Ditching Jammie

Tim Crowe says that if UCT is going to change the name of its main hall, it should be more honest about its reasons

What’s in a name? Whither UCT’s Jameson Hall

Jameson Hall is the focal point of the University of Cape Town. Among many other great events, it’s where degrees are awarded and where Bobby Kennedy gave his “Ripple of Hope” address 50 years ago. As an alumnus, long-time employee and transformational activist of/at UCT, I would like to comment on the UCT Vice-chancellor’s message “Council agrees to change name of Jameson Hall” dated 23 June 2016.

First, I object to the selective, arguably defamatory, use/interpretation of ‘historical’ information concerning Sir Leander Starr Jameson provided by “respected historians that [‘confirms’] Jameson’s ruthless self-interest manifested in a profound lack of respect for other people”. In support of this, the Vice-chancellor cites “his [Jameson’s] decision with a coterie of like-minded doctors deliberately to misdiagnose an outbreak of smallpox in Kimberley in 1883 to prevent the absconding from the mines of black labourers”.

The source of this allegation is presumably an article by Dr J. Charles Shee published in the Central African Journal of Medicine in 1963 (vol. 9 no. 5 pp 183-186). First of all, Shee states that the only “decision” Jameson made regarding this incident was to diagnose his patients as having "a bullous disease allied to pemphigus”. The article then goes on to say:

1. he was by “far and away the best trained doctor in the town … he was a competent physician and a deft surgeon”;

2. that some of Jameson’s “income came from the medical care of the precious African labour force on the mines”;

3. that he was one (there were two others) of six doctors commissioned to investigate the outbreak who did not support a diagnosis of smallpox;

4. of the +-20 medical doctors in Kimberley at time, half did not diagnose the disease as smallpox;

5. that there were allegations of misconduct from, amongst others, a Dr. Hans Sauer who had experience dealing with smallpox;

6. that these allegations led to “assault and counter-assault, libel action and counter-action”;

7. only one medic, Dr Henry Wolff, was disciplined regarding the outbreak;

8. that Jameson and most of those “involved [with the allegations] remained, or became, good friends afterwards”; and

9. his medical career was "perhaps the most remarkably successful that ever fell to the lot of any practitioner in this sub-continent."

I maintain that use of words such as: “ruthless self-interest manifested in a profound lack of respect for other people” and “a coterie of like-minded doctors deliberately to misdiagnose” are unwarranted given the available evidence. Indeed, these words might be better applied to certain ‘protesters’ in the various “must-fall” ‘movements’. Furthermore, unbiased analysis of “Dr Jim’s” history portrays him in a very different light.

Jameson had a successful, if not distinguished, medical career in England before overwork broke down his health. He continued his career in South Africa, with some of his noteworthy patients being President Paul Kruger, the Matabele chief Lobengula and the similarly UCT-vilified Cecil Rhodes (his suspected sexual partner) - see here.

Indeed, on the basis of excellent medical care, Jameson was appointed as an inDuna of the Matabele king Lobengula's favourite regiment, the Imbeza, and underwent the initiation ceremonies linked with this honour.

With regard to the Jameson Raid, a reading of Sir Percy FitzPatrick’s The Transvaal from within (1899), which chronicles the history of conflict between the English-speaking uitlanders and the Afrikaners of the South African Republic, maintains that it was the first thrust in a movement to overthrow Paul Kruger's South African Republic in order to secure voting and other rights for the uitlanders.

With regard to his actions in Matebeleland, Jameson used his status as an inDuna to induce Lobengula to grant the concessions to the agents of Rhodes which led to the formation of the British South Africa Company. Yes, Jameson was a key figure in the First Matabele War of conquest which was, in part, a reaction to the Matebele reneging on agreements and attacking and killing settlers.

In his latter years, he served admirably as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony.

Jameson's many admirers were devoted (bordering on hero-worship) to his honesty, tough cynicism and idealism. Sounds a bit like Steve Biko. One of his obituaries likened him to noted Irish patriot Charles Stewart Parnell. Indeed, Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If, was written Jameson in mind as an inspiration for desirable characteristics he recommended for young people. In another of his obituaries, Jameson was also described as a patriot who never sought wealth, power, fame or the BEE-like leisure lifestyle.

Just to reiterate, if the NOBC, its task team and the University Executive want to drop Jameson, at least tell a full story.

Having read that and said all this, I agree that Jameson’s history probably did not warrant the popular decision to name the hall after him. My recommendations to the UCT Naming of Buildings Committee and Task Team were to name the hall after Helen Suzman, Robert Sobukwe or Desmond Tutu, in that order of preference.

My first choice was Suzman was based on: her solitary, fearless, life-long, outspoken, corruption-free, world-renowned opposition to Apartheid; her defence of and support for women and the poverty-striken; her feminism; her minority/oppressed religious status and the ongoing anti-racism-corruption contributions of her Foundation.

Sobukwe placed second because of his refusal to involve non-‘blacks’ in the liberation movement and his ‘lack of delivery’ due to his incarceration/banning and premature death. Tutu could be described as ‘tainted’ for his coining/support of “the Rainbow Nation”. If I were to use a descriptive African word, I would go for something like “inkululeko” (freedom).

I would oppose naming the hall to honour someone like Steve Biko for reasons given here.

With regard to the names listed in the VC’s message, I regard the name “Memorial Hall” as ‘wishy-washy’ and the proposed African words (Imbizo, Lekgotla, Pitso, Kgoro) as merely spatially/positionally descriptive.

Perhaps my primary reason for this piece is plea for a democratic, fully-representative, “careful, extensive, consultative” (the VC’s criteria) and especially transparent process be used to make the final selection of a new name for Jameson Hall.

My challenge to the NOBC, Task Team, UCT Executive and Council is to actually canvass via a democratic ballot the full university community. The ballot could allow individuals to self-identify as follows: academic staff, admin staff, support staff, donor, current student, alumnus (including year graduated), age, gender (appropriately partitioned), sexual preference, ‘race’ (as finely partitioned as desired), etc.

Then it should list the possible names (perhaps even including keeping Jameson) for selection and allow each individual to pick one or two (with one being the emotional choice and the other a pragmatic alternative).

These results should be published widely to reflect how the UCT community values its heritage and modern reality.

Finally, if, for example, a majority favoured keeping the existing name based on votes from pre-1990 alumni, I would still support a name change to prevent a ‘fossils-win’ result. But, it would send a message to the powers-that-be that dismissing the old-guard is not to be done lightly.

Renaming buildings and spaces should not be interpreted in any way as an attempt to erase the past; rather as a conscious effort to confront this past by neither being captive to it nor by being ignorant of it.