Importance of keeping UCT open for debate

24 February 2016 | From the VC’s Desk

Dear colleagues and students,

I'm sure many of you share my deep concern over the violence that took place on some South African campuses the last two days. The reports on news and social media are deeply disturbing.

UCT has come in for its share of vandalism and violence. Most recently, this morning, groups of students threw poo across the floors of many lecture venues and open spaces in several buildings on Upper Campus. I wish to express my abhorrence at this action - which I know is shared strongly by the staff and students who had to navigate these spaces this morning, as well as the cleaning staff who removed the faeces. Not only is flinging poo around a dangerous health hazard; it is also an affront to our shared humanity.

As you well know, our university campuses have become theatres within which wider national political issues are being staged. Anger and rage are palpable, sometimes for good reason. And undoubtedly there are university-specific issues that still need our attention. It's a volatile and difficult time all-round – which is why it is especially important to assert and defend as vigorously as we can what our universities stand for. I am writing to you now to ask each of you to consider the challenge that we all are facing, at the University of Cape Town and other universities, and how you will choose to respond.

I want to encourage you to make the choice to keep the space open for debate and engagement - as imaginatively and courageously as possible. Make use of the opportunities the university provides to confront the times in creative and thoughtful ways. I know and applaud that many of you are already doing this - and urge you to continue. This is a role and contribution for which the university environment is particularly well-suited. Over the years, UCT has hosted discussions and debates on many controversial topics involving many different groups and viewpoints. This year especially, with so many serious national and global  issues on the agenda, make the most of what UCT can contribute to a milieu of thoughtful reflection and respectful argument.

This means that we each take the decision not to allow our personal politics to interfere with the rights of others to express their ideas and opinions in an open discussion. We choose instead to provide an inclusive forum for the exchange of different views. We all need to have the courage to listen to ideas and perspectives with which we might be unfamiliar, and disagree, and even be offended by - while we trust the right to be heard reciprocally by those who disagree with us.

Some of us may come under pressure from our own political parties to interfere in legitimate university business, including academic debate, for electioneering purposes. Student political societies are a valued part of the campus community and we welcome the involvement of students, especially, in leading different discussions on campus. However, that role should not be confused with electioneering. Please lead one another into peaceful and respectful engagement and encourage those who come on campus for meetings here to do the same.

Another pressure that many of us may face is racial provocation. Again, I ask you to think about how you want to be treated and how you want to treat others on campus. I call on all of you to help one another to walk away from confrontations that may lead to violence. If you feel you are coming under such an attack, I urge you to bring your case to Campus Protection Services (telephone 021 650 2222/3), the Discrimination and Harassment Office (021 650 3530) or the Ombud (021 650 4805).

One of UCT's core values is a respect for diversity– of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, culture, political views, and so on. I know that some groups on campus feel that their views and issues are not sufficiently heard or acknowledged. Many feel silenced and unable to express themselves freely. All of us, including those of us in positions of authority, must strive to be as responsive as we can. At the same time, we should insist that there is no recourse to hate speech, violence, vandalism or intimidation, and no infringement on the rights of others.

I have said many time – and reiterate here – that we will take appropriate action against such breaches.

I am proud that the majority of students and staff do practice respect for one another. You have come to UCT to take advantage of the opportunities that are available to you here, I encourage you to embrace these.


Dr Max Price

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