OPINION | David Benatar: Dirty tricks at play at UCT

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The University of Cape Town (UCT) (Getty Images)
The University of Cape Town (UCT) (Getty Images)

David Benatar writes that a recent whatsapp exchange following the publication of his article on the News24 platform reveals why very few people will dare speak up about the situation at UCT when they know they will be branded in a specific way. 

While the controversy about leadership failures at the University of Cape Town (UCT) continues to rage, apologists for the institution continue their dirty tricks. The single biggest and dirtiest of these is to allege that those who have been exposing the rot are racists. 

Given that some of the people who have been critical of the university leadership are "black", those alleging racist motives have only two rhetorical options. The one is to allege, highly implausibly, that these dark-skinned critics are doing the bidding of (purported) "white" racists. The other is conveniently to ignore these critics and to focus only on those critics who are pale enough for the accusations to stick in the minds of the only marginally less paranoid. 

That is exactly the strategy of a Deputy Dean in the Faculty of Health Sciences at UCT, Dr Kerrin Begg. It seems that some of her fellow UCT MBChB alumni of 1994 raised concerns about UCT in a WhatsApp group, citing my publications about this. (I am the author, inter alia, of The Fall of the University of Cape Town and a recent article, "The Fall of UCT will continue". Dr Begg responded, on 15 October 2022, the day that the latter article was published, by saying that: 

David Benatar is racist and bigoted on multiple fronts. He operates as a lone ranger and does not have UCT interests at heart.

Later in her post, she said that people "like David Benatar and Jeremy Seekings have very problematic personal agendas". Jeremy Seekings is another of the very few academics at UCT who has been consistently vocal in his criticism of what has been happening at and to our university. 

To the best of my knowledge – I have been given access to only part of the discussion and am relying on reports for information about the remainder of it – Dr Begg has offered no justification for her claims. Those claims are, of course, without foundation, and thus any "justification" would be a rationalisation of a preconceived view.

That the accusations are without foundation does not make them any less damaging, given the current climate. In addition to besmirching reputations, such denunciations also have a chilling effect. Very few people will dare speak up when they know that the consequence will be being branded in this way. 

Familar tactics 

The tactics are familiar ones. They have been employed by, for example, Stalinists and Maoists on the so-called Left and by Inquisitions and Nazis on the Right. The effects of these accusations are not (yet?) as drastic in post-Apartheid South Africa as they were in those former regimes, but the psychological phenomenon that drives them is the same, and time will tell whether they become more physically dangerous than they now are. 

There are other aspects of Dr Begg's response to her fellow alumni that are concerning. She conceded that there "are complex challenges at UCT", adding "(what organisation doesn't)" (sic), as though the troubles at UCT are ordinary rather than extraordinary. 

READ | UCT sticks to its guns, bars Media24 from attending special council sitting

She then attempted to deflect attention from UCT by saying that UCT's "challenges" are "nowhere near the extent that the press makes out". She alleged that "other universities in SA with much more challenging and real governance problems don't make the headlines". In support of this claim, she said that "Stellies appointed a new DVC last year for Teaching and Learning – a person of colour because the leadership is so lily white – but has not a single qualification or experience in teaching and learning", but that there were "No headlines" about that. 

What is fascinating about this comment is that Dr Begg was so desperate to rescue UCT's reputation that she forgot her own wokeism. She claimed that a "person of colour" was appointed to a Deputy Vice Chancellor position without being qualified for the job. 

Even if she were correct, that would hardly be news in a country that practices the world's most extreme form of affirmative action – a country where "race" routinely trumps qualification. This would be no "Man bites dog" story. Moreover, it is only a proportion of such appointments that are as monumentally bad as UCT's appointment and re-appointment of its current Vice-Chancellor. 

However, the accusation that Stellenbosch University's DVC for Teaching and Learning is unqualified for the position is astoundingly ironic coming from Dr Begg. 

Deputy Vice-Chancellors, like Deputy Deans, are typically drawn from the ranks of academia. They are academics who become university administrators. Stellenbosch's DVC for Teaching and Learning meets that criterion. Moreover, as an academic, he would have been involved in and had experience in both teaching and learning. 

Failure on media's part 

Dr Begg, judging from her UCT Faculty of Health Sciences profile, has only a tangential connection with academia beyond her own studies. She is a medical graduate who practised briefly before becoming a hospital administrator and then a consultant "in the fields of strategy, health policy, leadership, mentorship and coaching, performance processes, organisational design and organisational culture". She also served as a consultant "in developing assessment tools, training programmes and materials for public sector primary health care clinics in the field of diagnostics and laboratory medicine". However, none of this is a standard background for a Deputy Dean, which makes her comment deeply ironic. Indeed, Dr Begg's most important qualification for her position seems to be her ideological conformity. 

READ | FRIDAY BRIEFING: University of trouble: SA's higher learning crisis is a reflection on society

In her post, Dr Begg cautioned her readers to "be careful how you interpret what is in the media space". I agree that we should exercise caution in interpreting what we read in the media, especially given the current general state of the media in South Africa. Indeed, much of the latest coverage of UCT has been highly inaccurate. Most of this has not been countered in the public domain, but two recent examples where the media's failures have been exposed are responses by Max Price and Sipho Pityana and then by Jeremy Seekings

However, the inaccuracies to which these authors refer are not the inaccuracies that Dr Begg alleges. UCT is much worse, not better than one would think from reading most of the media coverage. One of the aspects that are only rarely exposed is the deployment of dirty tricks, by Dr Begg and others, against UCT's justified critics.  

- David Benatar, a philosophy professor, is the author of The Fall of the University of Cape Town: Africa's leading university in decline. He writes in his personal capacity.

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