Losing the plot

2008-11-19 00:00

“In fact, I am not sure anymore what I can say and what I cannot say that will or will not incriminate myself.”

This was written a few days ago by a principled University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) academic under pressure by the university authorities. I read it with a feeling of sadness and anger. I have over the past few months heard so many remarks of this kind, coming from talented and hard-working members of the university, and I have seen something of the damage that it causes to good health, and the disruption to good lives, that I decided to formulate a response which might be helpful.

It appears to me from reading about the conflict that has been taking over the lives of university employees, that far too much emphasis is being placed on what is only an aspect of our professional existence and as a result our attitudes to authority have become distorted and out of balance. This has become apparent in the nature of the continuing conflicts which have come to characterise the university. It is seen most clearly in the deference shown to lawyers, and that particular aspect in which lawyers are expert — matters of procedure. Indeed we have allowed procedural demands and the consequent threat of penalties, public and personal, to intimidate us into forgetting about that other feature of democratic governance — matters of principle.

Let me say immediately that I do not think that matters of principle lie beyond, above or below procedural guidelines and the limitations they demand. Procedure and principle are integral features of effective social existence. A balance however is needed between them — some harmony has to be developed between what we believe to be just and right, and the manner in which to achieve and defend these beliefs. As members of a broader society we use procedures to make our abstract principles real and live.

In my opinion, the university in its recent behaviour has demonstrated that such a balance does not exist at UKZN. To change the metaphor, we have lost sight of our principles, the principles we should hold and advance as members of a university, and citizens of a democracy.

So my feeling is that we should stop fretting about the threat of procedural action being taken against us. Let me repeat that I say this not because I think procedural matters should not be respected and adhered to — but because, in our situation, procedures have become an end in themselves, obliterating our responsibilities as academics and as citizens. Let me give only the most recent example: the dean of the faculty of humanities is asked to call a meeting to discuss the particular disciplinary process which is the subject of such widespread concern. The registrar and the university lawyer tell the dean that such a meeting would be “inappropriate”. And the dean is silent.

Shouldn’t the response be that as academics and citizens we disagree, and that we are of the opinion that a meeting would be in fact most appropriate? We don’t need lawyers to argue this. As a precedent we could start with an example from history. The scale and context are so different that I feel somewhat reluctant to use it — but this reluctance is balanced by the fact that it is so well known and so much part of the lives of all South Africans that it should always inform the sort of debate in which we are now involved.

I refer to Nelson Mandela’s speech in the Pretoria Supreme Court on April 20, 1964, when he argued that the procedures which were being inflicted on the majority of South Africans were in such conflict with his principles that they had lost all validity.

We of course live in a democratic society — its creation to an important degree is the result of that principled stand made in April 1964. So surely, when we are told that it would be inappropriate to hold a meeting on a forthcoming disciplinary process, with its im-plied threat of more disciplinary action, we should draw on the ex-periences we have inherited as members of a democracy, fought for with such principled courage? Our history is full of examples and I have used only the best known. Those who disagree with my example or who find that it conflicts with certain procedures, can make their case. But I believe that we can make an opposing one, not as experts or academics or lawyers, but as South African citizens with a proud history of resistance to bullying and threats.

Freedom of expression

16 (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes:

(a) freedom of the press and other media;

(b) freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; and

(d) academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.

Freedom of association

18 Everyone has the right to freedom of association.

Don’t you think that this is where our answer lies — the answer of democrats? I have no idea whether democrats hold a majority or are a minority in the university. However, I hope that these thoughts confirm that there is something wrong in a system which so blatantly prioritises procedure over principle, and that it is not a task so complex that it needs specialised legal skills to point this out. Our South African experience should be sufficient.

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