How to get away with murder?
Too often, we see “violence” associated with South African universities. For example: the University of Cape Town’s Council and Senate have been violently disrupted and held hostage by protesters shouting hate-speech and throwing “water bottles and other objects”; an examination was invaded by ‘protesters’ throwing human waste; a female academic was allegedly assaulted (case still long unresolved) by a 31-year-old leading undergraduate ‘student protester’ (now under court interdict for further criminal acts); and ‘protesters’/’activists’/students?/staff? have blocked access roads, invaded buildings and desecrated/burned university research vehicles, busses, offices and artworks.
These actions have been roundly “condemned” as “crossing the line” of decency in various petitions and by a broad range of UCT individuals and organizations (e.g., faculties, the Academics Union, Black Academic Caucus, etc.). However, at least one senior academic staff member tempered his condemnation with the statement that there are “two sides to a story”.
The other side, in this instance, is the view that violent acts are consequences of actions by academics and management who cling to a “white prerogative” and are “blinded by their power”. Indeed, unless “a democratic and inclusive dispensation for our universities” replaces the current ‘white’ hegemony, “violent extremists [will] have their day”.
In this piece, I investigate an act of brutal violence that occurred at UCT, the murder of Associate Professor Brian Hahn.
After 20 years’ labour as an outstanding teacher and researcher (16 books/60+ papers), Brian was finally promoted to associate professor and became the Head of the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics. He was a devout Christian and a family man with “a self-effacing exterior", who led by "quiet example, not noisy rhetoric".
In today’s academic parlance his research was ‘transformationist’ and inclusive, involving biochemists, biologists, palaeontologists and engineers (including the UCT botanist whose bakkie was recently torched by ‘protesters’ on University Avenue). Brian’s research also benefitted poor, ‘black’ rural farmers and anticipated the effects of climate change.
At Brian’s memorial service, his colleague and close friend Prof. Duncan Fraser said: "The way in which Brian died brings us face to face with the reality of evil and unsettles us, because we equate education with goodness.”
On 28 January 2005, in the Mathematics Building, “with never a word spoken” and with “no warning” and “no hand to defend himself”, Brian was, without provocation, systematically and brutally beaten. His attacker, Dr Maleafisha Stephen ‘Steve’ Tladi “hit him on the head, hard, several times with an umbrella”. This caused Brian to “fall to the floor backwards, cracking (literally) his skull.” Then Steve “put the boot into his face, several times”. Brian died as a consequence of his injuries.
After beginning studies in mathematics at the University of Limpopo in 1988, Steve transferred to Clark University, USA. He was awarded a B.A. in Mathematics with highest honours and then moved to Brown University where he was awarded an M.Sc. He began a programme of Ph.D. research at Brown, but abandoned it and was repatriated to South Africa.
Like Brian, Steve is a devout Christian. He is married to lawyer Jane Raesibe Tladi (currently Director of Legal Services, Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, Polokwane, Limpopo). In 1999, Steve was recruited by UCT to allow him to undertake Ph.D. research on Non-Newtonian Fluid Mechanics and gain teaching experience. This appointment was extended into a five-year ‘contract’.
By 2003, a decision had to be made with regards to Steve’s possible appointment to a permanent post. Brian was requested to assess his progress in teaching and research, but felt that he could not make a positive recommendation. He proposed that Steve be given the opportunity to state his case before a committee of peers. To that end a meeting was scheduled for September.
At the meeting, Steve went into a rage about different issues and people were acting against him and used abusive language towards members of the committee. He then tried to leave, but Sizwe Mabizela (now Vice Chancellor of Rhodes University) calmed him down. He became contrite, apologised for his unseemly behaviour and left the meeting.
The committee decided that they could not, with a clear conscience, recommend the continued employment of someone who behaved in that manner. Steve was informed in writing of the findings and that his appointment would cease at the end of 2003.
In January 2004 Steve handed in his Ph.D. thesis for examination. He was awarded this degree in December, but requested to stay at UCT until end of January 2005 to “finalize matters”, i.e. when he murdered Brian.
Events subsequent to Brian’s murder
Steve was arrested, admitted attacking Brian, but was released on R500 bail into the custody of his lawyer wife. The murder was widely condemned by the UCT community, with one exception. SRC president Nqobizitha Mlilo released the following statement: “We strongly feel that the alleged assailant must be addressed in his proper title as ‘Dr Tladi’ and not merely as an ‘ex-student’ … It is a fact that he is one of the few black people with a PhD in mathematics, and should be accorded the respect he deserves.”
In closing, Mlilo speculated whether “this incident is not a reflection of some other deep flaw in the nature of our relations as a community across race, gender, student and staff lines”. Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela later stated: "What really concerns me is why we are, when we are faced with a violent murder on this campus, not talking about, first of all, what led to this incident, and not talking about why the only reaction that is vocal about this incident is reaction that seems to be condoning this behaviour". There was never any “talking about”.
Perhaps most disturbingly, in 2015, Wits Prof. Pumla Gqola characterized Brian’s murder as follows: “A few years ago, a PhD candidate (it may have been a postdoc) repeatedly hit a white professor with an umbrella. While the media and UCT officially expressed shock, Black people who had graduated from UCT with a postgraduate degree or (had) worked at UCT expressed shock only that it had taken this long and one incident … [b]ut the choice to read that incident as self-defence is telling.”
So, now Brian was only attacked by Steve who acted in self-defence.
In December 2005, the prosecutor told the magistrate that the psychiatric records from Steve's psychiatrist both before and after the attack did not justify his avoidance of prosecution for mental reasons. Later while out on bail, Steve assaulted his wife and failed to appear in court to answer charges. This charge was later withdrawn.
During subsequent court appearances, Steve's first attorney resigned "for ethical reasons" and irreconcilable disagreement. When asked to plead, Steve said: "I have told you I want to plead guilty." Nevertheless, the magistrate entered in a plea of not guilty based on Steve’s utterances in court - described as “petulance, irritation and abrasiveness” - and responses to questions posed to him. Steve was assessed by three court-approved psychiatrists and was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.
Steve was found “unfit for trial” and “not guilty” due to mental illness. But, he was adjudged to be "a danger to society” and declared a “State Patient” to be “detained in a psychiatric institution or hospital with such a facility” (Valkenberg Hospital) for life. This ruling could only be modified by the “decision of a judge in chambers."
So, a murderer and wife beater was permanently removed from society.
Not for long.
After less than two-year’s confinement, Steve was: released to the custody of his wife and mother; employed as an academic at the University of Limpopo; and continued as a “State Patient”. It took more than six months of written enquires to Steve and his wife, Valkengberg Hospital, his post-conviction psychiatrists, the magistrate’s court, relevant government advocates, a host of people at UCT (including its vice chancellor, his office director, his personal assistant and various communication officers) and the Mental Health Review Board - Legal Division, to obtain this information.
I still have been unsuccessful in obtaining information relating to the legal actions, e.g. a ruling by “a judge in chambers”, that effected this process. According to UCT, my queries “fell through the cracks”.
The only explanations I have are bizarre e-mails from Steve in which he states that he is “totally cured” from mental illness as a consequence of a religious experience. I quote one passage: “As a result of my intake of the anoited [sic] words in those materials, I'm completely healed!”
Given these findings, has justice in this case really been served?
Regardless - can something positive not be salvaged from Brian’s death? For example, Steve could publicly show remorse for his actions and condemn the current violence on university campuses. Another option would be to commemorate what Brian stood (and UCT stands) for by renaming the maths building after him or honouring his memory with a plaque?
Or, is this just another episode of How to Get Away with Murder and will Brian slip through the cracks?