James Myburgh tells the story of how UCT handled the dispute between a student activist and one of its leading academics
In March 2015 the Rhodes Must Fall movement was launched by the student activist Chumani Maxwele’s throwing of faeces on the statue of Cecil John Rhodes on the University of Cape Town (UCT) campus. It rapidly spread across the country, under the banner of ‘Fees must Fall’, and even to the United Kingdom. Although the initial protests attracted broad support it soon narrowed down, especially at UCT, into an ultra-nationalist grouping that fed off the anger and frustrations of often middle class (even elite) black youth at the failures of the African National Congress government under President Jacob Zuma to achieve its African nationalist goals – either to uplift the black majority materially or to dispel real or perceived white and European prejudices of black African incapacity.
It nonetheless suited those in power as it redirected the anger and hatred of the youth away from those actually responsible for the misgoverning of the country - and the outright looting of the state, government pension funds, and parastatals then going on – to the white minority, past symbols of colonial and white rule, the Western canon, and even internal party opponents (Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande). The Cape Times, in the hands of Iqbal Surve, became a tribune for the Fallists at UCT, giving the movement and their demands front page coverage.
Many former activists and student radicals, now in top positions in the universities, government and the NGO sector, saw reflections of their former selves in the Fallist movement, and were sympathetic to the students’ demands, and complaints of the national revolution betrayed. The attitude here was that the cause was righteous; and even if some of the actions were unfortunate, such excesses were understandable, and ultimately forgivable.
Committees, including the Rhodes Trust, rewarded many Fallist activists with funding to go on and study abroad. Other Fallist leaders went on to take up well paying positions with the ANC government. Maxwele himself was rewarded for the havoc that he had initiated by Lindiwe Sisulu, who appointed him to a lucrative position on her “national rapid response task team” in the Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation.
At UCT, unlike at the University of the Witwatersrand, the Fallists were met with a perpetually compliant response from the university, under the leadership of Vice Chancellor Dr Max Price. They soon discovered that while they may not always get what they wanted at the first push of a particular demand, they almost always did eventually. Ordinary students, academics and staff members found themselves trapped between mobs of young fanatics – operating outside of all reasonable boundaries - and a top leadership unwilling to take the measures necessary to enforce order on campus.
Efforts by officials lower down the hierarchy to uphold discipline, and apply the rules against gross misconduct, were repeatedly undercut by the top leadership. There was no outrage that would not eventually be excused and condoned – and where necessary amnestied – by the university. These included the occupation of the university offices (March 2015), the chanting of ‘one settler one bullet’ while disrupting a meeting of council (April 2015), the shutting down of the university (late October 2015), the defacing of the war memorial on campus with anti-white slogans, the burning of artwork, as well as portraits and photographs of white academics and students, the firebombing of university vehicles and the Vice-Chancellor’s Office (mid-February 2016), and the wholesale disruption of the academic programme on campus through the second half of 2016 during which period security personnel were brutally assaulted.
One of the few senior academics willing to publicly criticise the Fallists and the university’s pliant response to them was Professor David Benatar, then Head of the Philosophy Department. Benatar’s insistence that the rules of his department and the university be upheld in a time of racial madness also brought him into direct conflict with one particular Fallist activist, and the university’s policy of perpetual surrender to their demands.
This is the story of what happened.
On the 29th July 2015 some three hundred students at the University of Cape Town – mostly from the humanities and commerce faculties - sat in the introductory lecture of Professor David Benatar’s Ethics course (code: PHI 1010S). The course, which ran over the second semester, was an introduction to moral philosophy. The course outline, handed to all those who had signed up, explained that through the course “we shall examine a number of important ethical theories, each of which provides a different answer to the question: ‘What makes an action morally right?’”
The course outline further stated that the Duly Performed (DP) “requirements in this course are taken very seriously.” Benatar required that those who took his course attended all the lectures, of which there were three a week, as well as a weekly tutorial. As the outline stated:
“Students are required to attend all lectures and tutorials and do all readings and assignments by due dates. DP will not be granted to those students who fail to fulfil these requirements without providing prompt and adequate explanation to the lecturer (for lecture absences) or the relevant tutor (for all other requirements). Students are responsible for indicating their presence by signing the register.”
The reason for these seemingly draconian attendance requirements was that they enabled the students to do the best they could and improved class dynamics. The philosophical arguments being taught were also complex and not suitable to hasty assimilation (in other words, last minute cramming). Considerable “give” was built into the system. Students were told to communicate timeously by email (a dedicated email address was even provided) if they were going to be absent on isolated occasions. For longer or repeated absences they were told to speak to the lecturer in person in addition to submitting a “medical certificate (in case of illness) or other written explanation to the Philosophy Department reception”. The basic rule was that if you had a problem raise it then and there and you would be treated fairly and accommodated. Coming up with excuses well after the fact was not permitted as it was a nightmare to adjudicate.
Further slack was built into the determination at the end of the course as to whether a student had met the DP requirements when it came to lecture attendance, which was done mechanically. The course that year ultimately comprised of 29 lectures for which register was taken - fourteen lectures in the third quarter of the year, and fifteen in the fourth. If a student missed more than a third of lectures they would receive a DPR (Duly Performed Refused) and would not be allowed to write the end of year exam. An excused absence counted for 0,5 of an unexcused one.
In the DP lists published by the Department of Philosophy on the 20th October 2015 there were 34 students on the DPR list. There was an appeal process allowed – and late coursework assignments could still be submitted - but once exhausted this would normally be the end of the matter. These however were not normal times.
One of the individuals on the DPR list was Busisiwe Mkhumbuzi a third year student at the university, who was repeating the course, although Benatar had been on sabbatical the previous time around. Mkhumbuzi had grown up in Soweto, attended Rand Girls High School, and on the completion of her matric enrolled as a commerce student at UCT in 2013. She had initially sought to major in accounting, but had then shifted across to PPE (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics). In 2015 she had become active in the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movement on campus.
Mkhumbuzi’s attendance of the Ethics lectures in 2015 was erratic. She had been absent, without excuse, for four of the first thirteen lectures in the third quarter. In the final lecture before the mid-semester vacation, on August 28, she came into the lecture hall and signed the attendance register then walked out before the class began. Benatar called her into his office at the start of the fourth quarter where she admitted faking her attendance. Benatar explained that students were not refused DP for reasonable absences, especially when they excused themselves in good time. The next day he laid a disciplinary complaint against Mkhumbuzi for fraudulently representing her presence at a lecture.
In effect, then, Mkhumbuzi had been absent for five of the fourteen lectures in the third quarter, which put her below water when it came to qualifying for her DP at the end of the semester. She attended the first lecture of the fourth quarter, missed the next one without excuse, and then went on to attend the following three lectures. She proceeded to miss the next three lectures. At the end of the mid-semester break Mkhumbuzi had been involved in an unpleasant physical altercation where she had been hurt, but not seriously injured. She submitted medical notes at the end of September stating that the reason for her absence in these three cases was the psychological distress that had resulted from this earlier incident. This was accepted by Benatar and the department recorded her absences as “excused”.
Mkhumbuzi then attended the last lecture in September. She was still on course to meet the DP requirements. But then she missed - without prior notification, excuse, or the submission of a medical certificate - five of the final six lectures in October, even as she continued to attend tutorials. Mkhumbuzi was also prominent in the UCT Shut Down protest on the 19th of October.
She had missed, in other words, nine of the fifteen lectures in the fourth quarter, three with excuse, and six without. Overall she had thus missed eleven lectures without excuse, and three with, which meant that her absences were tallied up to 12,5 by the department’s administrators. This was well over the ten absences ultimately permitted so she was placed on the DPR list for missing over a third of lectures without excuse. This meant, in terms of the department’s rules, that she was not allowed to write the final exam, now scheduled, due to Fallist disruptions, for 12th January 2016.
Mkhumbuzi communicated to the department that this was not a decision she was going to accept, and proceeded to unsuccessfully appeal the decision first to the department, then to the Dean, and finally to the Vice Chancellor (twice). These last appeals were considered by the VC’s nominee, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Francis Petersen. The decision of the department to deny DP was upheld at all stages of this appeal process. Professor Petersen’s final decision was communicated to Mkhumbuzi the day before the Ethics exam was due to be written.
That evening on Twitter Mkhumbuzi stated in a series of Tweets that “I am not here for arbitrary decisions like DPR based on lecture attendance when I have 2 med notes and a coursework average of 70%”, UCT had failed to support her despite the “attack that led to my depression” happening on campus, “there is NO justification for DPR under any circumstances”, and that “Tomorrow after writing the exam I have been DPR’d for I will be sitting in Bremner till the DPR revokes my DPR. #UCTisAntiBlack”.
As promised, the next day Mkhumbuzi sat and wrote the examination, despite being prohibited from doing so. Her campaign now turned to getting the DPR lifted so that her exam script would be marked. On 18 January Professor Petersen sent through the written reasons to Mkhumbuzi for turning down the appeal. He noted the number of excused and unexcused absences, and then commented:
“In considering the overall number of lectures missed, this period of the traumatic experience and the subsequent ‘booked-off’ period was taken into account. Ms Mkhumbuzi, you have also signed the register on one particular day, and then left immediately, which is not ethical, and this incident was reported to the disciplinary tribunal. The course convener also engaged with you to talk about signing the register, and then leaving, and you still missed half of the lectures after meeting with the course convener. In the final analysis, it is clear that the DP requirement in relation to lecture attendance was not met, and there is no reason to question the decision of the Department of Philosophy, and hence the DPR decision will stand.”
The following day, on 19th January 2016, Mkhumbuzi announced on social media that she was staging a sit-in at the university’s administrative offices. “I am sitting in Bremner”, she wrote on Facebook, “blocking the entrance door, blasting Fela Kuti's 'Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense' not only for myself - but for black students. Because black students mean nothing to UCT. Black students are punished instead of corrected. It is impossible to get in, but once we're in, we are not safe.” She complained that in turning down her appeals she was being “punished for being depressed”. During the course of the sit in she described Vice Chancellor Max Price as “incredibly racist” for refusing to meet with her on the spot. On the merits of the case she wrote:
“In September 2015, I went through a traumatic experience and subsequently struggled with PTSD and depression. I was unable to attend compulsory lectures. I booked an appointment to see a psychologist at SW [Student Wellness] and was told to wait 2 weeks. After a week of missing lectures, I opted to see a medical practitioner. I was signed off by the medical practitioner. And the matter was reported to the university.
Unfortunately, due to my absence, I was denied DP for Ethics by Professor Benatar. The course permits students to only miss 10/29 of the lectures. I missed 12.5/29 of the lectures. Within the 12.5 lectures I missed, I was signed off for 9 by the medical practitioner. Assuming the medical note was accepted, I have only missed 3.5/29 of the lectures. Hence I have met the course requirements for an exceptional case in terms of health. My coursework average for Ethics is 70%.”
As is evident from the account above, there were numerous inaccuracies with this statement. She had been signed off by a doctor for three, not nine lectures. These had also been taken into account in calculating the DPR. This post nonetheless soon went viral within the university community. Benatar was widely and stridently criticised, in turn, for (allegedly) having rejected Mkhumbuzi’s medical note.
Professor Petersen now sought to convene a meeting with Mkhumbuzi, Benatar and the Registrar. After some issues around the conditions under which the meeting would be held (Mkhumbuzi initially wanted to bring the press and protestors along), and scheduling, it was held on the 22 January 2016. Two days later Mkhumbuzi posted another essay on Facebook on the topic. Mkhumbuzi described the meeting as “incredibly violent”. She related that despite proving beyond a reasonable doubt that this was a “clear case of discrimination based on mental illness” Benatar had refused to concede the point. The situation had disintegrated and, she wrote, she had “called Benatar racist – directly and indirectly”.
In her post she then launched into an attack on Benatar’s critical views on race-based affirmative action and Fallist calls for “de-colonisation” and the Africanisation of philosophy. She then contrasted her experience with the treatment she believed the child of very wealthy white parents would have received in the same circumstances. She concluded:
“The message is loud and clear, Professor Benatar is a racist. And his racism does not belong in an African university. He is unfit to make any kind of decision regarding the future of a black student – more so a black student with a mental illness. His racism cannot be cured by education. It will be cured when its systemic roots are finally uprooted and destroyed. He must resign as the Philosophy Head of Department. #UCTisAntiBlack”
Faced with the charge that he had unfairly denied Mkhumbuzi her DP, and had done so for racist reasons, Benatar wrote a statement which was then posted on the department’s Vula communication platform on the 4th February 2016. He noted that he was compelled to respond given that Mkhumbuzi had vilified him, and succeeded in whipping up more vilification by others. His response would, however, be constrained not just by civility but also “by duties that I have not to disclose certain facts about her”. He pointed out that Mkhumbuzi had missed almost half of the lectures, and her doctor’s notes only covered a few of these (not nine); that Ms Mkhumbuzi had exhausted the formal process; and that at their meeting on the 22nd of January Ms Mkhumbuzi “railed against me, but then stormed out when it came time for me to respond”. He also pointed out, in response to the charge of racism, that she was treated no differently from all other similarly situated students, irrespective of their “race” who were refused DP “There is not a single student who has failed to meet the DP requirements who has nonetheless been granted DP”.
Although the statement contained no details of her medical condition – which she herself had anyway shared repeatedly on social media – Mkhumbuzi accused Benatar, on Twitter, of publishing “all my personal health about my mental health” for all students to read. She followed it up later with the Tweet "if I kill myself today, this is the reason". That afternoon she stormed into the department’s reception demanding to see Benatar. He was not in at the time and she camped outside his locked door, refusing to speak.
After an ally of hers arrived she forced open the door to the department to allow the person in, and shouted into the face of an administrative staff member who remonstrated with her. The arrival of Campus Protection Officers provoked yet another tirade against staff. Another friend of Mkhumbuzi arrived and the two said they would not leave until Benatar’s statement had been taken down from the university intra-net.It took the intercession of the director of Student Wellness to ultimately end the sit-in, well after the department staff had had to leave. The staff members involved were reportedly left traumatised by the incident, and were unable to sleep or function properly for days afterwards.
Mkhumbuzi continued to label Benatar a “racist” on social media. In a series of Tweets on 8 February Mkhumbuzi apologised for scaring anyone with her mention of her suicidal state but said she had been rattled by “Benatar using his privilege as HOD of Philosophy to isolate & vilify me”. Nonetheless, “The fight continues. Benatar is racist & ableist. If I lose, that sets a negative precedent for black students studying Philosophy at UCT.”
Mkhumbuzi also continued her campaign to have her DPR overturned and appealed once more to Vice Chancellor Max Price. This time Price himself considered the application. He noted that the department’s refusal to grant DP, along with the rejection of her appeals, was completely well founded. Although she continued to claim that her medical notes covered 9 absences, this was not true. They covered three. Even if her medical notes were revised and extended to cover two more of the absences she still did not qualify. The revised argument was now that the reason she sought no further medical help in October, nor notified the department of her absences, nor explained that she was having troubles, was because her mental state got in the way of her doing so. The fact that she continued with other activities on campus during this period was explained by the “up and down” nature of her depression. On advice from a doctor and Student Wellness Price accepted this theory as irregular and speculative, but plausible, and converted a further five unexcused absences to excused ones, and on this basis decreed that Mkhumbuzi should be granted DP.
In his letter to Mkhumbuzi on 16 February 2020 notifying her of his decision Price explained that what he was doing was “exceptional”, and that the earlier decisions denying her DP were “correct on the evidence you presented to them”. It was only the “new evidence” recently presented which enabled him to make a different finding. Price suggested she should apologise to Benatar for claiming his decision to refuse her DPR appeal was racist. She did not do so. Nor was she particularly grateful for the rather undignified contortions Price had had to perform on her behalf to secure her DP. As she later commented, with some contempt, “It is questionable whether or not the VC truly believes that DP should have been granted. I believe that he was facing immense social pressure to make the correct decision; hence the tone he uses in his report is incredibly accusatory, biased and patronizing.”
Mkhumbuzi’s exam script could now be marked, by an internal and external examiner (not Benatar), and the process was completed in early March and communicated to her later that month. This was a fleeting triumph however as Mkhumbuzi ended up failing the examination.
Mkhumbuzi’s denunciation of Benatar as a “racist” would be an allegation that would be damaging at any time. As the High Court recently noted in another case such a claim against a white person is clearly defamatory, injurious to the dignity and reputation of the person accused, runs the risk of inciting violence against them, and is probably one of the “biggest insults” that there is. It was however particularly inflammatory at that point in time given the ongoing Fallist-induced turmoil on campus. The explicit intention was, as Mkhumbuzi herself made clear, to have Benatar removed from his position.
Benatar’s battle now turned to clearing this name through the university’s student disciplinary process. Following Mkhumbuzi’s sit-in at the department on 4 February, and her continued accusations against him on 8 February, he had laid additional disciplinary charges against her related to these matters. The communication of a summons to appear before the Student Tribunal – on these and the earlier charge of fraudulent attendance - provoked yet another volcanic social media eruption from Mkhumbuzi on 10 March 2015. She wrote:
“I refuse to retract the statements I have made about Prof Benatar. I have called him racist, ableist and sexist in person and on social media. I am able to tell him that he is racist because it is true. He has written essays and articles where he unconcernedly spews his racist hate.”
What made her particularly sad, she wrote, was that a “white, male lecturer has so much power to threaten the future of a black student at UCT. Once again, the question is about who UCT protects. Something needs to change. In many ways, the battle between me and Professor Benatar underpins our violent system.”
She said that she was going to move forward by securing legal representation and would not plead guilty. She further appealed to any student, alumnus or academic with a racial grievance against Benatar – relating to his articles, lectures, or application of the DP rules - to come forward, so that she could bring supporters and witnesses to court to denounce him. The aim, she wrote, was “not only disprove his case that I am racist for calling him racist, but to also press several charges against him, and ask for his removal as a UCT lecturer, and as the HoD of Philosophy.”
She communicated similar sentiments to the top leadership at the university. The following day Justin Weinberg, associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, published an item on and linked to Mkhumbuzi’s Facebook post on the Daily Nous - a website, he runs, that provides information and news for and about the philosophy profession. Mkhumbuzi also forwarded her Facebook post to the Cape Times, which then ran an article by Carlo Petersen on her claims under the headline “UCT student in hot water over social media slurs”.
Mkhumbuzi’s attorney, Miranda Mkhumbuzi-Rasehala, wrote to Benatar in mid-March offering mediation as an alternative to the tribunal. Benatar wrote back rejecting this, but said he was willing to drop the complaints around the defamatory Facebook posts and the invasion of the department in exchange inter alia for Mkhumbuzi publicly retracting and apologising for her negative and defamatory claims about him. This counter offer was however rejected by Mkhumbuzi in late March.
In mid-April Mkhumbuzi wrote a personal letter to Benatar in which she again reiterated that she believed the denial of her DP on the basis of the non-attendance of lectures had been unfair, even though she admitted to failing to meet the rules and regulations of the course. She defended her accusation of racism in a rather strange way. “I do not know you personally”, she wrote, “and have only been exposed to your writings and lectures. But what I can say about you is that you believe in the equal treatment of all human beings.” But it was wrong to treat black and white students as equals, when they were not equal. In her particular case, Benatar had failed to take into account her “exceptional circumstances” which made her different to any other student.
She again suggested some kind of face-to-face engagement, as pursuing the tribunal was in neither of their interests. She warned however that if her offer was again rejected, and the tribunal went ahead, she would take up the many offers from senior UCT academics, students, and alumni, to denounce Benatar. The tables could be turned on him, she suggested. She added that the American Philosophical Association had offered her its support.
Benatar did not however drop his charges in response to this implied threat. The tribunal was scheduled to hear the matter at the end of May 2016. But due to scheduling issues, and at Mkhumbuzi’s request, it was eventually postponed to early August 2016. However, the day before the tribunal was due to hear the matter, on 2nd August, Mkhumbuzi announced that she would be taking a leave of absence from the university, and would not be able to attend the next day, but rather only at the end of the month. She (voluntarily) de-registered as a student soon after. After a further no-show by Mkhumbuzi on the 31st August the hearing was set down for the 31st October 2016, as the tribunal still retained jurisdiction over a former student’s breaches of the student code while the individual had been registered with the university.
Mkhumbuzi did not respond to the Tribunal’s notifications of the new hearing date, and after prior warning was given of this on the 27th October, the Tribunal hearing went ahead in her absence. The tribunal found her guilty on all charges, and sentenced her to a twelve month rustication in relation to her social media campaign against Benatar, as well as her conduct in the invasion of the philosophy department offices. She was also required to publicly retract her claims against Benatar personally, write him a letter of apology, and the Registrar’s office was instructed to publish a statement clearing Benatar of her false claims, and setting out the findings of the tribunal.
The effect of this guilty finding, Mkhumbuzi noted much later in another Facebook post, was that she could not conclude her studies elsewhere. In November 2016 she informed the university that she would be appealing. The Student Appeal Tribunal then met on the 23 February 2017 with Mkhumbuzi being represented by a lawyer, Ashraf Mohamed. Mohamed proposed an apology in return for a dropping of the guilty findings. This was even though a few days before, Mkhumbuzi had circulated a message on a WhatsApp group repeating her misleading claims as to why she had been denied DP, and appealing for witnesses to come forward and testify against Benatar. Benatar rejected the proffered deal.
Finally, in mid-August 2017 the Tribunal issued its ruling. Although it said that Mkhumbuzi had presented no reasonable explanation for her failure to respond to notifications of the 31st October hearing, she had only been given four days’ notice that the hearing would proceed in her absence. On this basis it set aside the findings of the Student Tribunal and declared that the matter be heard de novo. Though some kind of apology had been previously been mooted by Mkhumbuzi’s legal representatives, in return for letting her off the hook, she continued to recycle her claims. After a controversy broke over another lecturer in the Philosophy Department’s decision to waive a certain DP requirement to allow students to attend the Rocking the Daisies music festival Mkhumbuzi repeated her claims against Benatar in a Facebook post on 5th October 2017.
The disciplinary process now seems to have become stuck in the mud, with all further attempts to schedule a new Student Disciplinary Tribunal hearing always somehow coming to nought, despite Benatar’s entreaties that it be expedited. Ashraf Mohamed had also lobbied Vice-Chancellor Max Price asking for the dropping of charges. After this failed he suggested, in early 2018, that a plea bargain be entered into whereby Mkhumbuzi would apologise and retract her claims in exchange for a lesser sentence. Negotiations around this would eat up the next several months.
Mkhumbuzi, as Director of TshimongSA, came to very public prominence in July 2018 as the glamorous and eloquent master of ceremonies for the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture delivered by former US President Barack Obama. She was subsequently interviewed by Refiloe Mpakanyane on Radio 702 and asked about her background, and her experience at UCT. Mpakanyane asked Mkhumbuzi where she had got the chutzpah in her previous life, as a mere undergrad, to take on not only a Professor but a system; to say ‘somebody is discriminating against me’ and go out and fight the injustice. Mkhumbuzi replied that she had always believed that she had a ‘voice that is valid’, and that it was always a mission of hers to collectivise, amplify and multiply marginalised voices. She explained that when the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movement started to happen she realised that she was in an Ivory Tower of things that we speak of as ills, such as institutionalised racism. She explained this as being “where a system works to discredit people of a certain race in ways that are not necessarily explicit”. She continued:
“So expecting black students and white students to perform the same. As if we don’t know the majority of our black students come from township schools, where they weren’t well equipped. Or discrediting an affirmative action approach in how we allow students to come into the university. And expecting people to be equal in a country where there are very deep inequalities. And unfortunately, people can’t perform at an equal level. So, those are some of the things I felt very strongly about.
And those are some of the things that made be at the forefront of things life Fees Must Fall. At some point obviously there were huge protests and a lot of us just chose the protests over attending a class or a tutorial. But I got punished very badly for it. I couldn’t write my exam. It affected my graduation. Ultimately, it even led to a suspension. And for me that was the first time I started to reflect on activism as something that could have very serious consequences. As something that could lead to being ostracised…”
The plea bargain proposal ultimately went nowhere – following months of delays – after Mkhumbuzi offered only a limited apology to Benatar at the end of July 2018. Mkhumbuzi rejected in turn the more comprehensive apology that Benatar was seeking. Again, an effort to schedule a hearing again stalled, despite Benatar’s further pleas.
In mid-2018 Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng replaced Dr Max Price as Vice Chancellor of the University and in November Ashraf Mohamed wrote to Phakeng requesting that all charges be dropped in return for the same kind of limited apology that Benatar had earlier rejected. The Chief Proctor, Danwood Chirwa, recommended that this be done, on the basis that the matter had now gone on without resolution for three years – which was punishment enough - and it was unfair to Mkhumbuzi to drag the matter out even further. The university would also be vulnerable to legal challenge if it did not do so.
Benatar argued strongly against this. But although Phakeng initially indicated that it would be inappropriate to drop the charges she decided at the end of the month to in fact do so. This would be conditional on Mkhumbuzi submitting an apology to her (Phakeng’s) satisfaction, and that Mkhumbuzi did not repeat the earlier offences. On 13th February 2019 Mkhumbuzi submitted her apology to Phakeng. It reads as follows:
“To the Vice Chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng:
Apology and retraction
I write this letter to offer you, and the university community, an unconditional retraction of the derogatory social media posts I put in the public domain in 2016. In such media I claimed that Professor David Benatar denied my due performance for Ethics (PHIL1010S) on the basis that he is racist.
The posts were not made with any malicious intent to lie or defame his character.
The error was the unfortunate result of me feeling victimised, and believing that he treated me harshly when he disqualified me for the exam and refused to acknowledge my medical certificate. I assumed that I was being treated that way because of my race. I completely retract the posts and apologize for the harm caused. I assure you that there will be non-repetition of the defamatory remarks.
I would like to extend this apology to the Department of Philosophy staff members who suffered considerable harm from the incident and the subsequent harassment.
I also apologize for contravening against the class attendance register requirements.
Such behaviour will not be repeated in future.
I hereby grant permission for this apology to be put in the public domain if this becomes necessary.
Signed Busisiwe Mkhumbuzi 13 February 2019”
There was a great deal that was self-serving and inaccurate in the apology. Her original attack on Benatar was aimed not just at traducing his character and reputation but having him removed from his position, thereby effectively destroying his career. It was untrue that he had refused to acknowledge her medical certificate. It had been taken into account, but only covered a few absences. As she herself had acknowledged at various points in the saga she had labelled Benatar a “racist” not because he had discriminated against her on the basis of her race, but because he had failed in her special case to set aside the rules and regulations that she had knowingly flouted, and which were being applied to everyone else.
Despite the inadequacies of the apology Phakeng nonetheless accepted it, thereby allowing Mkhumbuzi to return to UCT to continue her studies. More seriously, she refused Benatar’s request to give effect to the original Student Tribunal’s order by having the Registrar’s office publish a statement that Mkhumbuzi’s allegations were without foundation, and that she had now retracted and apologised for them.
This particular case mirrored what happened elsewhere on the UCT campus in the 2015 to 2017 period. Indulgent Elders, in charge of the university, were simply not willing to firmly enforce the rules against young student radicals whom, at some level, they admired and identified with. As the university waived the rules for the grossest misconduct, it became progressively more difficult - or seemingly pointless - to uphold these in lesser cases.
The university leadership thus failed to protect their academics, failed to protect ordinary students, and failed to protect activist students from themselves. The cost to the individuals and the institution has been severe.
Most infamously, Professor Bongani Mayosi had also been subjected to a similar kind of vilification by the Fallists following his appointment as Dean of Health Sciences in September 2016, at the height of the disruption on campus. Because Mayosi was black he was not labelled a “racist”, a term of abuse generally reserved for whites, but rather a “sell-out” and “coconut”.
As his sister Ncumisa later noted at his funeral in August 2018, Fallist misconduct had sent Mayosi into a downward spiral, from which he was not able to escape: “The abrasive, do-or-die, scorched earth approach” adopted by students “completely vandalised Bongani’s soul. Put simply, this unravelled him”. Though he was no opponent of their cause, the “personal insults and abuse that were hurled at him without any justification whatsoever, this cut him to the core…. And so he became withdrawn. His personality changed. He spoke less. To his mother he spoke of the isolation he felt from his colleagues. A lack of support, both from the faculty, and to those to whom he reported. He experienced two breakdowns in 2017.” He tried to resign, but this was rejected by the university. Eventually, he took his own life.
Even with this example in front of their noses the university still refused to give Benatar the public exoneration to which he was clearly entitled. It is difficult to see how Mkhumbuzi benefited from this drawn out saga – though the delays were in large part her doing - and the university’s failure to expeditiously enforce its code of conduct through the disciplinary process. When students step out of line, as they often do, the appropriate response is to enforce the rules, and apply an appropriate sanction. The student can then move on with their lives, hopefully having learnt a life lesson in the process.
The result of the university leadership’s approach in this case, and others, has been a profound demoralisation of the institution, in both senses of the word. There has reportedly been a huge loss of morale among officials and academics, who feel they were abandoned by those tasked with protecting them and their authority. Secondly, the university failed to uphold the rules – and defend the distinction between right and wrong - has contributed to a generalised decay of ethics and standards. Those who sought to uphold the rules have been penalised, while those who flouted them have been let off the hook. What moral basis is left to enforce rules against minor plagiarism, for instance, when racial arsonists are amnestied, and even celebrated, by the leadership of the university?
This has set a dangerous example and precedent, not just within the university, but within the broader society as a whole.
Politicsweb offered Mrs Mkhumbuzi Pooe an opportunity to comment upon the affair from her current vantage point, as well as to point out any errors or omissions contained in the factual account set out in this article (which was provided to her in draft form in two parts), with the assurance that these would then be corrected or remedied. Her first and final response was as follows:
“I do not give consent for you to write about me, the context of the case or anything that implicates me in any narrative whatsoever. Your attempt at writing my story is already littered with lies, besides being completely a-contextual. Furthermore, you are writing a public story based on a private case and I reserve the right to use legal action if the story is published. This is none of your business. I do not require your assistance or involvement. If you are so passionate about Benatar, you should reach out to him instead of writing lies about me when I did not even ask to be written about by you. Heed my request for privacy, especially if you were hoping to write your article in the spirit of activism.”