NEWS & ANALYSIS

The degradation of UCT

Tim Crowe says Max Price's persistent coddling of the Fallists has come back to bite him and the university

Disruption, Destruction and ‘De-colonisation’ of the University of Cape Town (UCT): a updated perspective from an alumnus, student-parent and long-serving science academic

Despite the fact that I have commented repeatedly on the socio-academic situation at UCT in the light of new developments, I am compelled to comment further, this time as a scientist.

This is because, in the last few days:

1. There has been a severe, destructive attack near (and on) the building housing the Department of Earth Sciences.

2. UCT VC Max Price was physically assaulted when he refused to support the withdrawal of charges against a law-breaking, Fallist ‘protester’.

3. There was a panel discussion held at UCT in conjunction with the Faculty of Science in which #ScienceMustFall protesters clearly articulated their views on “decolonizing” science.

4. When he complained about the lack of leadership and the sense of alienation and disaffection of many academics, students and their parents in the absence of meaningful dialogue, let along productive negotiation, a deeply concerned alumnus/student-parent received only hackneyed platitudes from the Executive.

5. When I contacted many staff whom I have known and respected over the decades about the disruptions at UCT, one highly regarded academic indicated that he strongly supports the Fallists.

Despite all this, the UCT Executive continues to cancel lectures and Jammie transport to campus and keeps libraries closed so that it can prolong ‘negotiations’ with law-breakers who resolutely refuse to to subject themselves to justice (restorative or otherwise). The latest word is that UCT will try to reopen on 17 October, with no face-to-face lectures and “minimal security”.

Now to my comments.

The attack on the Earth Sciences Building resulted in the burning of yet another bakkie. Worse still, a second “petrol bomb was thrown against the building” and may have “damaged a ventilation system that serves the geological sciences laboratory, which houses highly sensitive equipment worth millions of rands”. Without this equipment, researchers and their students cannot function academically.

As much as I disapprove of the VC and his Executive’s actions and inactions over the last 18 months, I would never sanction anything other than written condemnation of or a peaceful demonstration against him. If anything, he has coddled Fallists and their nefarious kith and kin from the very beginning of the ‘movements’ (“political projects” according to Chumani Maxwele).

This makes persistent intimidation and attacks (including arson) against him by the Fallists much more reprehensible. Yet he remains desperate to cater to their demands. Hopefully, its Council, Senate and the UCT Community (especially key donors) will finally take cognisance of this failed judgment and act responsibly. In the meantime, the “silenced majority” withers.

The panel ‘discussion’ video controlled by #ScienceMustFallists and viewed by over 460,000 on YouTube was, if anything, even more disturbing. The key speaker, a ‘student’ from outside the Faculty of Science, derided science as enshrined unshakable “truth” developed and driven as “Western modernity”.

Therefore, because it is “pathetic to say the least”, “the whole thing should be scratched off” and/or “done away with entirely and starting all over again … to conform to our lived experience.”  In her view, the role of new Afrocentric science was to “explain beliefs”. Her sole example was the “ability of people to send lightning to strike someone”.

When someone in the audience took exception to this interpretation, he was silenced immediately and allowed to remain only if he “apologized” and agreed to remain silent. He was accused of using “Western modernity” to “disrespect sacred space” and “trying to collapse proceedings into an antagonizing space”.  What is needed is “internal decolonization of the mind” to set things right.

This sort of behaviour reminds one of Mao Zedong’s social engineering during the 1960s Cultural Revolution that used young people, known as the Red Guards, to grossly denigrate (often murder) their parents and other authority figures, especially university academics.

Speculation aside, this video indicates a Fallist, decolonized (Post-modern?) view within which beliefs are the rule and the new Afrocentric science acts merely as a confirmatory tool to help the "re-educated and decolonized-minded" to reinforce beliefs within “safe, sacred spaces”.  

My science philosopher colleague, Daniel Dennett describes such thinking as “the school of 'thought' that proclaims:

"'There are no truths, only interpretations'. It has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for 'conversations' in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster."

Now I see that the eminent cyber journal, The Conversation, has published an article that promotes the ‘decolonization’ of Mathematics, arguably the ‘purest’ of the sciences. So far, this ‘new’ “ethno-mathematics” has elicited no response from a UCT-based mathematician. Very scary indeed. Please re-read “Lord of the Flies”.

The concerned alumnus and parent, like the widely published and read public intellectuals the ‘Johnsons’ (Thomas and Bill), has, in desolation, ‘written off’ the UCT Executive as an emasculated entity lost in endless negotiation and capitulation, failing to reach ever-shifting goalposts.

On the other side of the negotiating table are duplicitous and/or powerless ‘leaders’ of factions who make ludicrous and dangerous demands, and repeatedly and capriciously renege on painstakingly crafted compacts. In the meantime, in between time, they incite callow fellow-students with inflammatory, racist, binary and zero-sum rhetoric to perform “democratic violence”.

Like my friend, I believe that universities ought to be marketplaces of ideas, amongst many other things. Without the give and take of intellectual discourse and debate, universities devolve into nothing more than glorified training colleges. Meaningful post-graduate education and research become unfulfilled dreams. In the end, this alienates the brightest and best young academics, the public and the majority of students and brings the university into disrepute as it moves from protest to mayhem and riots.

My academic colleague who supports the Fallists said that he is “completely exhilarated by the outcome” and “hopes of it [UCT] being converted into an educational institution from the propaganda machine it has been for its entire history”. In support of his position, he cites “cultural values and perspectives on transformation that are poles apart”. But, when I asked him to engage on our alleged differences he responded as follows:

“The divide is so wide and has existed for so long, that any common ground from which we could embark on a discussion has long since disappeared into the abyss. I do not accept responsibility for that divide. I have spent all my life understanding racism and racists and the oppressive systems of colonialism, slavery and apartheid that they spawned”.

He also accuses me of “self-identifying“ with anti-transformists. Heavy and damning words indeed.

Despite this, like many others at UCT, I self-identify with myself and still live in hope.

Emeritus Prof. Tim Crowe