Where I Stand 2/06/2016

On arriving at the University of Cape Town in 1994 as a student I hurriedly joined the ANC branch on campus.  Of course UCT was not an unfamiliar space to me. I had to certain extent grown up there.  My father was a professor in the Law Faculty and it had, on many occasions, during the weekends been a form of playground for me.  I had rotated on my father’s chairs, marvelled at the cantilever lamp attached to his desk, run along its corridors and stairs and played the attendant in the lift taking imaginary souls from floor to floor.

But I had come, in 1994, to the University on what I felt were different terms.  I was, at the time, not consciously trying to anger my father (although he more often than not felt otherwise) but I was certainly trying to move away from an upbringing that I felt was too moderate.  Of course it was not the ANC that was the issue for my father, he did after all vote for them in the first two elections.  What he would, I knew, take exception to was me willingly joining any organization. He was not a man for badges or stickers or flags.  I certainly never heard many verbal expressions of praise for any institution or organization coming from his mouth.  The power and the cant of institutions and organizations were, for him, things to be argued against rather than for, despite the fact that one found oneself in one.  Having been heavily influence by Oxford Philosophy he had a repugnance for all embracing systems of thought that institutions and organizations tend towards.

This, I think, I was to learn myself shortly after joining the ANC. As I recall I had been to one or two ANC meetings by then and although I had felt a little awkward – a feeling not entirely unfamiliar – I was eager to be active and to fit in as best I could.  But when a young Tony Leon came onto campus to put the DP’s election manifesto across to the broader student body, this was to change.   Leon was a figure not unfamiliar to me as I had, in a way, been attached to the Progressive Federal Party (PFP) throughout my youth. My mother was a staunch supporter, my father voted for them and some of their members of parliament had been friends of the family.  After all, if we white English speaking liberals had an identity during the later years of apartheid, then it was at the very least embroiled, for better or worse, within this organization which had by 1994 splintered. Some of its members had left for the ANC, others left politics entirely, while its remains had been gathered by the likes of Leon to form the DP.  And so I was interested to hear what he had to say.  I guess I was even there to jeer at him, but I was at least there to listen.

However, as Leon got up to talk that lunchtime on Jamie Plaza a group of ANC students, who I recognised, got up to shout over any of the attempts that he made to speak.  There were several efforts by students sympathetic to the DP to quiet them and even I went up to speak to them.  But they would not be silenced.  Leon spoke above them rather unsuccessfully for some time.  Then a microphone was handed to the students to see if they had any questions in response to what had been a largely inaudible half an hour of speech.

A white male student took hold of the microphone to the loud jeers of the ANC members and at first his words were obscured by this shouting.  ‘I am…..’ he was bellowing. And it was only on the third of forth attempt that some of the members of the ANC began to realise who he was. He was a member of the ANC. Almost unwillingly they quieted down to listen. I was deeply dismayed, the intolerance did not sit well with me. There is, I think, a time to shout people down.  A time when political obfuscation and deflection makes a mockery of political engagement.  But this, at the beginning of our democracy, was certainly not one of them.  To hear what Leon had to say and to argue back in this forum would, I felt, not only be right but more effective. Although I went to a few other meetings that the ANC held at UCT, although I voted for the ANC, although I made friends with some of its members, it was this kind of intolerance and the refusal to engage deliberatively that I could never entirely accept.

I don’t think I ever told my father of this.  Not that he would have gloated but I knew then that I was far more my father’s child than I was, at the time, willing to admit.  I was reminded of this incident the other day when watching the students on youtube shouting over the academics at UWC’s symposium ‘The University and its Worlds’.  It reminded me of something else my father said to me on several occasions. Here I quote from gist rather than directly as he died many years ago and these thoughts were expressed on several occasions, rather than on one. If there is ever going to be change, he told me, at the University, it is only going to come through the students.  The administration never listens to us, the academics. The students don’t realise what power they actually have.  They can change things through standing up for themselves.

I remember his and many other academics utter disgust when one of the first actions of the University administration, after the end of apartheid, was to outsource the cleaning staff. But the policy was pushed through despite many academics objections to it and we, the students, sat passively by as workers were robbed of their benefits and as their salaries were slashed – they were largely rehired by the outsourcing company at a much lower pay rate.

I remember speaking to students about this at the time because my father had spoken to me about it. I was told, by those economically minded students, that neither I nor the academics understood that, for the university to run efficiently, these kinds of cuts had to be made. ‘It made economic sense.’ This, in South Africa, was the real beginning of the conservative bureaucratization of the university.  A bureaucratization that, I think, would counterintuitively act against its own supposed policy of transformation.  I am not entirely sure what the likes of Judith Butler, Achille Mbembe and Xolela Mangcu had to say the other day at UWC – I have not been able to find a full transcript.  All I can say is that I have, at various times, valued their academic contributions and believe that if ever there were three academics who should at the very least be listened to, on the subject of how universities as institutions must be made to work for all, it is them. Now it would seem that neither the administration nor the students will hear out the argument.

In this regard I was reminded of the end of the programme Civilisation narrated and written by the great art historian Kenneth Clark.  It was a piece of television I watched repeatedly with my father for many years and, I think, contains some liberal thinking which I must confess I believe in. It is right at the end, after contemplating the 1968 student uprisings in Paris, that Clark says:

Naturally these bright-minded young people think poorly of existing institutions and want to abolish them. One doesn’t need to be young to dislike institutions. But the dreary fact remains that, even in the darkest ages, it was institutions that made society work, and if civilisation is to survive, society must somehow be made to work.

At this point I reveal myself in my true colours, as a stick-in-the-mud. I hold a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellects of our time. I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven’t changed much in the last two thousand years; and in consequence we must still try to learn from history. History is ourselves.

I also hold one or two beliefs that are more difficult to put shortly. For example, I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people’s feelings by satisfying our own egos. And I think we should remember that we are part of a great whole, which for convenience we call nature. All living things are our brothers and sisters.

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