No moral high ground at UKZN

2008-12-10 00:00

I refer to the article by Sharon Dell, entitled “Academic case ‘not about freedom’” (Weekend Witness, December 8) concerning a letter from Omar Moosa, SC, to vice chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba.

For a start I have not in all the decades of involvement in a legal practice come across a letter from senior counsel which amounts to a pat on the back for himself and his client and which letter is then made public after the matter was terminated.

There is something very strange about the letter. It was either:

a) deliberately solicited from Moosa as a weapon in the controversy surrounding the disgraceful conduct of the

Makgoba administration sur- rounding the disciplinary hearings against professors Nithaya Chetty and John van den Berg; or

b) it appears that that Moosa wishes to ingratiate himself with the Makgoba administration.

Moosa is of the view that the matter is one of a breach of the university’s disciplinary codes rather than that of academic freedom and freedom of expression. This kind of thinking is much favoured by oppressive regimes where “disciplinary codes” are employed to subvert the basic freedom of expression and academic freedom. During the National Party government’s rule it was called “maintenance of law and order”. But where there is a conflict between “disciplinary codes” and the freedoms referred to above, the latter must prevail. Those freedoms must not be suppressed. This is why they are called freedoms.

In an article in The Witness (December 2) Makgoba’s minion, Professor Dasarath Chetty, the University of Kwa-Zulu-Natal’s very own Lord Haw Haw, refers to the bad old days under Dr Ernest Gideon Malherbe.

Allow me to give you some idea of those days.

I was a full-time student at Natal University Non-European Section (UNNE) for six years, from 1955 to 1960. Through those years black students waged an unrelenting struggle against the Malherbe administration for the gross inequalities which prevailed at the university.

Because there was colour discrimination at the graduation ceremony, the black students called for its boycott. The initial response was slow but in1958 the graduation ceremony saw an almost 100% boycott.

Dr Malherbe and Professor I. “Okkie” Gordon, dean of the medical school, sought to pressurise students from engaging in the boycott. At a meeting called by the two, the students fiercely debated the matter. Malherbe and Gordon left at the end of the meeting with “mission unaccomplished”. There were no repercussions against students who publicly challenged the principal and the dean.

During 1956, a group of radical students from the “non- European” section of the university published a journal, The Students Call. This journal launched a ferocious attack on the university and on certain of its personalities. The attacks were described as “scurrilous” and defamatory by the authorities. Again no action was taken against the students responsible for the publication.

In 1960, the Natal University decided to celebrate 50 years of its existence. The black students immediately called for a boycott of what they called “the golden jubilee of an apartheid university”.

The celebration was planned to last a number of months with academics and international celebrities such as Sir Edmund Hilary being invited. The first item of the celebration was a performance of Swan Lake by the British Royal Ballet.

The students planned a placard demonstration on the opening night of the Royal Ballet Company’s performance. This was done in full view of the international celebrities. The next day the whole of Natal came to know of the demonstration. Malherbe and his administration were thoroughly humiliated in public. But no action whatsoever was taken against any of the boycotters or demonstrators.

While there was apartheid at the university in many aspects, the freedoms of speech, assembly, press and conscience were at no stage threatened by the Malherbe administration. They were considered inviolable.

For me those six years were very vibrant; there was uninterrupted debate and discussion. Our understanding of the political struggle, about life around us and our commitment to the struggle for liberation deepened and matured, and stood us in good stead for the harsh years that lay ahead.

At no stage did the students or members of the teaching staff ever feel threatened by the

Malherbe administration for expressing their views in public or in private.

This is in sharp contrast to the heavy atmosphere of fear, victimisation, retribution and plain vindictiveness which prevails at the university today.

I do not know who Moosa is. I had not heard of him prior to the publicity surrounding the proposed disgraceful disciplinary hearings. People whom I have asked about him tell me that they have not heard of Moosa being a defender of civil liberties. So when Moosa says that it was “imperative that the charges be brought against the professors in the interests of good governance … the university would have been remiss not to have done so”, he might have added:

a) it was also in the interests of the legal team, including senior counsel, that the charges were brought since there is no indication that the legal team acted pro amico for the love of “good governance” of the university; and

b) while throughout the country there are numerous disciplinary hearings taking place every day, it is not the practice of management to hire high-powered legal teams at great cost to deal with disciplinary matters.

We are aware that Makgoba and his clique are using university resources to hire an expensive team of lawyers to beat to their knees those who challenge them. Simple arithmetic would reveal that the intended victims and their families face financial ruin if they engage Makgoba and company in a legal contest. From the very outset the battle is weighted in favour of those who have access to the university coffers.

It is time for the academics to reorganise themselves so as to enjoy basic civil liberties. Those who stood for liberty against the oppressors before 1994 found their strength in organisation and succeeded. With organisation, the matter of resources stopped being a central issue.

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you

Ye are many — they are few.

— Percy Bysshe Shelley from The Masque of Anarchy.

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