'It is epistemic violence and we stand by this' - UCT Black Academic Caucus on Nattrass commentary

University of Cape Town
University of Cape Town
Photo: Michael Hammond
  • The BAC says the commentary is peppered with unsubstantiated assertions about black students and their agency.
  • The caucus argues it would have condemned the publication as equally had it been written by a black person.
  • It maintains the work was "grounded in epistemological assumptions that are steeped in a colonial archive ..."

The Black Academic Caucus at UCT says it stands by its criticism that Professor Nicoli Nattrass' commentary piece, asking why black students are less likely to study biological sciences, is based on "historically" fictionalised stereotypes.

The caucus has released a follow-up statement following the publication of the two-page commentary, which has since seen the UCT launch an investigation, deeming it "offensive to black people", and Nattrass hitting back at the way its been handled and the BAC's criticism.

The caucus acknowledged that its original statement that the commentary had been peer-reviewed, was incorrect.

Nonetheless, it believed Nattrass' commentary constructs black students based on "historically fictionalised stereotypes about black people conjured in the white imagination".

"The supposed commentary is peppered with unsubstantiated assertions about black students and their agency," the BAC said in a statement on Tuesday.

"For example, black students are presented as being driven by materialistic desires in their choice of fields of study. This is clearly an assumption speculated as being one reason for the low enrolment of black students in the biological sciences."

It argued that the "supposed commentary" is built on an assumption.

Nattrass in a statement after the furore asserted that the Black Academic Caucus rejected her analysis because it "does not comply with the BAC's narrow ideological and paradigmatic approach".

READ | UCT prof at centre of race storm hits back, accuses varsity of ‘hatchet-job’ response

"And, it seems, because I am white," she said in a statement.

This after UCT's executive said it had launched an investigation as the paper was offensive to black students, black people in general and "to any academic who understands that the quality of research is inextricably linked to its ethical grounding".

The BAC has since said it would have condemned the publication as equally had it been written by a black person.

"That the author is a white woman with preconceived notions of what it means to live in a black body is merely an aggravating factor."

Nattrass said she had conducted exploratory research on the "pressing question" why conservation biology at UCT struggles to attract black South African students, saying it was not a research paper but commentary.

Titled "Why are black South African students less likely to consider studying biological sciences", the commentary by Nattrass, based at the university's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), was published in the South African Journal of Science at the end of May.

The two-page document speculated that inequalities in schooling, "materialistic values" around occupation and income, "experience with pets" and "attitudes towards wildlife", "shaped by a student's socio-economic background", played a role in black students' willingness to study biological sciences.

Nattrass maintained that the commentary spoke to the issue of transformation at the university.

She presented the results to an international institutional review panel chaired by a deputy vice-chancellor.

She said the council's response "bears the hallmarks of a rushed, error-filled, hatchet job in response to political pressure from the Black Academic Caucus and student activists".

The BAC had last week said there were a "variety of tropes about black students and black people and their 'culture" that play out, leading to "some disturbing conclusions from the author".

It said publishing this sort of material was not unprecedented in the "long and intertwined histories of research advocating eugenics".

It's statement on Tuesday said the situation revealed that ethics in research, especially in respect to marginalised groups and the way in which people and cultures are studied, "need to be taken much more seriously at UCT and beyond".

The caucus maintained that Nattrass' work was "grounded in epistemological assumptions that are steeped in a colonial archive that is prejudicial to black students and black people in general".

"It is epistemic violence and we stand by this," its statement reads.

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