Dear colleagues and students
Recently a student used the words “one settler, one bullet” in the acknowledgments page of his unmarked honours dissertation. He later repeated the wording on social media. Several people have written to me insisting that the executive “act” against the student and are asking “what the executive plan to do in response”.
I write to explain the thinking of the executive on this matter and what guided us in our decisions.
An overarching principle that must always guide us is that UCT is a university. This is a space where diverse ideas and opinions matter and are allowed to be expressed. Even opposing ideas exist alongside each other, to be heard as well as to be criticised. This is the creative process of critical engagement and debate that makes us a university, grappling with issues and ideas.
A second principle that applies is that the dissertation in question will and must be marked within the accepted policies and protocols of the faculty. I have confidence that this will be done in the same way as for other dissertations.
A further point of importance, in our view, is that the student who used the words must take responsibility for what he wrote and face the criticism or praise that comes with it. Many will agree with him and many will differ. He has a right to express his views and others have a right to express their differing views.
We believe that moments such as these can be an educational opportunity for all involved. We wish to act in ways that do not escalate matters negatively. It is interesting to note that some of the voices of complaint on the issue are as violent, divisive and hurtful as what they accuse the speaker of. We do not wish to prolong or add to that narrative.
We appreciate the fact that instances where the wording “one settler, one bullet” is used present us with the complexity of South Africa’s history. There are a range of views about the wording: from those who consider it hate speech to those who see it as a positive political statement. South African courts have not made a finding about whether the “one settler, one bullet” slogan is hate speech.
Having said all the above, we do not condone the use of the wording as part of the social, cultural and political life of the university. The executive’s own view is that the slogan “one settler, one bullet” may lead to a divisive, hostile and intimidating environment. It is not conducive to the kind of institution we wish to be. It does not advance our vision of being an inclusive campus where all people are respected and treated with dignity.
In terms of the request to “act”, we believe that disciplinary action against the student who used the words will not be the correct approach. It is important that debates and conversations are allowed to take place and that conclusions are allowed to be formed without using disciplinary processes to try to force issues one way or another. We would much rather see an experience unfold that is more educational, meaningful and restorative. While we will not follow a formal disciplinary route, we will act. Policy provides different routes for us to follow in such instances, and we have requested that the Office for Inclusivity and Change (OIC) engage with the student.
Furthermore, we intend to find opportunities where members of the UCT community can have engagements and discussions around issues of inclusivity, racism, respect, harassment, tolerance, etc.
Finally, I feel that it is important that I state my personal view on the matter. In particular I wish to acknowledge that I, as VC, regrettably became part of the social media story when I tweeted in reaction to the student’s first post.
My intention was a simple one – to congratulate a student who had reached the significant milestone of handing in an honours dissertation and to support him for considering a master’s degree. I only realised later that the words “one settler, one bullet” were used, and I made it immediately clear that I do not support such a statement. Having said that, I accept my error and it is an obvious one – I did not read the complete post and should have done so. I regret that. I realise that as the VC every word I utter or write is scrutinised, and I have certainly learnt from the experience.
I have a sense that in the last while, and following the very difficult previous years, we have all been grappling to find one another in new ways. I see many examples of this and I am positive that as a community we are making progress in reconciliation and healing. An incident like this can be most divisive and I can only make the plea that we strive to find one another as a community, rather than create conflict and divisiveness.
I will never support violence or advocate it, but I feel that my support to students, even those that might be controversial or falter or make mistakes, is a deep commitment. I believe that such students can be supported to greater success and can make a positive contribution to transformation, not only of our institution but also of our society.
I want to reiterate that the executive team and I believe that the slogan “one settler, one bullet” may create negativity and affirms division. While political slogans such as this may have the potential to heighten debate about our difficult segregated past, they obscure our vision of being an inclusive university.
Since I took office, I have emphasised the importance of reclaiming the university as a place for ideas, innovation and intellectual engagement, striving for equality. We must make UCT a home for all of us.
At UCT we have committed ourselves to being inclusive, which means learning to share the space with those whose political ideologies differ from ours. It is important that we all support transformation through conversation, engagement and negotiation, and not through violence.
Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng
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