Homophobia and free speech at UCT, redux

-t2zWl54The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town has responded to the controversy provoked by Zizipho Pae’s Facebook remark that legalising gay marriage was “normalising sin”, in a statement that attempts to balance sensitivity to LGBTQIA+ concerns while also affirming Pae’s rights to hold unpopular views.

My previous comments on this issue stand, but I’d like to add a few clarificatory comments. I agree entirely with Dr. Price that a key issue here is the legality of the Student Representative Council (SRC) decision to terminate her membership of the SRC, and also that the abuse and intimidation Pae experienced is inexcusable.

As Nathan Geffen wrote earlier today,

Should the extent of the hatred, misinformation, prejudice or ignorance disentitle the speaker from holding office?

In some cases it may. In others, there’s an opportunity to educate — both the speaker and the general public — rather than respond with fashionable social media fuelled outrage. The same goes for homophobia.

My argument last time was that it was entirely appropriate for the SRC to suspend Pae, pending discussion regarding her fitness to hold office, based on what the SRC constitution says and does not say.

I do not believe that holding homophobic views should automatically disqualify one from office – my claim is the limited one that if this contravenes established and documented values, then you are accountable in accordance with those values.

So, you’re free to be negatively disposed to gay people – but just not when this is associated with your position. This is not a free speech violation, but is instead a restriction on who is eligible to represent a community. The latter (being a SRC member) is not a right, but an earned position, and if that comes with certain requirements, you could rightly lose the position if you don’t fulfil the requirements.

From what I can tell from the SRC constitution and the minutes of the meeting that expelled her, I strongly doubt that her expulsion was legitimate, and I’d expect it to be overturned in time (although, this will likely be a pointless exercise, seeing as the SRC elections for 2016 are about to take place, with the current SRC coming to the end of their term).

Where I don’t agree with Dr. Price’s statement is where he quotes a 1998 Constitutional Court ruling which held that “those persons who for reasons of religious belief disagree with or condemn homosexual conduct are free to hold and articulate such beliefs”, going on to say that

This is especially so when a religious belief is articulated in a way that is not intended to insult, harm or discriminate, and if there is no incitement to taking harmful action against others. On our reading, Ms Pae’s Facebook post was an expression of her sincerely held religious belief, rather than an intervention to insult or hurt those with whom she disagrees.

Yes, they are free to hold and articulate those beliefs, but firstly (and again), not necessarily without consequences. As I say above, one such consequence could be expulsion, if the relevant laws/policies dictate that.

Should that consequence be expulsion? I don’t think so, as long as the person in question was appointed or elected with the rest of us being fully cognisant of their views, at least with regard to our set of ideal values.

So, if Pae campaigned on a platform that included opposition to gay rights, and was elected on that basis, I couldn’t have any complaints. Geffen’s post says that she didn’t hide her Christianity, but that’s a different matter to being openly anti LGBTQIA+ rights.

My view is that if you don’t disclose this, you can reasonably be expected to share the values expressed in various UCT documents, including SRC documents, that support those rights. Once it’s discovered that you don’t, the electorate might justifiably feel deceived, in that these are assumed to be shared values in the community (even if they aren’t actually shared in practice).

And finally, the notion of an expressed prejudice being more excusable if it stems from a “sincerely held religious belief”, rather than being something intended to “insult or hurt” isn’t helpful in this case – it simply passes the buck, and avoids tackling the difficult issue of what to do when people are “sincerely” bigoted, and with good intentions.

As Pierre de Vos noted in a recent column, religious beliefs and practices often get a free pass when it comes to discrimination. If allowing for discrimination based on religious views is a reasonable interpretation of the law, then I’d call the law defective in that regard.

We know, in advance, that some sincerely-held views (such as held by Pae) are not intended to insult or hurt. But we also know that they do insult and hurt.

Secularists (like me) are emphatic on the point that religious precepts should not be permissible premises in debates on policy or law. But more to the point, some of us who lack any belief in god(s) struggle to see any principled difference between your long-standing and scripturally-located version of “proper” marriage and sexual conduct, versus someone who chooses to locate their racist tirades in some long-standing tradition.

Or even, their polite, “sincerely held” racist beliefs, that are not intended to “insult or hurt” anyone, but merely to make things more efficient by letting people know what their proper place in the pecking order is.

Bigotry, free speech and student politics at UCT

Zizipho Pae, current UCT Student Representative Council (SRC) Vice President, posted this Facebook status following the US Supreme Court decision to strike down same-sex marriage bans:

We are institutionalising and normalising sin. God have mercy on us.

pae4-592x400I wasn’t planning on saying anything about this, but the most recent rant from Error Errol Naidoo of the Family Policy Institute is mad enough to prompt a quick response, because he – like many others – are confusing the freedom to hold odious views with a (non-existent) obligation on others to not call them out on those views, and freedom from any consequences expressing those views might incur.

Ms. Pae is free to be a homophobe. She implies that she’s not a homophobe in the video embedded below, but the facts are clear: she labels gay people sinners, and suggests that we are “normalising” sin – in other words, that they are a threat to all of our moral welfares. She has a seriously negative disposition towards gay people, in that she doesn’t want them to have the same rights as straight people.

Dress that up in whatever religious sophistry you like, but any non-religious person would regard that as plainly homophobic. Also, any person, regardless of religious persuasion, should realise that Ms. Pae is instead endorsing an (unconstitutional) ban on gay marriage. So, wrong on the morals, wrong on the law.

She can have and express these views, regardless of the fact that we might prefer that she didn’t feel inclined to such prejudice. Her prejudices are also more common than I’d like, which is exactly why we don’t put basic rights to a referendum.

But holding those views does not protect her from criticism, whether or not she thinks she’s doing a bigoted god’s bidding. The university, and the SRC, have chosen to adopt a certain set of values, and homophobia is in contrast to those values.

She was relieved of her duties as Acting President by the SRC, as they are entitled to do. She has not been suspended or disciplined by the university administration, contrary to Mr. Naidoo’s claims.

Her rights to freedom of speech are not being violated – she chose a more demanding standard than “speech without consequences” when she ran for the SRC (before that, in fact, as simply registering as a student here involves committing to promoting certain values). So, free to speak, but then we don’t want you representing us.

So, there is no “anti-Christian discrimination” here, but rather a defending of what the country, and the university, have chosen as their moral foundation, namely non-discrimination on various grounds. She chose to be part of that community, so needs to follow its rules.

Where Naidoo and Pae do have a point is only with regard to the issue of her office being vandalised, and any threats being uttered against her. Those cases need to be investigated and the offenders sanctioned.

In the meanwhile, it would be absurd to think that the SRC should tolerate homophobia in its senior structures, and perfectly reasonable for them to suspend her, pending fuller discussion and investigation.

You don’t get to insult a large proportion of the students you’re meant to represent without consequence, whether you believe in a god or not.

Rhodes, “mad panics”, and inappropriate analogies

This entry is part of 7 in the series Rhodes

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.

As with the Michael Cardo piece on UCT’s “pathetic capitulation” on the question of the Rhodes statue, I think van Onselen’s recent column on the same topic gives UCT too little credit, and also exaggerates the likely consequences of the Rhodes statue removal.

1339056551-fahrenheit451Furthermore, 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?”

Rhodes”Pathetic capitulation” or principled decision? More on #RhodesMustFall

This entry is part of 7 in the series Rhodes

rhodesI’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.

UCT Academics Union statement on #RhodesMustFall

This entry is part of 7 in the series Rhodes

Rhodes_250x374On 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.

The UCT Academics Union

#RhodesMustFall, race and essentialism

This entry is part of 7 in the series Rhodes

575fc635e692409d82cb27b378a5476cThe UCT protests sparked by Chumani Maxwele on March 9 are ongoing, with Students Representative Council members and other students currently occupying the Bremner building, where the Vice-Chancellor and other members of the executive sit.

As I said in my previous post on this, I do think that Rhodes should fall. But I also think that there’s scope in protests like these to be politically expedient, intellectually lazy, and also to fall victim to a (typically) well-intentioned but ultimately dangerous form of identity politics.

The identity politics I refer to are in the imagining of communities of agreement, to modify Benedict Anderson’s construction. In the worst manifestation of this (in a South African context), we might imagine that those communities are defined by the simple characteristic of “race”, but one can also wrongly conflate all sorts of beliefs under a category like “liberal”, as Xolela Mangcu does in a column today.

Sharing a skin colour, a nationality, or a gender (etc.) offers no guarantee of sharing opinions or ideologies. Yes, some inferences are reasonable – for example, in a country like South Africa, I think it immediately more likely that a white South African will be somewhat oblivious to his or her structural advantages.

White South Africans benefited from apartheid, and continue to do so. Some of us don’t acknowledge that, to be sure. But the fact that we did benefit from apartheid should not mean assuming bad faith when we speak about race and discrimination either – interlocutors should still be willing to hear arguments and judge them on their merits.

On the other side of that coin, being a member of a disenfranchised or oppressed group of whatever sort doesn’t automatically confer virtue on arguments or behaviour. It might be the case that your cause is more likely to be urgent, yes, but we have no guarantee of this.

The Rhodes protests going on at UCT are justified, and it is to our discredit that it has taken so long for the Rhodes statue to be an issue. But I do fear that some students are not being encouraged to think and debate by these protests, but rather to be dogmatic, and to make judgements according to simplistic categories like race alone, rather than arguments.

Any of you who have looked at comment threads on this might know what I mean. I also have privileged access, in that the discussion forums of my 1st-year course at UCT have carried much commentary on the protests, the statue, and transformation at UCT.

There is little consensus, and many students – across whatever categories you want to divide them into – are not supportive of certain aspects of the protest. Their complaint, and one I agree with, is that it’s antithetical to the purpose of a university to refuse to discuss something, as the SRC are doing by demanding that a date for the statue’s removal be provided before they engage in dialogue.

But what’s also going on is plenty of simmering racial judgement, where good faith or bad faith is assumed, based largely on race (as judged by the name of the student). In other words, prejudice, if not necessarily of the naked sort.

On social media, some folks are still talking about Maxwele and excrement, as if that’s the only issue – or even an issue at all. It’s not, really – it’s a detail trivial enough that focusing on it simply marks you out as someone desperate to deny the legitimacy of the protest.

There is scope for various lazy arguments, and for various easy forms of prejudice, in situations like these. Given that this protest is likely to go on for some time – and (rightly) focus attention on transformation more generally – everyone involved will hopefully remain aware that when emotions run high, we can lose sight of subtleties.

However things end up going, this is going to be one of those moments in time that gets recorded as part of UCT’s history. Let’s all do our best to make that history one that we can be proud of reading, and shaping.

On UCT, transformation and #Rhodesmustfall

This entry is part of 7 in the series Rhodes

RhodesThe statue of Cecil John Rhodes you can see alongside these words stands on Madiba Circle at UCT, overlooking the sports fields. It’s there because UCT’s main campus is situated on land bequeathed by Rhodes in 1928 as “the site of a national university“.

The fact that it’s currently there doesn’t mean it should stay there – and if an ongoing protest is successful, it won’t be there for long. The protest started last Monday, March 9, with Chumani Maxwele emptying the contents of a portable toilet on the statue, and continued with various ad hoc engagements as well as a rally on Jameson Plaza.

The protest is motivated by – and this is of course the nutshell version – students being aggrieved that a statue of an arch-colonialist, racist and sexist such as Rhodes occupies such a prominent place on our campus.

Pictures of the rally allowed for some wry smiles also, given that students who were facing the statue of Rhodes would also have had their backs to Jameson Hall – the building named after Leander Starr Jameson, Rhodes’ lifelong friend and ally in various racist land-grabs and other mad schemes like the Jameson Raid.

There are problematic names and symbols on UCT’s campus, to be sure – but there are also others that are less so, like Madiba Circle and the Steve Biko building. (Limiting the discussion to this one aspect, namely racism, apartheid and its corollaries.)

This doesn’t make the problematic ones okay. But it does speak to an awareness, on the part of UCT’s governing structures, of the need to make changes. And the fact that the current management of UCT is committed to building a campus that is welcoming to all is not, I think, something that a fair person can dispute.

You can dispute the pace of progress, or how things are prioritised, but I think the intentions are clear, and sincere. Furthermore, the last 5 years have been occupied by debates on exactly these issues, in the form of the admissions policy debate.

Before Maxwele’s protest, plans to have debates and consultative processes on signage, symbolism and naming had already been set in motion. The first such discussion (unless I’ve missed something) takes place tomorrow today.

What some critics don’t understand is that large organisations such as UCT can often not move at the pace that you’d prefer. Also, the headlines often obscure complexities – it’s quite possible, for example, that there are other stakeholders with regard to the statue, perhaps the City of Cape Town.

Second, and as a friend remarked, “removing a statue is easy” – but we don’t know if it’s the best option until more debate has been held. Perhaps you want to leave it there as a reminder of the past, adding a plaque explaining what a terrible man he was. Perhaps you want to build a statue of someone who serves as an “antidote” to Rhodes alongside him, symbolising the triumph of good over evil.

There are many options besides tearing it down, is the point – and while it’s true that the current mood is in favour of tearing it down, the university – and the SRC – should be acting in the best interests of the university as a whole, and most crucially, in the best interests of future students.

(As an aside, if the statue were to go, it’s not at all true that we’d have to start rejecting Rhodes scholarships and any other things called Rhodes. It’s entirely possible to make a logical and moral distinction between commemorative statues and bequests of land/money that serve some public interest.)

I’ve been at UCT since 1992, and it’s great to see significant student engagement with political issues after what has been quite a long slumber. But to some extent, there’s the possibility of a more highbrow version of Twitter slacktivism here.

The conversation shouldn’t only be about what will satisfy us now, but rather on what is the most principled and defensible choice to make. I fear that grandstanding is getting in the way of this to some extent. Second, I fear that the issue of the statue can obscure larger and more important problems – as I said above, it’s an easy win.

Will tearing down the statue help with throughput or graduation rates? Will it improve the comprehension of the first-year students I teach, many of whom struggle to engage with abstract ideas at all, after a decade of schooling that has taught them to be studiously literal?

I don’t think so. But having said that, my intuition is that the statue should go, if it can – although I’ll want to hear all the arguments for and against before committing to that intuition, because as I indicate above, its continued existence might serve the same purpose as the protesters desire.

More crucially, though, I hope that we can avoid letting this important debate end up being a distraction, or simply a vehicle for opportunism.

STATUE

The 2015 #SaxAppeal cover

van_berger_2015-Feb-12
Credit: https://twitter.com/van_berger

This is not a “rage-blog”. I’m not indignant, offended or any of those things by the Sax Appeal 2015 cover that I saw via Twitter this morning. It depicts Christian Grey (a rich white guy who is into BDSM) looking out over shacks where poor black people live.

I do, however, think it was a poor choice of image, for the two reasons I’ll outline below. But first, a general point, which is the actual motivation for this post: there are usually intermediate options between the polarised sorts of shouting at each other that social media seems to encourage.

Criticism is quickly read as outrage, and in a case like this, can also lead to accusations of conservatism, fuddy-duddyishness and so forth. On the other end of the spectrum, those who support the image can overstate its virtues, and not recognise any value in concerns expressed by others.

There’s a gulf between those options, and that’s where I’m speaking from. I was shocked by the image, but I mean shocked in a descriptive sense, rather than as an index of moral outrage – it took me aback. So, that’s a plus for the “good satire” reading, in that being forced to take notice is a good start.

But the cover ultimately misses the mark, and was a poor choice. First, because risky satirical choices are only a smart move if you’ve got credibility as a satirist or satirical publication. Without that, you can appear to be simply echoing the reality you’re trying to critique, or appear oblivious to dimensions of it.

Simply being known as a satirical magazine one isn’t the same thing as people knowing you to be good at that job, and therefore interpreting you in that light – and sorry to say, but I don’t think Sax Appeal been good at it for a while.

Second, you significantly increase your chances of being read uncharitably by virtue of the targets that you pick. In this instance, there’s a context of:

  • 5 years of debate on admissions policy, race and transformation
  • public criticism from UCT academics on the perceived slow pace of transformation at UCT
  • a funding crisis at a national level, affecting the ability of poor students to enter universities
  • a rather public tantrum by a prominent media house owner on UCT’s transformation track-record
  • a university that is situated in a city that is perceived by some as racist

And so forth. In other words, this was a very risky issue on which to push the boat out. I certainly don’t think they were intending to be crude or offensive – in fact, I know some of the people involved, and trust them in this regard – but this was a poor decision.

(Sax Appeal has taken note of the reaction, and posted the statement quoted below to Facebook.)

STATEMENT ON SAX APPEAL COVER CONTROVERSY:

On behalf of the SAX Appeal Editorial Team, we regret the hurt caused by this year’s cover photo.

We understand the concern about what is perceived by some as racist or patronizing undertones of the image; but we would like to state unequivocally that our intention was not to make light of racism or to humiliate its victims.

Our intention was to open up discussion about the problematic power relations in South Africa. The legacy of apartheid has left a tragic divide between rich and poor, black and white, rural and urban – a divide that is still perpetuated daily.

Just as the themes of 50 Shades of Grey allude to power dynamics in sex, our hope with 50 Shades of SAX was to discuss the other power dynamics that still pervade our society. Even though the privileged no longer oppress the underprivileged daily with batons or whips, we hoped that the cover image would inspire discussion about the secretive, underhand ways in which the privileged still get their way.

These issues, including those within the magazine, such as the discussion around homophobia in Islam, the psychiatric profile of God and of golf being representational of white privilege, were included in the magazine to bring about such discussion.

In this way, SAX 2015 has taken a very different turn compared to previous editions. Sensitive topics were not written about to ridicule the marginalized or disadvantaged but to induce meaningful discussion about these topics. These are issues that we did not think we could avoid discussing, but if we missed the mark in our attempt at discussion, we regret the effect that this has caused.

We hope that this perspective might add to the debate that has been sparked on social media and that it might point it in a direction that is critical and constructive around issues of race and socioeconomics.

Wrong about race in South Africa and UCT

agi_events_010Two snippets, from two quite different sources, raise concerns about self-serving (as opposed to principled) thinking about race in South Africa and at the University of Cape Town, where I teach.

First, we have Douglas Gibson expressing concern that “race is back in fashion” in South African conversation. Gibson is the former Chief Whip of the Democratic Party, which became the Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa’s official opposition.

I’ve only had a couple of conversations with Gibson, but have read many of his speeches and columns over the years, and regard him as a determinedly old-school liberal, rather than someone who is happy to let pragmatism dominate, as seems to be the case for many in today’s DA.

One character trait of what I describe as an old-school liberal is often an inclination towards idealism, in this case manifesting as a desire that South Africans be race-blind, to want to engineer a South Africa that is nonracial or post-racial. He opens his column with an example of race-blindness, in this case that of his son:

Thirty five years ago a little white boy aged three, standing in his bathing costume next to the pool, stroked the arm of a little black girl, also in a bathing costume, and said, “Ooh, you’ve got a lovely tan.” My son didn’t see race and certainly had no race prejudice. That was at the height of apartheid. He is still not a racist, just as many other whites are not.

There are two distinct points to make about examples like this. The first is that we can agree (or not) that this is an ideal future to try and arrive in. The second is that we can agree (or not) on how to get there.

A concern that I and others have about DA rhetoric is that it seems to want to get there by insisting on it, and by asking us all to just ignore race, because in doing so we’ll discover all sorts of other relevant and interesting things about each other as individuals.

As ever, I think some things are easier to say and support from one point of view rather than another. I don’t experience what it’s like to be black in South Africa, but if what I’ve heard is accurate – and I’ve heard it from black intellectuals far more qualified and socio-economically advantaged than me – they perceive racism far more often than they should (the “should” here would of course be zero times).

I’ve said in the past that the perception of Cape Town as being racist can’t simply be dismissed, and still think that even if we agree on an (eventual) goal of non-racism, we might find (a) that we can never get there or (b) that the way to get there is precisely to acknowledge race and prejudice, rather than pretend people don’t have these experiences.

To put it crudely – columns like Gibson’s, romantically espousing non-racialism, can be read as part of the problem in their denial of the validity of the lived experience of people who feel discriminated against. It can appear like you’re being told to simply “get over it”, and I think that’s condescending.

The other example I want to highlight is from Dr Xolela Mangcu, who is at the furthest remove possible from Gibson in at least two respects, in that he is a black Biko scholar, rather than a white liberal. Mangu has been columning voluminously about UCT’s new admissions policy for the past few months, and some of these columns have attracted responses from our Vice-Chancellor, Dr Max Price.

In Mangcu’s most recent opinion piece on race and transformation at UCT, he says the following:

Numbers matter also because there should be a critical mass of black professors in the University Senate, which is the highest decision-making body when it comes to academic affairs. I just find it difficult to imagine that doing away with race-based affirmative action would have been such a high priority for the Senate, or would have passed so easily, if that august body was populated by a large number of black full professors.

And here’s my problem: even if you think the admissions policy flawed, Mangcu’s words there seem to me to insult the black professoriate, or otherwise to indicate a laziness of thought on this issue, or are otherwise simply mendacious.

To briefly run through the options: the extract could insult black members of Senate, in that it suggests that they cannot be of independent mind regardless of perceived race-interest, and think that a policy might be the correct policy on principle even if it attracts the sorts of controversy it has.

Second, it could indicate a laziness of thought, in that he’s simply assuming that everyone who is a black Senator is somehow going to ineluctably reach the same conclusions about the policy as he did – in other words, that his is the only reasonable interpretation.

The arrogance of this would be one problem, and the second would be that it would make his argument circular, in that he’d be saying “the policy is wrong, and if Senate were black in the majority, they would vote against it, which proves that the policy is wrong”.

Finally, it could well be that Mangcu doesn’t think his analysis is the only defensible one, and it could be that he simultaneously knows that some black Professors support it. If these conditions were both met (and if I haven’t left out other options) then it seems that he’s misrepresenting the case for rhetorical effect – just like Gibson is.

My point, in short, is that given that we recognise how fraught these conversations are, we should be careful to have them honestly, contextually, and objectively, in the sense that the quality of arguments can still matter, even if you think there’s something distinct about how race informs an argument.

The TB Davie Academic Freedom Lecture 2014 – Max du Preez

mdpEarlier today, I had the privilege of introducing Max du Preez to the audience gathered for the 2014 TB Davie Lecture at UCT. The lecture was recorded, and once the video and podcast are available, I’ll be sure to let you know. In the meanwhile, here are my introductory remarks.


 

Over the course of a 40-year career in journalism, Max du Preez has earned multiple local and international awards for fearless and principled reporting, including the Nat Nakasa Award for Courageous Journalism, as well as having been named the Yale Globalist International Journalist.

He is the author of numerous books that draw on his long history in South African culture and politics, most recently “A rumour of spring”, in which he reflects on whether South Africa can expect “a long winter or an early spring” in relation to the evolution of our democracy.

In 1992, UCT awarded Max du Preez an honorary Master of Social Science degree, and the citation is worth re-visiting. It speaks of:

his fearless exposition of power corruption in high places, in the face of all kinds of attempts at silencing him, from criminal and civil proceedings in the Courts to extrajudicial strong-arm methods.

Max Du Preez has consistently made it clear that he is not serving any sectional interest, but that of all the people of this country, and his cause is to promote the values that should operate in the new South Africa.

After graduating from Stellenbosch University, he joined Die Burger as a cub reporter, and the Editor sent him to cover the Parliamentary sessions. This proved to be an error of judgement. Max Du Preez’ overall impression of the Parliament was one of moral corruption and intellectual poverty, and he conveyed this in his reports; Die Burger’s impression of Max Du Preez was that they had a problem reporter on their hands.

He was hastily transferred to Die Beeld in Johannesburg. There he reported on the Mozambiquan independence, and the Soweto riots of June 16 1976, but caused so many problems for the Government-supporting Nationale Pers that he was banished to the Siberia of South Africa, the Namibian desk.

In Windhoek, he was quickly branded a Swapo ally, and Du Preez and Nationale Pers soon parted company. In 1980 he joined the Financial Mail in the post of political editor, the only Afrikaner on the staff, and in his own words, “their token boer.”

Later he transferred within the same media group as political correspondent to the Sunday Times and Business Day.

In 1987 Dr Van Zyl Slabbert invited Du Preez to join the delegation of Afrikaner personalities who attended that highly controversial and historic meeting with the then banned African National Congress in Dakar, Senegal.

It was there that the idea of starting an independent Afrikaans language weekly newspaper was born.

That newspaper, launched in 1988, was die Vrye Weekblad- the Independent Weekly. The newspaper was almost immediately in court, thanks to the first few editions having to appear on the street illegally after the Minister of Justice responded to the threat it posed by raising the cost of registering a newspaper from R10 to R30 000.

At this newspaper, it was du Preez and his colleague Jacques Pauw who led the exposure of apartheid-era murder squads at Vlakplaas when other publications wanted no part of the story – or simply denied its truthfulness. Without their hard work and courage, many of these details might well have remained a secret to this day.

The paper was forced to close in February 1994, thanks to the costs incurred in defending its charge that South African Police General Lothar Neethling had supplied poison to security police to kill activists.

Du Preez went on to be the founder and editor of the television programmes Special Report (documenting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) and Special Assignment.  Du Preez ended up being dismissed from Special Assignment for “gross insubordination towards management”, after objecting to a management decision to bar the screening of a segment on witchcraft.

That same weekend, Special Assignment won six awards at a television prize-giving.

If a more recent sort of threat, by actor and economic freedom fighter Fana Mokoena to “seize his farm” is more typical these days, it’s not because du Preez has slowed down, or toned down, his challenges to political authority and the abuse of power. Nor could it be because he has a farm, as he has none – but accuracy is seldom a primary concern for bullies.

It might instead be exactly because – thanks in part to him and other courageous editors – newspapers in South Africa no longer need fear being bombed, as the Vrye Weekblad offices were in 1991.

To return to the 1992 citation,

Mr Chancellor, the sensational disclosures which struck at the malignant core of apartheid are only part of Max Du Preez’ achievements. He is clearly a non-conformist, an independent thinker, a maverick. Some would use stronger terms. The French noun might be a sansculotte-  ‘without breeches”. In Afrikaans, the expression is earthier – he is hardegat.

Ladies and Gentlemen: please welcome Max du Preez.