UCT grants amnesty to protesters

18 May 2015 | Story by Newsroom

13 May 2015

Dear colleagues and students,

I write to update you, yet again, on several issues relating to recent events on campus. I'm mindful of the need to keep everyone updated but not to the point of causing irritation. I hope the balance is right.

All members of the University of Cape Town have been affected, in one way or another, by the recent events on campus relating to the removal of the Cecil John Rhodes statue, the student occupation of Bremner and the attendant debates, protests and media coverage. I know that in this mix, many are thinking and engaging deeply about broader transformation issues and how we steer a path that will renew the university in significant ways whilst strengthening our key values as an institution of higher learning.

We have, of course, for many years struggled with this profound challenge, achieving considerable successes in some areas, but patent backlogs and failings in others. The recent protest action has added urgency and given impetus to our thinking and efforts on transformation. There has been an outpouring of emotions, views and analysis from all sides. We have tried to listen carefully. It has been important for us to hear all voices, as uncomfortable as it may get, and to approach these discussions with open minds, in order for us to learn. It is also critical to the success of such engagement that the university ensures that the spaces for debate feel safe, that people tackle arguments and attitudes and not the person espousing them, and that no one feels their opinions are dismissed or mocked or cannot be voiced.

A necessary condition for meaningful change is to engage all constituencies and to be inclusive, especially of those who have felt marginalised, and of those who may have unpopular or rather different views on where and how to change the university. For UCT to become a place where all staff and students feel at home and valued, the roadmap for change will have to be co-created and co-owned. It is critical that we move quickly into that work, without distraction, and with everyone involved.

This brings me to my next point.

Today we have made an executive decision to grant an amnesty in respect of all protest-related incidents that occurred between the first protest on 9 March 2015 and 18 May 2015. No disciplinary action will be brought against any student or staff member in respect of these events. Granting an amnesty means that we recognise that there were incidents of unacceptable behaviour that contravened UCT rules, but that we will not pursue any punitive action with respect to these contraventions.

We have come to this decision for two main reasons. The first is that mentioned above: namely, an interest in proceeding with a collective transformation project. Disciplinary action against the large number of students and some staff would take months to resolve, would be an ongoing source of conflict and protest, and would prevent the subjects of the disciplinary action, as well as those showing solidarity with them, from participating in the next phase of planning the transformation agenda. This risks losing the energy and will to change that has built up these last two months.

The second reason derives from a process of intense consultation and debate within the institution since the call for disciplinary action was initially issued. This has persuaded me that restorative justice may achieve more than punitive disciplinary action aimed at deterrence through fear of consequences. Our intention has been to insist on boundaries of what we consider acceptable behaviour. We believe we have made those clear.

Going forward, as teachers of the next generation of leaders in society, our goal is not to punish (and possibly expel and ruin careers). We would prefer to develop a shared understanding on appropriate modes of protest and political action. We want to ensure that in the next rounds of contests and campaigns for change, the participants will have a better understanding of the acceptable limits of direct action. We want to develop a sensitivity to how one's actions may affront the dignity of others and result in reactionary hardening of positions instead of dialogue. A process of bureaucratic disciplinary action may have a deterrent effect through the harshness of its consequences, but it is unlikely to change the views of the accused, or to bring them around to seeing things differently. It is unlikely to be educational in a profound way.

I have spoken with many of the victims of verbal assault or alleged intimidation, whether those who offended them were students protesting, staff members with hostile attitudes to protesters, or campus security personnel. Most of them recognise that if the aggressors are simply punished, usually the accused become defensive, denying they have done anything wrong. They may be unlikely to change their attitudes in the future, feeling rather that they have been victimised and left angrier than before. There is also little hope for reconciliation.

On the other hand, for most of those at the receiving end of these protests, such as the members of Council whose meeting was invaded and who had to endure aggressive shouting, chanting, rudeness and restrictions on their freedom to leave the venue, the first prize is to have those protesters hear how they made their targets feel; to discuss with what would happen to the rule of law and good governance if a legal and legitimate authority is simply invaded and bullied by a pressure group strong enough to impose their will by force; to get agreement on the boundaries of legitimate action. Such mediated dialogue is also an opportunity for the protestors or other alleged offenders to explain why they took the action they did, what they were feeling when they did so, and possibly to defend their actions as legitimate or mitigate the judgment of their actions. These views too must be heard by those on the receiving end. All participants should come away with greater insights, respect and a higher degree of mutual trust.

I have written to the Student Representative Council (SRC), Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) and Transform UCT, to inform them of the executive decision, and I trust that as a result we will move swiftly to begin meaningful discussions on the way forward.

Some of you may know that a group of 15 to 20 students have been occupying Avenue House (the offices of the Residence Life division in Avenue Road, near Campus Health) for over two weeks, making working conditions impossible for the staff there. We have provided RMF and those occupying Avenue House with a dedicated venue in a hall next to Avenue House, and they will have to leave Avenue House at the latest middle of Monday,18 May 2015.

I know there will be many who will view this amnesty decision as a capitulation to pressure and will believe we should act much more severely. The executive have debated this extensively, and with many stakeholders, with the Senior Leadership Group and with Council; and we believe that the long-term interests of the university are best served by this course of action.

There are nevertheless some offences occurring during the period of amnesty that we will continue to investigate and prosecute. During the last two months we have received numerous complaints related to racist online comments on social media platforms. There is a bulk file of thousands of postings relating to the removal of the statue specifically that we are systematically investigating. Our legal office will determine, in each case, if the writer is traceable as a UCT student or staff member, and if indeed this is possible to determine, whether charges should be brought. We hope to conclude this soon. We have instituted a charge against one student already but thus far have not been able to link any other names with those of UCT students.

Secondly, I wrote earlier this week about the suspension of a UCT student and the disciplinary case that will follow in relation to an incident that occurred on Friday,1 May 2015. The student is alleged to have intimidated, verbally assaulted and racially abused a member of staff. I reiterate that the incident has nothing to do with protest action surrounding the statue and therefore this disciplinary case is not covered by the amnesty. Whilst we view disciplinary processes as private, the student has been discussing the matter with the media, making untested allegations against the complainant. The complainant is dutifully observing the confidentiality of the process and I urge the public to reserve their judgment until the matter is heard and resolved. I wish to reconfirm that despite his high-profile protest activity, the student will not be facing any disciplinary charges in relation to protest action, for the reasons given above.

Lastly, but very importantly, I want to say something about immediate transformation plans following on the removal of the Rhodes statue.

  • At a special sitting on 22 April 2015, the University Council considered several proposals tabled on behalf of the SRC by the President, Mr Ramabina Mahapa.
    • Council agreed to establish a task team (including student members) to review the names of buildings and works of art across campus, with the goal of creating an environment that embraces the diversity of the UCT community.
    • A second task team is to be established to review the current function, role and powers of the Institutional Forum, with the goal of figuring out how this statutory body can play a more effective role in driving and negotiating transformation.
    • A review will be undertaken this year of the functioning of DISCHO (the Discrimination and Harassment Office).
    • The Curriculum Review Task Team, which is a subcommittee of the Teaching and Learning Committee, is extending its membership to students, and a different framework for thinking about curriculum reform is being developed.
    • There will be a review of the Transformation Services Office – its structure, resourcing and functioning.
  • Faculties have been encouraged to hold open assemblies and fora where students are encouraged to talk about their experience within the faculty. These have already happened in Health Sciences and Law, both with important contributions from students.
  • The employment equity plan for 2015 to 2020 has been intensively debated and will come to Senate and Council in June.
  • A review is being undertaken on the functioning of the system of employment equity representatives, particularly in selection committees.
  • A project has been proposed and is seeking funding to invest heavily in ensuring that the career paths of every black academic in the junior ranks is individually mapped out, with requirements for the next promotion clearly spelled out with a plan for personal development, including pairing up with senior mentors.
  • The composition of the promotions committees is already being reviewed by all faculties in time for this year's promotions round in September, to improve transparency and rebuild trust in the fairness of these committees.
  • Transform UCT (a grouping of black academic staff) participated in the annual Academic Heads of Department workshop on the role HODs can play in transformation at department level.
  • We are proposing a day-long workshop or summit where all interested groups can help design the agenda for tackling transformation.

This is not meant to be a comprehensive statement of our transformation plan, but to indicate that things are on the move with renewed energy, and we should not let complex disciplinary dilemmas distract or stall us.

Once again, I invite all departments, staff and students, the SRC, Transform UCT, RMF, the trade unions and transformation structures to seize this opportunity to plot the course for UCT to achieve leadership and excellence in transformation, as it does in so many other spheres.


Dr Max Price

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