On Rhodes, decolonisation and UCT management

11 May 2015 | Story by Newsroom

Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe responds to SRC President Ramabina Mahapa's letter to SRC Presidents and the South African Union of Students.

Although I am a recently retired University of Cape Town academic and no longer involved in its day-to-day operations, I feel that I have a legitimate view concerning demands for the 'decolonialising' of UCT in general, the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes in particular, and the actions of the UCT management in these matters in general.

First, my credentials. I am the grandson of an Irishman who fled colonial Ireland to the USA to find opportunities for growth and development. In Boston where he set up home, he could only find work as a carpenter working in horse stables and often came home to his family stinking of horse excrement, passing on his way shops and saloons that bore signs saying"No dogs, N-word or Irishmen". My father had to work two to three jobs to keep our family fed, clothed and housed. My family's politics supported civil rights and, during the 1960s I supported the legislation launched by my fellow Irish American, President John Kennedy.

I was only able to attend university because I competed successfully for scholarships. I came to study biology at UCT for my PhD because of my passion for guinea fowls, a group of birds confined to and characteristic of Africa. My field studies conducted under the auspices of UCT were funded by scholarships earned on academic merit and a lowly paid job at De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd.

After completing my field work, I obtained employment at UCT as a junior lecturer at the then small Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, an organisation founded to commemorate the accomplishments of the 'settler' Sir Percy FitzPatrick, through studies of African birds. Due in part to my actions, the 'Fiztitute' was ultimately accorded the status of Centre of Excellence by the ANC-controlled South African Department of Science and Technology and National Research Foundation.

During my 40 years at UCT, I was promoted ad hominem or competed successfully (in one instance against applicants from Princeton University and Oxford University) for posts of lecturer, senior lecturer, associate professor and full professor. During my career, I (and my students/colleagues) authored more than 300 peer-reviewed scientific papers in publications including the eminent journal Nature; wrote the definitive text on southern African gamebirds; earned a B-rating from the South African National Research Foundation; was elected president of the Southern African Societies of Systematic Biology and Wildlife Management; and graduated students (including black students from South Africa and Africa to the north) who have published internationally and found employment locally and internationally as museum directors, associate professors and full professors.

Towards the end of my career, I was made a fellow of UCT. My wife is also a UCT graduate (BSc Hons, MSc, PhD) who, during a career that also spans over 40 years, has taught disadvantaged black students at UCT, moderated examinations of the National Department of Basic Education and has published on both scientific and education matters. She was raised by her mother who had a minimal school education in a very poor home and financed her tertiary education through odd jobs and loans.

With regard to 'decolonialisation', I feel that the protracted negotiations between the apartheid government and the ANC led to the establishment of a non-racial, anti-colonial South African Constitution which protects the rights of individuals and minorities. At the meeting held in Jameson Hall to discuss the future of the Rhodes statue, speakers stated (and were applauded for) that this Constitution is a document of 'oppression' and should be overturned. At the meeting of the UCT Council to discuss and vote on the future of Rhodes statue that was invaded by supporters of the Rhodes Must Fall initiative, councillors were threatened with the assertion of 'one settler, one bullet'.

At the recent meeting held to discuss the 'decolonialisation' of UCT, speakers described the current situation as a "hetero-patriarchal white supremacist culture" and praised people such as Winnie Mandela (convicted amongst other things of kidnapping of a murdered young black child and a supporter of 'necklacing') and the extremist Frantz Fanon (who wrote "Humanity will have to address this question [decolonialisation], no matter how devastating the consequences may be" and "there is no compromise, no possible coming to terms; colonisation and decolonisation is simply a question of relative strength"). It was also stated that there could be "no reconciliation" and that "colonial religion" had promoted oppression in general and apartheid in particular.

Also, speakers repeatedly commented on how much South Africa can learn from countries in Africa to the north, but there was no mention of the widespread homophobia there, including the "kill the gays" bill in Uganda, the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis by Hutus in Uganda, and the kidnapping and enslavement of young women in Nigeria. Furthermore, despite that fact that the panel (all black women) was asked to comment on recent xenophobic attacks, there was no vehement condemnation of them. Indeed, although there was repeated reference to the sad state of affairs of UCT in and South African education in general and townships/informal settlements in particular, there was nothing said about the role that the ANC-dominated government has in these matters over the past 21 years.

I believe that, by 'decolonialisation', supporters of this action mean the destruction of many things that Nelson Mandela, the ANC founding fathers and most South Africans (and democratic people internationally) held/hold dear and replacing them with incompetence, corruption and oppression equal to/far beyond that which occurred during the apartheid regime. Subject to open and careful scrutiny of the backgrounds of key student supporters of the Rhodes-must-fall initiative, I suggest that some/many have failed to perform adequately at UCT and this is the primary motive behind their behaviour. This certainly seems to be the case with regard to Chumani Maxwele. I also wonder if Maxwele has used some of his earlier settlement with the South African Police (regarding the 'finger' incident) to the benefit of his parents whose living conditions he has described as unacceptable and degrading.

I would have preferred that the statue of Rhodes be retained with some appropriate statement of his 'colonialist' actions. This is because I believe that to abolish history is to deny and learn nothing from it. Indeed, if one acceded to the demands of the Rhodes Must Fall advocates universally, the achievements of prominent historical characters such as US founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (who supported slavery) , Zulu monarch Shaka (who annihilated African tribes who opposed his hegemony), Robert Mugabe (who slaughtered tens of thousands of Ndebele who opposed him politically and transformed Zimbabwe from a multi-party, self-supporting country to a bankrupt dictatorship), Thabo Mbeki (who prevented the implementation of healthcare programmes that could have prevented the AIDS-related deaths of more than 300 000 South African babies), the multi-millionaire Cyril Ramaphosa (the 'new Rhodes' now worth some US$675 million who was implicated in the Marikana massacre) and Jacob Zuma (who has personally and in his capacity as president of South Africa and the ANC plunders the country's financial coffers and has an atrocious record in terms of his sexual behaviour and human rights) should be similarly defaced.

Finally, I question the motives of the UCT administration in this matter. First, both the vice- chancellor and his daughter are recipients of Rhodes Scholarships. Given at least the vice-chancellor's statements/actions, will they be returning these monies to the Rhodes Trust, or, will he publically acknowledge the benefits of Rhodes' bequests to the people of South Africa? Second, if UCT is really committed to solving problems with South Africa's educational system, would the university administered tests that students write before admittance to UCT continue to be necessary? Third, what actions (and when) have/will be taken to discipline student proponents of hate speech? Finally, will there ever in the future be meetings held at UCT to deal with matters concerning transformation that are fully representative demographically, and at which the UCT administration and senior academic staff defend the status quo or present acceptable alternative action?

To close, I say to the disgruntled SRC president: use the tools and knowledge that you can acquire at UCT to become a functional member of the South African community to replace the criminals and incompetents that have run the country into the ground over the last 21 years. The job is yours.

Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe

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