The University of Cape Town (UCT): Racist/Sexist/Colonialist institution? 1977-1997
Apartheid deconstruction and academic ‘decolonization’ begin in earnest
Emeritus Prof. and UCT Life Fellow Tim Crowe
‘Thanks’ to Verwoerd
But for the ‘grace’ of Hendrik Verwoerd and the National Party (NP), Stuart Saunders might just have been an excellent physician, and UCT would have begun decolonizing much, much later. Saunders’ main competitor for the Head of Medicine (HOM) in UCT’s Faculty of Medicine was his close friend and colleague Dr Bill Hoffenberg. Hoffenberg was banned, forced into exile and became one of England’s preeminent physicians - ultimately President of the Royal College of Physicians and ‘Sir Bill’.
As a consequence of his outstanding performance as HOM, in 1977, soon after UCT’s Baxter Theatre Centre opened its doors to South Africans, irrespective of ‘race’, Saunders was head-hunted to serve as Deputy Principal for Planning (DPP). He accepted the job on the condition that young Hugh Amoore was appointed as Planning Officer. This ‘dynamic duo’ (Amoore went on to become Registrar) changed UCT’s ethos forever and with a bang.
One of their first ‘decolonizing’ decisions was to use a donation from Chancellor Harry Oppenheimer to create an Academic Support Programme (ASP) to help ‘black’ UCT students to “bridge the gap” between “Bantu” schooling and world-class university education. ASP ultimately (and sadly) evolved into the Centre for Higher Education Development, a faculty-like force for decolonization.
Also, during his stint as DPP, Saunders took an unprecedented decision to publicly resign from the Medical Association of South Africa, protesting its failure to condemn its members who failed in their treatment of the brutally murdered Steve Biko
In 1979, when Sir Richard Luyt (the last benevolent despot) retired as VC and Saunders’ preferred candidate Frederick van zyl Slabbert withdrew to do battle with the NP in parliament, he succumbed to pressure from his fellow decolonizer Science Dean Jack de Wet, applied for the post and was Luyt’s unanimously-supported successor.
In ‘Trumpian’ fashion, Saunders’ first major act as VC was to sign a decree defying the Group Area Act, opening UCT’s student residences to all ‘races’ and finding funds to cover the costs of accommodating ‘black’ students who were eligible for support. He also met openly with all banned UCT academics and staff and made representations on their behalf to the Minister of ‘Justice’. Their banning orders soon expired and were not renewed.
VC Saunders further promoted decolonization at UCT by massively developing its world-first Centre for African Studies and establishing its AC Jordan Chair, funded largely by Chancellor Oppenheimer (in his and personal capacity) and his mining companies, DeBeers and Anglo American. He also supported the genesis of the Gay and Lesbian Association and massively developed the UCT Fund Inc. whose primary aim is to provide support for ‘black’ students.
I could go on and on. For more information on Saunders’ decolonization achievements read his VC memoir. Pay special attention to Dr Mamphele Ramphele’s Foreword.
Excellence in education and research
While Saunders, Amoore, de Wet and their teams were busy decolonizing UCT, Saunders worked hand in hand with de Wet (at UCT and later when he moved to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research - CSIR) to change the very nature of academic research in South Africa. Dragging us by our fingernails, in the mid-80s, he cajoled UCT researchers to subject ourselves to review by the de Wet-designed process run by the CSIR-offshoot Foundation for Research Development (FRD). From then on, South African researchers were assessed by peer-review according to the quality and impact of their research. UCT uses its plethora of NRF-rated researchers to great effect.
Even in his VC inaugural address, Saunders made no bones about his position on education and research at UCT as being founded firmly on a “universal ethos and trained in rationalism” “determined by scholarship and not by ethnicity” and not being “limited in any way”. He elaborated on this in another speech https://journals.co.za/content/m_samj/63/19/AJA20785135_9638
Conor Cruise O'Brien from speaking at UCT because of his outspoken opposition to the African National Congress's academic boycott of South Africa. This set a precedent for the deplorable behaviour of Fallists today.Irish politician, writer, historian and academic
Much more fundamentally, Saunders misplaced his faith in an at first outsourced, often ill-equipped Academic Support Programme to help masses of educationally disabled ‘black’ students cope with UCT’s challenging, unforgiving undergraduate programmes. When this did not succeed, he shunted more precious funds into it, ultimately staffing the now Academic Development Programme (ADP) with many more, now permanent lecturers. Finally, after the ADP still failed to deliver successful ‘black’ graduates in the requisite three-year period, he and his successors resourced the ADP still further, merging it with some other development-related entities to create the Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED) a large, costly, faculty-like structure that is, with some noteworthy exceptions, still not delivering, fostering the proliferation of Fallists.
Indeed, CHED’s current dean, Suellen Shay, advocates catering to Fallists, calling for an “engagement with the chaos” https://theconversation.com/to-survive-south-africas-universities-must-learn-to-engage-with-chaos-70597 and adjusted curricula “fit for purpose”, “relevant to the real world”, ‘cleansed’ of “white, male, western, capitalist, heterosexual, European worldviews”, and that take cognizance of students’ “lived experiences”. https://www.uct.ac.za/dailynews/?id=9790 Sadly, many of the “silenced majority” see this as a ‘dumbed-down’ curriculum designed to increase undergraduate throughput at the expense of ‘standards’.
By following the ASP/CHED route from the 80s, Saunders allowed UCT’s School of Education (SOE) and academics of core departments (biology, chemistry, economics, sociology, chemical engineering, etc.) to evade dealing with ASP students from day 1 and adapting their existing curricula and teaching methods to mentor/nurture them until graduation and beyond. The SOE further ceased its undergraduate programme for teachers, relegating the task to core departments.
This 1980-90s ‘strategy’ failed to produce the ‘black’ Ph.D. graduates needed desperately to fill the demographic-decolonization gaps for 21st Century ‘black’ academics and skilled school teachers required to better prepare kids for coping with UCT.
Lastly, however unintentionally, by transferring power from professors and deans to a larger and larger centralized administration/Executive driven to raising more and more money, and allowing UCT’s Council and Convocation to be infiltrated by ANC-inclined, left-leaning, ‘decolonizers’ (e.g. the now grown-up council members Advocate Geoff Budlender and Dianna Yach), Saunders set the scene for the emasculation of the Senate and the development of the academic and other “chaos” we are “engaging” today.
Next: Ramphele ‘Thatcherism’ and Ndebele ‘laissez–faire’.
This unauthorized distillation is biased towards events in UCT’s Faculties of Science and Health Sciences. The major sources are: Zoology Prof. Alec Brown’s Centennial history of the Zoology Department, University of Cape Town, 1903–2003: A personal memoir, University of Cape Town at 150: Reflections edited by Alan Lennox-ShortDavid Welshmy and Prof. Roy Siegfried’s as yet unfinished Genesis and Development of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology