Statues and Storms — the high Price UCT paid during years of violent student protests
In a new book, former vice-chancellor Max Price argues his case over the Fallist saga.
There was a point in the recent history of South Africa when two jobs competed for the title of least enviable leadership role in the country. One was president of the republic, the other vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town.
A new book by former UCT vice-chancellor Max Price does nothing to dispel the idea that leading the continent’s top university is an often stressful, thankless and lonely role, requiring the juggling of giant egos among students, academics and rich alumni.
Price’s Statues and Storms was initially intended to be a book about his entire vice-chancellor tenure from 2008 to 2018 — because, he told Daily Maverick, “I wanted to counter the public perception that my term was just a term dealing with crisis”.
In the end, what is contained in its fairly sizable length focuses entirely on crisis: the period between 2015 and 2017 when South African university campuses were roiled by unprecedented student protests.
Read more in Daily Maverick: #FeesMustFall: Another day of violence as the state kicks issues forward
“Writing the book was hard because I realised that, at the time, I must have blocked out a lot,” Price said in an interview in Cape Town last week. “I had to go back and read a lot of news articles, watch clips of me in the protests, and it was like an out-of-body experience. Watching it three years later was more traumatic than I’d remembered it to be.”
That the Fallist protests were traumatising for pretty much everyone they touched is indisputable, but to have been in Price’s shoes during those tumultuous months now seems nightmarish.
In the book, he recalls his (legitimate) concern that the VC’s residence Glenara would be petrol-bombed. At one stage, students holding a “vigil” outside the residence endlessly rang the property’s bell and broke security beams to set off alarms, night after night, making sleep impossible.
During those protests, which began over a statue of Cecil John Rhodes on the campus and expanded to take in student fees and worker outsourcing, Price was the subject of relentless criticism from all quarters.
Fallists painted him as a racist reactionary. To quite a number of UCT academics he was far too capitulatory to the demands of students at the expense of the university’s core business of teaching and learning. To conservative alumni and donors, he was hell-bent on sacrificing the university’s reputation on the altar of wokeness. To concerned parents, he was not doing enough to ensure the safety of young people on campus.
It’s no surprise that Statues and Storms is an extended defence of Price’s handling of the protests. He acknowledges as much: “I didn’t feel that in the moment I had the chance to explain my decisions, so it is to some degree about setting the record straight,” Price told Daily Maverick.
Did he get it right? Even on the evidence of the book, it’s hard to judge — but Price would say that’s par for the course.
“There are often no right answers, and you mustn’t beat yourself up,” he says. “You consult widely, and make a decision.”
In the book, an occasional self-congratulatory tone creeps in. “People constantly commented on my unflappable demeanour and resilience,” he writes of the protests at one point. Because Price’s leadership at the time continues to be controversial, this sense of certainty will irk some readers.
He is clearly well aware of his critics, and in Statues and Storms seems most stung by the outcry that followed his decision to remove 75 “contentious” artworks from display on the UCT campus in 2016.
As was often the case during the protests, the students seemed to have Price and his executive team over a barrel: 23 artworks had already been destroyed by the time he made the call to remove others.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Rhodes Must Fall protesters burn UCT art
This decision was greeted as particularly shocking by observers — including renowned South African photographer David Goldblatt, who yanked his collection from UCT as a result — because it seemed to represent the final surrender of freedom of thought and expression to a small group of violent students.
In the book, Price argues that the decision had to be taken at least partly to protect the works from vandalism. His is, and was, the politics of pragmatism.
But, given the principles that seemed to be at stake in an academic setting, it is hard not to side on some matters with an unnamed black academic whom Price cites in his book as emailing him to complain: “You have been played by a kernel of ‘counter revolutionaries’ ringed by confused late teens searching for meaning in their young lives.”
Still, could anyone have handled it better? Price’s vice-chancellor contemporaries — such as Adam Habib at Wits University — who made different choices during the student protests, in particular regarding the policing of campus, were similarly excoriated, in different ways.
Price’s book is a riveting account of a complicated crisis, and any university’s response to threats and violence is an important subject for public analysis and discussion.
Price writes that in his first years as vice-chancellor of UCT, he was concerned about how apolitical students seemed, and how complacent the campus: “I found this distressing. I felt students were primarily interested in their careers and unwilling to engage in politics and activism.”
Careful what you wish for. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.