Keep your politics to yourself

2018-07-29 10:28
Former US president Barack Obama delivers the annual Nelson Mandela memorial lecture on 17 July 2018. (Jerusha Sukhdeo-Raath, News24)

Former US president Barack Obama delivers the annual Nelson Mandela memorial lecture on 17 July 2018. (Jerusha Sukhdeo-Raath, News24)

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As the throng of people arrived to hear former US president Barack Obama deliver the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture last week, one man in the middle of the crowd stood out – he was the only person there wearing a colourful sun hat with a big ANC emblem on it.

The fellow I was walking alongside asked: “What is wrong with that man? Did he really have to wear an ANC hat going to a Mandela lecture? Is he not embarrassed that he is the only one like that?”

The man was clearly not embarrassed. He walked tall as he made his way to the VIP section, where he sat among the dignitaries.

Although the man looked perfectly normal in his bespoke suit, his hat suggested a level of mental derangement.

I quickly expel the thought of possible madness from the mind of my companion by making him aware that, strange as he looked, the man was none other than Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg (UJ).

Marwala could not possibly be mad. He is an internationally renowned man of science with an engineering doctorate from the University of Cambridge. He is a National Research Foundation of SA-rated scientist whose contribution to knowledge earned him the Order of Mapungubwe in 2004.

Some may ask why a vice-chancellor shouldn’t wear a hat. Is it wrong for a vice-chancellor to associate with political parties?

In the immediate aftermath of 1994, the first generation of black vice-chancellors made their presence felt. Such eminent men as Mbulelo Mzamane, Njabulo Ndebele and Gessler Nkondo come to mind.

That these vice-chancellors were members of, or associated themselves with, the ANC was no secret. In fact, most of them did ANC work while in exile during apartheid. But, other than when attending ANC meetings in their capacity as members of the party, they didn’t wear ANC colours in public.

A vice-chancellor is like a referee in soccer – as men of football, surely referees have their favourite soccer teams. Imagine what would happen if players and supporters of Kaizer Chiefs were to meet a man in a mall who, occasionally referees their matches, wearing an Orlando Pirates T-shirt.

In addition to their core knowledge production mission, universities are vibrant political fields – this is where students form or join political organisations that compete during Students’ Representative Council elections. Some student organisations on campus are wings of political parties vying for power at a national level – the SA Students Congress is linked to the ANC, then there’s the Democratic Alliance Students Organisation (Daso) and the Economic Freedom Fighters Students Command (EFFSC).

Members and supporters of student organisations view their vice-chancellor as a man or woman of letters who is above their political affiliations. Even as some students may suspect that their vice-chancellor associates with a particular political party, a wise vice-chancellor never wears the hat of their political party.

The logic of political parties is to outshine and undermine each other in a perennial contest for power. Political sabotage is an acceptable game in politics. Why must the EFFSC not sabotage Marwala, who wears an ANC hat publicly? When members and supporters of Daso experience political problems at UJ, are they to regard their vice-chancellor as a neutral arbiter?

Let us add an imaginary scenario to the reality of a mad-looking vice-chancellor. Think of Marwala’s deputy vice-chancellors attending the same Mandela lecture wearing hats depicting their chosen political parties – the Freedom Front Plus, the EFF, the DA, the Inkatha Freedom Party and so on. Surely this picture would look wrong.

The pedantic among us would argue that the honesty of appearance is more morally desirable than the mendacity of a camouflaged substance. Thus, pedantry would argue, let vice-chancellors’ hearts be displayed on their heads.

Listening to Ndebele’s opening remarks at the lecture, a light suddenly illumined the very wide intellectual border between the vice-chancellors of today and those of yesterday. All their recorded achievements notwithstanding, Ndebele’s depth is a rarity among our vice-chancellors today and it’s no wonder some of them wear political party hats that make them look like madmen who are completely oblivious to the implications of their conduct.

After I had revealed Marwala’s identity to the fellow who brought the professor and his bizarre hat to my attention, the puzzled man asked me to explain what could possibly have caused an accomplished professor to behave in such a patently inappropriate manner.

In Shakespeare’s King Lear, a fool speaks to the king thus: “Thou should not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”

It is possible for an old king to be foolish. Indeed, it is not impossible for a vice-chancellor to be an idiot. My speculative answer was that maybe the phenomenon of the mad-looking professor in the crowd could best be described as “the depth of idiocy”. This strange phenomenon is commonly found in the hallowed corridors of learned fools.

- Mashele is a political analyst


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