Farewell to Max Price from a political adversary

2018-07-15 12:02
Chumani Maxwele

Chumani Maxwele

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This piece is a farewell to Max Price. How do I say farewell to a leader who I fundamentally disagreed with politically – on how best to decolonise and transform our university – for all of his tenure? This is the age of #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall. It is the age of the #Fallist movement.

Price was at the University of Cape Town (UCT) for the past eight years, but in the last three his leadership style was tested the most.

It is my view that Price was most effective as vice-chancellor in pushing boundaries, especially as he was politically pushed himself by the student #Fallist movement.

Leaders are made by the decisions they take, and a lot changed at UCT in a short space of time under Price.

Price was forced (by black students, black workers and a few black academics) to make some of the most difficult decisions in the history of UCT. He and his leadership collective were forced to remove the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from the prime place it had occupied for decades at our university.

He was forced to insource black workers and to declare that no black student at UCT would ever again be excluded from the university because of his or her inability to pay the fees charged by the university.

He was also forced to allow student activists who he had interdicted, suspended and expelled, to return to the university.

There are lots of other decisions he was forced to take. These include yielding to pressure to rename UCT buildings, and to make sure that black academics were better represented on academic committees overwhelmingly populated by whites, on the basis that it takes a full professor to serve on certain committees.

It was on 9 March 2015 that I staged a solitary political protest against white power at the university. I had known for some time there was something wrong at UCT. It was only later that I realised that it was institutional racism, interpersonal racism and a culture of exclusion.

These issues played out in how black and white students behaved around each other, in how black and white lecturers behaved around students, as well as in how different members of the UCT community interacted in public spaces.

It was during these university activities that I realised that almost everyone was not interested in confronting the elephant in the room. The elephant was – and still is – white people’s racism at UCT. This racism, both institutional and interpersonal, was directed at all black people in the community, whether they were students, professors or workers. As a naive student seeking freedom and equality, I found black people’s collective fear of openly talking about it a mystery.

Most challenging of all was when black academics were unwilling to talk openly about racism at UCT, most especially in public and in the presence of white people.

This appeared to be black assimilation, or perhaps the preservation of self-interest.

The black student body was a mix of some radicals and many of what I call “assimilationists” into the white world, to the point that black people at UCT did not see each other, or were seeing each other through a lens of social status.

In this context, how can I say goodbye to a white leader who interdicted, suspended and expelled me for being a black student activist willing to confront racism at UCT?

I can because I was not fighting him as a person. I was fighting the system that he was entrenching simply by not decisively calling it out.

Also, I take the time to wish him well because he showed a degree of willingness – although he had to be forced first – to make the necessary decisions.

It would be naive of me to think we could have done what we did as student activists without Price’s eventual willingness to change. He could have simply set the police on us – like he did at times and like other vice chancellors had done. Instead he took time to negotiate with us.

UCT will never be the same again. I am aware that structural racism is still alive at UCT and we will have to fight against it for many of the years ahead. I am equally aware that having a new incoming black VC, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, will not magically solve the structural, institutional and interpersonal racism at the institution.

However, at a symbolic and psychological level, to have a black vice-chancellor at UCT helps us, as black students, to see the possibility of decolonising our university.

Most importantly, as black people at UCT, we are not a homogeneous group and the contradictions among and within us will be sharpened as we go forward. This is healthy politics.

So, farewell to Price, and welcome to a new era marked by the tenure of Phakeng.

- Maxwele is a postgraduate student in politics and African studies at UCT. He is also a political activist

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Read more on:    uct  |  max price  |  chumani maxwele  |  cape town  |  education  |  university fees  |  feesmustfall  |  university protests

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