OPINION | Thembalethu Seyisi: UCT VC comments: Cancel culture doesn't allow lessons to be learned

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University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng.
University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng.
Esa Alexander, Gallo Images, Sunday Times, file

While there were issues with what UCT vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng during an online lecture, there was no need for the way she was treated afterwards, writes Thembalethu Seyisi.


During the heart of the pandemic and in the heat of the strict South African lockdown in 2020, University of Cape Town (UCT) Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng initiated a creative way of learning together.

She set out to share her top-rated knowledge on her social media pages with all those who were willing to listen and learn. The 60-minute social media lectures ranged from lighthearted and self-deprecating topics of how she failed Chemistry in her first year of tertiary studies to serious topics of how to conduct PhD research and 'make it' in the workplace.

This transformative way of learning meant she was meeting people where they are, with the knowledge that they have and hopefully, after the lecture, those who tuned in would have acquired new knowledge.

READ | UCT vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng apologises to LGBTQI community for hurt caused by online event

On 5 September 2021, the VC started a new series of #StrengthInDiversity. The first lecture was meant to dissect "what does science say about LGBTQA+". I aim not to venture and add more to the body of work produced by brilliant activists and scholars on why this was wrong. Many other learned colleagues have already capably done so. However, I want to critique the misogynistic and bullish behaviour that the VC was subjected to days after. 

Although some criticism was valid, some was malicious and just purely rude. It is the latter that should be unfavored and dealt with before spreading like a cancerous disease in our Nation's psyche. When people err, how we handle their ball dropping is of paramount importance as it sets a precedent. Bullying and name-calling should not be part of correcting the wrong. That strategy undermines genuine concerns and offends the inherent human dignity of the other person. It is also antithesis to our nation's cardinal principle of rehabilitating the offender and a rejection of the other person's fallibility. Calling the UCT VC a "mathematical mouth", "disgusting", and "personally tired of her" does very little to the discourse of correcting the wrong but rather positions her as someone not worthy of our engagement. 

Clicks advert fallout 

Coincidentally, the first week of September marks a year since the big EFF and Thuli Madonsela fallout over the Clicks advert.

While Madonsela was convinced that the Clicks ad- which labelled black women hair as "dry and damaged" and 'frizzy and dull' compared to the white women's hair which was captioned 'normal' and "fine and flat"- was a "textbook case of unconscious bias", the EFF pack led by Julius Malema believed it was a deliberate act of racism and subsequently called for the raiding of Clicks stores in South Africa.

The issue here is not whether Madonsela was right or not; the point is how the EFF responded to her. The misogynistic responses, similar to what the UCT VC had to deal with, should bother us. Responses to Madonsela ranged from "find the nearest hell Thuli…when you get there, you know the cerebral thing to do!" (Mbuyiseni Ndlozi), "the sooner the whole of South Africa accepts that you're a spokesperson and puppet of the white capitalist establishment the better" (Floyd Shivambu). Stripping Madonsela the agency to form her own (daily) thoughts on public matters, sexualising and reducing her to someone who advances the interest of white (men) is appalling, dangerous and regressive to the notion of non-sexism.

READ | Karyn Maughan: 'Find the nearest hell, Thuli': The EFF and its inability to deal with criticism

It is not arguable that the past week has shown that the UCT VC best represents black women who are walking, what she coins, 'the tight rope'. Most times, she is the hope and the solution, but at the very same time she is the person to shoot at as she walks the tightrope between the picket line and the boardroom. The picket line being those who are aggrieved, and the boardroom being those who can correct the grievance. She then becomes the creature that is expected to answer the grievances of the picket line- not today, not tomorrow but yesterday (!). One cannot begin to imagine the immense pressure the VC faced when the malicious Twitter birds started tagging UCT. The "they are your people, make them stop" comments from the boardroom must have been destabilising.

The pressure on black woman to get it right all the time in unreasonable and unfair at best. In this instance, although the lecture was unwittingly hurtful, Mamokgethi Phakeng meant no harm as she expressly stated the intentions of the lecture: "We are here to learn, that's what this platform is about…this is also about educating some parts of our community that are not so receptive [of members of the LGBTQI+]…some areas in our country [that] are not so open minded".

The spurious wokeism, aimed at intimidating and silencing black women, should be met with no mercy. A bulwark must be formed against the loudmouths who jump to the front of the Twitter picket line and use genuine concerns and societal vulnerabilities to advance their own political careers. Failure to address this bullish behaviour dressed as activism leaves us with a greater chance of losing our most outstanding leaders among us. 

- Thembalethu Seyisi is a legal scholar and author. He writes in his personal capacity. 

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