Arson at UCT: What you didn't read in the Cape Times

Ed Herbst writes on how that newspaper has reported on the events of 16 February last year, and its aftermath

“We have as a country done much to define the ‘corrupt politician’, the ‘thief’ and ‘the crook’. In fine detail we can map the depth and breadth of their character. But not so much the arsonist. And they are everywhere, match in hand, anger in heart, looking, waiting for something to set a spark to. Yet, for all the light they are responsible for, they exist in the shadowy periphery of the South African moral outrage machine.” -  Gareth van Onselen Business Day 18 May 2016.

It is an extraordinarily powerful photograph which causes one to instinctively recoil.

It was carried in one of the most influential business and financial magazines in the world, The Economist.

It shows an RMF protestor about to hurl a boulder at the already burning portrait of a white women who played an inestimable and inestimably brave role in bring apartheid to an end.

Flames lick at the painting and in the background laughing, and applauding RMF “Burning Whiteness” protestors proudly signal the death of the Nelson Mandela dream – nation building through reconciliation.

The opening line of the article was no less arresting with its unmistakable evocation of Pastor Martin Niemöller’s immortal words:

“First they came for the statues.”

Economist Dawie Roodt says the cost of cancelled foreign investment as a result of recent protests cannot be calculated and he might, in saying that, have had The Economist article in mind.

The extent of those financial costs can be gauged by recently-revealed insurance statistics.  Protests made up 67% of claims in the 2015-2016 financial year.  Student riots which effectively started on the UCT campus - with constant moral support from the Cape Times – made up 10% of claims, increasing from 1% the year before.

The total cost of those riots in terms of damaged infrastructure at 13 universities exceeds R300 million.  When RMF started on its campaign of “burning whiteness” they stated: "We are not done, we are just getting started.” Since then, the costs have risen by another R100 million after arsonists razed the Sanlam auditorium at the University of Johannesburg.  The cost to the academic and subsequent professional lives of the students whose studies and exam preparations have been disrupted is incalculable

RMF arson –a judicial summary

In the Cape High Court recently Judge Rosheni Allie granted an interdict in favour of the applicant, UCT, which effectively barred RMF leader Chumani Maxwele from entering the campus for the next five years.

In the past, articles by Cape Times reporter, Carlo Petersen, deifying Maxwele and demonising the university Vice Chancellor, Dr Max Price have been guaranteed banner headlines and front page status. These have included 'Apartheid-Style' UCT Lashed  and Maxwele upset by 'bias' in new move.

The day after the Allie judgment Carlo Petersen’s brief article was not on page one. It was buried in the middle of page three and its anodyne headline reads “Final court order bars five Rhodes Must Fall members from UCT”.

Anyone reading the judgement might have considered a different headline: “Judge implicates Chumani Maxwele in UCT arson”. This related to the night of RMF mayhem on February 16 this year. The arson details in the judgement were withheld from Cape Times readers in Petersen’s article.

Incendiary device

The judgment meticulously outlines the facts, the chronology of events and the context of those events which led to an incendiary device being thrown into the office of Dr Max Price which was gutted – something the Cape Times chose not to photograph nor to interview Price about.

Judge Allie describes a collusion between two respondents, nine (Alex Hotz) and twelve (Maxwele Chumani), in the torching of a Mazda bakkie used by the Department of Biological Sciences to service rural communities, then a Jammie shuttle bus. This was followed, later that night, by the office of Dr Max Price being petrol-bombed.

In her judgment she pulls together these threads.

Judge Allie reveals that three litres of petrol were found in the shack erected on the campus, an edifice that ostensibly symbolised a shortage of accommodation for students but was, in fact, the headquarters of what happened in the next few hours.

Turning to the evidence about Hotz she says: “The circumstantial evidence points to ninth respondent's direct involvement in facilitating the lighting of fires and consequently the burning of artwork on campus.”

UCT led evidence that the car driven by Hotz was on the campus that night and it played a significant role in the arson. The car was used to transport three tyres onto the campus. A student was seen alighting from the car carrying “… a red Castrol can that later contained approximately 3 litres of petrol.”

“Applicant alleged that ninth respondent was seen walking in Residence Road after alighting from her car, carrying a tyre to the area where protesters had already made the fire that was used to burn paintings and photographs.”

Hotz did not deny this.

The judgment also reveals the role played by Chumani Maxwele in the arson attacks, the role which the Cape Times kept from its readers.

86. Applicant alleged that twelfth respondent (Maxwele) was present when the bus was torched and he rolled drums into the road shortly before the bus was burned.

87. Twelfth respondent denies this allegation but applicants rely on video footage to support its allegation. (My emphases).

I have been informed by the Media Department at the University that Carlo Petersen has never requested a face to face interview with Dr Max Price. The ideal time for such an interview would have been after Price’s office was petrol-bombed on 16 February this year.

The Cape Times chose not to interview Dr Price at the time so truth seekers thus turned to City Press which, five days later, published an in-depth interview with Price by S’thembile Cele. What Price revealed in the interview was frightening but it does buttress the findings of Judge Allie.

 “We had a bus and two vehicles burnt, bonfires around the campus, a fire bomb in my office, groups rampaging around the campus setting fire to things,” Price says.

“They even set fire to Table Mountain. Most of the fire brigade was diverted from campus to the mountain because it was a serious arson fire, which would have spread to the suburbs.”

“That was a tactic, as far as I can tell, to spread the forces more thinly.”

Arrest Max Price

This information was withheld from Cape Times readers but on 18 February, two days after the RMF arson, the reporter authored a front page lead, ‘Arrest Max Price’.

I am not suggesting that this angle should not have been covered, I am just questioning the prominence given to it because if the police have given any credence to the suggestion that Max Price is guilty of criminality or had broken the law, they certainly have not acted on it and Petersen has, three months later, not seen fit to follow up on his dramatic front page lead article and its banner headline.

A final question: Given that Chumani Maxwele is a student with no known income, who is funding the legal costs of his constant appearances in the Cape High Court – appearances that almost always result in banner headline, front page leads in the Cape Times?

It is a cogent and apposite question.