Transformation under the spotlight

04 April 2005
Transformation under the spotlight

Members of the executive committees of the Academics Association, Employees Union, National Education Health and Allied Workers' Union, Black Staff Association, the Student Representative Council and the interim steering committee members of the Black Caucus met to discuss the recent unfortunate and tragic event of the assault on the late Prof Hahn. We extend our deep-felt condolences to the Hahn family.

We further wish to make public the following:

  • We reject all acts of violence as a means to address or resolve disputes or disagreements within the university.

  • The senior leadership of the university has consistently failed to provide direction and astute leadership on the practical transformation of the university.

  • In the Tladi-Hahn incident we note with concern that official UCT communication portrays Dr Tladi as an outsider, whilst others are acknowledged as being part of the UCT community. Public reports omit the fact that he has been associated with UCT for six years, a significant time for any black person at UCT. Nowhere does the university refer to him as Dr Tladi, but just as an ex student. This approach by UCT contrasts sharply with the reporting on other recent and unfortunate incidents involving former staff members of the university, where past association and due regard for academic pedigree is referred to without reservation. The reality is that he is one of the few black South Africans with a PhD in mathematics and a distinguished alumnus of this university. We need to be convinced that the university's reporting on the incident is not racist.

We believe that the university should take far more seriously the concerns around the prevailing race relations at the institution. Many staff at the university are being made to feel marginalised, alienated, angry and unworthy. There is thus a need for public debate on transformation at UCT. The debate needs to involve people in Senior Leadership in the university, the national Ministry of Education and members of the broader UCT community.

We take special exception to the possible interpretation and implications of a statement made by a senior member of faculty in UCT and e-mailed to several other members of the community suggesting that the diversity of the university creates harm to the institution. This construction of diversity, coming from a senior member of staff, may well perpetuate racist attitudes (dormant, covert and overt) and practices.

The fact is that while the student enrolments for blacks may be around 50%, black people in academic posts constitute a mere 22% (Employment Equity Plan: April 2004 to April 2007) of the total staffing complement at UCT, of which most are employed in contract (ie not permanent) positions. Black staff are unjustifiably under-represented at UCT.

There have been ongoing demands for an independent ombudsperson at UCT to help deal with some of the issues associated with institutional culture, the climate survey and race relations. When will the university make a decision on this?

We therefore demand:

  1. an open public debate around the slow pace of transformation and institutional culture at the university, to be organised by the Transformation Office, in collaboration with the staffing bodies and the SRC, and that an invitation be extended to officials from the Ministry of Education as well as the public media to attend
  2. the speedy appointment of an independent ombudsperson in consultation with the staffing bodies and the SRC
  3. a meeting of the executive structures of the staffing bodies, the SRC and the Senior Leadership Group as a matter of urgency, to begin to address the above matters.

From representatives of the executives of the aforementioned organisations

Vice-Chancellor Professor Njabulo Ndebele replies:

A few weeks ago I received two e-mails which address issues of transformation in the aftermath of the tragic death of Professor Brian Hahn. The first one could be described as private in the sense of its being addressed to me as a specific officer of the university. It expresses serious concerns about the way transformation is going at UCT and requests a meeting to discuss the issue. The second e-mail, received a few days later, while addressed to me, is self-consciously public as it declares itself an open-letter. It is being published in this week's Monday Paper. Its tone is different. Where I felt the first e-mail spoke to me, the second one spoke at me. I was intrigued by this noticeable difference in e-mails originating from the same source, on a similar issue.

I thought that this difference illustrated two things. Firstly, the e-mails presented me with important data about the environment that has produced them. They expressed different ways of experiencing that environment. In noting this difference, I am not attaching any particular value to the positions taken or sentiments expressed.

Secondly, they dramatise in a most interesting way the relationship between the private and the public. How do we impact on public discourse through personal testimonies? To what extent does public life affirm or deny our personal histories? The question applies the other way round as well.

It clear that the immediate context of the two e-mails is the tragic death of Professor Brian Hahn, and the forthcoming trial of Dr Tladi. UCT has refrained from entering into a public debate in deference to all parties concerned and pending the outcome of the legal proceedings. It is, however, common cause that this entire matter has deeply affected the university. It has prompted some reactions that may have lain dormant, and which call out for expression. In this regard, I acknowledge, as I always have, that there are staff members at UCT who for a variety of reasons may "feel marginalised, alienated, angry and unworthy". These feelings may be as varied as their causes. There are some other specific matters raised in the open letter, for example, the manner in which the UCT administration handled communication around the tragedy. I hold a different view on this matter, but believe it is best addressed in discussions with the signatories.

In the course of 175 years of its history, UCT will have encountered many moments that proved in some way to be definitive. I believe that we may be going through one such moment. It is a challenge for us to be able to characterise this moment in some definitive way. It is in this light that I believe so much in the possibilities of the dialogues being called for, confident that they will give a further transformative character to an environment that ought to be as rigorously thoughtful, even in its politics, as it ought to be humane.

I support and welcome the dialogues being sought and I have conveyed that much to the signatories of the e-mails. I hope that these dialogues may result in a more honest public environment at UCT, through a healing that is more than emotional, but also deeply touches on the way the university goes about its day-to-day work. I hope that all voices that need to be heard will find room in the expressive space to be created.

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