South Africa

Stifling debate

Free State university bars ‘Gangster State’ book discussion

Pieter-Louis Myburgh at the Cape Town launch of his latest book, Gangster State: Unravelling Ace Magashule’s Web of Capture.

The University of the Free State has decided to prohibit a panel discussion on Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s book ‘Gangster State’ that was due to take place on its campus next week.

It is understood that the University of the Free State’s security services cited supposed security concerns when it made the call on Wednesday to call off a talk on the book Gangster State scheduled for next week.

The panel discussion was due to be held at the UFS campus on Thursday 23 May in conjunction with its business school, the Association for Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE), book retailer Exclusive Books and Penguin Random House, the publisher of the book penned by investigative journalist Pieter-Louis Myburgh.

An email from a staffer at the UFS business school sent to Penguin on Wednesday mentioned supposed security concerns raised by the university’s security services, without divulging any further details.

You are free to go ahead with the event, on the same time and date, but not on campus,” the UFS Business School staffer wrote in her email to Penguin.

On Wednesday night, Helena van Zyl, director of the UFS Business School, told Daily Maverick that the university’s security services “suggested that we postpone the event to the year’s second semester”.

She did not elaborate on the reason behind the decision and referred Daily Maverick to the UFS security services for further comment.

The cancellation of the event is the third instance in which a scheduled launch event for the book has been disrupted or prohibited from taking place.

At the first launch of Gangster State at an Exclusive Books branch in Sandton City in early April, apparent ANC Youth League members and supporters of ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule disrupted the event to such an extent that it had to be cancelled. The following week, Exclusive Books and the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town cited supposed security concerns when it decided to pull the plug on a second launch event.

Gangster State largely deals with Magashule’s alleged corrupt dealings in his former role as premier of the Free State.

On Wednesday night, Free State radio station OFM quoted ANC Youth League spokesperson Sello Peterson as saying the league would have relished the opportunity to engage Myburgh intellectually on what Peterson claimed were falsehoods and lies in the book.

In our view, we would have been very happy to form part of that nonsensical lecture because we are prepared to go and expose it for what it is. For the university to postpone it is not really a train smash. It’s assisting because, like we said before, the book does not belong in the [archives of] our history, it does not belong anywhere within the intellectual discourse because it’s fiction, which must be understood as the rubbish which it is.”

However, referring to the risk assessment conducted by the university’s security services, Peterson reportedly said no place in the country should be declared a no-go zone.

We would have welcomed that white boy to come to the province and engage [with] him,” the radio station quoted Peterson as saying.

The UFS’s decision to bar next week’s event from taking place comes in the same month in which media institutions and journalists the world over celebrated World Press Freedom Day.

Myburgh said he found out about the development when he was contacted by a journalist from OFM.

The UFS or the other organisers did not even have the courtesy to call or email me or Penguin Random House,” said Myburgh.

Penguin Random House said in a statement that it was stunned that UFS had cancelled the public book event, which had been advertised for some time.

The company’s CEO, Steve Connolly, said: “We believe the university cancelled the event on the advice of the security department there. It is the university’s role to stand up for free speech, and the security office is there to defend that right if necessary.

Obviously we do not have all the details, but this has all the hallmarks of cowardice in the face of pressure to cancel the event from powerful forces in the Free State,” said Connolly.

In a statement issued on Thursday morning, the University of the Free State said it conducted “risk and threat assessments” for all events in order to ensure the protection of its students, staff, and infrastructure.

All risk and threat assessments are based on the evaluation of all information collected in respect of the specific event, as well as on environmental scanning in the community the university operates in.

The assessment on the discussion of Gangster State, the book by Pieter-Louis Myburgh, was based on a similar exercise that indicates that the event could be disrupted, putting the UFS, its staff, and students at risk. Although the event has been postponed to the second semester of this year, the university emphasises its commitment to upholding freedom of expression and its need to assess the latter within a specific context,” said the statement issued by the director, Communication and Marketing, Lacea Loader.

Contacted again on Thursday morning, Myburgh said:  The UFS is trying to label this as a postponement and not as a cancellation, but they’re being dishonest. The university has not contacted me or my publisher in regards to a supposed new date in the second semester.” DM

The author of the book, Pieter-Louis Myburgh, is an investigative journalist with Daily Maverick’s Scorpio.

This article was updated at 11.55am on May 16, 2019, to include comment from the university.

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