Professor Jonathan Jansen on fascism, #FeesMustFall and Iqbal Survé

JOHANNESBURG — The #FeesMustFall protests became a defining movement in modern South Africa, casting a spotlight on access to higher education in the country. But very quickly, the situation turned ugly with thugs taking advantage of the mayhem. However, other forces were at play as well, according to a new book by Professor Jonathan Jansen. The renowned professor has revealed the role that Independent Newspapers (which is ultimately led by Iqbal Survé) played in publishing negative stories about university vice chancellors. It’s an interesting perspective on what was going on behind the scenes at the time. – Gareth van Zyl

By Donwald Pressly*

Professor Jonathan Jansen believes that the students who rose up – taking even the national government by surprise – two years ago were largely justified in doing so.

But within no time the campaign to transform the university landscape turned nasty. Buildings were torched at a number of campuses. There was violence directed at people. Basically the students lost the plot and the legitimacy of their struggle withered away.

Jansen, in his book As By Fire, the end of the South African University, pays particular attention to the troubles at the University of Cape Town. There he reports Vice-Chancellor Max Price as saying that Independent Newspapers owner Dr Mohammed Iqbal Surve appeared to have “waged a campaign to get rid of me (Price) and some of it’s been very public and explicit”.

Prof Jonathan Jansen in the library at Stanford’s Institute for Advanced Study. Pic: Barry Wood.

Jansen’s own description of these troubles at UCT – involving Surve and Price – are the following (on page 204 of the book): “What appears to be a highly personalised pursuit of a university vice-chancellor by the owner of a newspaper and his editors and reporters is unusual even by the erratic standards of political reporting in South Africa.” Jansen goes on: “Much of the entanglement between the media and universities is, however, more routine and less visible than in the case of the war between Surve and Price”.

Asked at the Cape Town Press Club on Thursday whether Surve represented a new version of a Gupta, Jansen said that question “is what we call in rugby a hospital pass”. He said that the book was “not about Dr Surve”, who he had never met. “It is about the subjective experiences of vice-chancellors (like Dr Max Price). The book (is) about Max’s comments (in an) attempt to explain why (the violence and disruption) happened at UCT at this point.” It merely referenced Dr Surve, reported Jansen. Significantly Surve does not appear in the index.

Donwald Pressly

Jansen, who retired from the University of the Free State last year, said there were two kinds of disruption which had occurred on SA campuses. The one was the kind that “draws the attention” of administrations “that we have a problem”. Then there was the illegitimate kind of disruption “that is disrespectful”.

He believed this sort of thing had occurred at the University of Cape Town. “When someone throws a bomb through Max Price’s office window… that kind of disruption has no place in a democracy. Why are we silent in the face of this kind of fascism? I can’t think of a better word (than fascism).”

Turning to the vast audience, Jansen said ordinary South Africans must all stand up to maintain the good quality institutions that were left in South Africa. This was vital that the good universities should not go the way of the post-colonial campuses such as in Tanzania, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. “Make a noise. This is your government. Don’t be cowered… make your voice heard… this is your country,” he said.

Zimbabwe, in particular, he said, once had a fine institution in the form of the University of Zimbabwe but which now only was attended only by poor children because they could not afford to go elsewhere. Many African parents of university going students had previously told him that they did not need to send their children abroad because the SA universities were good. That picture was changing fast.

The good name of the University of Zimbabwe had been damaged because the wife of President Robert Mugabe was given a doctorate for three weeks’ work. Mugabe himself was the chancellor of the university.

Asked when he expected the government to change, Jansen mumbled something about alliances being the future. But Jansen declared he was “not a political scientist” and could not predict about any change in government, but he repeatedly referenced his speech with the need to change the government.

Zapiro’s take on the UCT student protests – for more of the cartoonist’s magic, click here.

Jansen did not dwell further in his press club lecture on Surve and Price, but there is significant material in the book.

Price tells the story himself in the book (from page 201) :

Our situation was particularly complicated form the media point of view by a personal conflict between me and (Mohammed) Iqbal Surve. The story as basically that there was a Cape Times (an Independent Group newspaper) report on a fishery scandal involving Sekunjalo (an investment holding company co-founded by Surve) after which Surve fired Alide Dasnois (then editor). He said it was because she failed to lead the paper with Nelson Mandela’s death. (It was wrapped around the paper instead).

Alumni did not want Surve to be ‘public face of the university’ says Price

A lot of people at UCT as well as alumni were writing to me and saying that Iqbal is not someone who should be representing the university in senior positions. He was the chair of the advisory board of the Graduate School of Business, and he was also on the board of governors of our foundation.

Our executive discussed the matter and we thought that we should ask him to step down from those positions – not criticise him publicly, but just say we did not want him to be the public face of the university through those structures.

I went to see him in early 2014 and he was mortally wounded about this, and it became an argument in which he said that I don’t understand how much he’s done for the university, black alumni, and other matters. And I said to him, “you know, the main thing is it doesn’t serve the university to have someone who is very controversial in a position like that. You can be controversial in other kinds of positions.”

Anyway we agreed that I wouldn’t ask him to resign in any written record, but that based on the discussion we had he said he would step down at the next meetings of these two bodies….

I found out about a month later that he hadn’t stepped down. So I made an appointment to go see him again to ask what was going on.

Quite a perfect storm, I had invited Alide Dasnois to give a graduation address at the end of 2014. And by absolutely unplanned coincidence, it turned out to be the graduation of Iqbal’s daughter and he was present and his family were present in the audience. We don’t publicise graduation speakers beforehand, it’s just in the programme. No one knows in advance. I didn’t know Iqbal’s daughter was graduating until she sat in front of me and I capped her and I recognised her because I know her family. And, of course, I realised Iqbal would be in the audience somewhere…

That night I wrote to him to say: “I’m sorry, I want to just tell you that I had no idea your daughter was graduating. This was probably embarrassing for you and I would not have wanted your daughter to be embarrassed in any way. Just want to assure you that this was not intended.”

I received a letter from him the next day, but I have evidence he backdated it to the day before the graduation. I could tell from the fingerprint on the electronic document that it was only written after the graduation. In the letter he resigned from all positions in the university but claimed it was as a result of years of frustration with the lack of transformation which he could no longer be associated with. The letter was a tirade about how he was going to react, how I was worse than any of the apartheid rulers because I was so dishonest, and how the university wasn’t transforming and this was all my fault.

And from then on it seemed to me as if he waged a campaign to get rid of me and some of it’s been very public and explicit. There was a session we had here which the black alumni organised where he was on a platform with me and he basically said to the alumni: “You’ve got to remove this management team because nothing will change until you do.” The session is available on YouTube. So that’s what it’s been about.

It appears as if he sent a message to the Cape Times in particular, and perhaps others in the Independent Group such as the Cape Argus (also a Cape Town-based newspaper) to present stories about UCT in a way that would discredit its management.

I believe he’s also been paying for the lawyers and senior counsel for some of the (arrested) students (allegedly involved in campus violence) but particularly for Chumani Maxwele, whom we’ve been trying to prosecute.

We weren’t going to prosecute Maxwell for any of his protest activities, but he allegedly harassed and verbally assaulted a lecturer, and that I thought needed disciplinary action. We needed to defend the lecturer.

Chumani challenged the suspension orders and disciplinary cases, including appealing to court. Each time he had senior counsel arguing the case. And we think (the senior counsel) came from Iqbal because Iqbal approached one of my friends to ask that he act for Chumani in the case against the university and my friend turned him down.

So I believe he’s been a direct agent in this battle and that’s turned what should be quick internal disciplinary matters into public, high profile, court battles, often going on appeal and consuming much time, energy and money. When I first wanted to take Iqbal on by revealing the other side of the story behind his supposed self-initiated resignations over the lack of transformation, one of my council members said something to the effect that ‘you don’t pick a fight with some who buys ink by the barrel’. You can’t win a fight against someone who owns the newspapers.

(In retrospect) the one thing I would have done differently would have been to counter Iqbal right from the start and put a question mark against the Cape Times reporting. Although some people know the reporting is full of rumours and they wonder why it’s so biased, they don’t have the full story.

Jansen comments, in his book, as follows: More than one independent journalist and media columnist would comment on the blatantly biased, persistently negative, and unusually personalised attacks on both UCT and Max Price by the Independent Newspapers. The veteran journalist Max Du Preez offered this (reports Jansen):

Reading the Cape Times every morning the last few months was like watching a huge train smash in slow motion. I have never in my long career in journalism seen such a deliberate attempt at destroying a newspaper. My suspicion is that the new owners are using the paper to fight the ANC’s battles for the 2016 local elections for them, and afterwards it will be closed down and incorporated into the Cape Argus. The last few weeks the newspaper’s main theme, dominating the front page, has been the middle-aged poo-chucking UCT student Chumani Maxwele fight with the UCT administration. This morning’s banner headline was again: “Apartheid-style UCT lashed”. On several occasions the reporting on the matter completely twisted the UCT management statements.

Iqbal Survé, head of Independent Media Group.

The Times, part of the rival Times Media Group, carried this response from Surve recently:

Independent Media and Surve rejected the assertions as untrue.

IN FULL: Independent Media response to Dr Max Price as quoted in the book ‘As by Fire’

“We are astounded by this slanderous and unprofessional approach by academics who did not verify the information prior to publication.

“Dr Price’s views as represented in the book are defamatory and slanderous. Independent Media and Dr Survé will instruct its legal advisers to demand a retraction from both parties.

“Furthermore‚ neither Independent Media nor Dr Survé has any relationship with the Rhodes Must Fall campaign and Mr Chumane Maxwele and emphatically deny funding the legal fees of the #RMF campaign or Mr Maxwele as claimed….

Significantly Maxwele had a case against him – brought by the university in 2015 set aside, but he was implicated in a court judgment in 2016. Ed Herbst reported that the Cape High Court Judge Rosheni Allie granted an interdict in favour of the applicant, UCT, which effectively barred RMF leader Chumani Maxwele from entering the campus for the next five years. It is reported that Maxwele was present when a Jammie bus was torched – in February 2016 – and he also rolled drums into the road shortly before the bus was burnt. See article in politicsweb by Herbst.

On 16 September 2015 the Western Cape High Court set aside the suspension of Maxwele, with costs.

Read story in IOL (the online mouthpiece of Surve’s Independent Newspapers):

  • Donwald Pressly is the editor of Cape Messenger.