As By Fire – Jonathan Jansen on the 2015/6 university protests

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.

The book is grounded in Jansen’s interviews with 11 other Vice-Chancellors (Jansen was at the time VC at the University of the Free State), all of whom spoke fairly openly about their experiences and the challenges faced as they tried to balance the interests of competing parties – students, whether protesting or not, parents, staff, donors, as well as governing bodies like university Councils.

These people are all deeply-informed, even though they obviously speak from a perspective that is of necessity at least partly managerial. None of them had the liberty of doing whatever they might independently have thought ideal, because of those competing interests, and because many of their decisions had to be made in sub-optimal conditions, before all the facts were available, and under extreme pressure.

Jansen doesn’t hide the fact that the book only speaks from this perspective – he makes it clear, and also explicitly tells us that this perspective isn’t necessarily a privileged one, when set alongside the analysis that might be offered by students, or workers, or staff.

The political, social, economic and emotive weight of the events and background narrative discussed in the book doesn’t lend itself to consensus, whether on the interpretation of individual events, or on their collective overall impact and the consequences for our universities.

It thus seems crucial to me that we remind ourselves of the principle of charity when interpreting the contents of the book, rather than reading it – or engaging with Jansen – in a way that simply confirms our biases. Just as one would hope for Jansen to not dismiss a student perspective out-of-hand (for example, as people did with the infamous #ScienceMustFall clip), we would hope for the same when speaking about Jansen and his book.

That’s unfortunately not what we get in a piece by Zachary Levenson, published on Africa is a Country (AIAC), that describes Jansen as South Africa’s own David Brooks. Brooks, in case you don’t know, is a conservative American author who writes for the New York Times, and who frequently attracts criticism from the left for trading in stereotypes and lazy social analysis to make policy or political claims.

To my mind, Brooks is an example of the kind of conservative I’d hope for there to be more of, in that he at least seems thoughtful rather than irredeemably ideologically blinkered. Be that as it may, the headline is clearly intended as an insult, because AIAC’s editorial stance means that it, and its target audience, would be among those offering the criticisms described above.

But even so, one can be fair in interpretation of what people say, and one can certainly avoid presenting things in a deliberately misleading context. Consider this example (emphasis added):

I’m not in the business of kicking dead horses, but it would be bizarre to read Jansen’s transformation of one university as an indication that South Africa’s higher education system has been substantially integrated, decolonized, or whatever other concept we might apply. But in a talk in Cape Town on Wednesday night, July 12, this is precisely what he did. An employee at the Book Lounge in Cape Town’s city center told the audience that he couldn’t recall a bigger turnout for a big launch in the entire time he’d worked there. It was hard not to notice that the crowd was predominantly over fifty and white. This isn’t to say that it was entirely white — of course it wasn’t — and there were plenty of younger people there. But it’s worth noting that a talk on race in higher education by a black man — though he’d of course disagree that the talk was about race at all — was attended largely by older middle-class whites who seemed to hang on his every word.

How does the comment of a book launch discussant (yes, it was me, not an employee of the Book Lounge (but perhaps Levinson arrived late, and didn’t hear the introductions)) about the size of the crowd relate to university transformation?

How do the demographics of the crowd that he/I said this to make any point besides what we already know about Cape Town, book launches and their over-representation of whiteness? That’s a baseline reality – and a problem, sure, but one you write about in a piece about that problem, rather than shoehorning into a criticism of Jansen, while telling us a falsehood about what Jansen said.

Two paragraphs down, Levenson says

he [Jansen] told the crowd that the South African political scientist Susan Booysen’s edited volume Fees Must Fall (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2017) conveys the student perspective — and even includes a couple of actual student contributions, as if it were shocking that people in their early twenties could pick up a pen — and that he was trying to bring the administration’s perspective. We also need workers to write a volume, he added, pushing the pluralism of “rainbow nation” post-racialism. If only the various perspectives could hash it out, everything would be fine.

One could have interpreted Jansen as making the sincere point that it was valuable to hear the student perspective – and would do so if you took him at his word, as described in the book and on the night, that he had an “open door” policy for exactly this reason. It’s an unfounded and uncharitable inference to make that he was being condescending about it (c.f. “as if it were shocking”, in the quote above).

In the same vein, unless you think that only one perspective has any explanatory value, it’s to Jansen’s credit that he would like to see more student perspectives (from both protesting and non-protesting students), as well as worker perspectives. That’s how we get the full picture, which is what those seeking understanding should want.

The motivated reading and motivated reasoning go on. When Jansen uses Stanford to make the simple point that one can do more with more resources, and that it’s thus a shame for resources to be destroyed in protests, Levenson asks

“Why was he comparing one of the richest schools in a country with some of the top universities in the world to a place in which all major universities are public?”

Well, because the point would hold true for that comparison, just as it would if he were to compare the relative value of having access to resources at a university with the same general value of having a well-resourced chicken farm.

Levenson then turns to some more Jansen-as-Brooks derision, before telling us “I couldn’t help but wonder why Jansen was focused so intently on signs of elite status in a country attempting to remedy the effects of decades of apartheid schooling” – on an evening where Jansen explicitly told us of his desire to get involved in fixing South Africa’s schooling system.

Then we move to decolonisation, a topic on which Jansen offered a fairly lengthy, and animated, exposition. I’d suggest that anyone who thinks we have a clear, and shared definition of what this means in practice at our universities is treating their ideological stance as non-negotiable, and that seems to be what Levinson does, in saying

“Let’s not overstate the problem,” Jansen continued. “Let’s not name it wrongly because that is disingenuous.” Given how frequently he was reminding the audience of his academic training as a social scientist, I couldn’t help but wonder why he would reveal that he hadn’t read any postcolonial theory written in the past forty years, or why he would feign ignorance, as if he couldn’t actually understand the meaning of the concept in its current context.

In naming the three books that he thinks foundational in understanding decolonisation, Jansen by no means confesses to not having read any others. And again, if you leave open the possibility that multiple viewpoints can help to clarify complicated issues, you don’t speak about “the meaning of the concept”. Jansen might think it means something different to what you do, just as I’ve heard various competing student interpretations of the concept.

Levinson then discusses the questions posed by Chumani Maxwele, who was present. Curiously, he doesn’t mention Maxwele by name, which made me wonder whether Levinson is indeed as informed as he presents himself as being.

The reason why Maxwele wasn’t named, according to Africa is a Country tweets, is that

One easy fix would be to leave that part (Maxwele’s questions) out of your account entirely, but that would be unfortunate, as Maxwele asked good questions. Which is precisely why, as this response notes, he should have been credited and identified:

AIAC then proceed to dig themselves a deeper hole, by claiming that they were trying to avoid the polarisation and sensationalism practiced by other publications, pointing to a TimesLive account of the same evening as example.

As the same Twitter user (@tomtom_m) responds, it’s perfectly possible to identify Maxwele without going down the silly distraction route that TimesLive chose – Maxwele’s questions, and Jansen’s answers to those, didn’t mention Drs Price and Surve at all, though the TimesLive reporter (who also tried to get me to comment on that) seemed intent on making that the story.

In short, this comes across as a very weak cover story for a writer having either failed to recognise Maxwele, or for having partially erased Maxwele’s voice, either of which would be unfortunate oversights in a piece that claims authority as well as purports deep affinity with the student protests.

In conclusion, another (long) paragraph from Levenson, describing the audience reaction to Maxwele’s question about why the black parents walking to and from work outside were not in the room:

I could see audience members rolling their eyes. It was the most substantive question of the evening, and easily the most thoughtful, yet Jansen gave it short shrift. He insisted that we can’t keep emphasizing race in every conversation, as if excising the concept from our repertoire would correspond to an eradication of racism (let alone racialism) in everyday life. But this corresponds precisely to the ideology of post-racialism in contemporary South Africa: it’s less about a verifiable observation than a strategy for shutting down any discussion of race whatsoever. No one could argue with a straight face that South Africa’s higher education system is anything approximating integrated, or that the geography of apartheid schooling doesn’t persist in a novel public v. private guise. But here was Jansen advocating an elitist schooling model in a post-apartheid context, all without so much as mentioning race, save for selectively denigrating the very concept.

This is a misrepresentation of Jansen’s answer, where Jansen made it clear that race isn’t the only important feature of an audience, and that there was value in talking to audiences of all descriptions. He was certainly not “denigrating the very concept”.

In fact, his answer even left room for Jansen agreeing that it would be ideal if those parents were in attendance – but that this doesn’t mean that gatherings without them are worthless. As Voltaire said, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Jansen also pointed out that this audience was a sample of one, and that he regularly addresses audiences where those parents are present. He proceeded to invite Maxwele to join him at the next one. Hopefully we’ll hear whether that happens or not in due course, and hopefully we’ll get a more honest account of the event.

The politics of protest, and the (rightful?) death of nuance

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. Continue reading “The politics of protest, and the (rightful?) death of nuance”

Rhodes, “mad panics”, and inappropriate analogies

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

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

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