UCT should stop digging a hole for itself

Thomas Johnson says there is no doubt Russell Ally was accusing his critics of being "racist"

As a (black) alumnus of UCT, I responded to Russell Ally's letter published on Daily Maverick. He now tries to convince us he wrote in his personal capacity and did not accuse Kenneth Hughes and RW Johnson of racism. He is being dishonest.

First, his letter made no reference he was writing in his personal capacity. And writing about such an important topic - transformation in the context of the troubles - readers like me did not think so, that is, we understood he did write as an executive officer of the university.

Second, he used emotionally, politically and racially-loaded words: "calumny University of Cape Town is in a state of decline"; "blatant prejudice masquerading as analysis; crass ideological agenda at work ; "both Hughes and Johnson have an incurable nostalgia for the 'UCT before the black man (and woman) came'”; "Hughes wants to return UCT to the glory days when it was a whites-only university"; "what this is saying ... blackness means inevitable decline", and (Hughes and Johnson) are clinging to a discredited past (in) which (a) privileged (and) tiny minority denied opportunities to the vast majority of people".

If this does not mean to accuse Hughes and Johnson of bigotry and having a "racist" agenda, then what? But Ally claims "I never accused either Johnson or Hughes of being racists"?

At the outset he is a pains to point out his letter "is NOT the position of all UCT alumni and I made no claims that this the position of all black alumni (my emphasis)".

Neither Hughes nor Johnson made any reference about alumni worth mentioning, never mind black alumni. So why does Ally feel it necessary to make sure we understand his position now? I think it's because he also is answering my letter ("the many reactions") - as a black alumnus who is alarmed and appalled by what is happening there - without having the courtesy to acknowledge my views, which he attributes, by omission, to Hughes and Johnson.

The problem for him is how to reply to a black person who eschews the radical agenda of the fallist left - a position UCT appears to have adopted what with their art censorship, etc - without calling that person, that is people like me, "racist". Ally knows he cannot and sides-steps the problem by settling for the comparatively benign "mischief making".

Writing as an alumnus himself, he said "UCT’s alumni will (my emphasis) fortunately see through this ruse and recognise for what it is". He did not say - as he now says he intended all along - that only an unkown percentage of (black) alumni "should" or "might" see the ruse (not "argument" or "debate" if he was as charitable to Hughes and Johnson as he now claims) for what it is.

Ally's latest letter is a poor and and transparent attempt at a retraction for the dangerous and emotive language he used against Hughes and Johnson, but is too dishonest - or seeped in his own ideology - to make a clean breast of it. This in the context of a university environment described to me by an academic as "toxic", "horrifying", where "vilification and demonisation" against those who speak out - people who are called "racist" - is takeing place, and where no support is given to them. Johnson is correct that fear grips the place.

Interestingly, Ally did not respond to the central accusation that UCT has "kowtowed" to Rhodes Must Fall's nihilistic agenda. He cannot, for it appears increasingly true. But he used unacademic, intemperate language -which he now denies using - against critics who use the academic tools of the pen and reason rather than (RMF's) firebombs and threats? And he dares lecture us on the distinction between freedom of expression and academic freedom?

Another titbit that brings into question UCT's "accelerated transformation" strategy - and the bona fides of those implementing it - is in 2014 vice-chancellor Max Price defended the slow pace of transformation and low numbers of black academics arguing it takes 20 years or more from PhD to full professor. Have they found a miraculous way to shorten this period? A person who has seen the strategy says it is badly written, among other things.

And knowing he is on shaky ground attributing the support of his and UCT's problematic transformation agenda to the largely moderate and liberal UCT alumni who would be concerned by what is happening, he makes a mess of backtracking. Overall, for a PhD versed in argument and analysis, his attempt is poor. No wonder he says he shall not comment again. My guess is his boss told him to can it, as the hole they have dug for themselves is getting bigger.

Thomas Johnson

Cape Town