By Stephen Schulman
I feel a deep sadness, the sadness felt at the loss of something that was dear to me that is now lost and is no more. It is my alma mater, The University of Cape Town (UCT).
The campus is still situated in its magnificent location, the buildings are still standing and the students are present, but for me it is an empty shell for as what constitutes the essence of a true academic institution: the spirit of tolerance, disinterested academic research, open discourse accepting often contradictory points of view; and accompanying perspicacity that once was the hallmark of this venerable institution has long since gone. The campus calls itself UCT (at least at this moment of time!) but the spirit that characterized this once true liberal university has vanished.
The saga of Lwazi Lushaba is just another sad testimony to this decline for in April of this year, in a pre-recorded lecture delivered online with first-year political science students, on a date that happened to coincide with Israel’s Holocaust Day, Lushaba, a lecturer in the department of political studies at the University of Cape Town, said:
“Hitler committed no crime. All Hitler did was to do to white people what white people had normally reserved for black people.”
His words displaying blatant racism or at the very least, abysmal ignorance and/or an abhorrent lack of sensitivity caused outrage amongst his students, many alumni and the community. Protests were lodged and their outcome was awaited. However, the university choosing a policy of “hear no evil and see no evil” and with the backing of the head of the Students Representative Council perceived nothing amiss, dismissed the protests and elected to remain silent.
On the 27th June, after naively and patiently waiting three months for UCT to respond, I penned an open letter to Vice Chancellor Rosina Mamokgethi Phakeng expressing my dismay at the silence of the institution at Lushaba’s words, the damage it had caused to the university and the distress of the community at large. Somewhat surprisingly, I received a prompt communication albeit not from the VC but from Prof. Martin Hall, the acting deputy VC in charge of transformation.
Dear Stephen Schulman
The Vice-Chancellor has asked me to reply to your email of 27 June.
It is not the case that Dr Lushaba issued a statement that : “Hitler committed no crime. All Hitler did was to do to white people what white people had normally reserved for black people.” Rather, an unknown person extracted a short clip from a 30-minute recording of a first year lecture delivered on line, and posted the clip on social media. The overall subject of the lecture was acts of genocide committed by colonial powers against indigenous communities, in the context of changing interpretative models within the disciplinary field of political studies. It is apparent from the full recording that Dr Lushaba’s reference to Hitler was intended ironically.
Understandably, the wide distribution of this clip on social media has caused extensive concern and distress. The university is currently reviewing the full lecture in the context of the curriculum the context and our expectations of our teaching staff. We expect this review to be completed shortly.
Emeritus Professor Martin Hall
Acting Deputy Vice Chancellor, Transformation
My reply to Professor Hall expressed concern at the delay and hoped that the university would take prompt action as promised. Alas, my hopes were dashed! It is now December; four months have passed since reception of his letter and UCT still remains silent.
The University of Cape Town prides itself on being Africa’s premier university. It proclaims itself as being the continent’s beacon of academic achievements, enlightenment, morality, and social justice. It also purports its involvement in helping to ensure a better future for all the inhabitants. Moreover, Vice Chancellor Phakeng repeatedly stresses on a multiracial campus, the institution’s policy of inclusion and caring.
Have the actions of the university borne these fine words out?
If Lushaba’s words were taken out of context, why did the university, at the very least, not see a moral obligation to publish the lecture text to substantiate this claim and clear up misunderstandings?
Why did the university, out of respect for and duty to the community, not issue a statement clarifying this issue?
Why did the Acting Deputy Chancellor put it in writing that the university was reviewing the issue and then do absolutely nothing?
Why was the matter swept under the carpet?
Why the silence?
Unfortunately, this is not the only glaring example of ethical decline. The T.B. Davie Memorial Lecture is a prestigious annual event where internationally distinguished speakers have addressed the student body and convocation. In 2019, a discredited academic known for his crude antisemitism and filthy mouth (e.g. “I wish all the fu____g West Bank settlers would go missing”) was invited to be the speaker, giving an address that hit a nadir in its vacuity, obtuseness and antisemitic tropes. The university seemingly has no problem in trampling the sensitivities of the Jewish students and community and then soliciting donations.
The Students Representative Council (SRC), an accurate weathervane of the prevailing campus winds, actively promotes the so called “Israel Apartheid Week.” On more than one occasion, I wrote to them expressing my disagreement with their decision and calling for an open dialogue. Needless to say, in true Cancel Culture tradition, my letters were ignored.
Emeritus Professor Hall’s appointment as the Acting Deputy Vice Chancellor, Transformation has aroused anger both from the SRC and the Black Caucus who see his main disqualification for the post being the colour of his skin. The SRC declared that “the appointment signalled the institution’s endorsement of patriarchy and whiteness, perpetuating historic power imbalances” They continued: “We are not confident that an individual, long lost to UCT, and who is ignorant of the lived realities and struggles of the many marginalised identities who desperately seek the transformation of the institution, is in any way suitable for the role.”
So much for the trumpeted inclusivity and tolerance!
In 2015, the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement demanded that Rhodes’ statue be removed from the campus since it was a symbol of white colonialism and racism. Nevertheless, the students and administration conveniently ignore that it was Cecil John Rhodes who bequeathed the ground to the university and that black students are not averse to accepting the “tainted” money of a Rhodes Scholarship! The smell of hypocrisy is just as strong as that of the faeces that were disgustingly smeared on the statue!
UCT is in the throes of ‘Transformation’ i.e. renaming frenzy and one of its decisions has been to rename the men’s residence, the former Smuts Hall. Jan Christian Smuts certainly was not a proponent for racial integration but as Prime Minister of South Africa in 1939, he fought against Fascism and led South Africa in the struggle against Nazi Germany. The university Council with its selective amnesia would do well to remember that had there not been people like him and many others of all races, UCT would certainly not be able to call itself an African university today.
On the 17th of November, Vice Chancellor Phakeng, in an official communication titled “Renaming of upper campus places and spaces“, once again urged UCT alumni in keeping with the ‘Transformation’ spirit to devote serious thought to renaming various campus buildings and open spaces. The university council will undoubtedly find a wealth of suitable names amongst the known ANC luminaries and those yet to be discovered!
South Africa is beset with many problems and is on the way to becoming a failed state. The university remains mute, preoccupied with choosing names and ignoring its commitment to community and country. Bigotry and intolerance dominate and the well-worn slogans of caring and inclusiveness ring hollow. Many of us UCT alumni, in the light of its actions, no longer wish to have contact with our once beloved alma mater.
At the time of writing, a book by Professor David Benatar “The Fall of the University of Cape Town” has been published that meticulously documents UCT’s losing of its moral compass. The writer, a respected professor and senior member of the academic staff has long been a witness to this decline. His words corroborate the conclusions and sentiments of so many of us all.
About the writer:
Stephen Schulman is a graduate of the South African Jewish socialist youth movement Habonim, who immigrated to Israel in 1969 and retired in 2012 after over 40 years of English teaching. He was for many years a senior examiner for the English matriculation and co-authored two English textbooks for the upper grades in high school. Now happily retired, he spends his time between his family, his hobbies and reading to try to catch up on his ignorance.
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