UCT: Giving appeasement a bad name

Tim Crowe says the silent majority on campus are being marginalised in favour of a few violent fanatics

Echoes of “peace in our time” and Lord of the Flies

On 30 September 1938 British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain spoke concerning the Munich Agreement and the Anglo-German Declaration in which he uttered these famous misquoted words:

“I believe it is peace for our time. … Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.”

These two ‘agreements’ literally sold out Czechoslovakia (excluded from the ‘negotiations’) to Nazi Germany and were branded by the Czechs as: "About us, without us!"

Two years later, after the world had plummeted into a war that eventually resulted in the deaths of 60 million people, a final-year Harvard University student, John F. Kennedy, wrote an essay: Why England Slept [Later published as a book] that described England’s blunders.

In doing so, he abandoned the views of his omnipotent father, Joe, who was then US ambassador to Britain and supported Chamberlain’s capitulation.

Nearly a decade after World War II, Nobel laureate William Golding published one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century, Lord of the Flies. This frequently assigned high school reading gives an apocalyptic account of the disintegration of a society of naive pre-adults into chaos and violence.

Now, almost 78 years to the day since Chamberlain’s speech, university communities throughout South Africa are being sold out or subjugated to another “malevolent minority”, this time comprising provocateurs bent on destroying tertiary education.

Make no mistake about it. They have no interest in education, regardless of its quality, relevance, ’centricity’ or funding. They have nothing to offer to replace a struggling, but adaptable system.

In the meantime, those who need to get the job done:

Academics who see their professions as educational and research vocations and vehicles for societal change

Students who want to learn from and challenge the ideas of their mentors, each other and others outside academe

Like the Czechs are excluded and/or sent into a ‘Chamberlainian sleep’. They are barred from their offices, lecture theatres, laboratories and libraries. In the meantime, provocateurs verbally intimidate and physically abuse ‘adversaries’ (even defenceless women), destroy ‘offensive’ symbols/artwork and burn what they can’t break.

When those who bear the brunt of these criminal acts ask (and then cry out) for one-person-one-vote referenda to protest against this criminal behaviour, they are dismissed as the “silent majority”, bent on oppressing the truth-bearing minority collective.

What ‘solutions’ do university executives offer? Let’s focus on what’s happening over the last few days at my and my wife’s alma mater and employer for a combined 80+ years, the University of Cape Town (UCT).

An overwhelming majority of the UCT Community supports the continued functioning of UCT, even if it means with the assistance of security personnel. [This is supported by the results of a 23 September poll of nearly 900 individuals self-identified as academic/support staff and under/postgraduate students.] Through an initiative driven primarily by the Science Student Council and Students’ Representative Council and some academics there will be a silent assembly on 30 September on the Plaza at 12h00 in support of the resumption of teaching on Monday.

The Vice Chancellor, Dr Max Price, has announced that, if teaching at UCT is not resumed in the next few days, undergraduate students will not complete their learning programme for 2016, and there are many other potentially dire consequences of a closed or dysfunctional UCT. He summarizes the situation as follows: there will be a “potential lost generation” of students, especially “the poorest of the poor”.

Despite this, the University Executive has kept UCT closed during this past week.

The reason for this closure is to allow it to negotiate with protesters including the provocateurs. Thus, the ‘silent majority’, like the Czechs, is excluded and must trust the executive to deal with the ‘Lords of the Flies’.

With special regard to the provocateurs, I quote verbatim an article by Yusuf Omar and Kate-Lyn Moore summarizes Dr Price’s comments given to the press on 28 September:

Speaking about the five expelled students, around whom UCT students have based much of their campaign, Price said that the university is open to a restorative justice process.

“We’re not interested in making this a life sentence,” he said.

“If they were to participate in some sort of restorative justice process, some sort of reconciliation process, where they acknowledge what has been done and they also acknowledge that this is unacceptable behaviour, [that] they would not do these things again and that they would behave within a code of conduct, then we would be open to considering a restorative justice process that makes it possible at some stage in the future for them to come back and continue their careers.”

The italicized ‘some-sort-of’, ‘acknowledge’ and ‘unacceptable’ are unexplained at best and vague at worst. In short, what Dr Price describes is not restorative justice. Since the acts of the provocateurs are criminal, restorative justice requires the perpetrators to apologize to the victims (e.g. the mathematics and other lecturers and students personally victimized, the researchers who depended on the burnt bakkie, Dr Price himself) and show remorse.

Simply acknowledging the acts or putting them into ‘political context’ is not enough. Most importantly, if they were to be readmitted to UCT, there should be a clear limits on the duration of further association and the possibility of punitive justice if the offenders repeat.

Moreover, the restorative ‘healing process’ should involve an opportunity for victims sensu lato (including peaceful protesters) to express their perspectives on the root causes of what culminated into criminal acts. Only then can UCT and other South African universities adapt constructively to address the causes.

If, however, the result of these negotiations ‘about us, without us’ is, like the Anglo-German Declaration, yet another blanket capitulation, UCT is doomed to a ‘Lords of the Flies’ future.