Does UCT value its values?

03 May 2017 | Professor Jeremy Seekings

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.

Jeremy Seekings, professor of political studies and sociology, examines how the management of the university responded to an early challenge on the newly adopted Statement of Values.

Last year we at UCT were called upon to consider our values. We debated and then adopted a Statement of Values that “provides a framework that proactively guides our actions: As a community, the university commits itself, and expects all its members to commit to upholding these values in institutional and personal relationships, and in all aspects of university life.”

Faced with an early test of the university’s new values, what did the management of the university do? They passed the buck and hid behind lame excuses for inaction. The test arose from the visit of the celebrated Kenyan author and scholar Ngugi wa Thiong’o to UCT at the beginning of March.

Bringing Ngugi to UCT to deliver a lecture on decolonisation was very much in line with UCT’s stated values. These values include promoting “the academic interrogation of boundaries, knowledge traditions and power relations”, promoting “academic freedom, including the creation of spaces for the contestation of ideas”, and advancing “knowledge about the African continent and academics on the continent as international thought leaders”.

UCT’s Statement of Values also commits us to:

  • intellectual honesty, rigour in debate, openness to alternative ideas and respect for other views, ways of being, beliefs and opinions
  • inclusiveness, embodying respect for cultural, religious, linguistic, political and other differences and acknowledgement of the value of diversity in society
  • refrain from speech or conduct that demeans or humiliates people.

Some of the behaviour by some members of the audience violated these values.

None of us should have imagined that it would be easy to live up to the standards set in the Statement of Values. The most difficult challenges that are likely to arise will entail trade-offs between them. How should we respond if the interrogation of boundaries, knowledge traditions and power relations gives rise to “speech or conduct that demeans or humiliates people”? Or if inclusiveness for some entails disrespect for others?

Widely advertised lecture

Ngugi’s lecture had been advertised widely as part of the Great Texts/Big Questions series hosted by UCT’s Institute of Creative Arts (formerly the Gordon Institute for the Performing and Creative Arts, GIPCA) and was later reported as such on the Humanities Faculty website. This is probably UCT’s most prestigious public lecture series, in which notable intellectuals from outside the university as well as UCT’s own scholars have discussed texts or questions of importance. This was an entirely appropriate context for a great intellectual  to present a lecture on a topic of undoubted importance. The audience was welcomed by Jay Pather, the Director of UCT’s Institute of Creative Arts. Professor Xolela Mangcu of UCT’s Department of Sociology chaired the event and the speaker was introduced by the Acting Dean of UCT’s Faculty of Humanities, Professor Harry Garuba, who is himself a literary scholar.

When Ngugi went to the podium, some members of the audience raised their hands and indicated that one of them – a UCT student – wanted to speak from the podium. According to the video of the event and the student’s own account (later published on the Black Opinion website), it seems that Ngugi agreed. Professor Mangcu and the Acting Dean looked on. The student later identified herself as Kolosa Ntombini, a third-year BSc student at UCT and member of the Pan-Africanist Students Movement of Azania (PASMA), ie the student grouping that played the leading role in the protests that shut down UCT for part of 2016.

Addressing Ngugi respectfully as “father” and “tata”, the student proposed that he instruct all white members of the audience to leave because she and others wanted to converse without the presence of the “oppressors”. At this point, Professor Mangcu took the microphone and called on the audience to “show respect” by allowing Ngugi to deliver his address. He then delivered his address without further interruption. The student sat on stage, with a poster, but apparently did not try to interrupt him.

After he delivered his lecture, the floor was opened to members of the audience to ask questions. When protesters prevented one member of the audience from asking a question, apparently on the basis of what they saw as his race or skin colour, Professor Mangcu closed the meeting.

Lack of respect

Later, Professor Mangcu used his column in the Sunday Independent to castigate the protesters for their lack of respect. Quoting Steve Biko, Professor Mangcu said that disrespect for the elders was an unforgivable sin. He concluded that “Decolonisation that assaults African values is not worth its salt.” More specifically, Professor Mangcu complained that Ms Ntombini had “demanded” that Ngugi ask ‘whites’ to leave and that the protesters also “called him [Ngugi] names when he refused”.

Mangcu’s criticism of Ms Ntombini seems somewhat misplaced, not only because she was – at least on one level – deeply respectful of Ngugi, but also because Mangcu himself, in his introductory remarks, emphasised that he had invited Ngugi to engage with the students. Ms Ntombini’s opinion that members of the audience should be ‘othered’ and excluded from a public UCT event on the basis of their supposed race is repugnant, and might constitute a violation of UCT’s values, but her expression of her opinion can be defended on the basis of free speech.[1] If protesters did call Ngugi offensive names, as Mangcu stated, then this would have been deeply disrespectful, and a violation of UCT’s values.

Mangcu’s column prompted strong and nasty responses online, especially through the Black Opinion website. Sisipho Fongoqa and Lindsay Maasdorp, identified as student activists and members of the Black First Land First student movement (BLF-SM), dismissed Mangcu as “nothing more than a liberal”, who imitates his master and treats “radical black intellectuals” as children. He was the “house negro”:

“We had no intention of shutting an old black father who has given us the text to rebel against colonialism in practice. But this moment in truth had nothing to do with Ngugi, it had everything to do with Mangcu and his relationship to his white boss.

“If a field negro is invited into the house, the house negro is more fearful of how the field negro will act in front of Maasta. Maasta doesn’t recognise a difference, Maasta see niggers. The house negro wants the Maasta to know that they are different and that the house negro is closer to Maasta.

“This was Xolela Mangcu. A house negro, embarrassed that there would be no seamless swaying of speeches in this ‘decolonial’ space.”

Fongoqa is a UCT student. Maasdorp apparently is not, and apparently never has been, although he was an active participant in protests, including the occupation of UCT’s Bremner Building, in 2016-17.[2]

This strident attack on Mangcu was continued by other writers. Athi Mongezeleli Joja (identified as art critic and co-editor of the New Frank Talk journal) accused Mangcu of trying to impose his  “compradorial agenda” on radicals. Mangcu, he wrote, has become obsessed with Harvard. In asserting the importance of respect, it is alleged, Mangcu is implicitly calling for respect for the white masters. Ncedisa Mpemnyama, also identified as a student activist and the Western Cape Provincial Convenor of the Black First Land First (BLF) movement, also picked up on Mangcu’s American connections, calling him “Professor Harvard” and accusing him of becoming an “Uncle Tom”. The content of these attacks on Mangcu is undoubtedly nasty and deeply offensive. I think that accusations of being a “house negro” and an “Uncle Tom” probably constitute a form of racial hate-speech. But many of us would defend the expression of these opinions, even if the opinions themselves are offensive, on the basis of free speech.

Respect for other views

Even more worrying is the fact that protesters at the lecture prevented a member of the audience from asking a question, apparently on the basis of his skin colour or presumed ‘race’. This would seem to be a clear violation of several of UCT’s values: “openness to alternative ideas and respect for other views”, “inclusiveness, embodying respect for … differences and acknowledgement of the value of diversity in society”, and “refrain from speech or conduct that demeans or humiliates people”. The protesters were not expressing their own opinion; they were preventing someone else, at a publicly-advertised UCT event, from speaking. Professor Mangcu probably did the right thing in immediately bringing the event to an end.

How did UCT respond? Neither the Acting Vice-Chancellor nor the Acting Dean of Humanities issued any kind of public statement, even after the event attracted considerable comment on social media. Both UCT managers tried to wriggle out of any responsibility. Asked in UCT’s Senate on Friday, 31 March why the university had been silent, the Vice-Chancellor suggested that this has not been a normal university event. The Acting Dean of Humanities then muddied the water by suggesting that it had not been a faculty event either. There had, he suggested, been some issue to do with the organisation of the lecture. Pressed further at a meeting of the Humanities Faculty Board on 5 April, the Acting Dean of Humanities seemed to suggest that the event was Professor Mangcu’s personal initiative and had nothing to do with the faculty – despite the facts that the event had been advertised (and later reported) as part of UCT’s premier public lecture series, the audience had been welcomed by the Director of the Institute for Creative Arts, and the Acting Dean himself had introduced the speaker! In a telling aside, the Acting Dean remarked that it would have been “provocative” to hold the protesters to account. In Senate, the VC did concede that the event was ‘seen’ by the public to be a university event and as such the university had erred in not issuing a statement. Neither the VC nor the Acting Dean has done anything to date.

At what was advertised and seen as a university event, protesters – some of whom were UCT students – only permitted questions from members of the audience whom they deemed racially acceptable. The protesters ‘othered’ members of the public on racial grounds and clearly violated UCT’s new Statement of Values. The university should have immediately issued a strong statement condemning racial intolerance and affirming the university’s commitment to its stated values. Instead, the VC and the Acting Dean of Humanities tried to pass the buck. By remaining silent, they became complicit not only in racial intolerance at a public UCT event but also in behaviour that is degenerating into openly racial hate-speech. It seems that the university does not value its values.

[1] UCT recognises that racially-exclusive organisations such as the Black Academic Forum have a role to play in a university that is endeavouring to address racialised injustices. But, as Neville Alexander used to warn, racial ‘othering’ can lead to the perpetration of new and terrible injustices.

[2] This is according to the founding affidavit signed by the Acting Registrar, dated 1 April 2017, for UCT’s application for an interdict against Maasdorp and others who were occupying the Bremner Building.

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