UCT: Triumph of the malevolent minority

Tim Crowe says Max Price's decision to keep campus closed went against the wishes of the majority of staff and students

The University of Cape Town (UCT) remains under siege by an unrepentant violent minority

Last Friday (23 September), after counselling a distraught father concerned about the future of his two sons at UCT, I attended a report-back to academics by Vice Chancellor Max Price on matters relating to the shutting down of UCT this week and (possibly) in the future. The meeting (the last of three held during the day) had to be protected from disruption by hired security. Nevertheless, it was invaded by students who were allowed to attend as observers.

The VC reported that talks with protesters were dichotomous in nature. Ninety percent, perhaps even more, students, e.g. those reflecting the views of the Student Representative Council (SRC), favour re-opening UCT to allow the vast majority of staff and students to get back to education and research while the Executive pursues discussions relating to protester grievances/demands.

A very small minority driven by an even tinier core of protesters (including people who have no association with UCT or interest in education) adamantly oppose re-opening. Their key immediate demand is that five students expelled (after deliberately delaying their hearing for months) for criminal actions including verbal and physical intimidation (of individuals, classes and university administration) and destruction of property and arson must, once again, be pardoned (in the spirit of restorative justice) for their transgressions.

They further demand that the UCT Executive agrees to participate in a ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ forum controlled by protester-appointed ‘mediators’. This is despite the five expellees resolutely refusing to apologize for their acts. So much for restorative justice and unfettered reconciliation.

The VC then presented some options for ‘action’:

1. continue to keep UCT shut down for one-two weeks (or even longer) to “cool off” while he and his team try to resume engagement with protesters;

2. agree to participate in the ‘forum’ subject to unlinking it to the structure of the original TRC and having it controlled by unbiased mediators;

3. resume limited or “hybrid?” university functioning on Monday (26 September) in certain relatively easily managed sectors with protection by limited private security; and

4. re-open UCT completely and, if necessary, supplement private security with police personnel who would prevent disruption, violence and destruction and perhaps take provocateurs into custody.

He then stressed that prolonged closure of UCT could totally undermine successful completion of undergraduate education for 2016, but that use of security personnel might drive ambivalent students to become intimidators.

Then the meeting was opened for questions and discussion. The overwhelming majority of those present want UCT re-opened and intimidation and violence to cease, and most opposed pardoning the ‘five’ unapologizing miscreants.

Several academics passionately recounted incidents of personal intimidation and that of other colleagues and students desperately wanting to teach be taught and study. One ‘Black’ female academic in particular, who heads a committee involving UCT’s transformation, said that the UCT Executive was “all talk and no action” and highlighted the revolting, sexist behaviour of male protesters who disrupted her lectures.

Virtually all the discussants supported the use of security personnel to ensure the safety of lecturers and students. When I asked if he would consider a UCT Community-wide, anonymous survey to discover the ‘true’ views of self-identified sectors (e.g. by ‘race’, sex/sexual identity, age, association – student/academic-support-staff/alumnus/donor) on a range of questions relating to UCT’s future he demurred. He gave two justifications. The demographics of the ‘community’ might produce a biased result.

Members of the community might resent being asked to ‘self-identify’. He then referred to considering the needs of community members who self-identify by biological gender and sexual selfhood. So, in one ‘context’, self-identification is misleading and in others it’s central.

Finally, one academic with knowledge of contractual law warned the VC that disgruntled students and parents might sue UCT to recover fees paid if students failed to progress or graduate.

I now (25/9/2016) see that the VC has decided to suspend teaching and close UCT libraries while staff “continue operations” until at least 30 September. In short, the demand of a handful of self-identified, unapologetic criminals for exoneration for their acts, supersedes the needs of a community of educators, support staff and scholars (and the parents who have sacrificed so much for their children) - not to mention the desires of donors who have invested in Africa’s premier academic centre of freedom.

Emeritus Prof. Tim Crowe