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Der Fall Nattrass

Paul Trewhela writes on academic freedom under threat in SA

Imagine you are a leading liberal, Left-leaning academic in Germany in the turbulent years of the Great Depression in the early 1930s.

Imagine that, as a professor at one of the leading universities in the country, you are the author also of an extensive range of books on some of the acute social problems of that time, your books published by the most eminent publishing houses.

Imagine also that you are Jewish, and that a few weeks ago you had a paper on a topical social issue published in an academic journal, The German Journal of Science.

It's not hard now to imagine what might happen if an anonymous organisation called the German Academic Caucus, or the Deutscher Dozentenbund, then publishes a ferocious attack on your paper - not in the form of a critical paper in an academic journal, but in a low-grade, mass media, propaganda forum of the streets, called Der Stürmer or Der Angriff , charging you with racial crime for daring to impugn the Volk through your writing on the social question in your paper.

It is not hard now to imagine how the Executive of your university, under those conditions in Germany at that time, might - without consulting you - have then issued a damning public indictment of your academic paper, endorsing the anonymous rubbishing of your paper by the German Academic Caucus. 

Actions like that which happened in Germany at that time, we would regard today as an expression of a fascistic culture.

Yet it is basically what happened over the past few weeks at the University of Cape Town, the oldest university in the sub-continent of Africa.

Titled "Why are black South African students less likely to consider studying biological sciences?", the paper was published as a peer-reviewed commentary on 27 May in The South African Journal of Science. Its author is Professor Nicoli Nattrass, who teaches in the department of economics at the Unversity of Cape Town, and is co-director of the Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa, and is the founder and former director of the AIDS and Society Research Unit. Her paper is not long, and can be read online.

Professor Nattrass's paper was taken up for damning criticism by a group, the UCT Black Academic Caucus, effectively accusing her of being a racist. It was published not according to the practice of established international standards of intellectual inquiry in a peer-reviewed paper in an academic journal, but ... on Twitter. As its name makes clear, UCT Black Academic Caucus is a racially segregated organisation, unlike the South African Communist Party, the former Liberal Party of South Africa, Umkhonto we Sizwe from its foundation, or the African National Congress from 1985. In this sense, philosophically,, it is not different from the former National Party of DF Malan, JG Strijdom, BJ Vorster, PW Botha and FW de Klerk. Racial identity politics has a long life in South African history.

The statement by UCT Black Academic Caucus can be seen on Twitter, here, dated 4 June:

The UCT Executive capitulated the next day (5 June). Its statement is available on the same link. It expressed the Executive's "concern" at the paper, while failing to cite a single word, phrase or passage with which it disagrees. It asserted that the paper has "methodological and conceptual flaws that raise questions about the standards and ethics of research at UCT."

The statement continues that the paper is "constructed on unexamined assumptions about what black people think, feel, aspire to and are capable of. The commentary by Natrass offers an example of research that is unable to examine the historical and ideological roots of academic disciplines and that is equally unaware of the role that power differentials have in closing or opening possibilities and choices in the life of individuals and communities.

"The paper is offensive to black students at UCT; [sic] black people in general and any academic who understands that the quality of research is inextricably linked to its ethical groundings."

A blanket statement, providing no evidence to support it.

In her response (7 June), Nicoli Nattrass disputed the Executive's claim that her paper has "methodological and conceptual flaws."

“I note," she wrote, "that the Executive arrogated to itself the right to pass summary judgement on my Commentary without ever asking me to respond to criticisms. Indeed, when I tried to discuss my response to the criticisms with the Vice-Chancellor, she told me that she 'did not want to debate'. ...

“I note that you have not replied to my requests for clarification on these issues. In reaching its conclusions on my Commentary, the Executive has been neither rigorous nor respectful.  I note that you have not replied to my requests for clarification on these issues. 

"What evidence do you have to make such sweeping generalizations about what ‘black students at UCT’ and ‘black people in general’ think?"

Finally, she writes, "I would be grateful if you could spell my name correctly in future."

UCT Black Academic Caucus responded to her on 9 June, stating"It is epistemic violence and we stand by this." 

It is a strange way to review the work of an internationally recognised former Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, whose list of published papers includes 162 items.

Nicoli Nattrass is co-author with Jeremy Seekings, professor of sociology at UCT, of the following academic studies. A brief survey of each book can be seen by pressing on the link.

Inclusive Dualism: Labour-intensive Development, Decent Work, and Surplus Labour in Southern Africa, published last year (2019) by Oxford University Press;

Policy, Politics and Poverty in South Africa , published by Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2015;

Class, Race, and Inequality in South Africa, published by Yale University Press, New York, 2005.

If these are works by an author practising "epistemic violence", then words have lost their meaning. For the Executive at UCT to endorse such thinking is madness, if not worse. It will immediately help to sink the international standing of South Africa's best universities, in the same way that the country's key state institutions were captured and degraded, leading to unquantifiable economic decline and the further impoverishment of millions of  black people.

It is helpful at this point to follow the thinking of a black public figure in Britain, Dr Tony Sewell, the chair and managing director of the charity Generating Genius, in his argument titled "Navel-gazing identity politics won't help black youth", published in the Daily Telegraph (London) on 9 June, the same day that Black Academic Forum accused Nicoli Nattrass of "epistemic violence." It is an argument that South Africans should read with care.

Sub-headed "Fostering aspiration and recognising talent is the only way to help today's youngsters succeed", the article notes that a great deal of black anger in Britain and the United States today is "stoked by social media which lacks any sense of nuance", and which has created "a lala land of identity politics" which "removes the power of the individual.”

Referring to his past 15 years at the head of Generating Genius, Sewell continues that he realised "the next era of progress needed to tackle the real issue of social mobility: to recognise those with high aspirations find a mechanism to develop their talent, and connect it with real opportunities." 

The principal problem for young black people, he continues, is "a vaccuum of leadership when it comes to talking about these issues . ... The gap needs to be filled by a leadership able to give young people a road map to develop their talents, and link them to opportunity.

"Such progress will not come through the simplistic lens of identity politics. Only when our young protesters abandon their navel-gazing will they succeed in their quest."

It is precisely because Professor Nattrass's commentary in The South African Journal of Science indicates a "vaccuum of leadership" in present day South Africa on this issue that she has become the target of irrational rage, and is herself grotesquely accused of perpetrating "epistemic violence." Violence of sentiment and of language is on the side of her accusers. That accusation in present-day South Africa is as cruel and dangerous as the accusations in Der Stürmer and Der Angriff  that Germany's small minority of Jews were responsible for the country's problems.

Dr Belinda Bozzoli - Democratic Alliance MP and former deputy vice chancellor at Wits University - has been one of the few academics to take a stand in public against this very dangerous threat to the future of education in South Africa.

This is a critical moment, and the integrity of every academic in the country is in question.