To read this book is to descend into an Orwellian world of topsy-turvy logic, thoughtcrime, doublethink, betrayal, cruelty, lies, and fear. But George Orwell described Nineteen Eighty-four as a “novel”, whereas The Fall of the University of Cape Town - Africa’s leading university in decline, published last year, is fact. Big Brother might not be watching you, or listening to you, but plenty of other people are.
The author is David Benatar, a philosophy professor at UCT. Although a much better edit would have made it more powerful, his book is the work of a man brave enough to speak the truth about the horrors taking place in the institution that employs him. None of the major presses in South Africa would touch his book, which was published by Politicsweb.
It is essentially the story of how intolerant students, complicit academics, and cowardly administrators inflicted immense harm upon their university. With plenty of detail (even too much), it is a tale also of slander, arson, thuggery, homicide, suicide, and intellectual dishonesty. Some of the material has been published before, but it has now been gathered into a single volume with updates, plenty of new information, and blistering commentary.
That the events Professor Benatar chronicles should have happened at an institution once famed as an island of liberalism in the sea of apartheid madness is one of the bitterest ironies of South Africa’s recent history. Moreover, unlike the disasters that have been inflicted upon this country by the African National Congress and its communist and trade union allies, the disaster that Professor Benatar describes was self-inflicted, some of it by people who would describe themselves as “liberal”.
Much of this book is about academic freedom, the hallmark of any university worth the name because it guarantees the environment essential to the pursuit of knowledge and the search for truth.
The assault on academic freedom and free speech goes back to 1986 when a visit by Conor Cruise O’Brien, a well-known Irish politician and academic, was effectively terminated on the grounds that his safety could not be guaranteed after violent disruption of a lecture by students who took offence at what he said. Thus began a long process of capitulation by top university administrators to violence or the threat thereof.