UCT should also 'luister'

Mike Berger says the university displays a contemptuous attitude to even the most gently put requests

Luister Revisted – the UCT version

I have had the opportunity recently to view ”Luister”. For those readers living in a parallel universe Luister is the film which, rightly or wrongly, purports to blow the lid on the embedded racism within Stellenbosch University as reflected in the language policy of the University and the behaviour of white students, excepting, presumably, those who made the film. This letter is not especially about the film but rather about its title, Luister, as will become apparent. And it is about me and UCT.

However, since I do not wish to chicken out of commenting directly on the film itself, I will start by pointing out that it is, putting it gently, partisan. The only voices heard in the film are those supporting the basic thesis of anti-black racism, marginalisation and humiliation at the hands of whites, predominantly Afrikaners. Not once in all the interviews was a single critical question levelled at any interviewee and, other than an “invitation” to University management to respond to the film, no attempt was made to interview white or black students whose experiences or perspectives differed from the discourse supported by the film. It assumed that the narrative not only fitted the facts seamlessly but that the moral universe implicitly endorsed by the film was the only one deserving of consideration.

Such assumptions square neither with history or with a key function of the University in the modern world which is to teach and encourage critical thinking, even (or especially) when applied to social or political issues. By now every educated adult should be aware that critical thought applied to matters which engage with issues of personal identity or group competition is not one of humanity’s strong suits. Nevertheless, this is what a University is supposed to be about and the film is hardly an advertisement for Stellenbosch’s success in this regard.

At the same time, it is not unreasonable to make a film which advocates for a particular viewpoint and we need to deal with the issues it raises. After all, “racism” – or to use a less emotionally and morally loaded phrase, “polarised group identity” – underlies much of the political debate and actual politics of South Africa. This is indeed a global theme and South Africa is in unenviable position of world leader when it comes to ethnicity and its discontents.

So what about the content and message of the film? For the record, since this article is not primarily about the film itself, I’m pretty sure that anti-black racism is at least prevalent if not actually rife at Stellenbosch. I equally suspect that the narrative in its simplistic depiction of “perpetrators” and their “victims” is creating a somewhat distorted and partial picture of the full social reality. And finally I strongly believe that this is a problem in South Africa and the world which needs our serious attention since it has the potential to derail human progress to a kinder, more just and sustainable world.

But now I wish to return to what this article is really about, our inability and unwillingness to really “Luister” with both hearts and minds, which lies at the very root of our hatreds, resentments and violent conflicts. This is not only Stellenbosch’s problem nor is it just a University problem; it’s a national and a universal issue. But that is what we must demand of leaders: the ability and willingness to Luister without having to be beaten into attention. I’m going to illustrate this with a personal example because I think it is telling in the broader context and because the leadership of our esteemed University of Cape Town also needs to be held accountable for its actions.

Here are the basic salient facts:

It starts with me in 1970, 33 years old, the lucky beneficiary of a fairly decent secondary and tertiary level education in South Africa which yielded a BSc (Med) and an MB BCh from the University of the Witwatersrand and, fresh from a 5 year stint in the USA, a PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Minnesota/Mayo Clinic. I was hired as lecturer, then senior lecturer and associate professor at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital campus of UCT Medical School before leaving after 20 years to become professor and head of department of Chemical Pathology at the University of Natal Medical School (as it was then known).

I eventually retired back to Cape Town in 1997 and taught briefly in the enrichment program at UCT Medical School, undertook facilitation projects on behalf of the Medical Faculty of the University, started a Consilience Club at the University, lectured at the Summer School, was elected as member of the Academy of Sciences of Southern Africa and was responsible for the invitation and hosting of one of the Academy’s first overseas Visiting Lecturers...and so on and so forth.  These are the bare bones; and this précis will suffice for my present purpose.

To sum up: I had made a respectable contribution to the academic life and reputation of the University, contributed significantly to health care in the Western Cape (and Natal) and to the training of thousands of medical and post-graduate students, including students of colour, at both institutions.

Around 2002 I drifted into other interests but about 10 years later I applied to the University of Cape Town (to the newly appointed VC, Dr Max Price,  in fact) for an Emeritus appointment. Not only did I fail to receive a reply from Dr Price but only after some prodding was I able to elicit the information from a university official that I failed to meet the criteria. I am, unfortunately, rather vague on the details  but remember it was based on a technicality - and that the episode left a somewhat sour taste.

It remained thus until earlier this year when I again became interested in following up some lines of  academic research. On this occasion I wrote to the Acting Dean of the Health Sciences Faculty, Professor Gregory Hussey, who had been a younger colleague when I was still at UCT. I once again raised the issue of an Emeritus appointment and/or full library privileges and was encouraged by a short personal acknowledgement from Dr Hussey. But there the brief honeymoon ended.

Time passed. Nothing much happened except that I was offered a library card. But since I had applied for an Emeritus appointment and for full library privileges I persisted with my original enquiry. Some more gentle reminders...and eventually I received a letter from the Acting Dean’s Office Manager which read as follows:

Professor Hussey has asked me to respond to your email addressed to him dated 8 June re the abovementioned.

The University policy on the appointment of honorary staff is as set out in the paragraph below:

The Senate (1 June 2012) defined eligibility as follows

a. Any person who retires after at least ten years' service at the University, and retires from the University as a Professor or an Associate Professor may be elected by Senate on the nomination of the Dean to be an Emeritus Professor or an Emeritus Associate Professor as the case may be, and shall on election enjoy the rights and privileges of emeritus rank.

Election will be at plenary meetings of Senate.

b. Emeritus status may also be conferred upon retiring academic officers.

Unfortunately you do not qualify for an appointment as an honorary member of staff as indicated above.   The policy has not changed since you first applied and we can therefore only offer you physical access to our library.   If you wish to take up this offer  your access card is available for collection in the Dean’s office.

Our apologies for any inconvenience caused.”

In sum, after at least 25 years of involvement with UCT, my personal enquiries to colleagues barely elicited a dismissive letter delivered by office minions which, in absolutely boiler-plate bureaucratese, informed me that having actually left the Faculty for another institution rather than being wheeled out feet first as a retiree, I no longer merited an Emeritus appointment. OK, no big deal. But further, I did not even merit use of the institutional code to access scholarly papers or research material off the internet.

Since I live in Simon’s Town physical library access is generally impracticable and difficult. But more importantly, in the 21st century the Internet is the bedrock avenue into the academic network. No attempt to explain further; no apology; no fake expressions of goodwill or collegial bonhomie...just “don’t waste our time, we’re important people”.

I wrote again directly to Price and Hussey, a more angry letter this time, asking them to reconsider. It was totally ignored.

So when I see angry young protesters justifying belligerent and socially inappropriate actions on the grounds that “the authorities” ignore normal channels of communication and pay attention only to violence or the threat thereof, it has a ring of authenticity. Whatever I may think of their objectives, their modus operandi or the social and academic implications of their behaviour, I can certainly appreciate their feelings of disempowerment, anger and alienation.

All that I can say to them is that such contemptuous attitudes are not solely directed towards disempowered black students or other officially recognised “minorities”. Rather they are symptomatic, at least in part, of a pervasive and cynical Machiavellian ethos which responds only to the exercise of various forms of power.

As a concrete example, Mr Chumani Maxwele had it right when he appeared at the statue of Cecil John Rhodes with pot of poo in hand, the media in tow and a small band of assorted comrades and interested onlookers. The effect on the entrenched UCT establishment was electrifying. Public “clarifications” were issued. Dr Max Price, the Vice-Chancellor, confirmed that “transformation” was close to his heart.

Nothing was closer, except possibly alumni, funding and “standards”. His normally urbane, boyish persona frayed at the edges and the Blairite grin faded.  Mr Rhodes was wrapped and moved post-haste, at least until passions cooled. The Senate met and debated. Most of the students who actually voted in a straw poll were apparently against the removal of the statue but the Senate voted overwhelmingly (with one dissenting vote) for its removal. Democracy must sometimes give way to principle. No? Yes – especially when reputations and careers were on the line.

The contrast between the two responses – one to an elderly, ex-faculty member politely asking for library privileges and the other to a semi-permanent student with poo and the media in hand – could not be more telling. Of course, a host of specious arguments can be raised in defence: transformation versus library privileges; costs; alternative avenues of access; rules and regulations...and so on ad absurdum. None of them hold water even for an instant. The explanation is glaringly and embarrassingly apparent: expediency versus principle, a Machiavellian sensibility.

In the big picture, South Africa especially (and the world) needs to listen and respond more carefully using both heart and mind to other voices. In the small picture, hold UCT over the fire through public exposure and alumni funding until the leadership revisits their attitudes and culture.

Mike Berger