Top scientist asks black academics: What does ‘decolonised’ UCT look like?

Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe highlights some of the ingredients required to ensure a world-class university
Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe

It has proven very difficult for some academics to avoid getting swept up in the #FeesMustFall momentum sweeping South African campuses. Some lecturers, many barely older than the students and others given preference for transformational purposes rather than on the basis of research expertise, have joined the rallying call for universities to be “decolonised”. The term #decolonisation is viewed by many as euphemism for removing anything that looks like it is vaguely connected to a white person. Although apartheid came to an end about three decades ago and universities look different now, for many the changes have not gone far enough. The University of Cape Town’s Black Academic Caucus has publicly stated its commitment to free, decolonised education. But it’s not clear what this will look like or what plans are being put in place to ensure a viable alternative. For Emeritus Professor Timothy Crowe, a scientist respected by scholars around the globe, it is essential for those promoting a uniquely South African university education to adequately fill the void. He challenges these intellectuals to “set out the new ideas/approaches that will deliver solutions that will eradicate the long-standing socio-economic oppression of vast numbers of South Africans”. Crowe is unlikely to get answers based on in-depth research and scientific principles, however, as for now the rallying call looks a lot like extremists taking advantage of anti-white sentiment to further their own careers rather than act in the best interests of society. – Jackie Cameron

By Tim Crowe* 

What does the University of Cape Town (UCT) Black Academic Caucus (BAC) stand for and what has it delivered?

UCT_Upper_Campus_landscape_view

I wish to comment on the UCT Black Academic Caucus (BAC) statement on the intimidation, violence, destruction, ‘negotiations’, ‘decolonization’ and institutional racism at UCT in the order that items are presented.

  1. Given the reality that different South African universities have profoundly differing histories and current issues of contention, requiring a national multi-stakeholder solution is certain to delay progress massively.  herefore, it could be more effective to have both a national and multiple local discussions designed to address pandemic and locally peculiar challenges.
  2. Yes, the increasing securitisation is repugnant.  But, what other viable option for continued education/research is there if a small core of violent and destructive ‘protesters’ are, in fact, resolutely determined to stop the academic process regardless of results of multiple, seemingly endless ‘negotiations’? If the BAC is serious in condemning goalless protest in general and violence and destruction in particular, it should help to identify its perpetrators and counsel them.  If they persist in their unlawful activities, the BAC should support their arrest, detention, fair adjudication and, if necessary, punishment.  If it has credibility with genuine (seeking pragmatic short/medium/long-term transformational solutions) protesters, designated and protester-acceptable BAC representatives should be sitting side-by-side with elected protesters (empowered to negotiate) in negotiations with university executives and the government. If there are BAC representatives at the current negotiations, please reveal their identities.  If the BAC fails to participate actively while the massive “silenced” majority (encompassing all self-identified groups – unrepresented in ‘negotiations’) is prevented from legitimate association, study and research, it creates the impression that the BAC condones intimidation of ‘others’ and the shutting down of UCT.
  3. Much mention is made about the need to “decolonise” UCT.  However, what does “decolonisation” actually mean other than expurgation of putatively ‘offensive’ elements from curricula and the academic community? What makes ideas ‘offensive’ beyond the gender, age, ‘race’ and geographical provenance of their promoters? Who are the ‘crypto-colonist’ staff members that perpetuate them? What are the suppressed primordial, Afrocentric ideas that can withstand unfettered critical debate? Even more important, what are the new ideas/approaches that will deliver solutions that will eradicate the long-standing socio-economic oppression of vast numbers of South Africans? Perhaps I’m ill-informed.  If so, reveal the extant, relevant literature sources that promote the “development of decolonial thinking and practices”.
  4. Much mention is made about ‘white’-on-‘black’ (I abhor the need to use these descriptors) “institutional racism” at UCT.  However, where are the exposés revealing it and its perpetrators? The only alleged instances that I am aware of were dismissed after adjudication in mutually agreed-upon procedures.  In fact, one of the alleged accusers was sanctioned for defamation and instructed to apologize formally.  The other has steadfastly refused to subject himself to adjudication for ‘reverse racism’. There is no way that racism at UCT, or anywhere else, can be identified and dealt with unless it is demonstrated to occur. 
  5. I understand that the BAC was founded in 2012.  Please provide names and contact information for key members who are willing to engage with others outside the group, especially regarding “teaching, learning and the curriculum; staffing; research & postgraduate issues; and media & communications”.   I have contacted putative BAC members on such matters, but have been rebuffed or have received no reply. Could the secretariat of the BAC publicize the results of its “important and unique initiatives”, especially those that relate to the Fallist movements. This will confirm the BAC’s status as “an authoritative voice” within UCT.
  6. The Statement chronicles the BAC’s participation in “many student meetings and plenaries, participat[ion] in meetings with UCT management and important mediating role between students and faculty on the various campuses where occupations are taking place”.  What are the deliverables that resulted from these interactions?
  7. If the Fallists and BAC are correct in describing their Movements as spontaneous unstructured uprisings, why does the ‘Father’ of Fallism, Chumani Maxwele, describe them as “political projects” in his letter published in the Sunday Independent on 21 August 2016 in which he “identified” (but really didn’t) racists at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and “documented” their acts?  Why does the BAC call for “a political solution to protest activity” that will “harness political energies toward the ends of transformation”?  Please dissect the political elements (and sponsors) of the Movements from those that will lead to ‘adaptive decolonization’.
  8. Calls for “focusing on a restorative justice approach” are admirable.  However, restorative justice requires perpetrators of unlawful acts to: admit to them; show remorse; and interact constructively with the ‘victims’.  All that has been publicized on this are demands from ‘negotiators’ for rescinding action taken against lawbreakers.  There has been no mention of admission (or ‘contextualization’) of guilt, let alone showing remorse.  Indeed, some of the perpetrators continue to act unlawfully.  Can the BAC comment on this?
  9. Why should it be necessary of the UCT Executive and deans to “instruct” members of the BAC “to resume academic activities”? Given the position that the “BAC does not support the call for a continued shutdown of the university” and are “invested in our students and committed to seeing them complete their studies, now or in the future”, are they refusing to pursue their vocations over the next weeks because of the necessity of the “presence of police and private security” to prevent intimidation, destruction and unbridled violence? If BAC members violate their contractual obligations, are they not creating “consequences of an extended closure of our universities [that] are likely to be devastating for all students”?
  10. It is the suppression of unfettered debate, censorship of ideas/artwork, verbal/physical intimidation, reprehensible violence/destruction (including arson) and endless ‘non-negotiation’ culminating in ‘renegation’ that “appears to have become the ‘new normal’ at UCT.
  11. If “black students and staff are being monitored more closely and in some instances being targeted”, let’s have the names of the victims and their testimony against perpetrators.
  12. How does the extremely reluctant decision by the UCT Executive to employ the use of limited (clearly insufficient), fire-arm-free security personnel supplemented (also reluctantly) by (also inadequate) live-ammunition-free police constitute the “militarisation of our campus”?  Both the Executive and supervising police have said vociferously and repeatedly that UCT will not become another Marikana.  Describing UCT campuses as warzones only enflames the situation.  It’s been security personnel that have been attacked and hospitalized. It’s the anarchist elements of the protesters (probably not even members of UCT’s Community) that have perpetrated the “violence, destruction of property or intimidation”.  It’s the impoverished taxpayers that have to foot the bill for the damage.
  13. Why does the BAC describe itself as having to “continue to fight for a new university”?  Does this mean that they sanction the Fallist’s rejection of discussion and debate?  s the formal creation of a caucuses/groups/platforms/movements based on “race, disability, gender, sexuality, age, nationality, or ethnicity” necessary at UCT or anywhere? 
  14. Once again, the BAC calls for a “national restorative approach” but does not require lawbreakers to show remorse.  t describes, but nowhere documents “criminalisation of student protesters, the racial profiling of black students and black staff”.
  15. It uses the inflammatory term “epistemic violence” when describing “everyday discourses and debates”, when, in fact, it’s the Fallists who refuse to engage.
  16. Maybe “Rainbowism” is not the solution. However, isolation of the ‘self-identified’ within exclusionary “safe places” within which they endlessly expound on dogma is much worse.

In the end, academics mainly expose students to hopefully conflicting (potentially viable) ideas and solutions to intellectual and real-world problems.  It’s up to the students to forage through this matrix and come up with their own ideas and solutions, often new ones generated by debating amongst themselves.

  • Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe is an alumnus, Elected Fellow and emeritus (40 years’ service) professor at the University of Cape Town. He is a Ph.D.-educated expert on evolutionary biology (covering everything from ‘race’ to deeply rooted evolutionary trees) and conservation biology (especially regarding sustainable and economically viable use of wildlife). He has published nearly 300 peer-reviewed scientific papers/books and is regarded as the world’s leading authority on game birds (chickens, turkeys, guineafowls, etc.). About 70 of his graduated students have published their research and established themselves in their own right, including four professors.

UCT Black academic caucus statement

21 October 2016

The UCT Black Academic Caucus believes that the current situation at our universities necessitates a national multi-stakeholder solution. The increasing securitisation and violence on our campuses has become untenable and cannot be resolved through negotiations between the executives and student groupings within individual institutions.

The student movement that began at the University of Cape Town as #RhodesMustFall in 2015 initiated a nationwide, even international, conversation about decolonisation and free education. Students and staff allied to the movement aimed to challenge the institutional racism at our university and open up pathways to decolonisation. The BAC has been an active participant and has provided content to the development of decolonial thinking and practices.

Everything must fall. More artwork available at www.jerm.co.za.
Everything must fall. More artwork available at www.jerm.co.za.

BAC was founded in 2012, with the purpose of challenging the slow pace of transformation that continues to maintain hegemonies and reproduce colonial relations of power. For this reason we have always seen our project as being in broad alignment with the student movement, in particular the call for free decolonised education.

As an organisation, our structure reflects our vision for generating change in key areas, hence our sub-committees target teaching, learning and the curriculum; staffing; research & postgraduate issues; and media & communications. We recognise that whilst some changes are possible in the short term, such as the removing of colonial statues and artifacts, other changes require more time. Hence the need for a strong organisation and the blending of strategies for change. These can be seen in our involvement in protest action together with our participation in institutional structures.

Many of our members currently serve within key structures of the university including council, senate, and university and faculty committees. Our members are also leading strategic initiatives around transformation, such as the university-wide Curriculum Change Working Group, the Renaming of Buildings Task Team, the Artworks Task Team, the Sexual Assault Response Team, and the Mental Health Task team. These task teams represent important and unique initiatives that emerged directly from the demands of RMF, FMF, and other student groupings last year and were endorsed by the office of the VC. Within these positions we are well-placed to recognise the obstacles to decolonisation within the institution and work towards overcoming them. Indeed, we have made some important gains along the way and have become an authoritative voice in our institution.

We have articulated some of the history of our organisation here, to contextualise and clarify our position in the current moment. After 19 September 2016, when the Minister of Higher Education announced that universities would be able to raise their fees by up to 8%, we saw renewed protests across the country. UCT suspended classes and much university business for the best part of four weeks. During this time, BAC members have attended many student meetings and plenaries, participated in meetings with UCT management and played an important mediating role between students and faculty on the various campuses where occupations are taking place. In many different forums, including an open letter to UCT Council, BAC has argued for meaningful engagement to be pursued by students and management, notably through the Shackville TRC, a proposed commission that would provide a political solution to protest activity focusing on a restorative justice approach, rather than simply resuming classes under the presence of police and private security. The latter, we argued, would escalate violent confrontation on our campus as it had at several other South African universities and as we have now witnessed on ours.

Photo courtesy of Twitter
Photo courtesy of Twitter

We should note here that Shackville TRC was proposed by students in the aftermath of the demolition of Shackville on the 16th February 2016. We encouraged management to take on the idea of Shackville TRC and to see it as a unique intervention that would harness political energies toward the ends of transformation.

As we write this, we have been instructed to resume academic activities with the continuous presence of police and private security, which appears to have become the ‘new normal’ on many of our campuses. In this new normal, precisely what we predicted in our letter to council is coming to bear, as black students and staff are being monitored more closely and in some instances being targeted by those meant to protect. At the same time, BAC does not support the call for a continued shutdown of the university, as we believe it to be against the interests the decolonisation project itself.

We want to state clearly that we support the transformation and decolonisation of higher education, that we do not support or encourage the militarisation of our campus, the arrest and persecution of our students, or any form of violence, destruction of property or intimidation enacted by any group or individual. We are invested in our students and committed to seeing them complete their studies, now or in the future. We will continue to fight for a new university where we are all recognised as valuable humans and not as objects of contemplation whether through race, disability, gender, sexuality, age, nationality, or ethnicity, but this is not incompatible with learning. The consequences of an extended closure of our universities are likely to be devastating for all students, workers, academics, and possibly for the South African Higher Education sector as a whole.

uct_protestsThe BAC therefore urgently calls for a national multi-stakeholder engagement on the current crisis. We call on vice-chancellors and the department of higher education to show leadership and provide better solutions that will allow the 2016 academic year to be completed. We see this as compatible with a resumption of mediated negotiations and a re-invigoration of the broader transformation and decolonisation project. In fact we see these parallel processes as the only way forward given the current impasse and the escalation of violence we see happening at both ends of the spectrum. A national restorative approach may be the only way to curb the criminalisation of student protesters, the racial profiling of black students and black staff, and to rebuild many damaged relationships in our institutions.

Students and scholars have worked hard to put the concepts of decolonisation and epistemic violence into everyday discourses and debates, and forced us as a nation to confront the flaws in the narrative of Rainbowism. We see this work of transforming higher education as ongoing, and we commit to continuing to open spaces for the re-imagining of our public universities as spaces of inclusion and African critical scholarship.

  • The above statement first appeared at www.thoughtleaders.co.za. The Black Academic Caucus (BAC) describes itself as a platform that advocates for inclusive and diverse academic institutions that also prioritise black academics and their knowledge. Committed to transformation and decolonisation of UCT primarily, and influencing the higher education landscape in South Africa, BAC will advocate for curriculum and research scholarship that is linked to social justice and the experiences of black people. This blog hopes to establish a community of black scholars, engage academics, students and citizens and debate on issues affecting transformation and decolonisation of higher education in South Africa.