No propaganda, no new-speak
23 October 2017 11:59 (South Africa)
South Africa

Q&A: Max Price on UCT’s year of living on the edge

  • Andrew Brown
    Andrew Brown
  • South Africa
Photo: Max Price

ANDREW BROWN is a UCT graduate and a practising advocate. As a parent of two students at the university and a police reservist stationed at Mowbray SAPS, he has had to deal with both sides of the student protest action on the campus. In light of the pending no-confidence vote proposed by certain members of the Convocation, he requested an opportunity to ask Vice Chancellor Max Price some of the tough questions.

I have been stationed on police patrol at night on UCT campus many times this year. My strict orders were not to retaliate to projectiles being thrown at me; to remain unmoved by all abuse. This is the same campus that gave me my LLB. This is the same campus where I was myself arrested for public violence for clashing with the police in the 80s. This is the campus where my father worked his whole life as an academic. So let’s ask the hard questions.

You stand accused of kowtowing to the rabble, allowing unconscionable behaviour to go unsanctioned and for this reason we should have no confidence in your leadership of the university. To be honest, I am not sure if the complaint is that the end itself is dire or that the means to get here were expedient. So let’s start at the end – in your view, where have we come to at the end of 2016?

Let me start by saying I do not condone the violence, vandalism and intimidation that some protesters used to pursue their goals. Far from it – I condemn the fact that other students’ rights were seriously infringed in that they were prevented from studying and attending classes; likewise, the threats and intimidation against students and staff are unconscionable.

As a university we encourage debate, dissent, critical thought. That cannot happen in an environment of intimidation. We will continue to take this issue up, not least in the proposed ITRC.

But to your question, where have we come to at year-end? We successfully concluded the year. We wrote all the exams without even the threat of disruption. Libraries, computer laboratories and residences were peaceful and some 17,000 students wrote their exams, many are graduating or continuing to the next year of study. There was minimal security presence required which itself is a factor that affects students’ ability to relax and write exams in a calm environment. Other students (about 25%) took the option of deferring their exams until January, since the disruptions of the last term compromised their ability to study and perform at their best.

This conclusion should not be taken for granted. The day before we signed the agreement with the student protest leaders, we were prepared for private security inside and outside every exam venue, residence, and library. There was a considerable risk that some, perhaps many, exams would be disrupted from inside, by students who would enter as bona fide exam candidates with their IDs, but would then get up and toyi-toyi or tear up others’ scripts – as happened at some other universities. In my view, we chose the right strategy which optimally served the interests of probably 90% of students and staff.

In terms of end points, how have other tertiary institutions fared with their strategies?

Some had to bus their students off campus to write in military camps and air force hangars, amid considerable intimidation – especially in the residences. Conditions there were similar to UCT before we brokered a peace. At night, for example, protesters would set off fire alarms in the residences 10 times a night – forcing all the students to wake and evacuate each time. It’s terribly stressful to write an exam the next day after a night like that. At other universities, there was heavy security at every exam venue, and every student entering had to be frisked and searched. In some, there were occasional ongoing disruptions of exams.

Is UCT ungoverned and ungovernable as your detractors would suggest?

Governance practices take different forms – some, familiar and routine (like regular and frequent meetings of the Executive, Senate, Council, Faculty Boards, any number of selection and other committees). Senate in November signed off on the new five-year strategic plan. All this has continued in spite of the crisis. But that crisis has called for other kinds of governance too: the sorts of emergency consultations and negotiations that enabled the agreement with students, the lengthy and detailed engagements with workers around insourcing and producing new procedures, contracts and conditions for all of that. And more. There is a long list – all of which constitutes manifold governance. This is not to say that everything we do is successful – of course not. We don’t have the degree of control over the situation that we would like. Sometimes we make the wrong call, or can’t effect the outcomes we intend.

Is UCT ungovernable? To the extent that we confront forces beyond our control, which create unruly spaces for protesters – yes, there are limits to our capacity to govern. Some greater control could be achieved with more security, but at every point it is a balancing act because the evidence is plentiful that raising the level of private security and police raises the likelihood of violence among protesters. Moreover, one may achieve control, prevent vandalism and public violence, but that is not the same as securing the space for learning to take place. Learning does not take place when a large noisy crowd are dancing, peacefully, in the courtyard of a block of lecture theatres or singing in the library – and the police in any case won’t act against them because no crime is being committed. But these challenges to our ability and authority to control protests doesn’t surprise me – nor is it unique to UCT. It inheres in the complexity of the situation, and the virulence with which the crisis has erupted, intensified by external conflicts and their impact within the higher education sector at large.

The conservative critique coming from those who would secure a vote of no confidence in your leadership appears to be that you have negotiated too openly with the students. Why negotiate at all?

I, or rather we, the executive team, were doing it in the interests of the vast majority of students and staff in order to conclude the academic year so that they could graduate and get jobs; so that they would not have to repeat a year of study; so that school leavers can come into university in 2017. The consequences of not writing exams would be catastrophic for the tens of thousands of individuals.

The point is surely, you negotiate with people you don’t agree with, to resolve conflict in ways other than through the use of force. As a leader in the university and in society, I believe I am role-modelling how I think conflict should be dealt with: through discussion (because I think the protesters have something to say that’s legitimate) and through exhausting all other avenues before resorting to force. In the agreement we are demonstrating a preferred strategy for dealing with political and ideological differences, and to find a method to overcome a deadlock, which has integrity. Of course, this may fail – in which case the securitised route will follow. But as the last resort, not the first.

The negotiations are based on my belief that there is significant goodwill and desire to seek solutions on the part of most of the protest leaders. If the protesters (whether the leaders or their allies) break that confidence, or signal that they are not interested in peaceful outcomes and methods, then unfortunately the engagement will fail and we will have to resort to security interventions to protect the rights and safety of the rest of the university community.

Manifestly there was a need for negotiation in the course of this tumultuous year. Every single institution affected by protest action at some point entered into negotiation and sought out compromises, some more effectively than others. So it seems to me to be a matter of degree. Some challenge your judgement as to that degree. How much do you negotiate, how much do you compromise? Explain the UCT strategy to me.

The biggest challenge in negotiations has been that there are multiple factions within the student protest movement with overlapping, but different, priorities. Some were focused mostly on amnesty for their expelled comrades. Among those campaigning for free education, there are two groups with different end goals. One wants to get the universities to align themselves with the #FMF call and form a united front in arguing the case with the government. The other takes the view that the only way government will be persuaded to take notice is if several major universities are shut down indefinitely. So for that group, no amount of local negotiating will achieve anything – in fact they will not negotiate – because their goal is to keep the campus shut, not find a solution that will allow it to open. For many protesters, the issues were very local – even within their faculties or academic programmes (such as music, fine art, medicine), to deal with alleged experiences of institutional racism and alienation.

The tactics of the protesters are modelled on the “occupy movements”: they have no defined membership, no formally elected leaders or spokespersons, no stable structure, and in effect no accountable representatives with mandates. The result of the multiple agendas and groupings, was that often, after we had negotiated what we thought was a way forward, a subsequent plenary meeting of all the various protesting groups would scupper the agreement, in the midst of their dissent. They are inherently fluid and heterogeneous, to the point that we often do not really know who the negotiators represent and what the real agenda is. One response to that is to say, “So, don’t negotiate”. But that ignores the fact that this agglomeration of interest groups collectively have membership of thousands, and they have a certain power to prevent the institution from functioning normally.

The negotiation strategy therefore is to address the grievances of those groups that can be addressed, the groups that are looking for solutions that ultimately will lead to their being able to complete their studies – which is what most of them want. This will strip away support from those that only want a shutdown. There is no sustainable solution in suppressing the protests while they have the support of thousands, and the securitisation of the campus is unpleasant and costly for all. It’s worth persevering in the pursuit of an agreement as long as there is a chance that it is possible.

My impression of the movement is of a student body determined to ask the hard questions that have been ignored for too long. I believe that this groundswell is to be welcomed. And despite the anger that accompanies this, the student movement at UCT has attempted to maintain a commitment to peaceful protest, as hard as that sometimes is. There have however been instances of criminal conduct and some of the perpetrators were apprehended and charged. Interdicts were put in place. Police officers like myself were called in to patrol. There have been calls from some quarters for greater retribution. What do you say to those who accuse you of allowing criminality to go unheeded?

After the one night of violent protests and vandalism on February 16 this year, we did pursue interdicts and disciplinary charges against 12 students and they were expelled or rusticated or sanctioned in other ways. Charges were also laid with the SAPS. The interdict was unsuccessfully challenged in the High Court and then the Supreme Court, and the respondents have now sought leave to appeal to the Constitutional Court. We have been consistent in defending the interdict all the way. We obtained another interdict during October to help us and the police deal with the recent unlawful protests. We have 20 or so disciplinary charges outstanding against protesters for allegedly unlawful activity – so I don’t accept that we ignore criminal activity.

This perception of being soft on criminal behaviour comes from the fact that we are willing to consider clemency and amnesty. Note that this only applies to people who have already been found guilty and sanctioned, such as the 12 I mentioned. And in this regard there are two considerations. The first is pragmatic: It was clear to my negotiating team that, having found common ground on all the big issues, such as an approach to the national campaign for free education, the establishment of an “Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission” (IRTC), and reassurance on financial exclusions at UCT, there remained a single obstacle to an agreement, namely the question of whether the expelled students could resume their studies. So we had to weigh up the consequences of not reaching an agreement, with the very high risks of not writing exams and not completing the academic year, affecting tens of thousands of individuals, against conceding that 12 individuals that should be allowed back on campus.

Which brings me to the second consideration. This concession is not a licence to impunity. It is an alternative approach to retributive justice – namely restorative justice. It argues that one can learn from one’s experience, and that the university does not have to terminate the students’ academic careers which would be the result of expulsion, in order to achieve justice and change to that behaviour – which is ultimately one of the purposes of punishment.

Thus the University Council discussed the consequences of a hardline retributive approach for the risks to the academic year and its impact on thousands of others who are innocent bystanders, and accepted that a restorative justice approach might be an appropriate alternative in these circumstances. Council agreed that no blanket amnesty would be granted, but rather that clemency or amnesty could be granted to those individuals who signed a declaration acknowledging what they had done, that it was wrong and unlawful, that they would not do it again, and that they would recognise the authority of the Student Disciplinary codes and tribunals to discipline them for future misconduct.

Moreover, the clemency, which entails the suspension of the sentence, could be withdrawn if the individual transgressed again. In fact the agreement says that the clemency can be withdrawn if the exams or normal operation of the university are disrupted. By contrast, an amnesty, which entails a permanent expungement of the finding and sanction, would only follow a review of the individual cases by the independent commissioners of the IRTC, who will make a recommendation to Council.

Of course, you have your detractors on the other side as well – some, especially leftish academics and students within the university, blame you for militarising the campus and being intolerant of disruptions which are legitimate tactics of political struggle and which were the same tactics used in the youth uprisings in the 1970s – demonstrating courage which today earns them admiration. South Africa remains an inherently wealth- and privilege-divided country and many of the issues remain: are students not entitled, indeed morally obligated, to take action to achieve what has been promised but not delivered?

As you mention regarding your own activist past, I was also arrested for protests as SRC president at Wits way back in the 1970s. But there are key differences between then and now. We were protesting against an unjust system in the absence of democracy; dissent was banned and the voices of the majority were suppressed by law. In a society where the laws are unjust, civil disobedience and even unlawful behaviour may be justified. Today we enjoy the fruits of a hard-won constitutional democracy, in which the majority can exercise their voices without resorting to civil disobedience. We encourage our students to use their rights to peaceful protest, but need to act against those who act unlawfully.

Will I be patrolling UCT campus next year again? Does the settlement concluded with students not just create a whip for the year to come?

I am certain there will be protests and if students choose to use unlawful means to force their demands on the university and are not willing to negotiate peacefully, then we will need to bring in private security and police. I would like it to be otherwise but that is in the hands of the protest leaders. But it is my hope that the settlement we have reached creates an environment of discussion and process that allows these issues to be taken forward without the need for the disruption of campus.

Can we have confidence in UCT management’s leadership of the university?

It is important not to see the university only through the eyes of the media (or the police reservists) whose attention is focused on disruption and crisis. If instead you were to focus on the core business of the UCT – teaching and research and social impact – we had one of our best years ever. We produced more research papers than ever before in our history. Our research contracts – reflecting the confidence outside clients and sponsors have in the quality and capacity of our research teams – crossed the R1-billion mark and exceeded 2014/5’s level by 30%.

The impact of our research reached an all-time high if measured by the number of times UCT research was cited by other scientists. UCT medical research is the largest recipient of US National Institutes of Healt funding anywhere in the world outside the USA, and to top that, last week we were awarded a prestigious Wellcome Centre of Excellence for research in infection diseases – the only one of 11 awarded that is outside the UK.

On the teaching side, the pass rates of our first-year courses went up for all students – those from disadvantaged schools and from top schools. We implemented a new admissions policy in 2016 which explicitly advantages first-generation university applicants and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, while still retaining a focus on redress by race. We have a vibrant debate going on in all faculties on curriculum change and what coloniality means in the SA university context. We have launched 6 MOOCs – free online global courses – two of which have been rated amongst the best in the world.

In terms of our global reputation, we have retained our position as the best university in Africa and positioned in the top 1% globally. In April 2016 we were invited to join the International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU) – there are only 10 others representing the top universities globally – and we are the only representative not from an OECD country. Those are the criteria by which the performance of UCT management should be measured, and I think the record shows that our alumni and students ought to be immensely proud and confident. DM

Photo: Max Price.

  • Andrew Brown
    Andrew Brown
  • South Africa

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