Defend Truth


In defence of Nicoli Nattrass: SA needs fearless debate, not a knee-jerk response to to the Twitter-sphere


Born in Johannesburg in 1941, Paul Trewhela worked in underground journalism with Ruth First and edited the underground journal of MK, ‘Freedom Fighter’, during the Rivonia Trial. He was a political prisoner in Pretoria and the Johannesburg Fort as a member of the Communist Party in 1964-1967, separating from the SACP while in prison. In exile in Britain, he was co-editor with the late Baruch Hirson of ‘Searchlight South Africa’, banned in South Africa.

When academics at a university hide their names in a political group before they go on Twitter to condemn a commentary in The South African Journal of Science by a professor at the same university ... then that university is on a downward slope.

I’m grateful to Koni Benson, Linda Cooper et al, the seven academics who’ve criticised my article on the abuse of Professor Nicoli Nattrass as “ahistorical”. It gives me an opportunity to reply.

It’s absurd of them to write that I compare South Africa in 2020 to Nazi Germany in a direct historical way. My comparison is metaphorical, not historical, so their interpretation of my article as “ahistorical” falls away.

Perhaps I could have compared South Africa in 2020 in a more appropriate metaphorical way to Russia under Stalin. Now how’s that, comrades! But no – I’m not saying that slaves of the regime are having to push a water tank uphill, as they were forced to do at gunpoint, back at Quatro. No, none of that is going on in South Africa right now, and I’m not writing historically, I’m writing metaphorically.

What I am saying is that when academics at a university hide their names in an anonymous political group before they go on Twitter to condemn a commentary in The South African Journal of Science by a professor at the same university … then that university is on the downward slope. And with it, South Africa. And the welfare in particular of millions of black South Africans.

What makes it worse is when the executive of the university then takes it upon itself not to consult with the professor who’s been Twitter-smeared but damns her in the manner of the Twitter smear. How low can you go?

Here we do have a nasty reminder of how institutions in the former Soviet Union – universities, the Writers’ Union, the Composers’ Union, trade unions, whatever – responded about a colleague who’d been shafted by an unsigned statement in Pravda, as Dmitri Shostakovich was in 1936 after the Great Man took exception to the composer’s opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

The Great Leader expresses his displeasure – and KABOOM, the roof falls on your head. This is what happened (metaphorically) to Nicoli Nattrass. Except that at UCT it didn’t even need a “Great Leader”. The executive jerked into action in response to the Twitter-sphere like a zombie.

Shame on you, ladies and gentlemen of the academe, shame on you Hidden Ones of the Caucus of Twitter, and shame on you, the executive.

A principal theme in the critique of my article by the Seven is a discourse on “power”. For them, a university is about “power”, a word that appears 17 times in their article. In another age,  a university was supposed to be above all about truth. Seeking the truth. Trying to uncover what really happened in history, or how to build a bridge so it won’t fall down, or how to create a vaccine to stop a virus that is killing people ….

And for this, what was needed in the university was freedom of thought and of criticism – “academic freedom”, a phrase appearing six times in the article by my critics, and in a somewhat negative context. Free critical inquiry is what Galileo was deprived of by the Inquisition. It’s what universities were supposed to be for: which did not stop universities in the Soviet Union from being turned – very largely – into izimbongi of the ruling political apparatus.

Real heroes of the spirit, though – some of the greatest cultural figures in the world in the last century, such as the poet and novelist Boris Pasternak, the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, the poet Anna Akhmatova – transcended in great pain and torment the slaughterhouse in which they lived, creating works that are immortal, even though these often could not be appreciated in their own country in their lifetimes.

Instead, South Africa learnt from the worst Russians.

What was wrong with Nicoli Nattrass pointing out in May in the South African Journal of Science – effectively – that South Africa has far too few black scientists? And that this is threatening for the country’s future? This is the clear meaning of her interpretation of a rough survey which suggested that not enough black students at UCT were aiming to become scientists – a serious question, in the age of Covid-19.

By comparison, “Maestro” Kaiser Harvey, who died in 2016 having taught mathematics at Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto and went on to become the principal of Orlando High School, is revered by the alumni of the 1970s generation for his inspirational teaching. Among his many pupils are Professor Solly Rataemane, head of psychiatry at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, and Lekunutu Matima, a celebrated pharmacist who made his career in the United States, successfully defending his patents in the Federal high courts.

Why should South Africa not be looking to educate far more Harveys, Rataemanes and Matimas, now that the apartheid state is gone?

The Seven also grievously mis-cite Steve Biko.

First, it should be remembered that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe and Bantu Stephen Biko expressed their thoughts under their own names, not under cover of a caucus.

Second, in his two days of evidence for the defence in May 1976 at the trial of Saths Cooper and eight fellow members of the South African Students Organisation (SASO), Steve Biko referred strongly to what he regarded as an “inferiority complex” among black people in that period of all-enclosing segregation and repression. SASO, he said, was working for the liberation of black people “firstly from psychological oppression by themselves through inferiority complex …”.

He stressed “a certain state of alienation” as an “imprisoning concept”, a form of “self-negation” and “sense of defeat”.

(Millard Arnold, ed., The Testimony of Steve Biko: Black Consciousness in South Africa, Panther Books, London, 1979. pp.18,19, 24-28)

It is this psychology of “self-negation” which, in my view, expresses itself in the hidden conduct of members of the Black Academic Caucus on Twitter, who do not face a fraction of the dangers and repression confronted by Biko, Sobukwe and Mandela.

South Africa needs fearless, open discussion and debate – exactly what Nicoli Nattrass is fighting for. DM/MC

Editor’s Note:  As outlined in a news article earlier,  this issue will be thrashed out further on another platform. – a special edition of the SA Journal of Science. 


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted