary or political reaction to the developments in Ukraine”.

The publication stated it was understood that some scientists in South Africa are unhappy with the country’s stance.

A scientist employed at a South African government research entity, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the publication that, although the government had previously warned entities against making policy-critical statements, none have been “so targeted”.

The office of the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Blade Nzimande, did not respond to a request for comment about the claim that an official in his department allegedly muzzled scientists.

But the department of science and innovation did not refute the allegation and said that, along with its entities, it would not comment.

“The competent government department representing South Africa on international relations is the department of international relations and co-operation,” the department of science and innovation said.

Department of international relations and co-operation spokesperson Clayson Monyela told University World News that he was unaware of attempts to prevent scientists from commenting on the war. This was the first time he had heard of the allegation.

“The South African government has not gagged anyone on any issue. Freedom of expression, including academic freedom, is a right enshrined in the Constitution,” Monyela said.

Public entities that report to the Department of Science and innovation include the Academy of Science of South Africa, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the Human Sciences Research Council, the National Research Foundation, the South African National Space Agency and the Technology Innovation Agency.

Academic freedom constitutionally protected

The Durban University of Technology, the University of Cape Town, the University of Pretoria, and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) belong to the Scholars at Risk network.

Professor Lynn Morris, the deputy vice-chancellor of research and innovation at Wits University, said she was dismayed at the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and sympathised with all those affected by the war.

Morris said Wits University values the right of its staff and students to have their voices heard and to express their views v, without fear or favour, adding that members of the university have roles as public intellectuals, members of the global civil society, and as intellectual leaders, and the ability to partake in robust engagement.

“We value independent inquiry and trust, intellectual excellence and integrity, and academic freedom and institutional autonomy … In light of these commitments and values, at no time will Wits muzzle its researchers, scientists or academics or abide by or support any institutional or governmental call to do so,” she said.

She said Wits University executives are actively working through local and international organisations to express their views on freedom of speech, academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

The academic freedom interim committee at the Durban University of Technology said that scientists and other academics must enjoy complete freedom of expression. Such freedom is a constitutional right that applies to all in South Africa.

“As South Africans, we are acutely aware of how some academic work in the past was subordinated to ideological interests, and members of the academic community failed in their responsibility to the whole people of our country,” the committee said.

“For these reasons, if it is correct that a government official has issued an instruction to scientists not to comment freely on the situation in Ukraine, we reject that outright.”

The committee said that it was incumbent on academics to stand with colleagues internationally, because knowledge knows no borders.

At a time like now, the committee added that, with attacks on universities and images of burning university buildings, South Africa had no choice but to stand with Ukrainian and Russian colleagues who are vulnerable to violence or the threat of violence or who are being silenced.

Dr Ahmed Bawa, the chief executive of Universities South Africa, a membership body for public higher education institutions, said the body is not a government or statutory structure and has not received any instruction about commenting on the war.

“And how would vice-chancellors be prevented from having their say?” he said.
This is an edited version of an article that was first published on the University World News Africa site.

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Edwin Naidu
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