The University of Cape Town (UCT) has been in the news, but for all the wrong reasons. As a knowledge production centre, you’d expect it to be on everybody’s lips because of a controversy over an idea or public outrage over some research finding. But no, not this time.
I am writing this article because my alma mater can’t deal with a basic, entry-level governance challenge.
Right from the onset, let’s dispel two myths that some of us rely on to make sense of the happenings on that archipelago of buildings perched on the mountain staring at the face of Rondebosch.
The first is what one can call the “Livingstone narrative”. We all know David Livingstone, that 19th century Scottish missionary who arrived in Africa, found locals swimming in a river above a waterfall, then appropriated this waterfall for himself, naming it after his queen, entering it into his travelogue as a discovery that should be recorded as an accomplishment.
We are in the same situation here.
We seem to suggest that before the arrival of “Livingstone” at UCT there were no black people on campus, and that the fights against racism and patriarchy are a new thing.
Yet this institution has been a site of struggle for years. Do you remember Philip Kgosana, the 23-year-old boy from Makapanstad in the then Northern Transvaal — that young man who led the historic march of 30,000 people on 30 March 1960 from Langa township to Caledon Square against the pass laws? He was an economics student at UCT, and this march followed the route up the hill on De Waal Drive, at the foot of where Woolsack Residence stands today. This road has since been named after him.
Do you remember the late Archie Mafeje? Do you remember how the UCT Council was forced by the apartheid government to rescind his appointment as senior lecturer in social anthropology, and how the university community reacted in anger against this blatant act of racist discrimination; and how 600 students even occupied the Bremner building, the university’s administrative headquarters, in protest?
Anywhere you go in Cape Town, black people are everywhere — in Mitchell’’s Plain, in Gugulethu, in Rondebosch itself. The first time Jan van Riebeeck landed at the Cape in 1652, he encountered African people, the Khoikhoi, whose heroic wars of resistance of the 17th century were the precursor to many more wars that our people would wage to repel colonial incursion.
We should bury the myth that “Livingstone” discovered UCT — that he found a bunch of natives, sitting under a tree, passively admiring the white man, ignorant of their oppression.
We should resist the temptation to allow Livingstone to erase Kgosana’s march from our memory to replace it with his own, concocted victory parade from Bremner to plant his Christian cross in Mowbray and raise his flag at that corner on Main Road.
By promoting this false narrative, we are insulting those genuine UCT activists who fought for a better South Africa on and off campus.
When the United Democratic Front (UDF) was launched in Mitchell’s Plain in 1983, UCT students were among the hundreds who were packed in that hall. Robben Island is not in Cape Town for nothing, for it is there where the oppressor failed to break the back of our resistance; it is in its waters where lie the remains of the 19th century war doctor Makana, the leader of Frontier Wars, who is still swimming to the shore to his freedom.
When Mamphela Ramphele was appointed UCT’s first black vice-chancellor in September 1996, she also become the first black woman to occupy such a position at a South African university. She made history in her own way, but she didn’t cause us a scene. She was succeeded by another renowned African in Njabulo Ndebele who led the university from July 2000 to June 2008.
I do not recall any stories of instability during their respective tenures at UCT. These two Africans may not be perfect as all humans should be, they may hold views we can’t take, or engage in politics we despise; they may be controversial, perhaps even unlikable.
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But they cannot be faulted on two facts — they were known and established thought leaders before they set foot at UCT, and their impeccable Struggle credentials are beyond reproach. During their time, a circus wouldn’t quorate because there were not enough clowns on campus.
Then, old boy networks were still strong at UCT, the transformation of higher education was in its infancy. The resistance was unbelievable, but, as years went by, it could not withstand the forces for change.
Some lieutenants of the old school walked away, others retired. We are here today because these two Africans were able to lead us under conditions that were not in their favour; they knew how to protect and promote the image of black people, and they achieved this without playing to the gallery.
Looking back, they should be recognised as true examples of black excellence. It is only now, with what has been happening, that we can fully appreciate how difficult the task that history had thrown at them.
The second myth suggests that the trouble at UCT is due to contestations over race and gender. This cannot be further from the truth.
The challenge is in the fitness level that is required for leadership. Nature can be unfair to us. It gives an elephant a tusk and the ability to use it, but still, as a child, the poor elephant must practice hard to master this bodily organ.
Birds are born with wings and the ability to fly but also, as children, they must still go through the hard and dangerous path of learning to fly. For the bird that tries to take off for the sky without proper preparation, without proper training to try its luck into the deep end, the force of gravity has one fate in store for it — to crash its skull on a rock.
We should avoid the temptation to turn culprits into victims. We all know the real story because we have been down this path before. Once bitten, twice shy. There’s no victim here.
Post-independence Latin America was once a victim of a phenomenon called caudillismo which stifled the development of the region for decades. One expert defined this phenomenon: “Caudillismo is a system of political power based on the leadership of and allegiance to a ‘strongman’ who is sometimes also recognised as a dictator. The term stems from the Spanish word ‘caudillo’ which refers to the head of a political faction. Although the system originated in Spain, it became common in Latin America in the mid-19th century following the era of independence from Spain.”
Post-independence Africa had a similar experience, where a leader would be so strong, and like in the game of Pacman, swallow institutions and everything around himself to become indistinguishable from the state and his political party. When you express your justified anger against the state, it gets mistaken as an attack on the leader. This person is everywhere, omnipresent in the system, always breathing down our necks to show us who is the boss.
Strong leaders are not always bad; many of them have turned their countries into wonderlands. But the caudillo is bad for the country. They take but never give back. They drain us like parasites. They destroy everything that dares challenge them. They are sickening, intolerable, petty, and obsessed with themselves.
They don’t build, because they have no will to do so. It’s all about the caudillo and what he wants; what goes for him is good for the country.
By the time Latin America got over these fellows, the region had already lost decades of development opportunities. Africa has also found its way out of these guys. We need strong institutions and just good leaders.
We establish oversight bodies like boards, or in the case of the state, a Parliament. Universities have Councils.
Public institutions collapse when two conditions conspire together against the collective interests of society — ineptitude in the place of leadership, and an oversight body that is complicit, protecting the leader it is supposed to hold accountable.
Things can be bad for a country when a board does the bidding for its executives, when its members reduce themselves to praise singers and their gatherings are turned into a cheerleading exercise. Block voting along factions and as slates, all in the name of the leader can lead a board looking in the wrong direction.
We know what factions have done to some quarters of our nation. They can turn hope into despair, a hero into a villain. The diehards can be a curse to an institution. They don’t help the leader by protecting him at all costs.
This reminds me of rolling blackouts — Stage 6 is a show-stopper. It transforms ice cream into a crush of saliva. It turns juicy lamb cutlets into food for dogs. It’s the only thing that can stop Lionel Messi charging at you on your TV screen.
My friend, UCT is not that mud field where pigs venture to dig for iron, the testosterone they need to boost their ego. DM