South African academics are mostly today anaemic shadows of the pugnacious intelligentsia who — at least in some English-language university faculties — stood up to the apartheid state.
Sadly, the many campus-based centres, agencies and research units of that era — funded by sympathetic and generous Western governments and agencies, as well as locally headquartered corporates — which interrogated every move of the oppressive South African state apparatus, have withered away. With despotism routed and democracy assured, as the thinking went in 1994, the overseas philanthropy dried up.
Those entities were trimmed to the bone and eventually most folded. Many of their activist staff decamped to join successive African National Congress governments as ministers, senior public servants, policy advisers or consultants.
With the disappearance of external funding, intellectual independence also wilted. Every appointment and promotion was now dependent on the cadres of the new dispensation honouring the academic freedoms and norms that they had so greatly benefited from during the liberation struggle. But that’s not how the Stalinists in the ANC alliance operate. It quickly became obvious that in academia to criticise in any way the new government was a ticket to career marginalisation.
For the past 26 years, South African academics, on the whole, have been timidly tip-toeing around government, fawning for favour, desperate to signal their ideological virtue. As a result, there is a void in critical thought and discussion at our tertiary institutions.
Simultaneously, the stifling effect of these academic apparatchiks has been compounded by a Western epidemic of political correctness and the growth of identity politics, which has further sapped critical vigour. The result is an Orwellian world where social media hit squads and faceless critics abuse and vilify, increasingly decreeing what can be researched, how and by whom — as well as what the desired conclusions should be.
The recent explosion of righteous wrath about the head of the University of Cape Town economist, Professor Nicoli Nattrass, is the most recent manifestation of this intolerance and control. It followed her commentary in the South African Journal of Sciences (SAJS), dealing with the failure of wildlife conservation biology to attract black students.
Her research proposal had passed scientific muster by the usual institutional obstacle course of quality controls, including a UCT deputy vice-chancellor and two eminent external reviewers, as well as by UCT's ethics committee. The preliminary findings from her research were not even particularly startling. In fact, they would be viewed as unremarkable by most of her peers in the field, as well as by the majority of conservationists actually working in the sector.
In brief, for a variety of reasons that are historically well-documented and largely uncontested, black South Africans were found to tend to prioritise job opportunities over interest in the field of study, when making their subject choices. The opposite is true of white students, whose relatively privileged backgrounds allow them more room for manoeuvre and indulgence.
Predictably, however, Nattrass has been crucified by the hard left. The shadowy Black Academic Caucus (BAC) labelled her as patronising, dehumanising, a racist, a white supremacist, and seeking to marginalise black aspirations. The UCT executive, which can flip-flop faster than a spinning coin, instantaneously distanced itself from Nattrass’ “offensive” paper.
To its credit, the SAJS stood firm and refused to withdraw the article. Instead, it will publish a special issue of rebuttals, as well as Nattrass writing in her own defence. In other words, it’s opting for reasoned debate rather than hysteria and threats.
Exaggerated outrage and spineless university managements are unfortunately now the norm, so UCT's actions are not surprising. But what is worrying is how easily this cascade of events was orchestrated by the BAC, a secret group that has no measurable constituency except that which it claims for itself. Its members are unknown, its statements are unsigned, its elective and decision-making processes are unscrutinised.
Clandestine organisations with faceless members issuing demands and making threats; surely we've been there before, with different dogmas and paler complexions? Nattrass makes the comparison that none of her colleagues dares: “Over time, the BAC appears to have transformed from being a disruptive (and often productive) movement into a secret network ... institutionalising a new hegemony – not unlike the secretive, influential and highly divisive Afrikaner Broederbond in the past.”
“The BAC's view appears to be that the questions that we asked of students in our mini-survey should not have been permitted. Publication of the findings … should not have been permitted.
“The BAC gives the impression that only research acceptable to them should be permitted – and even this is not entirely clear, because what needs to be done first is to ‘address the socio-economic inequalities that prevent black people entering this field, the historical deprivation of access to land, the violence of colonial biological sciences and the denial of the deep spiritualities of the land and its ecologies in the biological sciences’.”
A few weeks back, Professor Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand, wrote a compelling article on Daily Maverick, questioning how academia — and the other institutions of SA society — should manage their engagements with “fascists, Stalinists and others who are intolerant in our deeply divided, politically polarised world”.
It’s an important piece. For the first time, as far as I can recall, one our public intellectuals has ventured to cast the hard left Stalinists and nationalist fascists — “Verwoerd’s political stepchildren”, as he calls them — as mirrored parts of the same problem.
Until now, writes Habib, the dominant response to these groups has been a “dignified and formal” refusal to lower oneself to engage. But this simply emboldens them.
“They are allowed to intimidate ordinary citizens and force them to the margins of our public debates. Essentially, we give the fascists and the intolerant carte blanche to define the public sphere and determine its interactions.”
This has led to “a race to the bottom in terms of civility, respect and violence in the public sphere”. “Not only have the Economic Freedom Fighters and others made the most disgusting racist statements, but they have also behaved in violent ways in a number of public incidents, without serious censure.”
Habib’s preferred solution is to challenge these forces and hold them accountable, “calling them out for what they are … and making the case for their social and political ostracisation.” Habib, repeatedly citing the fascist behaviour of the EFF, says this will demand courage from our public and private leaders and the mainstream political parties.
“Public leaders need to realise that when they retreat in the face of attacks by the intolerant and the violent, they disarm citizens and members of their institutional community, and do not empower them to stand up to this abuse … This historical moment ultimately requires us to recognise that the EFF, and even some other intolerant individuals both within and outside the ruling party, are not the true heirs of our hard-fought democracy.
“No. They are instead the political stepchildren of Hendrik Verwoerd, informed only by their anger at the political system he generated, and therefore only capable of reproducing it with themselves at its helm.”
Habib's brave words were specifically directed at events in the party political arena. They could as aptly been targeted at a higher education sector that is in pell-mell retreat from academic rigour and in thrall to every half-baked intellectual fad that flits across their social media accounts.
The political panderers leading UCT should take note of Habib’s call for courage. But you can pretty much bet on the fact that they won’t.
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