UCT and the cleansing of “white privilege” – the price of change: Ed Herbst

Veteran journalist Ed Herbst

CAPE TOWN — One of the privileges of becoming an elder in any profession is that you get to share the lessons gleaned from your experience. When this includes having covered the points of view of the country’s recent historical game-changers and the actual seminal events that played out around them, it’s actually an opinion worth hearing. Going from points to view, to points of view is quite a leap for journalists, but so long as it’s clearly defined as opinion and not fact, as is too often the case nowadays in the ANC-captured media, there can be no professional quibble. Here veteran journalist and astute observer of corrupt modern-day ruling party antics, Ed Herbst, uses his amazing memory for detail to juxtapose student politics of the 1980’s with those of today. He challenges the president of UCT’s convocation, Lorna Houston, who favours a ‘cleansing of institutional racism’ on her campus by typifying it as part of the brick and mortar of the world-famous university. We’ll happily publish Houston’s response in the best interest of furthering the debate and serving our readers. – Chris Bateman

By Ed Herbst*

There’s a lot of “cleaning up” that needs to happen at UCT, she says, not least when it comes to institutional racism.

“Where the racism is insidious and becomes part of the institutional structure, I’m not sure … [we] know how we are actually addressing some of that, and the white privilege that is located there as well,” she argues. “It’s lodged in the plaster on the walls, somewhere between the bricks and the paint. How do we undo that? How do we begin to systematically – because it’s a system that needs to be addressed – carefully and with sensitivity, begin to deal with what I can only think of as a cleansing process.” – Lorna Houston President of UCT’s Convocation 17/10/2017

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. – Nelson Mandela Rivonia trial 20/4/1964

In the anchor quote above, the new President of the UCT Convocation, Lorna Houston, states as an emphatic fact that racism is ‘part of the institutional structure’ at the University of Cape Town, a claim previously made by the Fallists and by Dr Iqbal Survé whose newspapers, the Cape Times in particular, have waged a relentlessly vicious and lying campaign against the management of the university.

It was while wondering to what extent Lorna Houston’s words represented the views of the majority of UCT’s approximately 150 000 alumnae that I was told of an occurrence at UCT which left me deeply disturbed because it took me into a memory from which I have tried to shield myself by blotting it from my mind.

University of Cape Town (UCT)

While working at the Natal Witness in Pietermaritzburg as a photographer in the late 1960s I was sent to cover the eradication of what, in terms of National Party policy at the time, was termed a ‘black spot’. It was located in Camperdown between Pietermaritzburg and Durban.

The meagre possessions of the people living there were thrown onto the back of a truck. The owners clambered onto the truck and, clinging precariously to whatever handhold they could find, they disappeared in a cloud of dust. They were bound for their new homes – open veld in places like Estcourt, Ladysmith and Newcastle where they knew no one.

Ahead of me a front end loader was busy demolishing their huts and I took a photograph of an elderly, emaciated woman, squatting barefoot in the dust. I recall the thin, threadbare dress she was wearing. Her face was bereft of emotion, her eyes unseeing, her thin, bony hands clasped in despair as she contemplated the ruins of what had once been her home.

She had clearly refused to go with the rest of the people on the trucks and was, separated from kith and kin, now alone.

Alone with her memories.

Of birth and death.

Of love and loss.

Cornerstone of apartheid philosophy
Nelson Mandela

This was the white domination of which Nelson Mandela spoke in his address from the dock during the Rivonia trial in April 1964 – the separation of ethnic groups which was a cornerstone of apartheid philosophy.

What brought back that buried Camperdown memory was an incident involving the daughter of a white friend who is a student at UCT, an incident which left her distraught and, I have little doubt, traumatised.

Her boyfriend, also a UCT student is black and, together, they attended a campus event where she was told by the Fallists to leave her boyfriend and to join the other whites at the back of the room so as to create a ‘safe space’ for her boyfriend and the other black people attending the event.

The principle was nothing new for the campus criminals. In March this year they demanded that Ngugi wa Thiong’o order whites to leave a lecture where he was the keynote speaker.

Before that, the same principle, albeit this time, confined to the university’s white executives, was articulated by Dr Iqbal Survé and he promised to throw the full might of the largest English newspaper group in the country, which he owns, behind such racially exclusionary practices – a promise he kept with a vengeance.

7 April 2015 – At a meeting of the UCT Association of Black Alumni (UCTABA) hosted in the Kramer Building at the university, Survé, makes the following statements as reflected in this YouTube clip:

  • At 50 minutes and 11 seconds he says that UCT “… does not respect me as a black man.’
  • At 52:37 he says: Frankly speaking it is a racist institution.’
  • At 56:40 he says: ‘If you want real change, I suggest you change the leadership of this institution, change it in its entirety.’

This was ironic given that one of the major goals in Nelson Mandela’s life – as articulated in one of the anchor quotes to this article – was nation building through reconciliation and that Survé claimed to be a fervent disciple of the great man, a confidante and to have medically treated him, ‘on and off the island’.

Photo courtesy of Twitter

For me, what my friend’s daughter experienced also brought Rosa Parks to mind but it was clearly part of a Fallist agenda to implement what Lorna Houston seems to be striving towards – a UCT ‘cleansed’ of ‘white privilege’ which, if Houston is to be believed, suffuses its very bricks and mortar.

During the period when I was photographing the ‘cleansing’ of the Camperdown ‘black spot’ I was also covering the protests on the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of Natal as it then was.

The goal of those university protestors was to gain access for black students to all South African campuses without legal let or hindrance in line with the goals outlined by Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia trial.

Nusas leaders were in the vanguard of those protests – people like John Daniel and Duncan Innes, people like Neville Curtis and Andrew Boraine, people like  Halton Cheadle and Glenn Moss.

The enmity between the students protesting in Pietermaritzburg and the police sent to curb those protests was tangible and involved a lot of verbal vituperation from the students and feigned indifference from the police. They stood, stoically and in serried ranks, truncheons at the ready, on the perimeter of the campus while various orders to disperse were communicated by police loudhailer.

I did see a woman student spit at the police but, as they were separated at the time by a hedge, little damage was done.

When the police eventually charged, the students cut and ran.

Big difference

A lot of teargas drifted across the field in front of UCT during the protests I covered later as an SABC TV news reporter during the 1980s but there was a big difference between the Nusas leaders of that era and the Fallist leaders of today and it would be interesting to hear Lorna Houston’s views on the comparison.

During the era of the Nusas-led protests ….

All of the above were perpetrated by Fallists who, like Lorna Houston, want the removal of all vestiges of ‘white privilege’ from our campuses.

If one believes in the concept of the Rechtsstaat, the constitutional state and if one believes in the Rule of Law then you must believe in one of its principles – that those who break the law must be held accountable and recompense society in terms of the edicts of the constitutional state’s legal system.

Chumani Maxwele

I raised this point in an article a year ago, asking why no action was being taken against the misogynistic arsonist, Chumani Maxwele who was, at the time, being deified by Carlo Petersen, at Dr Iqbal Surve’s  world-leading Cape Times – the subject of a recent book by Jonathan Jansen and an honours thesis by UCT student Ricky Stoch.

More recently Sarah Gon has raised much the same point and a response was provided by William Gill. There has been no response however from Dr Max Price, whose Fallist appeasement policy seems to echo the principles of  Neville Chamberlain during the 1930s and, more recently the ‘Silent Diplomacy’ of Thabo Mbeki which encouraged Robert Mugabe to implement his Operation Murambatsvina campaign.  It was on Price’s watch that paintings by Breyten Breytenbach were removed from public view. This was in pursuance of the goal of the Fallists and the goal of Lorna Houston – removing all signs of ‘white privilege’ from the UCT campus and it was a shocking insult to a man who spent years in apartheid jails during his fight to bring democracy to South Africa.

The debate continues at UCT and I am indebted to UCT’s Professor Timothy Crowe for his account of one of these debates recently – a debate which was once again characterised by the usual civilised couth and courtesy of the Fallists, their habitual respect for the conventions of dignified debate and their customary high regard for the concept of audi alteram partem.  All part, you understand, of ‘decolonising’ the curriculum which has so inspired the rest of the world:

File Image: Zapiro’s take on the UCT student protests. More magic available at www.zapiro.com.
Response to concerns

In closing: Biznews would be delighted for a response from UCT Convocation President Lorna Houston to these concerns and some of the questions which occur to me are:

  • To what extent have you consulted the approximately 150 000 alumnae – who you have chosen to represent – on your plans to exorcise the alleged ‘white privilege’ at UCT, do you have their expressed approval for your proposed campaign and how do you intend to implement your plans in this regard?
  • I am sure that the majority of UCT alumnae do not concur with or approve of the Fallist agenda which has caused so much infrastructure damage that it will cost more than a billion rand in reconstruction costs. To what extent have you publicly articulated the sentiments of those alumnae and can you provide the URLs?
  • I am sure that the majority of UCT alumnae empathise with the UCT campus security guard who survived an attempt to murder him when a rock was dropped on his head from the upper floors of a campus building. Did you visit him in hospital where he lay gravely injured and have you reached out to him subsequently to monitor his recovery and offer what assistance you can?
  • You say UCT must be ‘cleansed’ of ‘white privilege’. What is your view of the Fallist attempt to achieve the same goal by stoning and burning UCT paintings and have you tried to assess the reputational cost to UCT of this being headlined in The Economist?
  • Do you approve of the way in which Dr Max Price has shielded Chumani Maxwele from the legal consequences of his role – recorded on CCTV cameras – in torching the Jammie Shuttle bus, a role which has twice been made a matter of court record?
  • The way in which UCT was quite literally besieged by the Fallists was the subject of a chapter in a book by Jonathan Jansen and an honours thesis by Ricky Stoch. Do you agree with what they wrote and, if not, why not?
  • As part of the Fallist call to exorcise ‘white privilege’ at UCT – one of your goals – the ‘decolonisation of science’ was called for. This was greeted with derision throughout the world. This was attributed by some to the fact that the student making the call was a product of the ANC’s post-apartheid education system, rated as one of the worst in the world despite the expenditure of billions of rands.  What is your take on this matter?
  • In Business Day on 6/5/2016, Simon Lincoln Reader asserted that: ‘RMF didn’t fail just because it was the most confusing, divisive and xenophobic campaign to have featured since 1994, but because it was executed by vile personalities.’ Do you agree with him and, if not, do you condone the arson, the theft, the attempted murder, the desecration of a memorial to war dead like the black soldiers who died when the SS Mendi was sunk, the strewing of faeces and the attempt to prevent students from attending lectures and writing exams which characterised the Fallist campaign to exorcise ‘white privilege’ from our university campuses?
  • There were clearly significant differences between the Nusas-led protestors a few decades ago and the current Fallist-led protestors. How would you describe those differences and to what would you attribute them?
  • Perhaps the most important question of all involves financial donations by alumnae which, since the inception of UCT, have played a singular and significant role in making the university what it is today – in part a springboard to a brighter future for thousands of black students. Do you think that the bond you have forged with the Fallists to exorcise ‘white privilege’ from UCT will have an adverse impact on future donations from white alumnae and does this in any way concern you?

I am sure the responses by Lorna Houston to these questions will be valued by the UCT alumnae and contribute significantly to the current debate.

  • Ed Herbst is a retired veteran journalist who writes in his own capacity.
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