On 'book burning' in South Africa

Thomas Johnson asks how this could be happening to and at our universities

South Africans are spectators to their own lives

Last week at opposite ends of the world two events (one of many) occurred.  Both were remarkable.  They were not similar in any way, but each told us about the values of the respective societies in which they occurred and the paths those societies are on.

On September 8 at Cape Canaveral 7.05pm local time Nasa launched Osiris-Rex spacecraft on a two year journey to intercept the asteroid Bennu.  It will study Bennu for two years, take samples from the surface and return them to Earth in 2023.  The samples will help scientists understand more about how Earth and the solar system developed.

On September 6 in Durban students set fire to the Howard College law library causing extensive damage and destroying “rare and valuable books”, some dating back to Roman-Dutch times.

George Devenish, emeritus professor and one of the drafters of the interim constitution, wrote in BDlive he observed the news on television in “horror” and “wept” when he visited the scene. 

“The Howard law library is part of the heritage of all South Africans and an incomparable resource of which we can all be proud. Its damage is a source of profound pain for all those who use it and value it.”

Of course the destruction must be condemned.  But of significance to me is that first, it occurred at a university, an almost sacred arena of rational debate, free speech, learning and research. 

Second, these occurrences have become commonplace at universities throughout the country, and reflect incidences and attitudes in society.

Third, while university management and government react passively and in utter confusion to events as they occur, they also paternalistically indulge students and allow them space to continue their actions by making excuses for them and not taking, or being reluctant to take, disciplinary and criminal action against offenders.

This pattern was started at the University of Cape Town in 2015, supposedly the country’s leading university. 

Fourth, events like at Howard College indicate to me that as a young nation we are not on a path of exploration and discovery, but nihilism – destroying and negating anything we don’t like, or that stands in our way or beliefs, be they ideas, flesh or matter. 

Devenish said students “do their cause and the country great harm by resorting to acts of violence and destroying resources which exist for their use and upliftment”. 

But I resist the patronising notion university, government, analysts and sometimes media offer that funding, or “legitimate grievances”, is a sufficient cause of irrational and destructive behaviour.  However, it’s learned from a society where such acts are tolerated and tacitly encouraged. 

Remember, in 2015 UCT management, government and sections of the media and public applauded Chumani Maxwele and UCT students when they tested their and authorities’ mettle in a consequence-free environment.  Max Price stood ingratiatingly at their side, all the while condoning what they were doing and had achieved, while Rhodes’ statue was toppled to televised jubilation.  This was the match that lit the fuse.

Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at Caltech – ranked 5th for 2016 by QS World University Rankings – is at the vanguard of space exploration.  JPL’s engineers and scientists build and operate planetary spacecraft.  JPL’s Juno spacecraft entered Jupiter’s orbit on July 4, 2016 and will gaze beyond the planet’s dense clouds to pierce its mysteries.  Voyager 1, launched in 1977, has left the solar system, the first man-made object to enter deep space. 

The point I’m making is dedication to knowledge, creativity, exploration, discovery and advancement starts with imagination.  And it starts with enquiring minds, nurtured from childhood in a society that encourages thought, ideas and reflection that transcends the mundane, and values it for its own sake.  But it develops and grows to fruition through education and at universities. 

Caltech is a place where physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking is “geek cool”.  His public lecture in 2013 was akin to a rock star event where the hundreds deep line for seats in the auditorium started at 8am for an 8pm start time.

The brilliant minds of Caltech and JPL receive recognition in popular entertainment like TV’s The Big Bang Theory and the novel and movie The Martian.

People may say I’m being unrealistic comparing developed countries like the US, which can easily afford hundreds of millions of dollars on a single science or cultural project, to South Africa.  But I’m not. 

South Africa suffers from exceptionalism, the notion we as a nation are unique, that our problems and history are unique and particularly difficult, and lessons cannot be learned from elsewhere in the world at any time in history.  And yes, sometimes our rare successes are crowed about as being unique too, the peaceful transition to democracy being the one I’m thinking of.

Since World War 2 many countries proved a successful transition can be made from social and economic ruin, from a backward or disadvantaged state to stability and prosperity in a relatively short time, in some cases a generation – Germany and Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore.   (Germany, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all have active aero-space programmes, considered the pinnacle of scientific and technological advancement and human achievement.)

Vietnam, though, is described as a “development success story”, following political and economic reforms launched in 1986.  The World Bank country review states:

“Reforms transformed the country from one of the poorest in the world, with per capita income around $100, to lower middle income status within a quarter of a century with per capita income of around $2,100 by the end of 2015.”

Vietnam’s growth since 1990 has been among the fastest in the world, ranging from 5.5% since 1990 to 6.4% in the 2000s. Its estimated growth for 2015 is 6.7%.

It is worth remembering Vietnam was in a state of war from 1947 to 1975.  In 1976 a socialist republic was formed that implemented a “Stalinist dictatorship of the proletariat”.  Dire political and social conditions caused an exodus of a million Vietnamese by sea – “boat people” – and land. 

In 1994 South Africa faced economic and social challenges, but it was surmountable. In comparison to countries like Vietnam and similar it had good, intact infrastructure, a sound legal system and civil and state institutions.  It still had world-class businesses and universities. 

People were working and in school.  Their health and social needs were attended to, even if it was not as fast as government promised or they desired.  And their liberties were buttressed by a constitution that Devenish helped write enforcing socio-economic rights, described as one of the best in the world. 

But under the tyranny of a discredited socialist philosophy even mother Russia abandoned (perestroika), and a culture of corruption and incompetence among governing party apparatchiks, South Africa turned victory into defeat. 

The economic system we have today – monopolistic, overregulated, inefficient, high cost, closed, low growth, high unemployment and antithetical to innovation – was the Faustian bargain the ANC struck with white capital, that is, the monolithic corporations that ran the economy, to not change the status quo so that they could continue their monopoly power after democracy.

Thus the ANC partnered with self-invested capital, and black economic empowerment and its overnight multi-millionaire oligarchs were the pay-off. Corruption, a chronically stagnant economy and poor social conditions originated around 1994.  We are living with this legacy, not apartheid’s, and should apportion blame where it’s due. 

However, the exceptionalism that smothers the ANC (“the ANC will rule until Jesus comes”; “the ANC is self-correcting”), the left, many in the media and many self-pitying members of society, including nihilistic students, says everything that went wrong over the past 22 years is solely the fault of colonialism and apartheid.  So there appears to be a systematic attempt to rewrite pre- and post-apartheid history.  An indiscriminate purge has begun.

“Colonial” and “apartheid” statues and art, and those deemed so including post-apartheid works by black artists, are ripped off pedestals, covered up and put in deep storage.  “Euro-centric” or “Western” philosophy and concepts are questioned, and freedom of expression is normative

Lectures are cancelled, lecturers chased out of auditoria and libraries and books burnt.  Free speech, debate and independent thought are stifled and self-censorship imposed at campuses, and elsewhere.  The essence of a university is being erased one idea at a time.

It’s appalling to me this incendiary wave started at the university I went to, facilitated, encouraged and actively managed by the principal, executive and some academics labouring under whatever delusions they may have. 

University funding and high fees are a problem, but one developed countries have too.  But they do not break down institutions like Caltech and others of less distinction brick by brick, as South Africans are determined to do with theirs.

They work through the problem until a solution is found.  Sometimes there is no immediate, satisfactory answer – that is the way of the universe.  Only spoilt children or the psychologically disturbed expect instant gratification, problem free, and for the world to be laid at their feet. 

Most of South Africa’s problems are self-manufactured.  People are poor because against sound advice they persistently elect venal and misguided leaders whose policies ensure they remain poor.  They are ignorant and unskilled because they set fire to schools and universities, and intimidate the country’s fallible leaders into doing nothing. 

And while the world explores new frontiers, they are left behind, rewriting history to fulfil their narratives they are its perennial victims, and spectators to their own lives.