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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About Ed Rybicki

Ed is a 60-ish virologist and biotechnologist, formerly a Zambian and presently a South African. He is into family, virology, biotechnology, science in general, science fiction in particular, photography, red wine, wearing loud shirts, 70s rock, blues and smooth jazz...and telling stories. Sometimes, interesting ones. And writing for his own amusement.
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6 Responses to What do you say, when liberalism fails?

  1. Vicki says:

    Not all staff are members of Convocation. Only academic staff.

  2. meg says:

    Ed, enjoyed reading your report. A few notes, if I may:
    — the problem is that black people can never be racist, because they have never racially oppressed another race.. only whites can be racist, because they HAVE oppressed other races. — This was explained to pale-pigmented students when they remarked that a student walking through campus wearing a “F*&< /Kill Whites" T-shirt was being racist.
    — The *effect* of continual reference to skin pigment does come across as RACIAL-ist.
    — The effect of continually referring to skin pigment is to divide and antagonise: this is why some describe identity politics (of race, gender) as a wedge issue, a divisive issue that leads to endless, bitter bickering. A distraction from the bigger issue of class and money.
    — If ADULTS at this meeting were upset by what transpired, imagine what the young TEENAGE students felt, when their lectures were constantly (sometimes aggressively) interrupted in similar manner? Many youngsters have ended up stressed, traumatised, rendered very anxious for their futures … the negative psychological effects on the broader student body hasn't been properly addressed by Max Price, nor the other adults in the room.
    — The university urgently needs to pull in many more psychological counsellors and get some kind of post-traumatic 'healing' discourse going, in order to give 2017 a fighting chance
    — The loudest students have been heard: it's like the noisiest wheel gets all the oil and attention, whilst the quieter ones are ignored. A small group of students have been heard loud and clear, while many others have been rendered silent – unsure, intimidated, ill-equipped, anxious.
    — UCT needs to pay attention: this situation risks making the campus a toxic, dysfunctional space which will continue to take a psychological toll on the mental health of young adults – not yet mature enough to handle the huge, angry country-wide eruption targeted at the tiny crucible of UCT's mountain campus.

    • Henri says:

      What a weird, delusional, definition of racism………

      • Ed Rybicki says:

        There is no definition of racism here, Henri – just an account of it being applied. Thickly and indiscriminately. So I’d read it a little better, if I were you, without the supercilious lenses of misguided moral superiority you seem to be using.

  3. Pingback: University of Cape Town: The zombies have taken over the institution – martinplaut

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