Opinionista Siseko H Kumalo 31 July 2018

Let Professor Mayosi’s death serve as a reminder that actions have consequences

Professor Bongani Mayosi’s departure leaves a deep wound felt by the professoriate, not only in South Africa, but across the globe. This is an open letter to Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng’s detractors.

Addressing the media on Sunday 29 July and the UCT community on Monday 30 July, 2018, Professor Phakeng (Vice-Chancellor and Principal of UCT) intimated that Professor Mayosi’s untimely departure may have been accelerated by the student protests of 2015-17.

Responding to her comments, on social and online media, some quarters of the student body — from Rhodes University, Wits and UCT — attempted to discredit Professor Phakeng on the premise that her assertions were baseless. Anticipating this critique, the UCT vice-chancellor clearly stated that we must acknowledge the pressures institutional leaders face from various sections of the university community such as the council, the professoriate and students. Professor Phakeng’s words inspired this critical reflection on the role of the intellectual in the contemporary South African university.

South Africans cannot deny the oppositional tide that academics/intellectuals face(d) when they dared to speak critically about the student protests of 2015-17. This moral revulsion came from students, progressive academics and social activists who — in my considered opinion — lost sight of the role of an institution of higher learning, which is defined as a space of criticality, reason and debate.

These characteristics of the university undergird the principal foundations of innovative teaching, inclusive and multi-dimensional learning along with inventive research development. Furthermore, these principal foundations of an institution of higher learning are, in the ideal context, protected, preserved and enjoined by the sacrosanct pillars of academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

However, as I read Professor Phakeng’s position and considered the critiques levelled against her erudite opinion, I could not help but think of the concept of Pedagogy as Obligation; a concept abused by students who have become clients in the contemporary neo-liberal university.

In reflecting on the concept of Pedagogy as Obligation, I should begin by stating that unlike in basic education, higher education practitioners — academics — are not constrained by the ethics of pedagogy as outlined in the Code of Professional Ethics of the South African Council for Educators. This freedom foregrounds and protects academic freedom and institutional autonomy which makes room for intellectuals to conduct innovative research, unencumbered by and valiantly standing up to political ideologies which may seek to direct the efforts of intellectuals, in line with the zeitgeist.

I wish to remind students, academics and the broader South African public why it is that higher education institutions fought so daringly to secure these freedoms. It was in resistance to the injustice of apartheid rigidity and oppression that intellectuals fought for academic freedom. While I anticipate some objections from ethicists and other quarters of society, who will remind me of the Manhattan Project and how it was these very principles of academic freedom which led to the tragedies of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, my reply is simple: knowledge is power and substantive justice lies in what it is we choose to do with that knowledge.

However, what of the concept of Pedagogy as Obligation? My exposition in detailing the tenets of academic freedom serves as a way of setting the context for considering the question in more detail. Owing to academic freedom, the professoriate is not beholden to students, as from a Socratic definition of the role of an academic, the intellectuals’ first allegiance is to knowledge. From the position of academic freedom, the student body should disabuse itself of the misconception that the professoriate is employed by us.

Academic freedom suggests that the professoriate is first and foremost obliged to the production of knowledge for the advancement of humanity — as evidenced in the work of Professor Mayosi. However on a more elementary level, Professor Phakeng’s suggestion that Mayosi’s departure might have been hastened by student protests inspires some critical questions which the client student ought to consider.

When students, whom the academic/professor/lecturer deeply cares about, in a frenzied temper call the said academic a “sell-out”, a “rape-apologist”, a “coconut”, a “collaborator”, how is said academic to respond? When in the pursuit of retributive justice, the student calls the academic “inja” owing to their unseasoned intellectual position which is substantiated by their failure to resolve intellectual difference with reason and debate; what is the academic to do? When the student, post their frenzied temperamentality, steps back into the lecture theatre of the academic and expects — like a dutiful client indeed does — to be served by the academic, what recourse does the intellectual have?

A misconception among students in the contemporary South African university lies in our folly which equates the academic with a teacher. The professor professes knowledge owing to their distinguished position in the intellectual community, the lecturer lectures informed by their disciplinary expertise in their field of research. The teacher teaches from a position of Pedagogical Obligation, not the academic. It is in confusing the professor with the teacher that the contemporary student makes the categorical mistake of expecting an ethical obligation on the part of the professor.

Professor Mayosi’s departure leaves a deep wound which is felt by the professoriate, not only in South Africa but across the globe. As the scientific community mourns the passing of a stellar researcher, academic and professor, I wish to invite the South African student body to carefully consider their role in the university and that of the Professoriate.

I invite my colleagues to critically reflect on their position as students, as ours — when properly understood — is defined as a role of learning and stretching the frontiers of knowledge through taking the baton from the professoriate and committing ourselves to knowledge production and innovation for the advancement of humanity.

Let Professor Mayosi’s inopportune passing be a constant reminder to the “two-minute” generation that actions have consequences while simultaneously inspiring us to truly commit ourselves to the role of the university and our place in it; championing knowledge production for the purposes of advancing humanity. DM

Siseko H Kumalo is reading for his Master of Arts in Philosophy at the University of Pretoria. He holds a BSocSci Honours in Politics and Philosophy from Rhodes University.

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