Sara Gon on South African universities under threat (part 2)
Manifestations of the Erosion of Free Speech on SA Campuses
This is the second article in a five part series. The first piece can be read here.
“At its best, a university should broaden students’ minds and horizons, allowing them to discern connections and analyse problems successfully, thus empowering them to change the world.” - Sun Kwok, Dean of Science at the University of Hong Kong.
In some spheres South African academia has punched above its weight in scholarship and research, some of which has resulted in Nobel Prize winners.
But South Africa’s universities have become vulnerable to an intellectual crisis identified in the 1980s by American philosopher Allan Bloom.
Bloom observed in 1986 that the social and political crisis of 20th century America was really an intellectual crisis. This was presented in the seminal and celebrated work, The Closing of the American Mind:how Higher Education has failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students.
He argued that the growing malaise stemmed from universities’ lack of purpose and their students’ lack of learning; from the jargon of liberation to the supplanting of reason with “creativity”. American democracy unwittingly “played host to vulgarized Continental nihilism and despair, of relativism disguised as tolerance”.
Adding to the mix of political correctness, identity politics and victimhood is the ‘post-truth’ phenomenon, which took shape in the past decade and particularly since 2015.
‘Post truth’ means that objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief – the repeated assertion of talking pointsto which factual rebuttals are ignored. Post-truth politics became more notable with the advent of social media.
The move towards ‘progressive’/post-truth ideological strains in academia became noticeable in the 1970s in South Africa. What had emerged in American academia and student life was soon absorbed here.
Today, the development of these phenomena is particularly pertinent to universities such as Cape Town (UCT), Witwatersrand (Wits), Pretoria and Stellenbosch. These universities probably represent the most racially diverse campuses in South Africa.
UCT and Wits are regarded as South Africa’s pre-eminent universities locally and internationally. The pursuit of political correctness, identity politics and a victimhood culture, consequences of the above phenomena together with the so-called ‘Fallist’ protests, may change this.
Although the epicentre of leftist thought is to be found in the humanities, students from faculties such as law, the social sciences and the health sciences participated significantly in the Fallist protests.
Universities have since the 1990s been under pressure to increase access for black students and increasing demands to employ more black academics. The first has largely been addressed numerically. The latter less so; one of the significant reasons is that high-paying business opportunities for educated black people make academia a relatively unattractive option.
Academics have pointed to a significant proportion of white (particularly female) academics and staff who are committed to advancing black students or staff at the expense of rules and ethics.
Some universities have pushed for the employment of black academics in an effort to achieve quotas and signal their ‘virtue’, irrespective of the candidates’ suitability or professional standards.
The tenure of existing white academics prevents them from being forced out. However, many academics both during and since the protests have been harassed in the hope that they’ll resign. Some have resigned; those who do remain are under great pressure to go. Our universities face the very real threat of losing globally recognised academics while denuding faculties’ institutional memory.
Meanwhile, there has been a distressing failure of pushback against this. Centrists – politically speaking – tend not to participate in politics on campus, generally immersing themselves in interests related to their fields of expertise. Once exposed to the threats and rudeness of the progressive left, they back off. They’re not used to it. They aren't used to being shouted at, and so they are easily intimidated. For decades, it's been about the "science" of the subject; now it's about fanaticism and virtue signalling. The centrists don’t understand this and don’t band together to fight it.
Fallist ideology is a carbon copy of the American Critical Race Theory (CRT) experience; the difference being that the 'oppressed' group here is a majority not a minority. The idea behind CRT is that the knowledge being taught is tainted by the stain of whiteness and so it needs to be ‘decolonised’.
‘Whiteness’ is one of many different racial identities, the strength of which is determined by four factors: group size, group power, group discrimination, and group appearance. Those who are part of a group that is the numerical minority have less power relative to other groups (although reversed here), experience more discrimination, and less resemble the majority group in skin colour. Blacks should have a greater sense of racial identity, while those who are part of the racial majority (and all its privileges) should put very little emphasis on their racial identity.1.
Many activist groups in South Africa regard themselves as part of an international Social Justice Movement: Fallist rhetoric is borrowed from Black Lives Matters and Occupy Wall Street. As internationally, such activism posits irreconcilable differences between oppressors and oppressed, assigning each a political and moral identity, eschewing negotiation and compromise for confrontation.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Pan-Africanist Students Movement of Azania (Pasma) successfully provided formal structures to allow the Fallists to take control of student politics at universities. Both the EFF and Pasma have been used as rallying points to push radical protesters into positions of power on campus.
We shouldn't underestimate the complicity of academics in the Fallist movement. In the social sciences and law, students have been taught that the whole paradigm of their fields is tainted and that something must be done.
Although there was distinct leftist thinking in various departments, until the protests erupted the centrists still had status and respect. (Indeed, it might be noted that the Fallist movement has even shunted out of the way what might be described as the ‘democratic left’.)
With a few exceptions, however, in the last few years there were no classical liberal pundits equivalent to those on the left. Departments that were too incompetent or too small to have an impact on the protests, still had an impact on favouring left-wing thinking.
UCT’s recognition of the Black Academic Caucus (BAC) was a clear act of applying double standards. It has no identified leadership, no structure and no copy of its constitution has ever been made available. The BAC was formally recognised notwithstanding its failure to comply with university rules.
BAC ‘members’ and supportive white academics stood squarely with the Fallists. They often opposed measures implemented by the vice-chancellor to deal with the chaos that erupted. (Revealingly, in late 2016, Prof Suellen Shay of UCT wrote a widely noted piece in which she said that universities would need to learn to ‘engage with chaos’.)
Another factor in perpetuating this politically correct environment is the same one experienced on American campuses: the growth in and power of administrative staff. Many staff members are at least sympathetic to left-wing ideas. The number of support programmes for students has grown exponentially. Orwellian-sounding ‘Transformation Committees’ in faculties require academics to ensure that ‘transformation’ is carried out and that it is not solely in the hands of the faculty leadership to force political correctness among their administrative staff and students.
Some university authorities are seen as weak, with their Councils and Senates pandering to illicit or morally dubious demands. Either the bodies are dysfunctional, uninterested or are captured by those who vigorously advance a politicised (and politically correct) agenda.
A cursory look at the curricula of some of the humanities faculties at our top universities reveals an emphasis on Marxist theorists and much less to no emphasis on classic liberalism – or indeed any other competing mode of thought. Julius Malema’s supervisor’s areas of expertise were “social movements, labour studies, biopolitics, governmentality, resistance, service delivery, nationalism and basic services”. His sources were Biko, Foucault, Agamben, Hardt and Negri, Fanon and Marx.
The sobering consequence is that our best and brightest are graduating with a zeal to implement an ideology that has been proved to be absolutely disastrous, in a world that operates on a completely different basis. Ironically, in a debate a few years ago, a vice-chancellor insisted that the university IS the real world.
Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823. (Smses cost R1 Ts and Cs apply). This is the second of a five-part series produced with the support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.