I am a former alumnus of UCT

Thomas Johnson says the university management's dis-invitation of Flemming Rose is the last straw

UCT is an inversion of what a university ought to be

I am a University of Cape Town (UCT) alumnus. In a letter published in the Cape Argus yesterday concerning vice-chancellor Max Price and the university executive disinviting former cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten, Flemming Rose, I said the alumni department must remove my name from the register because I no longer wanted to be associated with what the university has become.

This has been a while coming. First, there were the unseemly circumstances around the removal of the Rhodes statue. Then, UCT censored and removed art.

During the tumult – the burnings, vandalism, destruction of property and threats against person – vice-chancellor Max Price displayed egregiously poor leadership, cowering before fallists and playing politics, and not one who was prepared be a leader and stand alone if need be, as Pierre de Vos wrote in Daily Maverick, “stick to principles when it is difficult to.”

None of the fallist offenders, who shook the campus and wider community to its core, were prosecuted. And Price governs in an environment of fear and anxiety. This is not a legacy he, university executive and broad university community can be proud of.

The philosophy department’s Elisa Galgut writes, “UCT is becoming a campus where unpopular or contentious views are often silenced, and where those who are deemed ‘controversial’ are either not permitted to speak, or unjustly censured if they do”.

Preventing Rose from speaking is the final straw: I revoke my association with UCT.

Because I am not a celebrity, influential or wealthy, my gesture is symbolic, like the wearing black armbands to protest something. I valued my time at UCT as a student and was proud of my certificate (a master’s degree as a mature student), and respected Max Price, who capped me. Hence my disavowal is significant to me.

De Vos’ article about the Rose debacle is, as usual, rational and, up to a point, persuasive. I am persuaded by his argument that once the invitation was made, it should have been honoured. (That it wasn’t speaks to Price’s and university executive’s sense of honour.)

His analysis of whether or not the Academic Freedom Committee (ACT) should have invited Rose in the first place is a useful guide on what should be done in future, or should have been done.

Then his argument becomes intellectually dishonest, expediently pandering to the reasons university management made for disinviting Rose. Galgut: “It is considered a sufficiently good reason to disinvite Mr Rose, that these descriptions about him are merely ‘regarded’ as being true – not that they are actually true.”

De Vos himself said, “I don’t know Mr Rose personally, but he denies these allegations (of Islamophobia, etc), describing himself as ‘a classical liberal’”. And: “There is no tangible evidence that Rose’s presence on campus would have led to the destruction of property or violent attacks on individuals”. With these statements, he undermines any argument not to have invited Rose or let him speak.

However, on the basis of no evidence that Rose is still, today, publishing provocative content, holding contentious views or uttering hate speech, and merely based on his past history, De Vos says he should not have been invited. Echoing Price and the university executive – except in the way the matter was handled – it’s sufficient for him that Rose is merely regarded as being controversial, rather than it being true.  

Where is De Vos’ firmly held principle, stated at the beginning of his article, that “I remain deeply suspicious of the actions of any university management aimed at dictating to the university community as to what its members may say, write, read or listen to”.

If Rose was not guilty then or now – not merely accused or assumed to be guilty – of making prohibited hate speech or incitement to violence, I don’t follow why De Vos would, with hindsight, deny ACT from inviting Rose or from allowing him to give the lecture on the fundamental principle that a university is the one place where an exchange of controversial ideas must not only be tolerated, but allowed, irrespective of how uncomfortable those ideas might be to some.

But how did De Vos and university management know what the topic, and more importantly, actual content of Rose’s lecture was going to be? De Vos says he doesn’t know Rose, but how sure is he Rose would have repeated the allegedly offensive views (note: De Vos says he does not believe Jyllands-Posten’s cartoons were blasphemous) to justify the university withdrawing the invitation?

Even if Rose is as guilty as his critics claim (he reportedly denied it), does De Vos, Price, et al know he has not retracted, repented and made restitution? That his past associations will forever define who he is, and he can expect, in South Africa, eternal condemnation, no forgiveness and no reconciliation to our society in general and the academy of reasonable men and women at UCT?

Does De Vos et al hold this view despite South Africa’s history of reconciliation where cold-blooded killers like Eugene de Kock and the St James Massacre’s perpetrators were granted amnesty or parole? Shall the legal principle of innocent until proven guilty be indefinitely suspended if and only if applied to controversial, and formerly controversial, magazine editors and speakers?

De Vos’ article is about the particular – the invitation to Rose and whether he should have been invited. But unlike the jurist he is, he does not apply precedent or extend the argument to the general: That in the past UCT allowed and in the near future will allow equally controversial speakers on campus – Edward Said, “an anti-semite and terrorist sympathizer” and Hamza Tzortzis, a “highly controversial lecturer who propagates a radical version of Islam”.

My conclusion is that there is an unhealthy tension: On the one hand, he upholds freedom of speech at all times – well, some of the time. On the other, his nuanced liberal, leftist views have sympathy with the more extreme leftist, authoritarian clique that presently holds sway at UCT: On the basis of no evidence that Rose is Islamophobic, etc. or his lecture posed a credible threat to safety and security, it was correct, retroactively, to revoke the invitation.

De Vos’ argument in support of this is that Jyllands-Posten’s “publication of the cartoons can be understood as the aggression of a dominant (Danish) majority (95%) against a vulnerable minority (Muslim 3%) – not as the act of a brave freedom-loving newspaper standing up for the marginalised and the vulnerable”.

If we accept this proposition, what import do we place that apparently the sensitivities of local Muslims, who number only 1.5% of South Africa’s population, were considered by UCT in the Rose matter and in allowing Islamic speakers, who allegedly are radical, anti-Semites and terrorist sympathizers?

De Vos mentioning of Jyllands-Posten’s “aggression” against Muslims is therefore casuistry, a debate best left for general media ethics, comparative religion and ultimately irrelevant because it is far removed from our social reality in South Africa.

More importantly, what should occupy us is: What does the withdrawal of Rose’s invitation mean to us and the state of our universities, and what do we mean by academic freedom and freedom of expression under our constitution?

The constitutionally-agnostic proposition of Max Price, “We affirm our commitment to the right to academic freedom and freedom of expression”, but “the right to academic freedom (and freedom of speech) is not unlimited”, leaves me puzzled and cold.

I am puzzled because, in the present case of Price/UCT and De Vos (“No person has an automatic right to be invited by any university to deliver a lecture”), neither offered legally, constitutionally-compelling reasons why the lecture could not proceed, particularly because Rose was not found guilty of anything except having been politically incorrect.

Instead they offer unsubstantiated, wishy-washy explanations that is a sop to emotion and to excuse their defective interpretation of liberalism; ad hominem attacks and what Michael Corda, writing in Politicsweb, described as the “altar of political correctness; the pyre where ‘whiteness’ is sent to burn”. While one resignedly expects this from the pusillanimous, political Price, one expected that legal scholar Pierre de Vos would be more substantial in his reasoning.

Of agnostics Jesus said, “I know your deeds, that you are neither hot nor cold. But because you are lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelations 3: 15).

As an alumnus, I can no longer abide UCT’s agnosticism – no, antagonism – on non-negotiable principles and freedoms. The name is now like a swearword; an inversion of what a university ought to be.

I am a former alumnus of UCT.