‘Decolonisation’ at the University of Cape Town: What is it? How should it be achieved?

26 September 2017 | Opinion Timothy Crowe.

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The simple answer to both questions is: No one knows. This ignorance was made crystal clear at this year’s TB Davie Memorial Lecture. It featured one of the world’s top 10 public intellectuals, and arguably the leading authority on African colonial/post‐colonial international politics, Mahmood Mamdani. His lecture, “Decolonising the Post-Colonial University”, according to Vice-Chancellor Max Price, would “frame academic freedom and university autonomy through the decolonial lens ... in the current context”.

What is academic freedom and why the TB Davie Lecture?

In 1950 VC Davie nailed UCT’s long-standing academic vision to the mast.

Universities should be populated by those fitted by ability and training for higher education … aiming at the advancement of knowledge by the methods of study and research founded on absolute intellectual integrity and pursued in an atmosphere of academic freedom”. This should allow “real” universities the autonomy to decide:

  • who shall teach – determined by fitness and scholarship and experience
  • what we teach – the truth and not what it is demanded by others for the purposes of sectional, political, religious or ideological dogmas or beliefs
  • how we teach – not subject to interference aimed at standardisation at the expense of originality and [most importantly]
  • whom we teach – [individuals] intellectually capable and morally worthy to join the great brotherhood which constitutes the wholeness of the university.

All fine, except the still patriarchal principal missed out on ‘sister-’ and ‘other-self-identified-hoods’.

But he was not done. The university community should:

  • reflect the multiracial picture of the society it serves
  • give a lead to the cultural and spiritual development of the different race groups as part of the developments of the community as a whole
  • aid the state by providing training for and maintaining standards in the learned professions and public services
  • serve the community in the true sense of the university, ie as a centre for the preservation, the advance, and the dissemination of learning for its own sake and without regard to its usefulness, to all who are academically qualified for admission, irrespective of race, colour or creed.

I would drop the use of “race” or replace it with “non-racial”.

Despite all this, I don’t see why this vision has been dropped. Indeed, the annual TB Davie Memorial Lecture on academic freedom was established by UCT students to commemorate the memory of Davie’s principles underpinning academic freedom.

UCT’s vision today is brief, much ‘inclusified’ and contextualised, and has geographical, national and social foci:

“UCT is an inclusive and engaged research-intensive African university that inspires creativity through outstanding achievements in learning, discovery and citizenship; enhancing the lives of its students and staff, advancing a more equitable and sustainable social order and influencing the global higher education landscape.”

Davie ‘unfrozen’

UCT VC Max Price’s pre-lecture comments gave Davie’s ‘principled-principal’ stance short shrift and opened it to ‘reinterpretation’.

He said that, today, beyond “academic merit”, academic freedom “may also entail other [unspecified] criteria”. It is a “live issue not frozen in 1950s” that needs to be “reinvestigated, reinterpreted, re-understood (sic) and reapplied” in the light of “other [unspecified] issues” and a changing “institutional culture” facilitated by “fierce and robust discussions” [about what, and why not through unfettered rational debate?].

To my mind, this is a Marxist (Groucho not Karl) position: “If you don’t like my principles, I have others.”

Price ‘Fallistified’

When Price discussed the Mamdani Affair, he was heckled, requesting: “Please let me speak ... please respect our rights to speak.” He condemned past UCT executives’ actions, saying: “The use of administrative fiat to stifle intellectual debate has no place in a university setting” and “all viewpoints should be allowed to contend freely”.

This is surprising, since his executive cancelled (with short notice and over strong objections from the Academic Freedom Committee and many staff, students and alumni) the 2016 TB Davie Lecture. Price acted because the invited speaker (journalist Flemming Rose) was anonymously and salaciously defamed as a “bigot” or “blasphemer”, and Price “feared” that allowing him to speak would cause unspecified “violent protest”.

Furthermore, “over the past two years [at UCT], both commemorative and fine art has been defaced, intentionally destroyed by fire, blacklisted, censored, covered up and removed from display. Additionally, photographic exhibitions have been attacked and closed down, and the Michaelis School of Fine Art was occupied by protestors for a number of weeks towards the end of 2016 and its students and teachers threatened.”

I deal with this Price–executive “fiat” in Part 3.

Mamdani’s ‘Big Bang Theories’

In her comments on Mamdani, event chairperson Elelwani Ramugondo showed her colours by quoting Mamdani’s characterisation of the Ramphele executive as an “administration [that] paid lip-service to academic transformation” and resisted “any innovative idea as a threat to its power”.

Mamdani started with two ‘bangs’. First, he answered, to great applause, the question: “Why did you decide to come [back to UCT after so many years]?” with: “Because Rhodes fell.”

Then he mentioned that UCT academics had asked him, in the spirit of academic freedom, to refuse to give the Davie lecture, unless Rose Flemming (sic) was re-invited to speak. These include philosopher David Benatar, a member of the pro-Rose Academic Freedom Committee. But, (to keep the audience on their toes?) Mamdani deferred his reply to question time. This I deal with in another piece.

Then, contrary to the advertised decolonisation “in the current context”, his lecture was based largely on the “historical context that shaped the post-colonial university”. He mentioned, inter alia:

  • Eurocentric theory “born of comparison” and “matured to its fullest during the colonial period”
  • the production of knowledge begins with the organisation of phenomena
  • comparison requires a standard, potentially highly subjective evaluative reference point.

In African universities, that “point” was/is ‘colonial-centric’. Whatever African alternative(s) has been ignored/dismissed because it was not encoded in “texts”. The modern African university is based on a German, “discipline-based gated community” model, requiring “clearly defined administrators, academics and fee-paying students” pursuing 19th-century ideas from the Era of Enlightenment.

If he read the UCT News, he might have a different perspective.

In short, African universities are “in the frontline” of a “one-size-fits-all”, “top-down, modernistic project” that assumes a Eurocentric “oneness of humanity” seeking to “civilise the world in its own image” through “conquest”. Currently, this conquest is “emphasised by IMF/World Bank ... structural adjustment programmes”.

The colonial university’s “ambition [is] to create universal scholars”, “stand for excellence, regardless of context” and form the “vanguard of the civilising mission without reservation or remorse”.

Pretty scary!

Then Mamdani gave his first recommendation: “If you regard yourself as prisoners in this ongoing colonising project, then your task must be to subvert that process from within”, and he ‘defined’ decolonisation: “Sift through historical legacy and contemporary reality discarding some parts and adapting others to a newfound purpose.” This requires “nationalist public intellectuals” whose “hallmark is [to] place specific contextual relevance” above “excellence said to be universal without regard to context”.

Then he discussed long-past “decolonisation” at the African universities of Makerere (paradigmatically colonial) and Dar es Salaam (anti-colonial nationalist and “home of the committed public intellectual”), with the latter “embedded in space-time context” and “deeply engaged in with the wider society”. The key ‘gunslingers’ in this showdown were universal scholar Professor Ali Mazrui (Makerere) and Mamdani’s ‘hero’, public intellectual Professor Walter Rodney (Dar es Salaam).

Makerere ranks in the top 500 universities worldwide, and fourth in Africa. Because of student unrest and faculty disenchantment, the university was closed three times between 2006 and 2016. The final time was on 1 November 2016 when President Yoweri Museveni declared it closed “indefinitely”. [It was only re-opened at the end of December.]

‘Dar’ is 3 021st worldwide (out of 3 290 ranked institutions) and 57th in Africa.

UCT is among the top 200 worldwide (but falling) and first or second in Africa. It closes at the whim of Fallists when they make it ungovernable.

Stellenbosch University is catching up rapidly.

Then Mamdani put the brakes on, counselling: “Resist the temptation to dismiss one or the other” strategy and “bring the two together since each has value”. The Rodney strategy emphasizes “place, politics and power relations” and “continuous curriculum review” within a disciplinarily-unbounded institution. The Mazrui strategy pursues ‘universal truth’, facilitated by employing unfettered “ideas”. Indeed, without ideas, “Why have a university at all?”

So, maybe there is room at UCT for BOTH decolonisation strategies.

But then Mamdani put the decolonisation pedal-to-the-metal and stated that this dual strategy cannot be achieved without a revival of “an African mode of reasoning based on traditional communication and intellectual history” – a “new system with multiple reference points”. A key missing factor in this quest requires serious input from indigenous African languages, suppressed alike by paleo- and neo-colonialists.

Now comes Mamdani’s second “recommendation”.

“Decolonisation must be a multilinguistic project!”

So, in addition to the “non-negotiable” Fees-must-fall demands, UCT must develop new Sotho and Nguni “language centres”, and these languages should feature strongly in mode of instruction, buttressed by massive translation programmes. This will allow 21st-century African students to “get to know neighbours” and “theorise [their] own reality”.

Otherwise, at UCT “a student will [continue to] be a technician trained to apply theories developed elsewhere”.

But, then the brakes came on again when Mamdani wisely stated that the locally focused, politically sensitive public intellectual and unfettered, global-viewing, discipline-based, ideologically unconstrained universal scholar are “not different persona”, but “two sides of a single quest for knowledge balance”. “Let’s close the gap between them!”

He closed with a final swipe at the Ramphele executive and offered “a personal reflection” to Price.

“I came in 1996, full of excitement, wanting to learn and make a contribution to a new world. Instead, I found a world unsure of itself, full of anxiety. The leadership of government had changed. But the leadership of institutions had not. Instead of being receptive to change, the institutional leadership looked with distrust to every initiative for change suspecting it of harbouring a hidden subversive agenda.”

Many of the ‘other’ people involved in the Mamdani Affair, perhaps including VC Ramphele, can refute him, but probably won’t try. I will report on this ‘affair’ in a piece to come.

To Price: Don’t obsess on how much money creating this ‘new reality’ will cost or wonder where the Sotho/Nguni academics are going to come from. “This is not the time to think like an accountant.”

Perhaps he should become a public intellectual?

My predictions are as follows:

  • True to form, Price will shout to one and all: “Show me the money.”
  • When it doesn’t come there will be no ‘decolonisation’.
  • More academics will take severance packages or be retrenched to ‘save’ money.
  • Price will continue to pander to Fallists and ignore UCT’s “entrenched”, “culturally blind”, “silenced majority” who just want to learn and conduct research in “safe places”.
  • When fee-free education fails [rightly focusing on helping the financially most strapped]; lawbreaking Fallists are not granted more amnesties and unconditional academic readmission; and the Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission (IRTC) process is impeded because no one can agree on what’s punishable “unacceptable protest” [let alone “sifting” decolonisation], Fallists will follow Mamdani’s advice and those who feel “imprisoned” will “subvert that process from within.”

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