Speaking about race politics the real victim at UCT – Vice Chancellor Max Price

The once-embattled vice chancellor of UCT, Max Price, takes criticism on the chin for his seemingly weak response to anarchic students bullying and harassing him in public forums, saying it was a tactical response aimed at winning a long-term struggle. However, if such disruptions became the “new norm” then higher education would go into decline, while freedom of speech had already been severely curtailed – especially around race politics, he added. Cape Messenger Editor Donwald Pressly reports that he also told the Cape Town Press Club he has no regrets about toyi-toying with students at the foot of the subsequently removed Rhodes statue – because he agreed with their position. Price wouldn’t be human if he wasn’t hurt by the sleights and bad press he got, both on campus and off, much of it from people he once considered allies and supporters. Yet he wasn’t about to let slip the chance to tell a captive audience of UCT’s achievements, which he believes were obliterated by the images of students burning property, disrupting lectures and convocations or generally revolting. The academic successes emphasised just how world-class UCT was and would continue to be, the student anarchy being a temporary, albeit dramatic distraction from the core business of the university. He had no doubt that UCT would continue to produce excellent results and remain economically strong, proving the critics and dark predictions entirely wrong – and whipped out several examples to illustrate his point. – Chris Bateman

By Donwald Pressly*

Comment: Embattled University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Max Price believes that the worst of the disruption of universities over the last two years is over. But if that were not so and the disruptions became the “new norm”, then higher education would go into a decline in South Africa. But he told the Cape Town Press Club that decline was not what he believed what was happening to UCT. Instead he believes that there is an opportunity to be snatched to make the university more “inclusive”. – DP

Donwald Pressly, Cape Messenger editor.

The core business of the University of Cape is “a real good news story”, the university’s Vice Chancellor Max Price said.

Appealing to the media to stop focusing on the “sound bites” of the sensational stuff, he said that they tended not to make the effort to see how the University of Cape Town’s core business was doing brilliantly. “What irritates me, the press focus, of course, on the visible, the video bites and the sound bites… the sensational stuff”.

When he spoke to old alumni and donors, he tells them about the successes of the publications of the university which had raised R2.5 billion in the last two years, about 30 percent up from before. About half of the university’s budget came from this source. There were strong flows of donor funds from the foundations including Ford, Carnegie and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundations.

When he spoke to the donor CEOs, they understood that UCT was not unique in facing student uprisings and troubles. They had learnt “not to abandon us when we hit a wobble,” he said.

In the midst of the troubles at UCT, some R110 million had been raised to set up a neuro-science institute which will bring together brilliant heads who know about the brain and the mind.

Despite the disruptions, pass rates were generally up and under-graduate drop out rates were down, he said.

He acknowledged that his campus – and other campuses around the country – had a difficult time of it in 2015 and 2016. “The short term crisis has been very tough for staff…at the university…people have been insulted, they have been unable to get on with their work because of the disruptions. There is a silencing…people don’t feel free to speak about race politics…it is most acute at universities.”

University of Cape Town (UCT) vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price

There was an unfortunate focus on “identity politics” in which the view was that “you can’t know my experience if you have not lived it”. You cannot have black pain “if you are not black”, which he described as an unhelpful tendency. “It is creating an environment which isn’t the university you want to be in.”

‘No regrets’ about toyi-toyi-ing with students

The university needed to be re-opened to allow students and lecturers to “speak freely”. He said the 1968 student uprisings in Europe had been viewed darkly at the time as being the beginning of the end of higher education. But this phase – which had seen police brought onto campuses and students injured – had ultimately passed. He predicted that South Africa had gone through its phase of resistance politics.

Asked if he had made a tactical mistake by toyi-toying with students at the beginning of the #RhodesMustFall campaign, Dr Price said: “I don’t have real regrets about the toyi-toyi…when I looked at the video it looked a bit off…this old white man trying to be too hip.” It was that sort of thing that he was concerned about rather than his alignment with the protesters and the toyi-toyi groups.

Referring to the #RhodesMustFall campaign which was unleashed on his campus in 2015. “When the poo was thrown at the (Rhodes) statue…I was outside of the country. I came back…I agreed (with the protesters) that the statue should come down. At that point the university did not have a position. I said we would consult…widely…in the end the university supported that decision.”

It was in that context that the toyi-toying took place. “I was actually of the view…that the Rhodes statue should have been moved to somewhere else,”  he said. “I took that view then, I take it now…I align myself with people who supported it coming down…in the end most of the university did as well. I don’t feel that was a mistake to demonstrate that alignment (but) it didn’t look very dignified.”

Asked if the battle had been lost against the anarchists on campus where classes were invaded and pictures and at least one university bus burnt, he said it was about strategy. “I want to call it military strategy…You retreat sometimes…(pass) a battle to win a war. You make tactical decisions…when the consequences will be better for everyone…the fact that you have allowed something to happen without very serious consequences for the individual…such as the disruption of classes doesn’t mean you have to do it again.”

He believed it was the right thing to do – to allow a certain amount of disruption – at the time.

  • Donwald Pressly is a veteran South African political editor. He is the force behind Cape Messenger.