Op-Ed

The dangers of using poor historical analysis to exclude the legitimate rights of others

By Mike Morris 25 June 2020

The University of Cape Town campus. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma)

The commitment to academic freedom is not confined to liberalism... Rather academic freedom should be regarded as an integral part of progressive political philosophy.

I was somewhat taken aback reading the Daily Maverick Op-Ed “The Nattrass case and the Dangers of Ahistorical Analogy” by Benson, Cooper, Favish, Gillespie, Godsell, Hunter and Lubinsky (henceforth “the authors”). I was initially amused at the irony of their intervention.

On the one hand, six white women and a white man adopt a racialised identity politics screen to lecture Nicoli Nattrass (as a white woman) and other “white allies/academics” for having the temerity to comment on black students’ perceptions, exclusively black organisations, and whether or not UCT is a racist institution. And on the other hand, they simultaneously arrogate to themselves the right to argue on behalf of black students and academics why they need(ed) exclusively black organisations (Saso, BAC) to protect their space.

That’s the problem with playing the identity politics of pain. If you are not part of the circumscribed identity you cannot criticise from the outside. However, if that is the case, then surely you cannot speak for the group either. And since any identity can be even further more tightly circumscribed, it becomes the process of regression ad infinitum – one day you are in, but the next you can be defined as out, and so on.

In 1968, students had taken action to maintain the principle of academic freedom at UCT, the right of the university to be open to all races, and in opposition to discriminating against appointing a staff member to UCT (Archie Mafeje) on the basis of colour.

Some of the participants of the 1968 sit-in recently wrote an open letter to UCT expressing disquiet with recent events at UCT. The intention of the open letter was to protest that “our University” had abrogated academic freedom in attempting to silence an academic in publishing her legitimate research findings. The vice-chancellor and three deputy vice-chancellors of UCT had released a statement which publicly condemned a commentary published in an academic journal by Prof Nicoli Nattrass. They simultaneously instituted an investigation into her research activities. This breaks with all precedence in the way the university responds to controversies.

I write mainly to respond to the Op-Ed authors dismissing the 1968 sit-in participants’ open letter.

In their article, the authors studiously avoided dealing with the substance of the open letter, in their haste to deny the signatories the right to have a political say. So, let me pose some direct questions to the authors:

  • Did the university abrogate the principle of academic freedom or not?
  • Are those who engaged in the 1968 sit-in entitled to hold and express the view that the university did indeed abrogate academic freedom?
  • If they are not so entitled, on what grounds are they disqualified?
  • If the principle of academic freedom and non-racial discrimination applied to Archie Mafeje in 1968, why does it not also apply to Nicoli Nattrass?

The authors made a series of statements about the 1968 sit-in which were designed to discredit its participants, and hence their right to comment. The authors claim the need to “open our history to critique”. But the manner in which they treat history shows scant respect for marshalling evidence. This amounts to an ideologically driven rewriting of history aimed at displacing the narrative of a struggle for non-racialism and democracy. Perhaps this is the ultimate irony in their tendentious article? That is, Nattrass is criticised for her research methods on the basis of their own very poor historical characterisation of the 1968 sit-in.

In what follows, I address their historical treatment of the 1968 sit-in, since they use this to dismiss the political right of those participants to protest the current actions of the UCT executive.

The authors dismiss the 1968 sit-in, because they claim it was led by “white Nusas-aligned students”, who had no “serious commitment to anti-racism”. In their characterisation, the sit-in “was based on a limited and formal liberal defence of academic freedom”.

The 1968 sit-in followed a dark period of around five years after the Vorster government suppressed all dissent in society, including among students opposed to apartheid. The historical significance of the sit-in is that it heralded a reassertion of protest against apartheid in the university system. Over 900 students occupied the UCT administration building. They were protesting both the apartheid government interference in appointing a staff member on the basis of his racial classification, and the UCT authorities’ culpability in accepting interference by rescinding his appointment.

This characterisation is questionable on a number of grounds.

First, academic freedom and university autonomy is not something to be lightly dismissed. It is an essential principle of constitutional democracy. Moreover, the commitment to academic freedom is not confined to liberalism, as the authors claim. Rather academic freedom should be regarded as an integral part of progressive political philosophy. It therefore forms part of the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution, in line with other freedoms expressed in the Bill of Rights, that so many people, black and white, fought to ensure.

The political basis of the sit-in rightly intertwined academic freedom and the demand that universities should be open to all, irrespective of race. The demand that university faculty members should be selected without reference to race was necessarily also a direct fight against apartheid, a system whose defining feature was that race should be the deciding factor. The sit-in and its participants in their opposition to government interference in the selection of Mafeje’s appointment were thus fundamentally opposed to the racial basis of apartheid.

Moreover, the assertion by the authors is historically sloppy. The claim that the sit-in was led by Nusas. This is historically incorrect. Given that Raphie Kaplinsky was the undisputed leader of the sit-in, and led it from beginning to end, I checked this and other statements with him. His email answer is unequivocal:

“The sit-in was inspired by and led by the Radical Students Society (RSS). The RSS was a (conscious) successor to the Modern World Society which had been the home for left-wing (and in many cases avowedly Marxist) students. Those who participated in the RSS after the sit-in will remember extensive activities exploring Marxism and other radical ideas. This led to the conscientisation of a number of people who then played prominent roles in the liberation struggle, including some who were active in the Communist Party. The idea that it was led by a liberal Nusas elite is just bunkum.”

But, in any event, on what basis should a political action of some historical note be discounted simply because its participants were white students? After the apartheid regime passed the1959 Extension of Universities Amendment Act, universities had lost their autonomy to accept students irrespective of their race. Students who were not classified as white could only be admitted to UCT if they were granted permission by the state to do so, and the numbers admitted were minuscule.

The 1968 sit-in followed a dark period of around five years after the Vorster government suppressed all dissent in society, including among students opposed to apartheid. The historical significance of the sit-in is that it heralded a reassertion of protest against apartheid in the university system. Over 900 students occupied the UCT administration building. They were protesting both the apartheid government interference in appointing a staff member on the basis of his racial classification, and the UCT authorities’ culpability in accepting interference by rescinding his appointment.

Because of the very nature of the apartheid system, in 1968 the students participating in the sit-in were overwhelmingly white. But race is not the issue. What is the issue is the fact that they were willing to take substantial action against the university and the apartheid government. And if their actions should be disregarded because the participants were white, would the same principle not have applied to all of the struggle against apartheid? Perhaps the authors think that there was no substantial place for whites in the historical, and current, struggle for a non-racial, free, and constitutionally defined democratic South Africa?

The authors claim that it is a “scandal” for those who led and participated in the sit-in to “use the Mafeje affair to justify their progressive credentials”. They assert this on the grounds that the 1968 sit-in students knew little of “Mafeje and his work”, there was “little follow-up” by them “after the sit-in”, and that the students’ rationale for involvement in the sit-in was primarily about themselves rather than a commitment to a struggle against racial oppression.

First, it is simply not true to say that the sit-in participants as a group forgot about the Mafeje affair, and had no direct follow up to the 1968 sit-in. In 2008, a group of the sit-in participants decided it was important to commemorate the political issues around the sit-in. They started a process to collect contributions from other participants for a “Spirit of 68 Fund” with the objective of promoting projects research focused on social exclusion. The fund was launched a few years later and has been making annual awards to UCT students, primarily black, engaged in progressive research projects.

Second, on a broader historical level, the aftermath of the sit-in had a catalysing effect on many students at UCT. It gave rise to numerous left-wing student groupings discussing a range of issues, as well as a variety of actions undertaken by them. These ranged from discussion circles focused on South Africa as well as global issues centred around Rick Turner, to producing Marxist-inspired critiques of the intersection between race and capitalism in South Africa, and to some students seeking ways to shift their focus to aligning with the black working class.

Whatever I think about its glibness, it is their prerogative to say so, protected by the post-1994 Constitution. But they cannot set themselves up as the arbiters of who has the right to intervene, analyse, and comment on historical and current events.

It is also irrelevant whether the sit-in participants knew Mafeje or his work beforehand. Without denigrating Mafeje personally, he was not the political issue at stake. What was at issue was the struggle against the apartheid government to protect university autonomy, academic freedom, and the general struggle for a non-racial South Africa. Mafeje, as a person, was the manifestation of this principle in the historical moment. Similarly, people whatever their race or religion or residence did not have to know victims of the apartheid security police (eg, Steve Biko, Ahmed Timol, Ruth First, Ashley Kriel, Neil Aggett, Griffiths Mxenge and numerous others) in their contributions to the struggle to protest against the apartheid regime.

Finally, without any attempt to provide any evidence, on this basis the authors politically dismiss numerous people from the 1968 sit-in who made contributions (large and small) to the liberation struggle (inside the country and in exile) in subsequent years. These were individuals for whom the political conscientisation of student activity in the sit-in played a role: in their activities in MK, the ANC and SACP in exile, the global anti-apartheid movement, the UDF, the union movement, and community struggles.

Many of these people paid a price in following up the political commitments they made as students. This ranged on a spectrum from relatively small sacrifices but which may have had greater personal import in their lives, to having to abandon careers and flee the country, to being incarcerated in apartheid prisons. These authors do not have the right to dismiss such people and what they may regard as an important formative part of their own political history, as if it was up to the authors to hand out “political credentials”. It is arrogant and insulting.

The authors can have any number of views on the trends, swings and roundabouts of how the political struggle for freedom in South Africa was conducted. It seems they disagree that the struggle waged by the ANC, the SACP, the UDF/UDM, and union movement for a non-racial, constitutionally democratic South Africa struggle was the appropriate way to bring about freedom. They are certainly quick to dismiss post-1994 as “multiracialism, reconciliation, and forgiveness”.

Whatever I think about its glibness, it is their prerogative to say so, protected by the post-1994 Constitution. But they cannot set themselves up as the arbiters of who has the right to intervene, analyse, and comment on historical and current events.

We all have, and should continue to have, the right and the freedom to debate our history and our contemporary situation. But it is also incumbent on us to produce evidence-based analysis when we do so. Finally, it behoves us in 2020 to have some humility, and have some respect for the variety of people and organisations who have made, and continue to make, a contribution to democratic rights and inclusiveness in South Africa.

Building a new and democratic South Africa requires co-operation and tolerance. We must not let racism – in a new form – poison how we construct this new society. Nor should we allow shoddy research and tendentious name-calling intended to rewrite the contributions made by previous generations in the struggle for a better and more civilised future. DM

Mike Morris is an Emeritus Professor at UCT. He was a student leader at UCT from 1968-1972. He has a long history as a left-wing analyst, political activist, and a unionist under apartheid. He is also a noted political economy analyst who has published widely on South African political and economic issues and international development trends.

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