On the burning of UCT`s books: A postscript

RW Johnson says it seems managerial and maintenance failures were a key cause of the disaster

Since my piece about the fire at UCT appeared on PoliticsWeb I have been approached by several members of that university's community with more information. In general, these informants all wish to remain anonymous, and they all express distress at the state of the campus which they feel has been severely neglected for some time.

There is talk of piles of rubbish having littered the campus, providing fuel for fire and sometimes a suggestion that now that the UCT maintenance staff have been brought in-house, they have notably relaxed their endeavours - it being understood that once they have been brought onto the university's establishment, they are effectively unsackable.

In particular it was said that the gutters had not been cleared of leaves and twigs and that this had provided ideal kindling for the fire, which seemed to have started on the roofs of several of the affected buildings. Anyone who has lived on the mountain knows that continual clearing of the gutters is an essential precaution against fire risk.

There was also real alarm about the fact that while trees and bushes had been cut down as part of a fire-break, the dead trees and bushes had then been left lying on the ground to dry out, providing explosive tinder for the fire.

Other staff spoke of how they had regularly pleaded with "Maintenance" to clear the roof gutters of vegetation before the autumn and winter rains since the blocked gutters invariably produced roof leaks. Maintenance was so poor that every year buckets would have to come out again and again to catch the water coming in from multiple leaks - the same leak areas year after year because no repairs or maintenance had been done.

In general there was a tone of near despair about the way in which the university management has neglected the campus, allowing it to become run down and unsafe. The general assumption was that the fire was a disaster which had been long waiting to happen and that the UCT management was entirely culpable. 

I was struck by the fact that these informants, who quite spontaneously contacted me, all wanted to get this information into the public sphere but were clearly scared of revealing their identities. This is a scandalous situation in a university community where free speech and open comment ought to be the norm. It used to be the norm at UCT too, even in the dark days of apartheid. 

Yet the fact is that I am not surprised. It is a striking fact that PoliticsWeb sees discussion of many key aspects of the South African situation - and yet there are never any contributions from academics. How can it be that even when a subject as central as the failure of the state is being discussed that no voices are ever heard from the university world, criticising, correcting, or generally illuminating the discussion?

This silence is evidence of a deeply unhealthy situation. To be blunt, many academics live in a state of fear - fear that they will be targeted by racial caucuses, by university administrators anxious to display their zeal for transformation and other politically correct notions, by radical students, by just about anyone.

There are all too many stories of entirely innocent academics falling foul of such groups and then having their lives made miserable for protracted periods. I also have friends who have left academic life altogether because of such pressures.  It should be realised that this results from a signal failure by university administrators to do their jobs. Their very first care ought to be to safeguard academic freedom on their campuses and this should include ensuring that all academics feel free to speak and write as they wish. 

The fact that this is certainly not so shows how very much worse things now are on campus than during the apartheid era. After all, during that time academics and students at UCT and elsewhere were quite outspoken about their detestation of government policy and they both spoke and wrote about their criticisms. Many campuses, including UCT, sheltered radical academics - Jack Simons at UCT, for example - who were banned.

NUSAS, the national union of students, was completely outspoken in a way that Sasco never is. The National Party government continually threatened the liberal campuses but their vice chancellors almost invariably stood up strongly against such pressures.

To be fair, the ANC government does not threaten academic freedom in the way that the Nats did. Bizarrely, the threat to academic freedom and free speech today comes from the university authorities themselves. - either because they refuse to protect academics and students from the pressures of other groups, or because they positively enforce politicised norms.

Anyone who knew the liberal English-speaking campuses during the apartheid era knows that the vice chancellors and other university administrators of that period were greatly superior to those we have today - figures of real intellectual authority, people of real courage and backbone. They had far smaller budgets and very many fewer administrative staff than is the case today but they stood up to the government, made their academics feel free and they looked after their campuses.

There were no fires at UCT in those days.

R.W. Johnson