Publication subsidies in South Africa – another view

Professor David Hedding from the distance-learning hub that is the University of South Africa, recently published a “World View” editorial in Nature decrying what he calls the “publication payouts” that are given by SOME South African universities to their staff, and suggests that

“…if South Africa hopes to drive innovation, it must stop publication payouts — they are the enemy of research quality”.

In explanation of how this all works, these payments derive from subsidies paid to those universities by SA’s Department of Higher Education and Training (DoHET). These subsidies are proportional to the number of peer-reviewed research publications published in DoHET-accredited journals, were set up as part of a Government Statute, and are intended to reward and to support research at those universities.

Note my emphasis on SOME universities: payments directly to individual academics / researchers is by no means a universal practice; the University of Cape Town, which is the leading research university on South Africa by several objective criteria, does not do this at all – as our Vice-Chancellor was quick to point out on Twitter recently.

Granted, the DoHET subsidy is a blunt instrument, as Hedding makes clear: it does not differentiate between minor local journals and prestigious international publications; it discriminates between local South African and foreign authors by not recognising contributions by the latter, which effectively lessens the “publication units” calculated as accruing to a given institution if many of its publications have international collaborators on them.

However, Hedding makes a number of claims in his piece that misstate the findings of a peer-reviewed publication from UCT, and that reiterate claims made by opponents of publication subsidy that are either simply wrong, or very sweeping in their scope. For example, he makes the argument that inter-institutional and international collaborations are discouraged because of potential loss of subsidy, and cites the findings of this UCT article in support:

“…an informal study of more than 800 articles published by health-science researchers at the University of Cape Town found a negative correlation between subsidies and both citation counts and field-weighted citation impact”.

This subtly misstates the conclusion of my colleagues’ article, which simply found that there was a positive correlation between number of international authors on a paper, with its citation count and field-weighted impact – and that the subsidy formula as it presently exists may penalize the high-citation articles that are most often the result of wide and desirable collaboration, without there being a link between subsidy and lower citation counts as he implies.

He also repeats as facts statements that seem to have undue credence among administrators – possibly because they were stated by senior SA academics in at least one article in the South African Journal of Science – such as

Some researchers salami-slice their research to spread it across more papers. Others target low-quality journals that are deemed less demanding…”.

This MAY happen for researchers who have no incentive or possibly no ability to publish high quality work in good journals, and who get personally rewarded by their institutions for such publications; however, given that this would negatively impact their promotion prospects, it is not a good long-term strategy for anyone. It is also very easy for the institutions that reward academics personally from the subsidy to discourage this strategy for self-enrichment at the cost of scientific quality. All  they have to do is apply some metrics based on the relative international standing of the journals, or the field-weighted article citation impacts, and sub-standard publications will rapidly lose their appeal. Thus, the immediate support of our own VC for Hedding’s viewpoint may have been premature, given the simplistic nature of his straw man.

Hedding goes on to suggest that publication subsidies be used to support postgraduate student fellowships, and to extend and develop in-depth researcher-evaluation programmes.

While support of postgrads is always a good idea – and our institutions probably do not do nearly enough in this regard – it is meaningless without support of the researchers who provide their research projects, who are earning the universities money from publications they may well have had to pay page charges for, on work that they had to scrape for money to do in the first place. Moreover, supporting a postgrad student working with someone who doesn’t have the money to support their project is completely pointless.

As for researcher evaluation, this is something that is already done at just about any research-intensive institution I can think of as well as by the National Research Foundation – so embellishing this infrastructure does not seem to be very good use of research publication subsidy. Moreover, Hedding’s claim that the NRF researcher rating

“…programme has done much to boost productivity and, more importantly, quality in South African research

is not borne out by their funding schemes, which go mainly to ring-fenced initiatives such as the SA Research Chairs Initiative and National Centres, then competitive funding calls, rather than to rated researchers. Thus, rating is a paper reward for existing excellence rather than an incentive to achieve excellence, and the level of funding to recognised researchers was always minor compared to a competitive grant – and, as he notes, now is not given at all.

What I disagree with above all, though, is Hedding’s statement that

“…if South Africa hopes to drive innovation, it must stop publication payouts”.

This negates the very purpose of research publication subsidies, which were explicitly intended by the SA Government to support research. It is not the subsidies that are the problem; rather, it is how they are used by the recipient institutions.

For example, my institution – UCT – produced ~1700  “publication units” in 2016 and will receive around R122 000/unit as publication subsidy for a total of  R207 million in 2019. This money conveniently “loses its memory” – a direct quote from a senior finance officer – after entering the University’s financial system, and is thereafter not directly used for supporting research. For example, I have calculated that just 10% of this money would be sufficient to support Open Access publication costs – for the sake of argument, R12 000/article – for ALL of UCT’s peer-reviewed publications in recent years, given an output of ~1700 publication units/yr. The present level of support by UCT for OA / article costs is nothing like that; consequently, UCT authors see little incentive to publish OA despite a stated position of support for such mode of publication by the University, and by funding bodies.

Something Hedding does not mention at all, however, is that there is also considerable subsidy given to SA universities by DoHET for graduated Masters and PhD students. One graduated PhD student is worth ~R360 000, for example, and one MSc-by-dissertation around R120 000 to UCT in any given year (figures for 2019). I am not aware of any institution that rewards academics for income derived from their students graduating; however, the subsidy formula for an institution takes in publication count AND student graduations as part of an integrated package of support – so reward for one should surely mean reward for the other too?

Accordingly, application of a policy whereby researchers who publish work of a given quality are rewarded in their research funds with a significant fraction of the subsidy accruing to the University from that publication, as well as a fraction of the income derived from their students graduating, would go a long way to fulfilling the intention of the subsidy. It would also offset some of the expenses incurred by researchers, including some of their running costs, and in particular financial support of postgrads and publication costs.

As an example, it costs my group >R150 000 per annum to fund the running costs of a single postgrad student project, and probably another R50 000 – R100 000 to support them personally in addition to whatever (generally insufficient) bursary they may receive. As far as the Government subsidy to the University of R360 000 per graduated PhD student and R120 000 per MSc graduate is concerned, given ~4 yrs per PhD project each PhD student brings in R90 000/yr, and a MSc student R63 000/yr per 2-yr project. One publication unit per year – which is a reasonable output per senior PhD student in my group – also brings in R120 000; thus, a PhD student might earn the University R210 000 per annum WITHOUT considering fees, which are ~R35 000/yr. This is roughly the same as the annual cost of a single PhD project to the senior researcher paying for it – and could thus completely fund a postgrad student for both subsistence and research costs, if the subsidies were used to directly defray research costs.

As it is, as group leaders in a Research Unit that produces an average of 10 publications units/yr, I and my two colleagues TOGETHER receive ~R36 000 total/yr from the so-called Faculty Block Grant fund – against publication subsidy income of ~R1 million, and expenditure on publications of up to R90 000/yr that are not covered by UCT OA/APC refunds. Moreover, the University receives PhD / MSc student subsidy for people in my group of 2xPhD + 6xMSc = R560 000. Thus, we generate ~R1.6 million/yr for our University in research-related activities, against a research-reward income from the University of ~R36 000 – and note that this is NOT counting any overheads or other charges paid by us to the institution from research grants, which could be substantial, or patent or licence income from our IP to UCT.

Therefore, while Hedding’s points may be valid when considering ONLY those institutions that pay researchers DIRECTLY for publications in DoHET-recognised journals, they are not valid for research-intensive Universities that do not do this, or who use a proportional-return system that goes into a researcher’s University-administrated funds. It is true that predatory journals are attracting South African authors, and money is being siphoned off from subsidies for these articles – however, DoHET and others are aware of this, and steps are being taken to counter the tendency. He has also completely missed mentioning student subsidies, which are also a substantial income to universities. Consequently, I would like to make the point that publication and postgraduate student subsidies are an extremely valuable, but misused resource – and that universities need to learn to use them for the purpose for which they were intended, rather than having Government and DoHET rethink the concept of the subsidies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Water saving at UCT

Despite the fact that we are in what is rapidly becoming a MONUMENTAL water crisis here in Cape Town, and folk are bleating about mass closures of schools, businesses and yes, Universities, at my place of work we do not seem to be doing very much at all. There is no thought of grey water recycling; toilets flush long and voluminously; water flows under the place I park my car unfettered by any thought of collection.

Why is this? Why are we so laggardly, in an institution with a Future Water Institute, and with some of the more imaginative engineers in the country?

I don’t know. What I do know is that on our Upper Campus, we have what amounts to one of the biggest consolidated rainwater collecting surfaces under the control of one administration – and it’s often either flat, and/or has convenient downpipes coming off all roofs.

Link to http://www.arkimages.com/?attachment_id=371

Simply rerouting flow from existing downpipes into cheap large-volume storage tanks should be easy – and given that 2 cm of rain in my dog’s bowl translates into 1 000 litres of rainwater from a 50 m2 roof at my home, 5 – 10 kL tanks should be standard everywhere.

That means we have the opportunity to collect an unprecedentedly large volume of runoff from even modest rains – which could be reasonably easily plumbed into circuits for toilets, for example. Given the economies of scale that work at the size of this establishment, and the presence of the engineers and Institute mentioned earlier, UCT could even purify it and supply it to taps.

I have suggested we pool resources in our building – Molecular Biology – and see if we can provide some tanks for rainwater NOW. It would be a good start.

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I always wonder if I’m going to come back

From anaesthetics: I really do wonder, as I fade away into that fuzzy darkness, whether I’ll come back this time.

I’ve had a fair bit of practice, you see: I was counting them up prior to my last adventure in an operating theatre, and I got to fourteen times that I’ve had general anaesthetics, so far.

Fourteen times I’ve counted to ten, or as far as I’ve got before darkness claims me – again.

The first time I could only have been nine or so, in Lusaka General Hospital having my adenoids out, because “That will help your breathing”. Because I breathed loudly, and though my mouth – or so I was told. What I remember most about that time was that there was a delay in taking me through to theatre, and I got so thirsty I was going to sneak off and drink from a tap – and eat toothpaste, because I was seriously hungry too.

Waking up from that was interesting, because my top lip was swollen out like a duck’s beak: a clamp holding my mouth open had slipped, and cut right through the side of my lip, and my throat felt as though it was on fire. I also remember my younger brother lying, still deeply unconscious, with a gobbet of yellow-green mucus crawling out of his nose, after the tonsillectomy he had had just after me. I vividly remember the continuing pain from my throat, the ice cream did little to help, and no-one seemed to want to give me decent pain relief. I still have the scar that they gave me: I used to joke about it being from an attack by a guy with a knife.

The next time I was fourteen, and at boarding school in Zimbabwe. I had managed to break my nose against my own knee while practicing being a hooker in a scrum for the Under 14 B rugby side at St George’s College in Harare. It had been decided above my head that I needed my nose straightened, and “It will help with your breathing”. I walked myself the 5 km or so to hospital to check in – no lifts or taxis – and I was alert right up to the needle going in, and then heard my own voice fade away as the world softly went dark – and then I was awake and in serious pain, with both nostril stuffed full of gauze. A nurse would come and pull it out, half a metre at a time, which created the most exquisite agonies you can imagine. Two days of that, and then I had to walk back to school, nose swollen to three times its size, sinuses full of blood – to get a month off rugby, with no painkillers in sight. My nose is still slightly crooked, and it didn’t help my breathing.

I managed to stay away from anaesthetists for another fifteen years or so, until one day while at work at the University fo Cape Town, PhD newly in the bag, I noticed a little blood in my urine. I got a friend who had been a medical tech in the SA Army to look at it under a microscope, and he confirmed blood. I confidently self-diagnosed myself with bilharzia – I mean, I’d been swimming in every major river and dam in south-central Africa by that time, and had previously been treated for it – and went off to see a newly-minted urological specialist at Groote Schuur Hospital for a consult to confirm.

It took my new friend about forty minutes of the consult to realise I wasn’t medical, and then cautiously took command, and decreed that I should have a cystoscopy. I was not happy when I found out that this entailed having a stainless steel pipe pushed up my urethra; why couldn’t he just do a rectal snip like the last time, I asked? Because you’re bleeding into your bladder, he said, and I reluctantly checked myself in for what was supposed to be an in-and-out, one day stay. I recall being wheeled in to theatre dressed in one of those horrible gowns; it was cold and I was wide awake – because I was not a fan of sedation. Lots of joking around, then I was counting to ten as the lights faded…and I woke up in the semi-dark, in a corridor, freezing under a thin blanket. After what seemed like an age, my cheery surgeon loomed over me, and said: “You want the good news, or the bad news?”

He didn’t in fact let me choose, before he went on with “The bad news is, you had a tumour in your bladder. The good news is, we think we burned it all out!” He nodded cheerily, said “See you later, hey?!” and left me in the corridor – with what I realised dimly was a drip in my arm, and a catheter inserted up my urethra.

That one-day visit turned into four days and nights in hospital, with me with a catheter in to allow bladder wall healing, in a backless gown because I’d brought nothing with me, until friends took pity on me a couple of days in when they’d found out where I was. I learned from my specialist that I had had a “Well-differentiated basal cell papillary carcinoma”, and that he had managed to “fulgurate it”, as well as take a biopsy. I learned that having a catheter in was nothing like as uncomfortable as having a catheter taken out, and that some screaming while urinating was quite normal for a couple of days afterwards. The prognosis was all good, however, and check-ups were scheduled for a year’s time – until I got a phone call three months later, just as aI was about to head off to Belgium for three months academic leave to learn how to do molecular biology. It was my now private practitioner surgeon friend, saying they’d made a mistake in the preliminary during-op diagnosis in the path lab, that it turned out from the written report that it was in fact a poorly differentiated basal cell carcinoma, and would I make an appointment ASAP for another cystoscopy? There I was again, then, in a silly gown, with a catheter to protect a newly-biopsied bladder, after swimming back through the darkness – at least in a private hospital this time.

That was the rhythm of my life, set for the next two years: three-monthly cystoscopies with accompanying general anaesthetic, with me refusing any pre-op sedatives because they gave me a horrible hangover, and scheduling everything else around my hospital visits. Then the three-monthlies became two six-monthlies, then one a year later, then…I was told I had been clear for two years, that there was no trace of recurrence, and I wouldn’t need another of those damned procedures. By this time I had met and got together with Anna-Lise – who had been warned by her family not to get close to me, because I was probably going to die sometime soon – and was slowly warming to the idea that I might not die in the near future, and could actually start planning to be around a while.

I was good for close to another twenty years without needing a general, it turned out – until that fateful day in 2006 that I went to an ENT specialist to get an opinion on what to do about my snoring. Which Anna-Lise, having got married to me in the mean time, was worried had developed into sleep apnoea, and was in any case ruining her nightly rest even if she slept in the lounge. I think “heroic” was the word for it: audible from the other side of the house and from down the stairs, and interrupted by ominously silent periods of no breathing at all.

The enthusiastic ENT man turned out to be an old acquaintance from my UCT Mountain & Ski Club days, and I was happy that he seemed to be very clued up on possible solutions. The best of which, it seemed, was a procedure called a uvulopalatopharyngoplasty, which involved cutting away the flappy bit at the back of my mouth, tightening up the tissues in my pharynx, oh, and “removing your tonsils, shaving your turbinates and correcting your deviated septum” to boot. Which, it would appear, would improve my breathing through my nose. You see a pattern here?

All this was scheduled for a Friday afternoon in February 2007, and all went well until I met the anaesthetist – who was not the person scheduled to do the op, but “I’ve worked with him before, and he’ll be fine”, I was told. Again we do the count; again, I watch the world fade away – and wake to a ferociously sore throat, and both nostrils packed with what looked like tampons, right down to the strings hanging out. I get told that I’m in the medical rather than the surgical ward, because they ran out of space, and “Doctor has scheduled some morphine; I’ll give you some now, and tell us when you need some more?” I get the first shot, and it’s instant relief. I eat some jelly, and I’m watching the Super 14 rugby at 7 or so that evening after a wifely visit, and the ward sister asks me if I want my morphine now? The pain is beginning to grind again, so I say, “Yes, sure, if he said so?” I get a shot, pain ebbs away, and I feel my eyes closing….

I like telling people that I woke up dead. In fact, what happened is that a passing ward sister noticed me lying at an angle in bed, with my face blue – and not breathing. It was pure luck she looked in, because I wasn’t in the surgical ward, and they don’t check to see if medical patients are breathing very often – and this is why I later hear that it’s a REALLY bad idea to go into hospital on a Friday afternoon – it’s also just after shift change, and weekend staff complement is lower than weekday. She calls for emergency resuscitation, and because my chart shows a 15mg hit of morphine a little earlier, they administer the antidote, and – nothing. They intubate me and rush me to Intensive Care, and – nothing. I was non-responsive, right down to that nasty reflex test they do on the sole of your foot with a sharp probe. So it comes to pass that Anna-Lise gets called at 1 am or so, and is told “There’s been a bit of problem with your husband, and he’s not where you left him…” – so she panics for a couple of hours, then eventually drives herself to the hospital and comes to Intensive Care, to find a couple of very grim-faced medics standing around me, and me there stuffed full of tubes and drips, and lying very, very still.

I was, of course, blissfully unaware of any of this. There was never any circle of light to go towards, or away from; no heavenly voices – nothing, except the world having faded away while the Blue Bulls were staging a late come-back in their match with the Stormers. And then, suddenly, I come back: I seem to awake abruptly from anaesthetics; this time, it was zero to full awareness in a second or two, to find myself in the half-dark, with what looked like three of the Four Horsemen of the Hospital Apocalypse standing grimly at the foot of my bed. And me full of tubes, and things going beep around me, and a sister saying “Doctor, I think he’s awake??” Turns out the three horsemen were the ENT guy, the anaesthetist, and a neurologist – there to tell everyone whether I was brain-dead or not.

I recall beckoning for a notepad, and writing “What the FUCK happened to me??” Anna-Lise, who was hovering nervously near me, burst into tears, then there was general confusion – and the anaesthetist melted away, never to be seen again by me, or anyone close.

Oh, there was much ass-covering, and blaming morphine sensitivity, and delays in getting records, and – but basically, I got overdosed on morphine that I should not have received at all, given that it depresses breathing, and this is NOT what you want after an ENT op. I ended up with a raging throat infection thanks to being intubated on top of fresh wounds, and literally couldn’t function for a couple of weeks. This notwithstanding, my surgeon seemed eager to get me back to work, without any management whatsoever of me or any problems that may pitch up. I went back to work far too soon, in retrospect, because although my throat may have recovered, I had been hard hit by oxygen deprivation. Harder hit than I knew, although Anna-Lise noticed pretty much immediately: effectively no short-term memory, no sense of where I was, a really short temper…. And I repeat, with no management whatsoever, other than visits I organised to my GP and to a neurologist.

I could have sued, I suppose, once I finally got the medical records, and they showed how much morphine I’d had, in just a few hours. However, my ex-brother-in-law, himself an anaesthesiologist, said to me: “What would you want to get? They’ll drag it out as long as they can, you’d have to admit you’re damaged, and what would that do to your career?”

I agreed, reluctantly. I think I’ve got back to being fully functional in the last ten years – I’ve always forgotten people’s names and appointments, and that’s only slightly worse now, and my internal compass has returned, so I know where I am most of the time – and I’ve compensated for memory lapses by rigorously using a cellphone and an iPad as auxiliary memory. I’ve lost nothing in terms of scientific interpretation and memory of what I’ve read, although I do ask people to email me confirmation of anything I agree to in conversation – because if it’s not repeated in print, it’s often as if it never happened. I also find it hard to recognise people I’ve met since 2007 – so if I string out a conversation and act vague, it’s because I’m desperately searching for cues as to how I know you.

I really don’t trust anaesthetists any more – which accounts for why, during my latest encounter with someone wielding a knife, I flatly refused a general anaesthetic, or deep sedation. That adventure was a basal cell carcinoma removal from my nose, which knocked me way worse than I though it should, and still needs clean-up. Oh, I joke about it, saying “I could only afford half a nose job”, or “It was a big guy with a knife – I was helpless!” – but when it dawned on me that I hadn’t had the path result back yet, and people were asking me in a concerned way what the prognosis was, I was close to panic. It’s OK, though; it was all got out, and if you’re going to have BCC, mine was about as good as it can be. Although a little large – meaning my nose is probably ruined forever.

And you know what? I still snore. Possibly not as heroically as I did, but my breathing still isn’t what other people think it should be. And I think I’m going to be OK with that.

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Baby Steps in a Spacesuit: the Good, and the Bad AND Ugly.

Two book reviews here – both offerings I bought via Amazon for the Kindle app on my iPad. And two VERY different opinions.

Treasure Planet (Man-Kzin Wars Series offshoot Book 2) (Kindle Edition)

This book is purportedly a standalone contribution to the Man-Kzin Wars series that I have been following ever since the first one came out, and I was looking forward to it given the high quality of every other one I had read.

Well, that was a few dollars and a few hours wasted, then!

There are a number of things wrong with the book, and only a very few things right.

The first and most glaring fault is that it reads like a bastard offspring of RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island and a Poul Anderson rip-off: Kzin talking like Old Earth pirates, really?? Right down to oo ar matey and shiver my timbers, almost, AND characters like Long John Silver transplanted lock, stock and pegleg into Niven’s Known Space Universe.

Another uncomfortable aspect was the almost random mixture of technologies throughout the book: cutlasses and blasters, high-end self-powering teaching nanotech and having to run around on foot?? No cell-type phones for Wunderlanders, while Kzin seemed to have them, which necessitated people riding around on horses to call for help???

The plot also had holes big enough enough to run an adult kzin through. About the least bad was crew selection, which of course necessitated a flimsy excuse for hiring just about a whole pirate crew – no background checks in Known Space, guys?? And seriously, a tech hoard find like the one described – with transfer discs a la puppeteers – wouldn’t have made an impact in the Known Space timeline as we know it?

The ONLY saving grace in what is effectively a badly-written kids’ book was the description of the library hardware and training software, and the construction of the alien written language – and that was incongruous when laid up against the juvenility of the rest of it. That’s some money and some time I’ll never get back.

AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers (Kindle Edition)

This was a great book – which I say as an African myself, who has been reading SF since 1966, and who is an avid aficionado of the short story form of the genre.

Seriously: the very varied content and styles of the stories, the reflections of future Africa, were hugely inspiring, and I would encourage any serious fan of SF to dip into this offering. I really enjoyed picking up on the Africa I know – central and south – being served up to me as new and fresh, right down to the slang and the kinds of characters I have known for so many years.

I’m looking forward to the next one B-)

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Chapter 5. Yambuku.

5

The old man sat on his throne – a repurposed helicopter pilot’s seat – inside the gloom of a large round hut. He wore a triple necklace of sealed ampoules in rough cloth pouches, sewn onto a hide band. He fingered these gently as the prisoner was roughly hauled before him, then forced to his knees by the young men holding his arms. This one was panting and looking around wildly, eyes wide in his sweating face. All he had on was a sleeveless khaki vest and bush camouflage pants; fatigue cap, jacket and boots had long since been redistributed to the old man’s followers.

 

The young man began to stammer an explanation in halting French, something to do with running away from his unit, trying to get home to Bukavu…the old man cut him short with a peremptory chop of his hand. “You came to steal”, he said, in the same language. The young man shook his head, started to speak. “Enough!” barked the old man. “You came to steal from my people, who have already lost everything. He leaned forward to gaze intently at the now terrified kneeling man, held very firmly by the silent young men, dressed only in loin cloths.

 

“You came to steal, because you heard the stories. You came because you thought we were weak, that we were scared”. He held up a hand again to silence the former rebel fighter. “You will find out how weak we are, my friend. You will find out – and you will be scared”. He sat back, then, and beckoned to behind the throne. A bulky figure loomed up out of gloom, with a full-face visored helmet, rubber apron, and elbow-length gloves. The old man inspected his necklace of ampoules. “This one”, he said, and held one up to the waiting figure. The helmeted figure came forward, gently took the ampoule. He carefully took the neck in the jaws of a pair of pliers he took from his apron, and cracked the neck. He went forward to the kneeling man, nodded to one of the young men behind him in the room. That one, also wearing gloves, stepped up behind the prisoner, took his head in both hands, and roughly tilted it back. The helmeted man deftly slipped the ampoule into the prisoner’s mouth as he involuntarily gasped, then the man holding his head pushed his jaw closed, and his head forward.

 

“Swallow”, said the old man. “Swallow, then show me your mouth is empty”. The prisoner gulped spasmodically a few times, then strained to open his mouth. The one behind him released his head, as the old man leaned forward to inspect that the ampoule was gone. He nodded, then beckoned to those restraining the prisoner. These let him stand up, and pulled him back. “You will stay with us some more days”, said the old man. “You will stay, then we will let you go back to your friends.” He gazed at him a moment. “You will tell them what happened, and that they must not come. They must not come, because they will die. Now take this thing away”, he said, with a dismissive wave to the guards. He sat back. As the prisoner stumbled out between his guards, he wondered what sickness this one would be.

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What do you say, when liberalism fails?

I have just attended my first University of Cape Town Convocation Annual General Meeting: the first, I will point out, since I was eligible to attend from during my first degree from here, in 1976.

It should have been exciting and joyous: instead, it was depressing, anxiety-inducing, infuriating – and an education in what happens when you let vicious, ignorant people loose to do what they want to, in an academic setting.

To set some background, Convocation meetings are usually (apparently) a fairly boring affair, attended by elderly folk who want to stay in touch with their alma mater.  There are also some 100 000 members of Convocation, given that ALL graduates and all staff are members – so you can see that any meeting would have only a very small fraction of members present.

However, on this specific occasion, attendance of the meeting was WAAAAAY up on the normal, and – according to one participant, who was moved to comment – was probably larger, and more diverse, than probably ever in its history.

This was possibly largely because my former long-time academic colleague, and now recently-retired alumnus Professor Tim Crowe, had taken it upon himself to propose a vote of no confidence in our Vice Chancellor Dr Max Price.

Knowing Tim – and I do, over more than 30 years – I know this was done on purely academic and principled grounds, because he was so anguished over the aparent failure of the UCT Executive to respond effectively to the provocations of the #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall and Shackville TRC and other protests at UCT from 2015 to 2016.

I did not support him in this, and told him and others so publicly of Anna-Lise’s and my opinions, via this blog – despite my not supporting Max Price and the Executive in some of their actions. This may appear somewhat contradictory, for I am sufficiently dismayed at what has been happening at my four-times alma mater (BSc, Hons, MSc and PhD) to express my anguish and possible desire to leave – but not supporting all of someone’s actions, and signing on to a motion of no confidence, are two different things.

So I went along to the Convocation AGM, and had my orange juice and snacks before the event – and met a considerable number of old friends and current colleagues – and went in a little early and secured my seat, for what I was sure was going to be an interesting, but possibly pretty turgid academic affair.

Oh, how wrong can you be? How very, very wrong.

Because it turned out that the student activists and their academic sympathisers had interpreted the  motion of no confidence in Max Price, as evidence of an elderly white right-wing attempt to torpedo what they saw as their hard-won agreement with the UCT Executive – which they were determined to defend at all costs.

So it was, with the President of Convocation giving his report back, that the hitherto fairly invisible silent protesters – I am told they were there, but unobtrusive – decided to storm to the front of the LT1 in the Kramer Building, and unfurl their placards, and demand to address Convocation.  Stentorian calls of “Cadres, come down cadres, come down!” were heard from one young activist, as the Chairperson, poor Professor Barney Pityana, wondered what to do. Said cadre also took a microphone, and demanded the right to address Convocation – and to his dismay, was shouted down by those present. Again, and again, and again. This HAS to to be be the first time this has happened in such a disruption, because he was quite disconcerted.


Not so disconcerted was the young cadre without her shirt on, who seemed to be revelling in her overexposure – prompting the person next to me to say “#BrasMustFall! –  but more of her later.


Now it turns out that most of what they were protesting on their placards was either way out of date – as in, outsourcing (solved) – or weirdly irrelevant (the sign being held up by topless person), or both out of date AND simply illiterate (“No student should be exculded as a result of historical debt”). However, they protested their chosen signs vigorously and vociferously, despite their apparently wanting the right to protest silently.

Seriously: the irony inherent in protesting loudly and vociferously in support of their rights to protest silently seems to have escaped them – but this was not the only irony.

Oh, we persisted with the meeting, once the cadres had finally agreed to be silent, with The Topless One taking delight in sitting on the desk in the front using her cell phone, while her fellow cadres loyally held their signs.  Professor Pityana managed to get through his report as Presdent of Convocation with only a few jeers from protesters – who, it turned out, had allies in the audience, including among staff – and then it was Max Price’s turn, as Vice-Chancellor, to report.

I think Max won some allies when he came up, because he firmly but respectfully asked to not be masked by the protesters, but to be visible to the audience. The Topless One decided this was impertinent, so she stood close beside him while he gave his report – which was mostly a paean to UCT’s excellence, research and otherwise. We really are an excellent University, if I say it myself as one involved in its research and teaching: best in Africa by a long way, highest number of rated researchers of any University in South Africa…but it did not matter to the young people.


Nothing, it seemed, mattered to the young people – except the disruption by any means of what they saw as the derailment of their agreement with the UCT Executive.

This became obvious when any discussion of the substantive first motion (of 3) in front of Convocation was disrupted by all means possible, right from when it was proposed.

Now I do not agree with Tim and Anna Crowe’s motion, and I made it clear to them and others both directly, and via this blog site: I think it was unnecessarily confrontational, and could have led to our University being unhelmed at a time when the ONLY member of the full-time Executive was Max Price. For the record: Acting DVC Anwar Mall just retired; DVC Research Danie Visser just retired; DVC Sandra Klopper’s contract was not renewed; DVC Francis Petersen will leave to be VC of University of the Free State. That leaves Kgethi Phakeng as brand-new DVC Research, and another brand-new DVC Transformation in Loretta Feris, who – with all due respect – have between them them less service at UCT than most junior people I know.

This does NOT mean I agreed with the policies our Executive followed from 2015 through 2016: I think they were far too lenient, and far too conciliatory, in dealing with amorphous fringe tendencies who took full advantage of their perceived immunity to sanction to become what we saw today.  It also means I condemn in the strongest terms the racist insults thrown the way of Tim and Anna Crowe  – including “Jim Crow!”, and “He’s a racist!” and “Someone who looks like they participated in apartheid” – by protesters and their supporters.

Who were a group of undisciplined, rude, confrontational and radicalised students and even staff, invading a hitherto august academic space, to dominate, marginalise and insult a community that they perceived as elderly, white, right wing and racist.

Truly: I was horrified at the overt, uncensored and gleeful way that these young people saw fit to use racist epithets, without any awareness of the irony or even oxymoronic way that they did so.

Consider: they were flinging racist insults at possibly the second most liberal assembly at UCT (after Senate), who were almost certainly not going to do what they thought we were going to, which was to censure Max Price.

I truly do not think this was going to happen, even after Tim and Anna Crowe managed – with considerable heckling – to propose their motion, and their single proper supporter and former SRC Chair Gwen Ngwenya supported them, despite VERY considerable interruptions from someone at the back who may or may not have been Chumani Maxwele of poo-flinging fame, as well as accusations of “not being black”, and “being a voice for white people”. Even Geoff Budlender, an old-time radical of note who opposed the motion, was heckled, by those too ignorant of history to know who might be on their side.

The fact is, we were not really given the chance to have either a proper debate, or even a vote on the issue. I think the following set of tweets I made capture succinctly what was happening at the time:


I note GroundUp has a very fair report on the meeting; this appears here, and Tim Crowe’s response to the whole affair here.

The protesters were almost unbelievably confrontational, even when faced with one poor person trying to tell her story of the earlier protests as part of the debate: mocking her openly, miming clown tears, cat-calling.  As it is, the whole thing was brought to an untidy end by a motion of closure proposed from the floor, to close the debate on a very clumsily-worded amendment to the motion, that appeared to be more of a personal attack on Max Price and Anwar Mall, and vote on the original motion. This was misunderstood by some VERY vociferous and highly disruptive folk – staff members as well as protesters – who seem not to have any idea of the rules of formal meetings, and attempted yet again to hijack proceedings to push their agenda. It succeeded nonetheless, by a margin of 100+ to 15 – and THEN the meeting dissolved into chaos. Shouting and pushing at the front, endless shouting from the aggrieved amender, students and supporters shouting objections to process – and brought to an end by Barney Pityana’s response of closing the meeting, to a student running down the desks in the theatre from far up behind who confronted him physically.

Altogether, it was a very sad and very unsatisfactory experience. The protesting students did not appear to perceive the contradiction inherent in their insisting on their right to silent protest, and then trying to force their interpretation of protocol on the meeting and its Chair; their apparent assumption that the Convocation was inherently racist and would torpedo their agreement with Max and the Executive was never allowed to be tested, despite the fact it would very probably have been proved wrong – because they disrupted the proceedings.

I have to say that Max impressed me deeply: he was calm, reasonable, conciliatory and facilitative – and firm with people who seemed bent on treating him with disrespect, to the point of insisting that they call him DOCTOR Price. The same cannot be said for Barney Pityana, who totally lost control of proceedings several times, and for the various other UCT functionaries present, who were just hapless.

The whole proceedings just affirmed for me the need to have decent security at such occasions – because I, and many others, sincerely do NOT want to feel threatened and intimidated at an occasion where we wanted to have a serious debate on the state of our University, and the conduct of its Executive. As it was, a considerable number of  people were vilified and insulted freely by racist youngsters, and I am sure left the meeting feeling as deeply disillusioned as I did.

I heard one youngster say, as I left, “There will be no UCT in 2017!”, to the great glee of her fellow cadres. I do hope that is not true – because it will affect her far worse than it will me.

And I leave you with this – because it sums up the evening for me:

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Why we should not vote against Max Price at Convocation

Next week (15th December 2016), UCT convocation will vote on a motion of no confidence in their Vice Chancellor (VC), Dr Max Price.  At UCT we have had a busy year of debate and student protests, with considerable disruption of academic life.  The situation that UCT found itself in was not in the control of UCT senior management, or even of any of the student groups. Many incidents of disruption and intimidation occurred that were unacceptable on many levels, and everyone became an armchair VC, all knowing what should have been done to change the university and to stop the protests.

However, the reality of the situation was that none of us knew which strategy would work, as we did not have a crystal ball to look into the future.  So the VC and his team negotiated with student groupings, signed a peace treaty, and got a court interdict to enable the exams to continue.  We can endlessly debate the merits of this strategy, but exams were written and the protests and disruptions largely stopped.  The negotiations worked – so to now have a vote of no confidence in Max Price serves no purpose, other than to second-guess him after the fact. The people proposing the vote in the Convocation should be careful what they wish for, and should be aware of what would happen if there is a vote of no confidence: Max Price is the only member of the present senior management team who will remain at UCT, next year.   In the year of Trump and Brexit, be aware that once this train is rolling there may be no stopping it, and UCT may well suffer.  We appeal to members of UCT convocation to give careful thought to their potential vote, and for members to participate in this process – and not censure Dr Max Price.

Professor Anna-Lise Williamson and Professor Ed Rybicki
University of Cape Town

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