UCT in decline: A reply to Russell Ally

RW Johnson says the university administration's silences in its response are revealing

I was very surprised by the tone of Dr Russell Ally's reply to my article on UCT. Much of it appeared to consist of deliberate misrepresentation. I was shocked that a Vice Chancellor of UCT should seek to re-instate racial discrimination in the hiring of faculty, thus replicating a key feature of the apartheid regime.

In reply Dr Ally suggests - nonsensically - that I have "an incurable nostalgia" for the apartheid era; that I believe that "whiteness equates to excellence and blackness means inevitable decline"; and that I want to privatize UCT "to keep the marauding natives out" - when I was actually suggesting inviting in talent from Africa at large. His argument is preposterous and needs no refutation in detail.

What I found most telling were Dr Ally's silences. He made no attempt to deny either that many of the UCT faculty are scared and intimidated (though a university administration which allows such a situation stands condemned) or that the proposal is indeed to re-instate racial discrimination, thus ending sixty years during which UCT staunchly opposed this in principle.

Let me re-state my proposal by giving the example of the African Leadership Academy in Roodepoort. The ALA houses talented youngsters from all over Africa, preparing them for higher education. The standard is extremely high - the seminars I attended there were already up to good undergraduate level and there was 100% participation. The teaching staff was multi-racial, selected on merit. Tuition is wholly in English and many of the students routinely go on to top universities in the UK and USA.

It clearly didn't bother the students that they were being taught by white and black teachers or that the teachers they would have abroad would be mainly white; indeed, there seemed little or no focus on race. I attended on a prize giving day and noted that all the prizes in maths were won by Arab girls from North Africa (where, of course, the subject was invented). They were cheered just as loudly as students from Kenya or Ghana.

What hit you was merit, merit, merit and the high morale of both teachers and students - which, of course, makes a great difference to what can be achieved. Not surprisingly, the ALA has attracted a good deal of support from private donors for it is pre-eminently a winning institution.

This essentially is the model I was suggesting for UCT. It has nothing to do with race. It is simply about being the best. Instead of being focused inwardly on the parochial South African notion of "transformation" - which has no meaning internationally - the institution should be focused strongly outwards towards the wider world. It should use international languages, particularly those with a wider African currency.

Such a UCT could perform a vital function for the entire African continent, an objective which would surely be inspiring for students, faculty and donors alike. However, such a goal can hardly be attempted with a faculty which is scared and demoralized, let alone by any university that disgraces itself by reintroducing racial discrimination as official policy. That such an argument even needs to be made in the 21st century is not the least remarkable aspect of this sad affair.

RW Johnson