A response to the opinion piece "The challenge of decolonisation: UCT's transformation journey"

08 April 2016 | Story by Newsroom

The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the individual authors in their private capacity; they do not represent or reflect the views, opinions or policies of the University of Cape Town or the Communication and Marketing Department.

Few can dispute that UCT is rapidly becoming “a fundamentally different university”. The authors also insist that this must not be at the expense of maintaining (quality education and research. Quality education as the production of outstanding graduates who have careers – jobs that pay the bills and demonstrably contribute to society. Quality research is that which challenges flawed existing paradigms and, when they are shown to be lacking, generates testable, innovative hypotheses to replace them.

How does one assess quality education? For graduates, this means finishing one's studies in the allotted time and getting high marks. For educators, this means producing large numbers of successful graduates who obtain relevant employment followed by subsequent effective performance.

Quality research should be identified through review by epistemological peers (e.g. rating by the South African National Research Foundation) and impact of publications in peer-reviewed literature (e.g. using some form of the h-index). Peer review is assessment by international, highly ranked people familiar with the work of the person being assessed, with some of the reviewers being nominated by the assessee. With regard to peer-reviewed literature, publication in more prestigious journals (e.g. Science, Nature, etc.) should be valued more highly that in those at the low end of the spectrum.

Students who are deemed likely to fail to complete their studies in the allotted time and/or who actually fail to do so (or do so only by achieving poor marks), should receive counselling/academic support that can remediate these unacceptable situations. If, despite these remedial efforts, students still fail, they should be terminated and replaced by those who can succeed.

Good educators who are poor researchers should be identified as such and rewarded accordingly. But, they should not be promoted to full professor.  Excellent educators/researchers should be fast tracked to professorships.

Poor educators and researchers should be replaced by those who are and continue to deliver. Those who do not deliver consistently should be counselled and given the opportunity to recover.  However, in the end, if they don't, they should be replaced by those who can and do deliver.

It's as simple as that if the primary goal is to maintaining quality. I challenge anyone, especially the authors, to come up with better ways to assess quality and success and better strategies to achieve them.

With regard to 'offensive' “heritage symbols, names and statues”, instead of summarily removing/destroying them, there should be balanced, open, transparent debate on their status and future value followed by fully democratic (i.e. by ballot) review. This can be partitioned, e.g. by status (student. academic staff, administrative staff, alumnus) or, if necessary by 'race', self-identified gender, age, etc. So, for example, if a majority based largely on old 'white' men voted to retain the name Jameson Hall, one could reject such a decision for cause.

Yes, the emergent 'new UCT' should be “contested”, but through open, rational, evidence-based debate, not demands supported by ideology or unsubstantiated assertions with unachievable deadlines. There must not be a repetition of the intimidation that occurred in Jameson Hall and the venues for meetings of Senate and Council.

I object to the dictum “that the old UCT of white historical privilege is being transformed, if for no other reasons than history and demography”. What is meant by “history”? One of the authors has, in writing, previously referred to the “right side of history”. Indeed, is there a history of UCT that demonstrates the “institutionalized racism” since 1994? Slavish subordination to the demands of “demography” to the detriment of quality as outlined above is a recipe for disaster.

What is meant by “transformation”? I see it as “a process of converting something old to something new of similar, ideally, better value”. If “value” is going to be compromised as a consequence of forced incorporation of policies and actions under the guise of “history”, “demograhics”, “reconciliation, redress, affirmative action”, inherited “schooling deficits” , “incorporation of those previously disadvantaged” undermines “value” or “quality” it is also a 'no win' result.

I oppose “decolonisation” (= destruction and/or elimination) of structures and curricula on the primary basis that they are products of “old or dead 'white' men/settlers from Europe”. Justification cannot be based on the argument that the new items are “peculiarly South African”. There needs to be some credible demonstration that the 'decolonised' new is an improvement (in quality as described above) on the 'colonized' old. Change is not always beneficial. Merely tarring the old with rhetoric such as “axes of privilege and black experience” is poor pedagogy at best.

UCT should not aim to be the best South African or even best African university. To goal is to be the best in an international area. Before one invokes “polar opposites of white privilege and black pain; the exclusion and marginalization of 'black bodies' by white domination”, there is a need to demonstrate that they exist. The only “domination” I see currently at UCT is that of an aggressive minority who refuse to debate, personally attack those who disagree with them and make unreasonable demands, over the majority that just wants to achieve quality as outlined above. Where is the evidence of actual racial discrimination other than against 'whites'? All the authors offer are “a number of allegations”. What is wrong with incorporating “white intellectual accomplishment” into curricula? The mooted 'ethnic cleansing' can be justified only by producing 'black accomplishment' that can replace the old stuff with something that does not compromise quality. In my 22 years at post-apartheid UCT, I have never be involved with or heard of “black financial and academic exclusions”. If allowed, I could identify examples of unjustifiable 'inclusion'/advancement of 'blacks'. With regard to in/outsourcing, I predict that reverting to the former is going to worsen rather than improve the quality of work and the frequency of labour unrest.

I am literally sick and tired of hearing that everything “is thus profoundly about race and pitches black liberation against 'whiteness' ”. What is needed desperately is adherence to principles such as hard work, reconciliation and synergistic collaboration.  The reality is that groups should complement, not suppress/exclude, one another. Rapid adaptive transformation, and not blind, uncritical, helter skelter decolonisation, is what is required.

The justifiable “Fall of Rhodes”, as it actually was implemented, to me is a symbol of demand-driven intimidation and violence, not a glorious triumph of reasoned debate. The 'other' at UCT is now the quiet liberal who just wants to identify problems clearly and solve them effectively. UCT is not “re-emerging”, it is imploding. I am tired of being damned because I am 'white' and achieved what I have to the exclusion of 'blacks'. Yes, I am entitled, but because I earned that status. There is and never was a 'whiteness' involving a rejection of the perpetuation of historical entitlement in an “all-encompassing racism” at UCT. The vast, vast majority of the staff and students I had the 'privilege' of working with over 40 years despised apartheid and, whenever the opportunity arose, did their best to undermine it. The authors and many of the other 'activists' on campus benefitted directly or indirectly from structures/curricula they now wish to eradicate. Maybe the time is ripe for them to “Pay back the money” they received.

I am concerned that, like the various commissions of enquiry, set up by the discredited ANC government, the “task team” and “Planning Group” at UCT” will do little more than to capitulate to the demands based on “right history” and “blind demography”. An “inclusive environment” could just become a place where everyone is a jerk-of-all-trades and a master of nothing.

I'm sure that anyone who attempts to do any research into the matter will have no objection to renaming Jameson Hall. Other than being one of Rhodes' last close companions, his only real claims to “fame” are leadership of a failed coup d'etat and being the subject of Kipling's poem “If”. I have written to the task team suggesting Suzman and Sebokwe (second choice) as alternatives. Robert Sebokwe, who I had the privilege of meeting during my years in Kimberley is second only because he died too soon. Helen Suzman would be the bold choice because of her many years of brave, corruption-free (often solitary) opposition of Apartheid in parliament her 'oppression credentials' as a Jewish woman. I won't hold my breath on this.

UCT Emeritus Prof. Tim Crowe

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