Daily Maverick

Fanon meets Biko meets JM Coetzee as UCT academic row over food highlights racial fault lines

While the Rhodes Must Fall student protests gathered momentum in 2015 at the University of Cape Town, professors and lecturers were locked in a different life-and-death philosophical battle – about what food should be served at Faculty of Humanities events or meetings. Much metaphorical blood has been spilt since the bitter dispute between vegans vs meat eaters, between white academic staff and the Black Academic Caucus first blipped on to the radar one chilly September afternoon. This is a food fight that cuts much deeper than mere meat and potatoes. By MARIANNE THAMM.

It would be wise to begin by containing and framing the dispute within the physical confines of where it first erupted, where professorial voices were first raised in anger, where some angrily walked out, allegedly slamming doors in bristling irritation and protest as they exited.

The meeting of the UCT Board of the Faculty of Humanities took place on 10 September 2015 in what has come to be known as the Mafeje Room in the Bremner Building (a.k.a. Azania House) on the Lower/Middle campus. That afternoon about 60 professors and academics – a fraction of those who could have been there, as many had tendered apologies, a fair amount were on leave and a hell of a lot were absent – were present. The meeting was chaired by Dean of Humanities, Professor Sakhela Buhlungu.

The preceding months had been tumultuous for UCT. What had began as a project by students to decolonise the university, with the statue of Cecil John Rhodes that gazed out over the Cape Flats serving as the locus of the campaign, soon spread nationally and morphed into the influential Fees Must Fall movement. Meanwhile, UCT continued as a site of struggle as Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) students occupied and renamed buildings, held open dialogues and eventually torched artworks that represented the establishment.

Away from all of this, and unbeknown to the students, professors and lecturers were about to get involved in a food fight which would turn ugly and which mirrored the racial and colonial fault lines students had sought to expose.

The venue where this all unfolded is significant to the story. The Mafeje Room, and the plaque which marks it, holds an enormous amount of UCT’s painful history when it comes to black exclusion, marginalisation and humiliation.

In 2008, UCT renamed the Senate Room the Archie Mafeje Room as one of several steps leadership had hoped would right the shameful injustice and humiliation the institution had caused Professor Archie Mafeje, a Cambridge University graduate and distinguished scholar and activist who had been appointed a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at UCT in 1968.

Back then the University Council, buckling under pressure from the then government, rescinded Professor Mafeje’s appointment and failed to defend the university’s right to make independent appointments. In August 1968 a month-long sit-in and protests were held in the Senate Room but Professor Mafeje was forced to leave. He went into exile and never again returned to UCT.

It was in this space that the Board of the Faculty of Humanities met that day.

We now enter a realm of bitter contention about what exactly happened and the meaning and tone of events that followed. The truth and the perception of that day and also subsequent meetings called to deal with the fallout of a proposal – tendered as a “late question” by Professor David Benatar, head of the Department of Philosophy and suggesting that no meat or animal products be served at any Faculty event or meeting – remains contested.

The proposal was based on the vast amount of suffering, cruelty and killing that is involved in producing food from animals,” those who proposed the meat ban argued.

On the one flank is Professor Benatar and four academics, including Dr Elisa Galgut (also in the Department of Philosophy), who co-signed his proposal. On the other are Professors Xolela Mangcu (Sociology) and Adam Haupt (Associate Professor Media Studies) who have led the charge condemning Professor Benatar’s conduct at the meeting, claiming he had been disrespectful.

Minutes of the gathering indicate that Professor Benatar’s request was tabled that afternoon under point five, “Questions for the Faculty Executive”, and that much of the initial discussion had focused on tedious procedural matters and terms of reference as to whether this was the correct forum to propose this vegan option.

Why, Professor Benatar had wanted to know, had the chair declined to put the item on the agenda? And did the Dean even have the authority to omit items from the agenda of the Board, Professor Benatar continued. The refusal to consider the item, he claimed, was an action that conflicted with provisions of the Institutional Statute.

The record of this meeting, by the way, would not be out of place in one of the fictitious lectures delivered by J M Coetzee’s ageing vegan philosopher and novelist, Elizabeth Costello, a character he used in his 1997-98 series of Tanner Lectures at Princeton and contained in his 1999 book The Lives Of Animals (Princeton University Press).

Coetzee’s Costello delivers two lectures about the consumption of meat by humans, a choice she considers to be “a crime, of stupefying proportions”. Costello’s views on meat eating and the killing of animals bring her into conflict with friends and family as she begins to regard all those who inflict pain on animals as criminals. Central to these fictitious lectures is Coetzee’s exploration of the ethical issues of how humans should treat animals. It is a pressing issue that Professor Benatar and his co-signatories too believe must be highlighted.

The minutes of the September meeting note, “In considering whether to put the proposal to the Board, the Dean, as chair of the Board, had judged that the proposal did not fall within the terms of reference of the Board. Furthermore, he considered that the proposal was informed by a personal belief system which could be divisive and cause alienation within the faculty.”

The Dean suggested that the matter be discussed at a special meeting.

The Dean had earlier set out his thoughts in an e-mail to Professor Benatar dated 4 September; “Upon reflection I wanted to let you know that I am very uncomfortable about this proposal precisely because it seeks to impose a belief system on dietary preferences in a blanket system on all members of the Faculty. For this reason we cannot include it on the agenda. I need to add that I believe that issues of dietary choices are often informed by cultural considerations of individual staff members. Thus in the same way that we tolerate and accommodate cultural diversity, we as a Faculty have an obligation to tolerate and protect diversity with regard to dietary preferences.”

To which Professor Benatar replied, “You invoke tolerance as a reason why the menu of Faculty events should not be restricted. However, you fail to recognise the limits of tolerance. Racist and sexist cultural practices are rightly not (or should not be) tolerated precisely because racism and sexism constitute a wrongful imposition on their victims. The same rationale applies here. We are saying that speciesism should not be tolerated because it constitutes a wrongful imposition on its victims. Those victims are animals rather than humans…”

The minutes capture the subsequent rising tension.

Prof Benatar responded to the Dean. He objected to the proposal that non-Board members be invited to the special meeting. He further challenged the Dean’s authority as chair of the board to prescribe procedure for determining whether items should be put to the board.”

The matter was then discussed “along increasingly polarised lines” noted the scribe.

Professor Mangcu objected to the tone of the proposers and their challenge to the authority of the Dean, noting that he did not believe the proposers had ever spoken to the former Dean with such a marked lack of respect or courtesy. He stated that Professor Benatar frequently held the Board hostage and that the item amounted to an ad hominem attack on the Dean, on his authority as chair of the Board and the authority of his office as Dean.”

It was then that the scribe noted that Dr Galgut rose to speak saying that Professor Benatar’s objection was justified. She then proceeded to argue the case for not serving animal products “but was not permitted to continue”.

Professor Haupt then rose and “strongly endorsed Prof Mangcu stating that the lack of respect shown to the Dean both in his capacity as chair of the Board and Dean of the Faculty highlighted the failures in transformation both at the University and within the Faculty.”

It was then that Professor Pippa Skotnes, one of the co-signatories to Prof Benatar’s proposal, rose to speak but she too “was not permitted to continue”. Later Dr Greg Fried, also of the Department of Philosophy, attempted the same but “the chair did not permit him to continue”.

The four proposers of the motion relating to animal products left the room,” noted the secretary.

There are those who claim Professor Skotnes slammed the door while exiting, a charge that has been denied. Skotnes later wrote to the Dean indicating that while she had been upset at what had transpired at the meeting, she had not purposefully banged the door in protest. The Dean had replied that he was not sure what he was meant to do with Skotnes’ e-mail to which she replied that she “did not want him to think the slamming of the door was pointedly hostile”.

At a follow-up meeting in October 2015 Dr Galgut reintroduced the proposal, stating that it was intended as “a symbolic stand against the mistreatment of animals” and that as academics the Faculty should lead by example and “take a stand against practices which demeaned members”, referring to various accusations that had flowed after the September meeting.

Dr Galgut and Dr Fried gave a PowerPoint and video presentation after which Dr Fried had argued that “the entrenchment of cultural practices were not a guarantee of their goodness, that the moral supremacy of freedom of choice could not be unlimited where it harmed others, but that we could not take as given that social justice applied only to human animals and that moral mores were subject to change across the ages”.

A robust discussion followed during which “Dr Garuba objected to the equivalence drawn between the rights of animals and the rights of slaves in Dr Galgut’s analogy”, after which Dr Galgut agreed to withdraw the analogy.

Another academic noted that diet was “inextricably bound to identity and that when institutions sanction dietary restrictions it could lead to violence” while yet another “asked the proposers to comment on the presentation of race in a cartoon which depicted a middle class white male instructing black workers”.

In the end those present voted by secret ballot. The result. Support 8, Not Support 50, Abstain 25.

That academic staff at an institution in the throes of one of the most tumultuous student movements since the 1970s should find themselves so thoroughly preoccupied and distracted by matters of nutrition (or murder, depending on how you look at it) is decidedly Coetzee-esque. When it gets too hot, it seems, some run into the kitchen to find refuge. DM

Photo: UCT, by Flowcomm via Flickr.

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