UCT: Stop feeding the crocodile

William Gild appeals to Max Price to stop his policy of appeasement


Dear Dr. Price:

I write as a parent, an alumnus, and a (former ) major donor to UCT, with family ties to the institution dating back to the late 1920’s.

I returned to South Africa in April 1994, following a 21-year self-imposed exile.

During the 1994 elections, and, especially, during the inauguration of President Mandela, I wept in joy. My elation in the demise of apartheid, and optimism in a democratic South Africa was unbounded.

Of course, I was not blind to the problems and hurdles facing a nation bankrupted (morally and fiscally ) by the apartheid regime of the prior 46 years and by the devastating inequality and racial divides that existed at the time. But I was optimistic and proud.

I now see a country that, contrary to the predictions of many in 1994, remains, in large part, a functioning, albeit fractious, democracy, with a progressive constitution, free press, and largely intact essential pillars of civil society.

But when I view the current turmoil on our campuses, with many institutions repeatedly (2015, February 2016, and currently) shut down by angry and violent mobs, when it is becoming more obvious by the day that some institutions will not be able to complete the academic year, I despair for future of tertiary education in this country.

The existence of an educated, technologically sophisticated class is critically important in any society, especially in South Africa where industry and commerce are looked to for providing jobs for a rapidly growing population and where the current unemployment rate amongst youth is unsustainably high.

Urbanization in South Africa is rapidly growing, and poverty has been barely impacted over the past 26 years. South Africa has suffered a massive brain drain over the past many decades, and with the perception that our institutions of tertiary education have become virtually paralyzed (and may indeed remain so) increasing numbers of parents who can afford to do so, will send their children overseas to be educated. These kids will not return. We have seen this pattern throughout Africa, and the results have not been pretty.

The current campus turmoil began with the Rhodes Must Fall campaign; that campaign began with the hurling of faeces onto Rhodes’ stature, followed in short order by burning artwork, torching your office, intimidating and assaulting students, staff, and you, too.

We now see blatant racist expressions proudly displayed on T-shirts and slogans, UCT’s campus being repeatedly blockaded, further acts of arson of university property, and, just yesterday ( Tuesday ) a Jammie shuttle hijacked on campus, with subsequence assaults on passengers and drivers of cars stuck behind the melee.

By the conclusion of this week, UCT will have been shuttered for over two weeks. A significant extension of the current shutdown will effectively wipe out the 2016 academic year. Those in their final year will not graduate at all, all students could have the right to sue for services not delivered, and all students will lose a year’s education.

In short, what we now have is close to a state of anarchy at UCT, not to mention on other campuses across the country. Aside from this state of affairs being tragic for hundreds of thousands of students, the not insignificant income emanating from international students from developed countries attending UCT for a semester (or more ) of overseas study will inevitably be lost, too.

So, the question must be asked: what has your leadership done to try to ameliorate an already disastrous situation? You and your senior staff meet, and meet and meet. Then you issue one high-sounding statement after the next. But most of all, and this I find appallingly negligent, you repeatedly call for “engagement”, and more engagement, time and time again.

You haul a tiny minority of these thugs before disciplinary hearings, whose outcome is seldom publicized, and whose findings are repeatedly annulled. This is appeasement, plain and simple. A reasonable person might conclude that when the same approach is repeatedly utilized, and the outcome never changes (i.e. never succeeds), a different approach would be in order. But not you.

As Churchill (recognizing that the provenance of the saying is questionable ) once famously remarked (referring to the Americans ): “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all other possibilities”. You have exhausted “all other possibilities”; the time to act decisively is now.

And by “ decisive” I mean the following:

1. Inform, in writing, all students and their parents, of the dire consequences attendant on UCT not completing the academic year. I have no doubt that many of the students are ignorant of this fact.

2. Cease forthwith with your demonstrably failed policy of “engaging” with “stakeholders”

3. Inform the public at large and all students and their parents that from this point on you will utilize every resource available to you ( including, but not limited to, private security and the SAPS ) to ensure that campus remains open, that students and staff may continue to study and to teach ( and continue their research ) without fear of assault and intimidation.

4. Inform the public and all students and their parents that there may very well be casualties, but that allowing UCT to collapse totally (which is what will happen should you continue on your present course ) is simply not in their, or the country’s interests.

5. Disabuse yourself of the notion that “free education” is, firstly, attainable in a country whose sovereign debt rating is close to junk status, and secondly, that “free education for all” is nothing more than yet another massive payout to wealthier families.

6. Disabuse yourself of the notion that solving the fees issue will bring stability to campus. You have to be aware of the fact that “solving” one issue merely spawns yet other demands – as we’ve seen with the progression from Rhodes Must Fall, to Fees Must Fall, through “decolonization”, “transformation”, a variety of gender issues, and so on.

7. Be alive to the reality that while some of the student protesters may be genuine (albeit misguided ) in their goals, there does exist a small group of criminals whose sole objective is simply to destroy and degrade what has taken generations to build.

8. Insist ( together with other VC’s, Council leadership, and other bodies ) that those arrested for serious crimes are processed rapidly, rather than simply immediately released to engage in further terroristic activity (the 2010 World Cup courts are one model of what can be done).

As a friend once opined (regarding the vexatious situation in another part of the world ): “ if you take bold, decisive action, there is a 50% chance of casualties and an adverse outcome. If you don’t, the odds rise to 100%”.

I implore you to cease your ineffectual and demonstrably failed policy of engagement and appeasement, to listen to the voices of the overwhelming majority of students, their parents, alumni and the public, and to reopen the university so that those who wish to study and learn and contribute to society are able so to do, and that staff are able to teach and perform research without the fear of constant intimidation and assault

I am mindful of the risks that this would entail, but cannot envisage a future for UCT (let alone the country) by repeatedly shuttering the university and being terrorized by brazen criminals.

Dr William Gild (MB,ChB – 1972 ), Advocate of the High Court of South Africa