Disturbing irony

2008-12-18 00:00

A major irony was present in two juxtaposed articles on this page recently: the first by Allister Sparks on the never-ending saga of the arms deal, and the second by Kader Hassim on the crisis around academic freedom at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). Each indicated how, during the apartheid era, despite its massive assault on human dignity and civil liberty, elements of moral accountability and the acknowledgement of personal freedom were nonetheless preserved. It is hardly politically correct in these times for such comments to be aired. Yet here were two stalwarts, each with excellent struggle credentials from that period, making some telling points.

Sparks was contrasting the absence of firm government action on the allegations of corruption in the arms deal and the likely refusal by President Kgalema Motlanthe to agree to the request for a commission of inquiry from two of South Africa’s Nobel Peace Laureates, Desmond Tutu and F. W. de Klerk, with the speedy resolution of the infamous Information Scandal when John Vorster was in power. Investigative journalism revealed that taxpayers’ money had been used to fund a newly launched newspaper which supported government policy. Heads rolled and Vorster resigned as prime minister.

Hassim was recalling his years at the University of Natal in the fifties when, under the principalship of EG Malherbe, the university followed a number of discriminatory practices. Hassim joined the protestors who caused considerable embarrassment to the university authorities by their public actions in the interests of academic freedom and equality. At no point did he suffer threats from the vice-chancellor. On the contrary, the actions of the protestors were considered to be a legitimate expression of public debate in the university.

Thus did a liberal press and liberal universities safeguard and promote some key freedoms in the darkest days of this country’s history. The current democracy, with its highly regarded Constitution, enshrines these very freedoms. Yet in the government and in university life, as it is being experienced in the UKZN, these same freedoms are eroded or ignored by a new authoritarian arrogance that conflicts shamefully with liberal values.

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