/ 17 June 2020

The thought police at UCT should address transformation, not pass a judgment of racism

Uct Academics Cry Foul Over Dean’s Appointment Process
The University of Cape Town leads the continent on the rankings. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)


Gabriel Hoosein Khan and Sianne Alves from the University of Cape Town’s Office for Inclusivity and Change have penned a remarkable condemnation of my two-page commentary in the South African Journal of Science titled “Why are black South African students less likely to consider studying biological sciences”? 

Their critique in the Mail & Guardian online (“Unnatural: Conservation is yet another legacy of colonialism”, June 10 2020) is remarkable for its concentration on what I did not discuss, but in their mind should have addressed, namely the history of empire, colonialism, capitalism, apartheid, land dispossession and nature conservation as well as the ongoing political-economic dynamics and persistent inequalities in schooling that disadvantage black South Africans. 

Addressing all this, of course, is impossible in a two-page commentary and would require at least a book (and I have co-authored books on these very topics). Their argument, in effect, amounts to the judgment that I should never have done an exploratory survey of student opinion, let alone write about it. 

Khan and Alves seem to have a problem with the way that I analysed data from a mini-survey of UCT students because I distinguished between black South African and other students. For them, this is emblematic of my failure to “grapple with the critical conversations about race which have emerged through student protest”, implying that I thus “trivialise and simplify race”. This judgment was formed without any conversations with me about the research and serves no purpose other than to join the bandwagon of ill-informed condemnation. So much for inclusivity. 

They also don’t seem particularly interested in change. Their critique is remarkable for its silence on the central challenge of transformation at UCT, namely to increase the representation of black South Africans among our students and staff. UCT’s own transformation and strategy documents as well as funding requirements from the National Research Foundation are remarkably blunt about this. This is precisely why I analysed the data in the way I did.  

The analysis entailed three steps. The first was to show that in this non-representative, exploratory sample of UCT students, that those who self-identified as black South Africans were less likely than other students (that is, all other self-identified South Africans and foreign students including from Africa) to have considered studying biological sciences. 

The next step was to see if this result could be unpacked a bit more, in other words, to start moving beyond the racial breakdown. The exploratory survey had asked a set of questions pertaining to living with wildlife, degree choices and general attitudes. 

This allowed me to explore whether attitudes to conservation and other considerations might be relevant to whether students had considered studying biology. I thus included two further variables in a multiple regression, namely whether students agreed that “Addressing social inequality is more important than wildlife conservation” and “I support wildlife conservation but have no interest in a career in it’”. Including these two questions, especially the second, knocked out the statistical significance of being a black South African in predicting whether students had ever considered studying biological sciences. 

This is a preliminary, but suggestive finding. It encouraged us in the Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild) to develop a stronger focus on topics that had a clear bearing on both social justice and conservation. We have extended our research programme into community conservancies where local people benefit directly from hunting and tourism, and thus have an incentive to conserve the local wildlife. 

For my critics, however, including the officials from UCT’s Office of Inclusivity and Change, even asking the question about social justice and transformation was so imbued with racist assumptions that it, and none of the other questions in my “colonial” research instrument should ever have been asked. Rather, they give the distinct impression that I should instead have sat around having conversations, reflecting on our long and troubled history, and listening to critical race theorists lecture me about how I should think.

Their approach feeds into a growing clamour for UCT to introduce “vetting” of papers and research to prevent any cause of presumed racial offence. This clamour is not founded on reasonable engagement with my commentary, but rather on inflammatory insinuations and accusations of racism. The Black Academic Caucus (a secretive Broederbond-like organisation at UCT) in their critique of me suggested my paper could fuel a white supremacist agenda. Now Kahn and Alves hint darkly that my two-page commentary will fuel unrest and violence: 

“In a context of awful anti-black violence, we all need to take a stance. Although not critically engaging with race within higher education is significantly different from police brutality, it encourages an environment where we may become complacent. Uncritically adopting research tools from the Global North and framing race while relying on assumptions add up to conclusions which reify racist tropes: Racist assumptions + racist tools = racist conclusions.”

My response to this breathtaking piece of argument by insinuation is that: Dismissing social surveys as colonial + focusing on hypotheses misidentified as assumptions and ignoring the empirical results = an unreasonable argument that undermines the academic project at UCT. 

Khan and Alves castigate me for not listening to black voices. This is remarkable not only for the way it silences and erases the role of my student researchers, most of whom were black, in helping me develop the questions, and who conducted the face-to-face interviews, but it denigrates the role of surveys in helping us get a broader understanding of patterns within student voices.  

Survey research, they opine in reference to my inclusion of questions from the World Values Survey’s materialist index, have inbuilt biases which “may confirm the superiority of the Western World”. So, am I to conclude that other countries can probe the relationship between socioeconomic status and materialist values, but we in South Africa cannot in case someone “reads” the results as feeding into a racial trope? A great deal of the criticism of my commentary assumes that I had sallied forth to show that black South Africans were materialist, and thereby blame them for being morally unworthy.  

This is absurd. My critics routinely emphasise the many socioeconomic reasons black South Africans probably would prioritise getting a well-paying job — yet they castigate me for trying to see if this hypothesis resonates within the data. In economics it is axiomatic that people (all people) respond to material incentives and that the marginal dollar is worth more to a poor person than a rich person. 

Precisely because of the history of apartheid and the ongoing overlap between race and class in South Africa it is entirely reasonable to consider whether material considerations might help predict whether a student is likely to agree that they support conservation but have no interest in a career in it. This is not racist.   

Over the past week I have been inundated with emails from black and white students and staff from universities around South Africa, from practitioners in conservation, and the general public. Some of them have engaged with me respectfully about how I could have clarified my argument or phrased the title and the opening paragraph of my commentary better.  

I have had great suggestions and have learned a lot. Others, both black and white, have told me they see nothing wrong with my commentary and an old friend even described it as “dull”. Some black South Africans have written to me to say that materialism and the associated prioritisation of well-paying jobs is very real. 

After I was interviewed on Radio 702, a science teacher from Soweto phoned in to say that he agreed with me, and that he was concerned that his students wanted to study business rather than science. I was particularly moved by an email from a member of the public, a black engineer, who wrote at length to me how he had been pushed into choosing courses of study for financial reasons, but that now he and his family were comfortably off, his children were free to study what they liked. He said that my commentary, and the concluding comment that as the black middle class grows it is likely that more black South Africans would consider a career in conservation, resonated with his life history.  

What are we to make of these black voices?  And who are Khan and Alves to decide what counts as legitimate research into what students (black or white) think? What assumptions are they making about black people?  In their M&G article they refer to “black folks” and juxtapose this with “people of colour”. So, let me get this right: people who are not black and who are not white are “people”’, but black people are “folk”?  

Khan and Alves lecture me about being insensitive to the social meanings imbued in concepts and language but they leave uninterrogated how their own language might resonate in South Africa. Presumably their use of the term pays homage to WEB du Bois’ 1903 masterpiece The Souls of Black Folk, which discusses race, class and culture in the American South. But, if so, it is unclear what assumptions they are making in drawing a comparison between the American South at the end of the 19th century and post-apartheid South Africa in 2020. 

Are they suggesting that the position of black people in South Africa today is similar to that in pre-civil rights America? Or are we supposed to draw some subtle connection between the term folk and volk? Are we supposed to understand black South Africans as differentiated and diverse ‘“folk” (as Du Bois describes, and with which I agree) or as ideologically homogenous “volk”?  Really, this loose use of language is inexcusable. 

It is time to have some straight talking and to address the challenge of transformation squarely in the face. We need much more research into this challenge and we certainly don’t need thought police or self-appointed ethics specialists on campus to interfere with it. 

Nicoli Nattrass is a professor with the School of Economics and the co-director of the Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa at the University of Cape Town