The Cape Town launch of Prof. Jonathan Jansen’s latest book, As by Fire: The End of the South African University, was held last week at the Book Lounge. I was invited to be the discussant and, having already read the book a few weeks ago and found it to be worthwhile, was pleased to accept.
On re-reading it in preparation for the discussion, my initial impression persisted: relative ‘insiders’ to the last few years of university politics and protests might not learn much that they didn’t know, while the general public certainly could.
It’s very odd to be re-tweeted by Steve Hofmeyr, because a person like me never imagines that something I say might seem agreeable to a racist Afrikaner nationalist, never mind one who once sued a puppet.
And just yesterday, I saw a tweet from the puppet in question that was so illogical, and morally questionable, that I had to have sympathy for the anti-PC (and often, libertarian-leaning) folk on SA Twitter who deride said puppet for having no political backbone, or for drinking too deeply from the well of some kind of cultural relativism.
Since leaving the Democratic Alliance, Gareth van Onselen has become one of the more consistently interesting columnists we have in South African media. “Interesting” might seem to be a weasel-word to some of you, but having now spent a few minutes trying to find the right word, I find it’s the best I can do.
His columns are seldom bad, and are sometimes very good. They are often challenging, especially to folks like myself who think of themselves as liberals, and challenging our views – and making us think – is the primary task of a columnist.
It’s true that some use the “liberal” label, as well as his past party affiliation, as convenient means of dismissing van Onselen’s contributions. These critics miss the point, I feel – mostly because those are fairly straightforward ad hominem comments rather than engagements with substance, but also because they see his dogged adherence to principle as evidence of ideological blindness.
Van Onselen isn’t subtle in his criticisms, but they are typically very thoughtful, and thought-provoking for those who choose to engage with them. He is also deeply committed to certain values, which can loosely be described as those of classical liberalism.
He makes no attempt to hide that ideological conviction, and applies it consistently – which means that we can either try to undermine the foundation itself, or his interpretation of it.
Furthermore, I find its liberalism unduly prescriptive, in that it asserts that the status quo (at least in terms of the historical record, and the statue in particular) must be preserved, because removing it is to succumb to an unthinking populism, or even worse, a re-programming of society, of language, and of value (as was portrayed in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451), rather than seeing how changing the status quo could better serve a liberal outcome.
He also uses the analogy of Brett Murray’s The Spear, and this analogy is to my mind equally poor – not for being hyperbolic (as is the case with Farenheit 451), but because the two things are crucially dissimilar.
You need to read his column (in fact, the transcript of a speech), because I’m not going to do it justice here. There is plenty in it to think about, and to be challenged by, especially if you regard yourself as a liberal. It’s long, and I want to be brief – so apologies for only picking up on a few things below.
First, the column takes a value-laden starting point – the presence of the statue at UCT – as a legitimate normative and neutral starting point. This is why the Farenheit 451 analogy is hyperbolic. If we are liberal, and committed to individual freedom, it is of course a concern if we start privileging certain views (by extension, cultures, artistic expressions and statues) above others.
But the point about the removal of Rhodes (for those who supported that decision, like me) is that its presence did that privileging already, and that its removal is therefore more compatible with this liberal goal, in that it was its presence in such pride of place that resulted in some students being unable to feel as much part of the institution as others.
A focus on the underlying goals and values of liberalism should not be obscured by historical contingencies, and should certainly not be defined by a privileged set of norms that are thought to be beyond question. We can agree that all things being equal, statues should not be torn down, sure – but all things were not equal in this case.
By contrast to burning books, students were forced to see this statue, and to see it as emblematic of their university. They could choose to not read a book, but they could not choose to have the statue standing in pride of place at UCT. There is no reason to burn a book, because you have the option of not reading it – here there was no analogous option.
Likewise with The Spear – the analogy fails because the cases are too dissimilar. An artwork like The Spear is created for a community who typically self-select to engage with it. This is not the case with the Rhodes statue. The Spear was a case in which people were perfectly entitled to their offence, but were not entitled to the remedy of destroying it or removing it.
Neither the Goodman Gallery, nor Brett Murray, are established as institutions for the national good, that are intended to serve an educational purpose while trying to avoid privileging people by virtue of their race, class and so forth. You can object to The Spear, lament its existence, and then move on – it’s wrong to destroy it. UCT, by contrast, is being negligent if it picks at some scab of yours every day you are there.
Our understanding of liberalism should not be allowed to ossify, as I think it can do when we take the current situation for granted, instead of being more Utilitarian about maximising liberty – even when that means changing something about the present (like moving a statue).
As I noted in the third part of this piece on modern challenges to free speech, other aspects of liberalism might need updating also, in that if the environment changes, different sorts of remedies or interventions might work better than those we used in the 19th Century.
Or, as John Maynard Keynes put it, “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”
I’d encourage you to read Michael Cardo’s piece on the “sinister underbelly” to the campaign that has succeeded in having the Rhodes statue boarded up, pending its removal from campus. I seconded the motion to have the statue boarded up, and voted in agreement for its removal, so while you might expect me to disagree with Cardo – and I do – he nevertheless makes many strong points.
The primary challenge he presents is in the form of questioning whether UCT and the Senate lacked courage in making the decision that we did, and whether we capitulated to both illiberal bullying as well as ideologically-flawed arguments in doing so.
I’m sympathetic to the dangers he points out – it’s certainly true that loud and persistent pressure, as well as muddled political thinking, can result in hasty and unfortunate decisions. However, I think that he’s wrong in this particular instance, and that his error rests in regarding all support for the removal of Rhodes to have originated from majoritarianism, mob rule and the worst sorts of identity politics.
Starting at the end of that list, I have to agree entirely with his criticisms of the arguments that come from the likes of Gillian Schutte. Any writer who regards words like “privilege” as trump-cards in arguments is shouting from a pedestal, rather than debating.
As I’ve argued before, though, there’s a difference between the mindless use of a phrase like “check your privilege” and the (correct, and necessary) acknowledgement that privilege exists, and that it can affect our objectivity. In this instance, writers like Cardo are assuming a certain norm, namely that Rhodes is there, and the burden of proof is on those who want him removed.
But there’s no reason that we should accept that as the norm, rather than recognising it as an accident of history, which we now have the opportunity to correct. In other words, can we not be said to be assuming a certain epistemic privilege in saying that the burden of proof is on those who want its removal, rather than on those who insist it should stay?
Yes, something is lost with its removal – but the case needs to be made that this loss (context, history, opportunities for debate etc.) is of more significance than what might be gained. In this case, the obvious potential gain is the sense of a more inclusive campus, and one that is clearly committed to working harder at its transformation goals.
As for our being bullied into this, it’s telling that Cardo only refers to Maxwele when speaking about the student voice. And even though I think Maxwele has been far more articulate than the quote Cardo uses to discredit him with (“I don’t have to justify anything to a white male or a white institution. Nothing whatsoever.”), even if he were not, there are many other student views that are persuasive to varying degrees.
Also, it’s not as if we only relied on student views. I’ve been party to four different staff debates on these issues now, where in each case, the pro-statue people were persuaded by arguments, rather than persuaded to shut up because of the negative political consequences of their view.
Cardo notes the possibility that “the senate [sic] was swayed by arguments so persuasive and unassailable that it had no choice but to heed the demand that #Rhodesmustfall”, but seems to have done no work in establishing whether that was the case or not – he segues from there immediately into his caricature of Maxwele as an intransigent racial nationalist.
Two other brief points – first, moving the statue is not necessarily equivalent to “erasing… the historical record”. For one, as per my burden of proof point above, it could be said that his presence erases another historical record, and that these protests were sparked by that. We can argue that a method needs to be found to note both (and potentially other) historical records, but that while we do that, this thing – that some find offensive – has to go because the negatives of its presence outweigh the positives.
It could return once we’ve figured out what to do, or something else could go up that does a better job of representing history. But to glibly assert that taking it away is equivalent to erasing a historical record begs the question of whether it necessarily does so, and furthermore assumes the primacy of a particular historical record – in other words, it also assumes that conclusion before the argument has even been conducted.
Lastly, seeing as Cardo’s argument rests on the view that as a “liberal” university, UCT should be embarrassed by acceding to “illiberal” demands for taking the statue down, I must note that I also reject his understanding of what a liberal is, or rather, what a liberal perhaps must be, since I read him as being quite ironically prescriptive on this point.
Broadly speaking, a liberal values liberty (surprising, I know), and attempts to secure that via vehicles such as democracy, rights and so forth. In terms of free speech in particular, this statue case could be interpreted as an example of Mill’s “marketplace of ideas” in full-flow, where the arguments in favour of taking it down won the day. That’s what I think happened.
Or, you can frame it as UCT having bowed to pressure – in effect, having been held to ransom. And there’s a danger of a false dichotomy here also, in that while I think that (some of) the students acted shamefully at times, that’s a separate issue to whether they – and the staff who support their arguments – are correct or not.
More broadly, the liberalism I subscribe to recognises the human flourishing that can result when people are treated equally, respectfully and so forth. Keeping a statue of an arch-colonialist on campus, in such pride of place, sends a signal that can quite plausibly be read as a lesser commitment to the interests of some rather than others.
I would have kept it on campus, and that was in fact the first proposal that Senate debated, before an amendment suggesting it be removed entirely was proposed. In later years, we might decide to bring it back, and have it form part of some new installation.
But whatever happens, there will no doubt be some significant recognition of what was in his place, and why it was moved. We’re not obliterating history at all, in other words – we’re making it.
On Monday (23 March), the UCT Academics Union (AU) met to discuss the statement released by the Executive of the AU. As a long-standing member of the AU, with a keen interest in the Rhodes statue and the University’s business in general, I attended for the purpose of supporting the statement, and also to join those arguing that the AU needed to say and do more in the coming weeks and months.
Needless to say, not everyone was on board – some thought that the students had gone too far, and that the Executive statement should have been more critical of them. But a majority sentiment was that the AU as a whole wanted to release a statement, and that it should express more committed support for the #RhodesMustFall movement.
More to the point, many of us desired to note our “past systemic failure to successfully engage with and pay attention to the experiences of marginalised voices on campus, especially Black students, academics and other staff”. As the academic staff at the University, we need to offer intellectual leadership, and on this issue, we’ve failed to do as much of that as we should.
You can read the AU’s statement below. In a poll that closed this morning, it garnered the support of over 70% of our membership. I do regret that the figure was not higher, but it’s of course possible that some of those who did not support it did so because they thought it didn’t go far enough.
A broad consensus statement will never satisfy everyone – work done by committees and collectives seldom does. Nevertheless, I voted in support, and am glad to be part of a union that was willing to make this statement.
UCT Academics Union statement on #rhodesmustfall
27 March 2015
Regardless of race, gender or rank, we are committed to excellence in higher education; and to the training of the next generation of South African leaders and academics. Engagement, debate and dialogue are essential and intrinsic to the academic project. UCT’s failure, over a period spanning decades, to address the institutional racism inherent in the naming of buildings and siting of objects on campus represents a signal failure to engage meaningfully with the symbolism of South Africa’s past, and with the university’s ‘heritage that hurts’.
That it has taken extreme action to bring the university to a realisation that urgent remedial action is required on the statue, and more importantly, for what the statue symbolises for the institution’s commitment to transformation, is itself testament to a past systemic failure to successfully engage with and pay attention to the experiences of marginalised voices on campus, especially Black students, academics and other staff. The AU acknowledges and accepts that it has been complicit in this failure. Had the university, including the AU, been more attuned and empathetic to these issues, the protest might not have taken the form it has.
It is the AU’s position that the statue has no place in its present position on campus. Nor is it relevant whether or not a majority of students, staff, alumni or Council members believe that the statue should be moved. That the statue is not appropriate on campus in its present position, where members of the university community are confronted with its hurtful symbolism on a daily basis, should be self-evident.
The AU believes that removing the statue from its present position is an essential first step towards creating the space for engagement, debate and dialogue on the pressing matter of institutional transformation at UCT. The AU calls on the Executive, Senate and Council of the university to support the call that the statue should be removed as a matter of urgency. We understand that constituencies external to the university, such as SAHRA, might need to be consulted. Should they be necessary, these consultations should commence as a matter of utmost priority so that delays in coming to a resolution on the statue are kept to an absolute minimum.
The statue, of course, has broader symbolism, raising important questions about structural and institutional transformation. As an important UCT constituency, the AU agrees with the students that there are specific issues relating to transformation that require the urgent consideration and engagement of academic staff. The most pressing of these relate to
The institutionalised discrimination, including racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia and ableism, experienced by staff members at UCT;
Questions relating to curriculum content and design, and whether these are as appropriate as they should be in the context of transforming higher education in South Africa;
Ensuring greater transparency of the ad hominem process, to ensure that artificial barriers are not being placed in the path of marginalised staff members seeking promotion.
Starting in the second term, the AU will convene separate fora on each of these topics. These fora will engage members, as well as important stakeholders and interest groups, and will specifically seek to provide a platform for the careful articulation and identification of problems, as well as ensuring that marginalised groups are provided a safe and responsive space to express their views. Our first task is to listen, to understand, and to empathise. Thereafter, we urgently need to find and propose solutions and policies that address these in such a way to ensure that the transformation of UCT is advanced.
Transformation, and the challenging of institutional racism is not an issue important only to a few sections of the UCT community. If we all stand together and openly embrace and enact transformation, we will contribute towards a more inclusive, and unified university.
The engagement proposed represents a significant shift for the Academics Union at UCT. For too long, the Union has been too parochial, concerned only with relatively uncontroversial questions of working conditions, and representation of members’ concerns and grievances with UCT’s management. The AU has no intention of abandoning or downscaling these activities. However, by taking on the issues above, we will be able to more meaningfully represent all UCT academic staff, and thereby build a stronger Union.