‘Affairs’ at the University of Cape Town (UCT)
Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe
Over the years, lots of people have had passionate, fun-filled ‘affairs’: Horatio Nelson, Franklin Roosevelt, my fellow ‘birther’ in the Year of the Rat – 1948 – Prince Charles, Jack Kennedy, Allan Boesak, F.W. de Klerk and even Steve Biko and Madiba. But, those at UCT all seem to be sad, bitter and misrepresented. This needs some clarification.
The Mafeje ‘Affair’
Other than the current intimidation/vandalism/violence/destruction by Fallists, the most disgraceful event in UCT’s history was its Executive and Council’s decision to reverse the initial, unanimous decision by a selection committee vis-a-vis the merit-based appointment of UCT Master’s graduate, pan-Africanist and radically innovative social scientist (another Archibald) ‘Archie’ Monwabisi Mafeje as a senior lecturer in Social Anthropology. Meekly, rather than defying the Apartheid government, Council established the Academic Freedom Research Award in Mafeje’s honour instead, and erected a plaque, making note of the day that the apartheid government had removed the university’s right to appoint lecturers at its own discretion.
At the time of the ‘Affair’, Mafeje’s nascent, but even then radical, ideas (developed while being mentored by eminent anthropologist Prof. Monica Wilson, UCT’s most prominent woman academic at the time) were perceived to be highly threatening by UCT’s ‘Old Boy’ network. They feared that infusion of Mafeje’s aggressively-promoted ideas would undermine their vested interests. Mafeje advocated transforming UCT’s ‘white’-liberal, ‘ivory-tower’, theory-driven views on research into ones based on idiographic (case/community-specific) and empirical data advocated by ‘real’ Black Consciousness comrades who soon followed.
For this reason, I believe that Mafeje’s appointment was sabotaged, not by F.W. de Klerk’s father ‘Jan’ (Minister of Education at the time), but primarily by the UCT ‘Old Boys’. Some 600 students/staff emulated today’s Fallists and occupied Bremner Building to challenge all and sundry. But, their protests focused on a violation of T.B. Daviean (we have a new one now) Academic Freedom, not on Mafeje the man, Apartheid in general or the promotion of non-racialism.
Mafeje then completed a Ph.D. at Cambridge University, by this time clashing with his patronizing supervisor. In his own words:
“I was not going to allow myself to be [academically] ‘adopted’ by anybody.”
Decades after this disgraceful event, UCT’s Orator (and Monica’s son), Emeritus Professor Francis Wilson, wrote tellingly of Mafeje when UCT awarded him a posthumous honorary doctorate of social science:
“His Unity Movement background gave him a life-long capacity for incisive analysis; a deep suspicion of the state, particularly of the Stalinist variety; and a cheerful willingness to be politically incorrect and to be a trenchant critic of anybody whom he suspected of any kind of racist or imperialist thinking.”
Mafeje was further memorialised through the renaming of the Senate room where the protesting students staged the 1968 sit-in. The Archie Mafeje Room serves as a constant reminder to Senate of its obligation to ensure that the university space is open and supportive to all. Having said this, during March 2017, despite concerted efforts made by the UCT management to deal the grievances and demands of +-100 students, the Room was invaded and occupied by about 30 recalcitrant Fallists (including people unconnected with UCT and those under conditional amnesty) demanding inter alia that: “No black student should be academically or economically excluded!”
As I compile this document, UCT’s School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics has established and is advertising the Archie Mafeje Chair in Critical and Decolonial Humanities. The Chair is established as a full-time position at the level of full professor. It is to be funded initially by the A.W. Mellon Foundation as a position for a “black South African candidate”, to assume the Chair from 1 July 2017 or soon thereafter. The Chair will be expected to “develop work responsive to decolonial and critical humanities promoting the vision of the School: to create a dynamic, interconnected, research and teaching space capable of driving the complex project of decolonial epistemologies and research in African continental contexts, and beyond”.
Although it’s too soon to tell, one wonders why this new chair focuses on ‘critical’, potentially deconstructive ‘decolonization’ (Euro-American Critical Race Theory?) and not on pursuing novel Afro-relevant, humanities-related, empirical research embodying Mafeje’s idiographic approach. If the chair is filled by a Critical Race Theorist and extremely deconstructive Decolonist, the incumbent could be pre-adapted to resuscitating race as the focus of the School’s academic programme, fanning anti-’white’ racism, engineering its non-constructive decolonization and Balkanizing UCT back to the Stalinistic 1930s.
Mamdani Affair ‘Foreplay’
Two of UCT VC Stuart Saunders few faux pas were among his last acts: supporting the candidacy of eminent Ugandan Prof. Mahmood Mamdani as the inaugural A.C. Jordan Professor in 1996 and subsequently his appointment as Director of UCT’s Centre for African Studies (CAS).
This is not to say that Mamdani was the ‘wrong’ choice. Quite to the contrary, he was/is an internationally-acclaimed scholar of colonial and post-colonial African history and university decolonization. Two of the ‘problems’ were, first, a central thesis in Mamdani’s thinking is that decentralized despotism - colonial rule implementing authoritarian, direct rule in urban areas and the undermining/perverting tribally of organized local authorities in rural areas - continues to have profound and insidious effects long after independence. Second, a much-maligned, critic of over-emphasized theory, Prof. Archie Mafeje, had applied for the Jordan Chair. A third problem/challenge was that the CAS was woefully understaffed and ‘short’ on postgraduate students.
During nearly 30 years in exile, Mafeje’s scholarship had crystalized and matured, covering topics such as democracy, development, academic freedom, urban/rural government and land and agrarian issues. To repair the ‘damage’ more than two decades earlier, in 1991, Saunders-led UCT offered Mafeje a one-year contract position at senior lecturer-level. He dismissed this as demeaning. With regard to the Jordan Chair, some members of the selection committee felt that he was in poor health and possibly past his academic ‘prime’. Mamdani was at his academic peak.
In the end, Mafeje was not even interviewed. He cited this last insult as the reason for irrevocably severing his ties with his with UCT.
Had Saunders used his decolonization wizardry to find the funds necessary to appoint both of these scholars, it could have been a major kick-start to curriculum decolonization and high-quality Afro-relevancy in History and the Social Sciences at UCT. This could have accelerated laying the path for an understaffed CAS to attract more staff, students and funds necessary to reach critical academic ‘mass’ and become a centre of academic excellence and a force in community development.
It would also have been fascinating to observe Mafeje and Mamdani in debate when they disagreed.
The Mamdani ‘Affair’ or last real academic debate
Soon after becoming VC, Mamphela Ramphele encouraged Mamdani’s efforts to challenge what he called “South African exceptionalism”. To that end, Mamdani developed a radically novel, controversial, broadly pre-colonial historical, Afrocentric foundation course (“Problematizing Africa”) for first-year students within UCT’s Faculty of Humanities. However, several colleagues in the Social Sciences objected to aspects of its syllabus, and some (including powerful ‘Old Boys’ ‘Mugsy’ Spiegel and DVC Martin Hall) favoured an alternative course. Although Ramphele attempted to mediate the dispute after Mamdani was unjustifiably “suspended” from the process, the alternative, arguably Eurocentric, course was ultimately implemented. However, it was not a success and was abandoned after a couple of years.
Regardless of one’s perspective on it, the manner in which the Mamdani ‘Affair’ was handled does no credit to Mamdani, the academics who opposed him and the history of academic freedom and academic excellence at UCT.
My research into the ‘Affair’ has convinced me that Mamdani’s curriculum was questionable in content both factually and pedagogically for neophyte and, especially, Academic Support/Development Programme students equipped only with Bantu Education. This is primarily because it relied heavily on primary texts written by African scholars (e.g. the brilliant polymath and pioneer Afrocentrist Cheikh Anta Diop) whose views were outmoded or under severe challenge. But this needs elaboration elsewhere. In the meantime, read Hall’s (Social Dynamics 24.2 (1998): 86-92) and Mamdani’s position papers.
Sadly, because of bitterness stemming from the undermining actions of ‘Old Boys’, Mamdani left. He was not “forced” to leave UCT, but took up the post as president of the Dakar-based Council for the Development of Social Research in Africa (CODESRIA). Soon after, he was hired to an arguably even more well-resourced and prestigious chair at USA’s Columbia University that allowed him to reconnect his academic relationship with Makerere University in Uganda.
In the end, it was the students who were deprived of desperately needed education, and UCT lost another Afro-relevant academic ‘catalyst’.
Quoting Lungisile Ntsebeza (current A.C. Jordan Professor and CAS director): “From there on, the Centre for African Studies was never the same and, for reasons best suited for another discussion, gradually ‘deteriorated to a point where by 2009 there was a distinct possibility that it would be
‘disestablished’. This was avoided by establishing a new school in 2012 – involving the CAS, Institute for Gender Studies and Social Anthropology based in the Humanities Faculty”.
Now that the CAS is reasonably well-staffed, highly rated internationally and there are many more Afro-relevant academics, units and departments throughout UCT, the time is ripe for its academic ‘resurrection’. This could involve inter alia pursuing synergistic, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), foundation and other undergraduate courses and inter-disciplinary Afro-relevant post-graduate education and research. This will require unfettered debate and cooperation between interested and affected parties.
Flemming Rose ‘non-Affair’
I have little to add to what I wrote in Politicsweb on 10 August 2016, other than to say it was more of a ‘non-affair’ since Rose was not even allowed to speak or explain the topic of his proposed 2016 T.B. Davie Memorial Lecture address. I understand that the topic was to have been “self-censorship”. There are some relevant bits and pieces in an article that I have submitted to UCT NEWS entitled: Why did Mahmood Mamdani ignore requests to defer giving the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) 2017 Academic Freedom Lecture: a lesson in public intellectualism gone wrong. But, its editors refused to publish it.