Debate goes on

12 September 2005

The wall-to-wall turnout at the Tuesday lunchtime event at the Centre for African Studies (CAS) gallery hinted that expectations were high. And the speakers didn't disappoint.

The occasion was the discussion - almost billed as a public showdown - on Academic Freedom and Accusations of Racism, organised by the executive committee of the Academics' Association (AA) and the Academic Freedom Committee (AFC). The debate follows on a statement and two letters that had appeared in recent issues of Monday Paper.

The statement was from the AFC in which the committee raised its concerns about the "dampening effect that unfounded charges of racism have on campus debate about important university and social issues in which race is or is perceived to be an element" (vol 24 no 16, August 1-7). Then followed a response from Professor Leslie London, portfolio manager of transformation and equity in the Faculty of Health Sciences, in which he described the AFC's call "wholly unhelpful", arguing that it, "at worst, will be interpreted as another attempt by the institution (through one of its highly-regarded committees) to close down debate on racism at UCT" (vol 24 no 18, August 15-21).

One edition later (vol 24 no 19, August 22 to September 11), the executive committee of the AA lent its endorsement to London's letter.

At last week's meeting, the AFC's Professor David Benatar and London were invited to open up the debate.

Among other issues - like whether perceptions of racism amounted to actual racism - it appeared that both speakers, from different perspectives, were asking for the same thing: spaces for people to speak. London argued that, in his work at the health sciences faculty, it has been found that students and staff are often afraid to speak out when they have had negative experiences, especially because of the power relations between students and tutors, or between staff and managers.

"And we feel that [the call of the AFC] closes down the space for debate, it closes down the space for people who feel they have been aggrieved to voice their grievance. Especially in the context where UCT does not have policies that address these issues to the satisfaction of all the constituencies."

Not so, said Benatar.

Rather, he stated, the current climate at UCT, where there are almost daily reminders about transformation, is one that encourages people who feel they have been victimised to come forward. The single statement of the AFC, he said, was neither intended nor likely to silence victims of racism, but rather to discourage inappropriate accusations of racism.

"What we're suggesting is that the current climate is very much like the McCarthyite era in the US where you called somebody a communist, and that tainted them, or you called somebody a witch in Salem during the period of witch hunts, and that tainted them. There's nothing much they can say in response to that."

After some thrust and parrying - Benatar's turn of phrase - between the two main speakers, the meeting was opened to the floor. Here, there was support for and cross-examination of both views.

It's an issue that could not, of course, be resolved in lunchtime meeting, as chair Dr Sally Frankental pointed out.

"This is a very important debate at this time in the life of this campus," she said, "as there have been lots of mutterings and whisperings around all kinds of things that are related to this topic in general. And it's very useful to have a public forum for these things to be out in the open for everyone to understand and hear and participate in."

And, lest it be suggested otherwise, the speakers did appear to agree on the core matter at hand - that there has to be a process at UCT to deal with these issues. And, stressed London, that process had to be fair and balanced.

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