Top scientist: Proof that UCT is institutionally racist, sexist, colonialist

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

How much work is needed to transform the University of Cape Town (UCT) into an institution of higher education that serves all the citizens of South Africa? Emeritus Professor Timothy Crowe goes back in time to trace the university’s roots with a view to assessing the current characteristics of the higher education institution that is an inextricable part of his life. Although Crowe has been a fierce critic of Vice-chancellor Dr Max Price and the #fallists who would like to see the decolonialisation of the country’s university system, Crowe is not blind to the historical legacy created by the university’s founders. This piece, part of a series, highlights that it is only really in contemporary times that anyone other than white males has been given the opportunity to develop their intellectual capabilities through university education. This, of course, isn’t only a South African issue. Even in Scotland, from where many of the professors hailed in the early days of South African university education, women were only slowly allowed to access the system. University education has historically been provided for a male elite. It is only natural for broader society to keep pushing for access to a system that seems to provide the pathway to higher standards of living and prosperity. – Jackie Cameron

By Tim Crowe* 

The University of Cape Town (UCT): Racist/Sexist/Colonialist institution? 1918-1948 – Yes.

There is no single tome that attempts to cover the full history of the University of Cape Town.  This piece (the first of three) attempts to provide a snapshot addressing the issues of racism, sexism and neo-colonialism at UCT during the period 1918-1948.  It is an unauthorized ‘distillation’ of the 482-page “The University of Cape Town: 1918-1948 – the formative years” by Howard Phillips, published in 1993 by UCT Press.  The other two pieces will cover the period 1948 to the present.

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Before the beginning

UCT chauvinists like to claim that it’s nearing its 190th birthday by linking it to the establishment of the South African College (SAC). In fact, in 2018, it will hit its century as a ‘kosher’ university. 

Like it or not, UCT is a realization of an vision of the much-maligned Cecil John Rhodes who bequeathed his estate, Groote Schuur, to South Africa to create a national teaching university (as well as its political leader’s residence and world-famous Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens). 

His purpose for the university was to effect a reconciliation between male English and Afrikaner settlers.  This purpose became a reality through a massive financial bequest from two of Rhodes’ business associates Sir Otto Beit and Sir Julius Wernher. 

Thus, even from before day one, UCT was institutionally colonialist, sexist and racist.

In the beginning 

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Since all of its initial 659 students were ‘whites’ (mainly males selected to achieve ‘English-Afrikaner reconciliation’ through the cultural assimilation of the latter) and all of its professors were men, once it became a reality it was also racist and sexist. ‘Natives/Bantus’ were described by its first Vice-Chancellor, J.C. ‘Sir Jock’ Beattie, as South Africa’s “millions of uncivilised people”. So, this highly intelligent, kindly man was a racist as well.  

The UCT Council’s policy was: “it would not be in the best interests of the university to admit native or coloured students in any number, if at all”.  So, it, as a body, was racist.

By the early 1920s, women students nearly reached demographic parity with males, but were mainly confined to music and the arts and in non-degree programmes: another ‘tick’ indicating sexism. Indeed, the all-male professorial demographics were strongly biased further in favour of uitlanders, especially Scots led by ‘Sir Jock’: another ‘tick’ for colonialism. Women academics were expected to resign if they married and were required to retire at 55 (five years earlier than for men). So, in the category sexism, for the nascent UCT, ‘three strikes and you’re out’.   

By the end of the 1920s, there were only five (all ‘coloured’) graduates, almost all with Art or Teaching degrees. Noteworthy further is a quote from Sir Jock’s ‘centennial’ (of SAC) message in 1929: “The University must, like the old South African College, be a place where all South Africans irrespective of creed or race can meet and get to know each other.”  So, ‘non-whites’ and women in general could visit UCT, but not study meaningfully or work professionally there.

Administration

UCT was run by vice chancellors who were benevolent despots, often allowing students some leeway, but drawing a firm line at what they regarded as less than “decent behaviour”.  Departments were ‘fiefdoms” run by effectively a single, dictatorial professor, some of whom ‘ruled’ for several decades. Departmental academic themes generally changed only with professors. UCT’s administrative department (according to the first registrar, Wilfred Murray) was decidedly supportive and decentralized:

“The administrative staff must justify its existence by setting standards and methods of procedure of high order.  As a department it has no claim to existence in a university unless it can relieve the teaching departments of the responsibility for those duties which can be carried out more efficiently through a central office”.

Teaching

Teaching at UCT was described accurately by medical Prof. Charles Saint as an “essentially ego-centrifugal” process. There was virtually no contact between lecturers and students outside the formal, scheduled teaching environment. 

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There was also a remarkable paucity of organized discussion/debate of/on political issues, even within the male-dominated Students Representative Council and National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). The major exceptions to this were requests for UCT’s Senate to actively consult with students in its deliberations. These requests were deflected or denied.  Much of the SRC’s efforts focused on increasing sporting/social activities.  Because of this, in general, there was a lack of esprit de corps amongst the students.

A move to a new campus

By the early 1930s, the move of the campus from town to Groote Schuur had been completed and the ‘decapitated’ Jameson Hall (its construction was financed by his friends to memorialize him and should have been surmounted by a dome) housed its first graduation ceremony. 

In 1931, its newly established Bantu Studies Department hosted a speech by Sol Plattje. On the flipside, the right-wing, racist, anti-Semitic nationalist Afrikaner Nasionale Studentebond was founded in 1934, breaking away from NUSAS. Since its unacceptable activities departed from ”decent behaviour”, it was forced to have its meetings off-campus.  These events mark the end of any overt attempt by UCT to reconcile with, yet alone assimilate Afrikaners.

Nevertheless, the racist admission policies continued to prevail and still less than 1% of UCT’s students were ‘non-white’. These admitted were strongly discouraged from mingling with their ‘white’ colleagues, with the exception of some Jewish students. 

There were no ‘Bantus’. When a rugby team comprising some ‘coloured’ players applied for formal recognition by UCT, Sir Jock persuaded them to withdraw. A vote on an SRC motion to support the admission of ‘non-Europeans’ to UCT was defeated 30 to 20 with 40 abstentions.

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In effect, UCT remained a second-tier, male-dominated, ‘whites’-only “athletic institution where intellectual advancement [was] not altogether discouraged”.

The 1940s

Things changed a little during the 1940s.  In 1942, Sarleh Dollie was the first ‘coloured’ allowed (he was appointed by the Cape Town City Council) to serve on UCT’s Council. By 1945, the ‘non-white’ student population ‘skyrocketed’ to 76 ‘coloureds’, 26 Indians and 5 ‘Bantus’ (about 3%).  In 1944, the first ‘non-white’ (an Indian) was elected to the SRC. His membership was viciously challenged repeatedly, and he was branded as a nonconstructive, “irresponsible communist agitator”.  In the Medical School, the few Indian and ‘coloured’ students admitted were not allowed to operate on ’white’ patients.

Things at UCT changed profoundly after World War II. On this, more later.

  • 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.