UCT's troubles continue

William Gild says this is the third year the academic programme has been disrupted

On November 4th, in his occasional “From the VC’s Desk” letters, Dr. Price stated that “...there is a sense that despite the disruptions and interference by some protesters, we are managing to conclude this term’s academic programme with integrity” (emphasis added).

Price, known for his skillful word-craft, had to have chosen the phrase “with integrity” deliberately. The reality is that UCT’s 2017 academic year was, emphatically, not completed with integrity, accepting the recognized definition of the term “integrity” (“…having no part or element wanting… unbroken state…completeness...entirety...” - The Shorter OED, Third Edition). The following facts illustrate the point:

Complete disruption of at least one final (post-grad.) examination (accounting)

Disruption of multiple second semester tests, “pracs” and tutorials on (at least) Main and Health Sciences campuses

Frequent disruptions of classes on Main Campus

The “completion” of multiple courses utilizing “blended” (on-line, off-campus and other, unspecified, modes) learning. UCT is not a correspondence college.

Repeated disruptions of the Jammie Shuttle service

Multiple acts of disruption at the main library and most residences

Total cessation of food services at all residences, for at least two weeks

Multiple acts of arson, across much of upper campus

Cancellation of DP requirements from October 23d (with the exception of the Health Sciences Faculty).

Complete shut-down of upper campus for a number of days

The perceived need, and execution, of moving end-of-year examinations to a heavily guarded mini tent city on the rugby field, which itself suffered an arson attack

Repeated blockades of more than one major entry road to campus.

Failure to complete all undergraduate and postgraduate activities in the second semester (“I am pleased to have received from the Deans...a collective view that most (emphasis added) of the undergraduate and postgraduate activities…have concluded…”) – “most” is a deliberately imprecise measure, but confirms that at least “some” coursework was not completed.

So, not only was UCT’s 2017 academic year incomplete, by Price’s own definition, but it marks the third consecutive year of incomplete/failed academic years.

The pattern is disturbing and compels an examination of why UCT, alone among all the major South African universities, continues to fail, notwithstanding the fact that virtually all South African universities have suffered the same, or similar, levels of violent student unrest over the past almost three years.

Price, in the same letter, declares that: “We hope, of course, that the threats to shut down the university and the exams will be withdrawn and we will continue to engage with the protesters to resolve the conflict” (emphasis added).

“Engagement” is always the preferred route when conflict arises. But, there does come a point at which reasonable people are bound to ask: (1) who the parties are; (2) are the parties or individuals honorable and trustworthy (are they negotiating in good faith); (3) what are the demands and/or expectations  of both parties; and, most difficult (4) at what point does the process of engagement need to be recognized as futile?

(1)The parties

One cannot know with whom Price has recently been negotiating, but during the late 2016 marathon session, it was the self-styled Shackville TRC, and Progressive SRC Candidates. None of these individuals had formal or elected standing on campus. All had previously been either criminally charged or suspended from the university, related mainly to criminal acts committed during the earlier “Shackville” protest on campus.  Although The Agreement that this session spawned referred to “other student formations” as parties, the reality is that the student negotiators were wholly unrepresentative of the broad student body (Seekings – Daily Maverick, Dec 12, 2016).

Representing the university were VC Dr. Max Price, then-DVC’s Drs. Anwar Mall and Francis Petersen, and Executive Director Dr. Russell Ally.

The negotiations were facilitated by supposedly experienced and disinterested mediators.

It must be noted, parenthetically, that the centerpiece of the November Agreement, establishment of an Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission, appears to be dead in the water (Gild – PoliticsWeb, Nov. 6, 2017).

(2) Bona fides vs. male fides 

It goes without saying that the university’s representatives were negotiating in good faith; they had nothing to gain by being duplicitous, or of male fides.

Not the same could be said of the protesters. On more than one occasion agreements reached in principle were abruptly suspended, and, more importantly, the actual November 6, 2016 agreement was seriously violated on two occasions after the ink had barely dried, without consequences, despite there being provisions in the Agreement for dealing with such violations.

(3) Expectations and goals

On the university side, it is self-evident that the sole goal was to bring peace to campus, such that learning, teaching, and research could proceed in an atmosphere devoid of violence, intimidation and property destruction.

On the protesters’ side (and there have been, over the past three years, diverse groups and individuals) it could fairly be said that expectations and goals constantly changed, but three important threads appear dominant: first, an attempt to address perceived deficiencies in the university’s approach to transformation, equity, “decolonization”, and institutional racism.

Second, especially in regard to the 2016 Oct./Nov negotiations, attempts to set aside multiple disciplinary actions taken by the university against student protesters since the outbreak of disturbances in 2015, and, third, the issue of fees and affordability. This last goal was, and continues to be, completely outside the control of the university.

On the first point, UCT, over many years, has made every reasonable attempt to rectify the injustices of the Apartheid era.  A Deputy Vice-Chancellor’s office for transformation has been established; innumerable working groups and committees – with student, faculty and senior administrative representation - established to support transformation, address issues of alleged racism, bring curricula into line with the UCT’s African identity and reality; affirmative action protocols established at every level of the academic body (from undergraduate students, through post-grads, and faculty appointments), in-sourcing of non-academic workers; and “decolonization” of the university and its curriculum; and so the list goes on.  

It must be noted, with regard to the alleged “institutional racism”, that not a scintilla of evidence has been adduced to support this charge (see, too, Habib on alleged racism at WITS, and how that was dealt with – Daily Maverick, December 3, 2017)

(4) At what point should negotiations be regarded as futile

Price and his senior executive have been intermittently negotiating with various groupings and individual protesters for almost three years.

Throughout, campus has been intermittently shuttered, students and faculty alike subjected to violent intimidation and abuse, property defiled, multiple arson attempts (including, most recently, on the examination tent city itself) committed, and a pervasive siege-like atmosphere suffered by all who call UCT home.

Estimates of the number of students actually involved in the violent protests are difficult to come by, but most observers place the figure at somewhere between one and three hundred. That 300 (at most) of a total student population of 29,000 or thereabouts have crippled a major university’s ability successfully (or, “with integrity”, to use Price’s term) to conclude three consecutive academic years is astonishing and appalling.

Price’s persistent dedication to negotiations, in the face of absolutely no evidence of their effectiveness, is mystifying, as is his well-known reluctance to involve the SAPS and the local judicial structures (it has been reported that the latest interdict from the Western Cape High Court was sought only after two senior academics threatened to resign were it not – GroundUp) in trying to control the thugs and hooligans who have made UCT intermittently dysfunctional, and violated the rights of the overwhelming majority of students to study and learn in peace.

The cost of the unrest is inestimable.  In addition to the financial costs of infrastructure damage (at least a portion of which is uninsured), at least three High Court interdicts (probably close to million Rand) tens of millions of Rand spent on private security, and the millions of Rand it must have cost to erect the tent city this year, one cannot ignore the reputational damage that has been wrought – the as yet unascertained losses incurred by well-qualified (and deep pocketed) potential students electing to seek their education abroad in stable environments. 

Finally, the undeniably significant costs attendant on semester abroad foreign students (who pay full fare, or more, in foreign currency), who see what’s occurring and elect to give UCT a miss.

Donors tend to support institutions they believe are competently governed, and will vanish as they see, year after year, UCT’s management seemingly incapable of dealing with an appalling situation (donations from UCT alumni living in the United States fell 13% year-to-year  - 2015/2016, and it wouldn’t surprise to see those donations fall much more steeply this year, and going forward.)

Not to be forgotten or ignored are the effects on faculty, many of whom have been subjected to vicious verbal and physical abuse. Price himself has been assaulted on at least three occasions, and his office torched last year. 

Inevitably, morale declines, and those able (usually the most senior and experienced teachers and researchers) to obtain positions elsewhere, leave, or simply retire early.

The ineluctable conclusion is that Price’s almost three-year-long dedication to “engagement” with, and appeasement of (some would use the term “capitulation” to) the protesters has been a demonstrable and tragic failure, and has probably contributed to an atmosphere of impunity, which some protesters have taken as constituting “open season” for hooliganism and thuggery.

In light of the fact that violence and disruptions continue, but also being mindful of the fact that “the troubles” at UCT are a complex brew of political, personal, racial and philosophical agendas, it is clear that now is the time to reappraise Price’s ongoing commitment to “engagement” and, more especially, the choice of groupings and individuals with whom he has elected to negotiate.

Price retires next year.  One can only hope that fresh leadership will look, listen and learn from three years of a demonstrably failed policy.