Identifying and building on past successes can also help realign the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) future

04 October 2018 | Opinion Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe. Read time >10 min.

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In her recent piece on using “past errors” to help realign UCT’s future, VC Phakeng should also have mentioned that, even going back to the pre-liberation days, UCT has success stories involving challenges to Apartheid and maintaining Academic Freedom and excellence. I will attempt to rectify this in the hope that those responsible for healing what ails South Africa in general and UCT in particular can develop and implement strategies that take ALL of her history into account.

The bad old days

During the pre-Apartheid era of segregation, UCT’s first vice chancellor ‘Jock’ Beattie drew a firm line at what he regarded as less than “decent behaviour”. During the 1930s, when the right-wing, racist, anti-Semitic, nationalist Afrikaner Nasionale Studentebond (ASB) intimidated ‘nie-blanke’ students and Jewish and ‘progressive’ members of UCT’s community, he threw it off-campus. UCT’s administrative department (according to its first registrar Wilfred Murray) was decidedly supportive of academics (rather than dictating to them) and decentralized:

“The administrative staff must justify its existence by setting standards and methods of procedure of high order. As a department it has no claim to existence in a university unless it can relieve the teaching departments of the responsibility for those duties which can be carried out more efficiently through a central office”.

Academically, the most noteworthy exception to the narrow-minded professorial ranks was the trans-disciplinarian Zoology Prof. Lancelot Hogben, an anti-eugenicist, physiologist/medical-genetic-statistician with a fascination for linguistics. His major scientific achievement at UCT was the discovery that a female Xenopus frog, when injected with urine from a pregnant woman, ovulated within hours, resulting in the Hogben Pregnancy Test.

One of the most famous of Hogben’s many quotes is:

"I like Scandinavians, skiing, swimming and socialists who realize it is our business to promote social progress by peaceful methods. I dislike football, economists, eugenicists, Fascists, Stalinists, and Scottish conservatives. I think that sex is necessary and bankers are not".

He defied the racist-colonialist culture when he escorted a beautiful ‘coloured’ woman to a UCT ball and was a leading ‘nurturer’ in the scholarly debate on the effects of nature vs nurture in humans. His views continue to influence scientific practice and debate relating to the arguably racist views that evolved into Sociobiology. One might speculate on the outcome of a ‘partnership’ between Hogben and the equally controversial Archie Mafeje if their careers had overlapped, since the latter started out his career as a zoology student.

UCT acquires a heart and soul

After World War II, UCT changed profoundly academically with the influx of dozens of young, brilliant, politically ‘less-closed-minded’ home-grown and global expatriate scholars. Many had fought/protested in formal battle and/or otherwise protested locally to create freedom world-wide. These academics cared for fellow South Africans in general, and their students in particular. Equally pivotal were the vision and actions of UCT’s first South African-born Vice Chancellor - TB Davie. (1948-1955). Throughout his tenure, Davie was plagued by a progressively crippling, ultimately fatal disease. Yet, unlike any VC before or since (certainly in unpublished notes) his passionate commitment to academic freedom and non-racialism led him to consider urging his students to “take up arms” against the Apartheid government to challenge its racist laws.

In a 1950 speech, Davie ‘nailed’ his and UCT’s academic principles 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:

  1. “who shall teach – determined by fitness and scholarship and experience;
  2. 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;
  3. how we teach – not subject to interference aimed at standardization at the expense of originality; and [most importantly]
  4. whom we teach – [individuals] intellectually capable and morally worthy to join the great brotherhood which constitutes the wholeness of the university”.

But he was not done. He went on to say that the university community should:

  1. “reflect the multi-racial picture of the society it serves;
  2. 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;
  3. aid the state by providing training for and maintaining standards in the learned professions and public services; and
  4. serve the community in the true sense of the university, i.e. 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.”

Hence, it is fit and proper that the annual TB Davie Memorial Lecture on academic freedom was established by UCT students to commemorate the memory of Davie’s devotion to principles. In the first TB Davie Lecture, UCT Chancellor Justice van der Sandt Centlivres emphasized Davies’ “fearlessly fighting for” “absolute intellectual freedom”, “intellectual integrity” and taking the unshakable position that “advancement of knowledge” should involve “the untrammelled pursuit of the truth”.

He succinctly summarized Davie:

“He gave his heart and soul to the University.”

From then on, UCT became infamous amongst the apartheid regime as “little Moscow on the hill”, an island of liberalism and academic freedom in a sea of systematic oppression. UCT’s new leaders and community could learn lots from VC Davie. Indeed, two months ago, UCT’s official historian Howard Phillips, presented a highly informative seminar sponsored by her Development and Alumni Department (DAD) on the ‘Davie Era’. Sadly, although it was videoed, it remains inaccessible to the broad UCT Community on her YouTube page.

Institutionally, unlike all other universities in South Africa at the time, universities (except perhaps Wits), her 1959 dedication to Academic Freedom set UCT apart as a fervent opponent of Apartheid. UCT was, in effect, a refuge of ‘principle-driven’ excellence.  In comparison, other English-medium, ‘white’ universities, Rhodes University and the University of Natal lagged far behind. Furthermore, while Afrikaans-medium universities (especially the University of Pretoria) actively colluded academically and financially with the Apartheid government and aggressively promoted Volkekunde as the ‘standard’ Social Anthropology and racialized genetics, UCT academics refused funding from the Apartheid government, except for medical research. Its social anthropologists (e.g. Archie’s mentor and collaborator Monica Wilson), if anything, ‘overly’ resisted Apartheid at the expense of their research and personal safety.

The next DAD seminar (on the VC JP Duminy Era by Keith Gottschalk) presented on 27 August wasn’t even videoed and the written transcript held by the DAD is still inaccessible.

Then comes VC Sir Richard Luyt. Yes, UCT’s most disgraceful institutional act, the Mafeje Affair, was the belated refusal in 1968 by newly appointed VC Luyt and the UCT Council to confirm the merit-based academic appointment of Archie Mafeje. Yes, Luyt and some other UCT leaders fell for Minister Jan de Klerk’s promises of continuing the Apartheid government’s “outward-looking policy”. There were also thinly veiled threats of punitive action, financial and otherwise. Any retaliation could have created a “catastrophe” within UCT at the “centre of a storm”, crippling and/or destroying her - mirroring what was done to the Pan-Africanist Congress, African National Congress and Black Consciousness movements, and many individuals across a broad spectrum of ‘self-identity’. Despite this capitulation, the Council vote to renege on appointing Mafeje was strongly contested and, in August 1968, ca 600 UCT students (10% of the then student population) occupied the area in and around Bremner Administrative Building for nine days, demanding that the UCT Council reconsider its decision to withdraw Mafeje's appointment. [Less than 0.5% of the UCT students supported Fallism.] Protests were also held on Jameson Plaza and Prof. Maurice Pope resigned rather than remain at a subservient UCT.

Presumably, Lungisile Ntsebeza, Mafeje scholar and current holder of the AC Jordan Chair in African Studies, discussed the Affair in detail in his DAD-sponsored seminar on the ‘Luyt Era’ a month ago. Sadly, it is also still unavailable to the UCT Community on its YouTube page or in written form.

Luyt’s successor, medical professor, physician ‘Dr’ Stuart Saunders, whom he had appointed as deputy principal for planning (DPP), put the decolonization ‘pedal to the metal’ while catapulting UCT to the world stage in terms of research excellence. During his stint as DPP, Saunders took an unprecedented decision to publicly resign from the Medical Association of South Africa, as an act of protest, its failure to condemn its members who failed in their treatment of the brutally assaulted Steve Biko, ultimately resulting in his death. One of Saunders’ first major ‘executive acts’ as VC was to defy the Group Area Act and open UCT’s student residences to all ‘races’. He also found/raised funds to cover the costs of accommodating black students who were eligible for support. Furthermore, unlike his predecessors, he met openly with all banned UCT academics, other staff and students and made representations on their behalf to the Minister of ‘Justice’. When their banning orders expired, they were not renewed.

Initially, the Saunders Era was to be discussed in late September by former UCT DVC Crain Soudien. This presentation was (according to DAD Director and historian Russell Ally) “changed because of certain circumstances“ and will now be presented on 8 October by Ms Nomfundo Walaza, a human rights activist and a student at UCT during the 1980s who was involved in the mediation processes at UCT during the 2016 student protests. This substitution is particularly sad since Soudien was a student at UCT in the 1970s and a highly influential and well-informed academic and administrator for nearly four decades thereafter.

Saunders also significantly developed the world-first Centre for African Studies (CAS) and establishing its AC Jordan Chair. These endeavours were funded largely by Chancellor Harry Oppenheimer (in his personal capacity) and his ‘Rhodes-derived’ mining companies, DeBeers and Anglo American. [The CAS was nearly disestablished during the Price Era.] Saunders further broke fertile ground by supporting the genesis of the Gay and Lesbian Association and massively developed the UCT Fund Inc. (launched by Davie) whose primary aim is to provide financial support for ‘black’ students. One hopes that the new speaker will mention some of these positive contributions.

I could go on and on. For more information on Saunders’ decolonization achievements, read his 2000 memoir: Vice-Chancellor on a Tightrope: A personal account of climactic years in South Africa. Pay special attention to Dr Mamphela Ramphele’s Foreword. See also former UCT Prof CL ‘Kit’ Vaughan’s 2015 biographical/historical account. On the Shoulders of Oldenburg: A Biography of the Academic Rating System in South Africa.

With regard to VC Ramphele, the DAD’s choice of UCT sociologist David Cooper to review her short ‘reign’, I must say I am disappointed. Clearly, much more senior people involved in and affected by her administration would be preferable. An ideal person might be her long-serving senior DVC and eminent scholar Wieland Gevers. Other excellent commentators would be former deans and DVCs Cliff Moran, Cyril O’Connor and Daya Reddy, especially the latter – who was a UCT student in the 1980s and remains an active academic. Cliff is the senior author of the Moran Report, commissioned by VC Ndebele to “to review the role of academic heads of departments (HoDs) in the context of their perceived problems of administrative overload exacerbated by complicated departmental structures”. Reddy could also comment particularly tellingly on the Ndebele and Price Eras. All of these eminent servants of UCT worked closely with VC Ramphele to decolonize her constructively before it there was a term for it.

If Davie gave UCT a heart and soul, Saunders and Ramphele provided her with a spine and muscles.

Mention of some of these successes could help to make VC Phakeng’s call for “a solid interrogation of the past, addressing both triumphs and failures” a reality. It will be interesting to see what ‘anatomical’ asset emerges from her time as VC.

Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe

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