I am conflicted. Seriously conflicted. I have been at the University of Cape Town since 1974, as a student, postgraduate and academic; I have been here through the unrest periods of 1976, the 1980s, the 1990s, and now the 20teens.
And never before have I felt as alienated or depressed about being here as I do now.
Seriously: even though I demonstrated in 1976, 1985 and in the 1990s, and agonised about leaving in 1990 (saved by Mandela being released), it was not my institution that was the problem – and now it is.
To describe why, I must describe the context: this is of an institution that is the oldest western-style university in Africa, one of the oldest in the southern hemisphere, and which leads Africa as a teaching and research facility. It is also run by well-meaning liberals, albeit largely white, and male, who were revolutionaries in their time, and remain committed to a non-racial, egalitarian University.
So what could go wrong? Well, factor in a disaffected student movement that doesn’t quite know what it wants, but wants it NOW, however unrealistic it is, and a liberal administration that would like to be protesting with them but isn’t allowed to – and you may begin to see the problem.
Back in the middle of 2015 a movement started seemingly out of nowhere, dedicated to getting rid of the seated statue of Cecil John Rhodes below Residence Road, between Smuts and Fuller Halls of residence. Now let it be said that very few actually opposed this: while Cecil had been central to Upper Campus since the 1930s, he was a gift of an eponymous Trust, and was rather wished on the University. His awkward sitting position also gave rise to the legends that either he was suffering from severe piles, or that he was obliged to rise when he saw a virgin – but that he was never quite sure if one had ever passed him by.
Be this as it may, the #RhodesMustFall movement gathered momentum very quickly, sparked by a very strange protest involving a half-naked longtime undergrad student, a drum, a protective helmet, and a container of human waste from a portable toilet. His protestations of pain and alienation – very conveniently covered by film and media crews – sparked a movement that spread across the country and even to Oxford, where a Rhodes scholar was moved to demand the removal of a bust of Rhodes at Oriel College, and to justify his having the scholarship as a defiant act involving taking back the money stolen from his ancestors. He subsequently thought it amusing to participate in the abuse of a poor waitron at a Cape Town restaurant, and is now apparently a junior UCT academic, but this is incidental.
So Rhodes fell – due to a decision by UCT Senate ratified by Council, that was remarkable for the fact that so few people opposed the motion. And which rather bemused the #RMF protesters, who had immediately assumed that we needed to be forced into doing it, and had in fact been involved in some very intimidatory demonstrations in support of their cause.
And there’s where we should have been warned. The children of Tutu’s Rainbow Nation, the “born free” generation of post-1994 South Africa, were increasingly becoming stridently confrontational and even racist in their dealings with what was in fact a fuzzy-mindedly liberal administration, sympathetic to their cause – and which seemed to have no idea what to do about them.
So things bumbled on until late 2015, when University of the Witwatersrand students – Wits to those of us too lazy to do the whole thing – started the #FeesMustFall movement, which was aimed at stopping any fee increases for the following year. One by one student groupings at the other major academic institutions jumped on the bandwagon, and this time managed to force most of these to close, for a month or more. Given that we in the south write exams at the end of calendar years, this was extremely disruptive to the academic process, and in addition, huge damage was done by rampaging mobs of “students” at a number of institutions. UCT seemed to have adopted a policy of negotiating with anyone who stepped up with demands, and to go to endless lengths to appease a constantly changing spectrum of radicals with often ill-formed and intemperate opinions.
I asked our Senate at the end of 2015 why we did not simply gauge support of the amorphous groupings – who were determinedly anarchistic in having no discernible hierarchies – by means of our sophisticated online polling system, which has the capability of both requiring a validated institutional login, and then delivering an anonymised response. I got no decent response then, or early in 2016 when I asked again.
Fast forward to the end of 2016, when it started all over again – with a twist. This time, emboldened by the fact that they had apparently cowed the State President into announcing there would be no fee increases at universities in 2016, they had a new demand: no fees at all.
Inevitably, this sparked demonstrations and intimidation of students who did not join the protests; again, it descended into racial abuse and profiling of academics as automatically being reactionary and racist; then it spun into a movement to “decolonise” the universities and their teaching curricula. While this seemed a valid idea on the surface, the fuzziness of the concept of decolonisation especially as it pertained to the teaching of science, made it difficult to engage with – and the racism inherent in the concept that white people were responsible for the phenomenon made it even more so.
With the downward spiral of demonstration-reaction-counter-reaction has come universities that are either formally closed or effectively closed, where gangs of students roam seemingly unfettered, intimidating their colleagues and those staff still trying to teach. At UCT this has been less violent and less destructive than some other campuses; however, so too have our administration seemingly been more lenient and more accommodating of the endless transgressions and endless lists of constantly changing demands. I have asked since, by email, why we do not formally poll our students and staff, when the institution has been deluged with individual polls and Faculty surveys which have shown overwhelming support for an end to disruptions and a return to normality – with no reply. We still have no formal institution-run survey of staff and student opinions on the matter.
We have been away, my academic and personal partner Anna-Lise and I, for much of the recent shenanigans, which has been good both for my blood pressure and levels of anguish. However, today I undid all this good work by going to an extraordinary UCT Senate meeting, called for the purpose of getting the UCT Senior Leadership Group to take control of our campuses, and end the violence and intimidation.
To attend was to immediately get sucked into a vortex of well-meaning but fuzzy ultraliberalism and in some cases semi-incomprehensible ultraleftism, which decried “militarisation” of our campus, while simultaneously crying out against the abuse of non-participating students and of academic and non-academic staff. We had staff who identified so closely with students that they tried to bring the demands of the nebulous grouping calling themselves the “Shackville TRC/SRC Candidates” or somesuch, to Senate – even to the point of relaying an implicit threat of disruption if Senate refused to hear them. We had impassioned flights of rhetoric decrying the brute intimidation by the protesters; we had endless comments that the proposed motion was unworkable / could never work – against a background of a motion solidly rooted in respect for the Rule of Law, which all of the apologists seemed to regard as being invalid.
I wanted to contribute, but didn’t trust myself to remain coherent while my heart was fluttering and my hands were shaking. In any case, my points were well made by other people – including that protesters should REALLY be kept out of certain buildings, because they were very well stocked with dangerous chemicals and machinery, and that the research enterprise at the University was at serious risk.
In the end, and despite much hand-wringing and apparent attempts to derail the vote, an abbreviated version of the motion was passed, asking the VC and team to attempt to regulate protest activity so that life could go on. This, against a background of chanting and singling outside the venue, apparently by “Fallist” demonstrators who had demanded – and been refused – entry.
We exited the Senate meeting through a gauntlet of uniformed security, keeping us separated from a small band of dancing and chanting protesters. I thanked the security guard at the door, and was immediately abused by a man outside the door as “a white male professor who speaks to security like they are friends”. I went nose to nose with him, but he restrained himself to gesturing in my face, so I forced a laugh, and went on. He went on to abuse the Dean of the Health Sciences Faculty, who seemed to be used to it, as a traitor and a white puppet as we all walked away.
That is the first time in all my years at UCT that I have ever suffered any racial abuse. It is also the first time that I have seriously questioned the wisdom of staying here, when I have had several opportunities to leave and have not. We stayed, Anna-Lise and I, because we thought things had changed so much for the better in 1990 with the release of Mandela, and that after 1994 that we could make a difference in the new nation. We thought we had done so, too – until the new ultraleft youth dismissed us contemptuously as “white privilege”, and in need of decolonisation.
It’s probably too late to leave now. But for the first time since 1990, I want to. And that makes me very depressed.