No longer a university

2013-08-15 00:00

“AN ANC campus”: that is what University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) Student Representative Council (SRC) members in Pietermaritzburg reportedly claimed last week when objecting to a visit and speech by Mamphela Ramphele.

She went ahead without disruption, but with the precautionary presence of a contingent of police.

There was a time, before South Africa became a democracy, when certain speakers were effectively banned from the local campus. During the State of Emergency, Inkatha was excluded on the grounds (later vindicated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) that it was an ally of the securocrats who had resorted to officially promoted lawlessness.

At the University of Cape Town there was the infamous Conor Cruise O’Brien affair in 1986, when the diplomat, academic and writer provoked unseemly behaviour by defying the international academic boycott. It remains a debatable and contentious episode: O’Brien was a long-standing member of the Irish anti-apartheid movement and suppression of ideas is a serious matter. But the circumstances were dire. Every reasonable and peaceful means had to be used to bring down an evil regime, although the long-term consequences were perhaps not fully considered.

A quarter of a century later, there can be only one possible explanation for threatened no-go areas: incipient authoritarianism. The Constitution extends equal rights to all South Africans regarding freedom of association and expression, so the ANC would be well-advised to reject the students involved and repudiate their view in a very public fashion. An ANC university campus is impossible: such a place would simply cease to be a university.

The target of the SRC protest is particularly interesting. Clearly, Ramphele’s Agang has begun to rattle some ANC members. It is hard to think of anyone more symbolic of the real struggle against apartheid than this stalwart of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), which non-violently advocated individual psychological liberation from colonial and apartheid oppression.

It was no coincidence that the BCM was savagely repressed by the apartheid state: in the late seventies, it posed a far greater and more fundamental threat than the ANC, at that stage evident for little else than guns and bombs.

If Ramphele can reintroduce elements of black consciousness thinking, such as community service and grass-roots activism, to the South African political terrain, this can only benefit the nation.

The apparent anomaly of SRC members favouring suppression of freedom of expression on a university campus in a fully fledged democracy needs to be put into context. On the very day they made their outrageous statement, the UKZN announced the beginning of a search for a new vice-chancellor, an appointment that will mark the beginning of the merged institution’s second decade. Looking back on the history of the first, the censorious students do not appear quite so aberrant.

Perhaps the most striking contrast between the UKZN now and the universities that were its predecessors is the pervasive climate of fear. Unsettling, interminable organisational change, a number of high-profile disciplinary cases and constant browbeating from managers (a species with no business in a university) has left most staff demoralised and silent. It has even been known for academics to refuse to engage with the press about their area of expertise, let alone the state of the university and higher education in general. Talking to journalists is a quick way to attract accusations of bringing the institution into disrepute. But, of course, a university that cannot engage robustly with broader society is a contradiction in terms. A major consequence of this poisonous atmosphere has been the end of academic rule. Teaching and research staff have become university serfs carrying out the bidding of exceptionally highly paid executives and managerial messengers. The senate has long ceased to be a gathering of persuasive debate about academic purpose and practice, where well-informed and argued decisions are taken democratically. Instead, it is a rubber-stamping forum for executive power where the occasional hint of resistance has been met by racial stereotyping and even abuse. The UKZN is no longer a place of the cerebral, of the primacy of ideas, but an institution primarily dedicated to political correctness dominated by the racial engineering that should have ended up in the dustbin of history with apartheid.

The chair of UKZN’s council has assured all university constituencies that their views will be considered in an inclusive, and apparently long-winded, appointment process. That is reassuring because the last time around, in early 2002, council trashed its own selection process rules so comprehensively that most senate members regarded the resultant appointment as illegitimate, if not illegal. Subsequent events confirmed worst fears about a university prepared to compromise its own procedures in the interests of expediency.

Is a new era of good governance about to embrace UKZN? An appropriate place to start would be censure of those students who tried to muzzle a heroine of the anti-apartheid struggle.

• letters@witness.co.za

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