The convocation of the University of Cape Town has an opportunity on the 15th of December to support a vote of no confidence against the present vice-chancellor, Dr Max Price and his senior executive.
The motion has been tabled by Professor Timothy Crowe, with support. It follows a series of decisions by the executive, grounded in the appeasement of student lawbreakers and ideologues who have not been able to articulate their philosophy in any manner as to result in its common comprehension. The straw which has broken the camel’s back is the 6th of November agreement reached by the executive with the Shackville TRC to form an Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission (IRTC)/Shackville TRC.
The agreement for those not familiar with it, sets the course of the university from this point, and suffers from the following deficiencies:
1. The executive have come to a broad agreement with unelected and unrepresentative students
There can be no doubt as to the lack of representation of the broader student body in the agreement reached. Even though at times the vice-chancellor in the agreement refers to the signatories as ‘student formations’ or as the ‘SRC candidates’, it is clear that the 9 student signatories to the agreement are from the Shackville TRC. Indeed the body arising from the agreement ie. the ITRC/Shackville TRC bears only their name.
What is continuously not being asked is who speaks on behalf of the future student, the former student whose degree is being eroded, and the current student held to ransom by unelected representatives? Why should this cohort, our numbers being the greater, be silenced in favour of the voices of 9 students who are increasingly given the ability to act as jury, prosecutor and judge of their own actions?
2. Lawbreakers who have been party to violence on campus are party to their own disciplinary process
The agreement deals in particular with offences committed in February 2016, involving many of the members of the Shackville TRC. It places a moratorium on disciplinary tribunals pending recommendations from the IRTC/Shackville TRC.
Not only have illegitimate voices of the student body successfully presided over an agreement which sets up their own road to clemency, but the executive agreed to ‘subject its [own] actions to investigation and recommendations by the IRTC/Shackville TRC and respect the outcome of this process’.
3. There is no agreed definition by the university on what decolonisation entails.
Talking to the matter of the ongoing protests in an October senate meeting the vice-chancellor highlighted that it was not clear what the students expected of the university with regards to decolonisation. Not to be deterred by a lack of clarity, the agreement gives its ‘support in principle for the call to decolonize…while recognising that decoloniality is not understood in the same way by all.’ No indication is given as to which version of meaning is therefore being supported.
It is as unfathomable as conceding that you do not understand the terms of a contract but agreeing to sign it regardless. It is particularly questionable when the other party has given no evidence of negotiating in good faith in the past.
4. The university has not asserted its own values in the agreement
There is nothing in the agreement that reasserts the university’s commitment to academic freedom, free speech and debate; nothing to suggest its commitment to the value of ideas, and their expression, and that this takes primacy to feelings of offence or alienation. Where is the university’s commitment to stand by its academic staff and what they teach in the face of intimidation? The agreement reads as a long ode to the coalition of the aggrieved, and nothing about the need to maintain standards and to ensure that those who enter its doors can compete in the real world. What is excluded is an agreement with the person who wants a degree of international standing so that they might have a valuable currency to exchange for a decent job. For this person the ‘academic’ war being waged by the Fallists, using the language of critical race theory as a front for giving legitimacy to incoherent ideas, is secondary to his struggle to change the material conditions for himself and his family.
Explain to the person with a hard won seat in an engineering faculty that his primary concern should not be getting a world class education, but rather ensuring that his degree is free from western hegemony. It could perhaps be countenanced if it could be understood what the university’s core values, which Max Price is appointed to uphold, are being bartered in exchange for. Instead, there is an admission to not understanding decolonisation and yet it seems there is little the university is not prepared to sacrifice at its alter.
There are many of you who will want to know, will this work? There are two responses. The first is to say that I hope ideas and principles have not become so quaint, that we care most about ‘what will work’ instead of ‘what is right’. If you understand this then you will understand that the winning is in the fighting, and that making the point is the point. In this way then, the motion has already worked. It has been tabled, those who wish to make a stand have an opportunity to be counted, and even if the Fallist mentality ‘wins’ at UCT, this motion and the opposition which predates it is there for the record.
But what people mean is will this motion of no confidence result in the termination of Dr Price as the vice-chancellor of the university or of any of the executive? No it will not. And this would not be a failure of the motion. A vote of no confidence does not have to result in a resignation or termination of office. It can serve as a serious warning to the executive of the university to reconsider the course which they have embarked upon, that course being the source of the loss of confidence, and to change course in order to restore confidence in their leadership. It also serves as a reminder that the university has long established values which cannot be altered and made up as this motley crew hobbles along.
The Institutional Statute of the university places the power to appoint and terminate the term of the vice-chancellor in the hands of the Council. The support of more than half of these Council members would be necessary to pass a resolution resulting in termination. But the voice of the convocation, constituting as it does the body of former students of the university and current academics, is an important voice.
Lastly, I owe a word to those for whom something is at stake: perhaps the opinion of colleagues or fellow, past and current students. Suppose you speak out openly at the convocation meeting? What are the consequences of having exposed yourself thus? I cannot say. Each of us have our own tolerance for conflict and rejection. Members of the convocation will need to attend and speak by individual compulsion and resolution, you will likely not find the safety and protection of numbers there. Many will not be able to make it for legitimate reasons, illness and the expense of travel, etc. And yet still there will be many in reach of the campus who have an opinion but will choose rather to stay at home, for no other reason than they would sacrifice their views, and integrity, to the alter of holiday sunshine and an early gammon sandwich.
We are not going to block Cape Town traffic on 15 December, there will be no portrait of Chumani Maxwele symbolically melting on top of a burning tyre outside the venue, we will not be collectively calling ourselves the ‘Afro Renaissance’ as a throwback to a period when the ideas we now seek to protect at UCT started to emerge in the Western world, though tempting. So in total there will not be many signs of activism. The hope is that the many, including those who do not see themselves as activists, but who are concerned about the intellectual life of the university, concerned for future students and the calibre of academics that the university will attract and the devaluation of their degree, diploma or certificate will make it. If this concerns you there will be no tyre or effigy for you to hold, but be there; inconspicuous, but present.
The 2016 Convocation meeting of the University Cape Town is to be held on 15 December 2016 at 17:00 in Lecture Theatre 1 of the Wilfred and Jules Kramer Building, Middle Campus.
* Gwen Ngwenya is the former SRC President at the University of Cape Town. She holds a Master’s degree in Economics from the University of Paris, and is the Chief Operating Officer at the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR).