To resolve the situation at the University of Cape Town that was sparked by the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, I believe we must demand the reinstatement of former vice chancellor, Dr Max Price. On his installation in 2008, Price called for an Afropolitan university, encompassing the globe without short-changing the continent. Six years later, in 2014, the same man (or what appeared to be the same man) was reduced to the argument that a black woman had once been a professor at his institution.

Practising tokenism without the tokens, when you think about it, is as strange a strategy as running an Afropolitan university, in South Africa, with scarcely any black South Africans (who comprise 2.5% of the professoriate). I happen to be a fan of Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote classics like KidnappedTreasure Island, and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In Jekyll and Hyde, two personalities – one rational and benevolent, while the other is irrational and undecipherable – co-exist in the same individual. So I had an inkling of what might be going on when I went to see the vice chancellor a year ago.

Jekyll, like the predecessor whom he so closely resembles, has a gracious and fluent manner. The only way in which the two men can be distinguished, like male and female penguins, is through behaviour. Unlike Price, Jekyll generates a quantity of argument that produces in the listener the effect of a paradox or logical loop, like the Zen concept of one hand clapping. I asked the vice chancellor why I, or anyone, should put up with racial discrimination at UCT. He had a beautifully prepared answer: “Some people,” he conceded, “might admire you for refusing to accept it. But I believe that more people will admire you if you do accept it and simply triumph over it in the end.”

Racial discrimination is, like bank robbery, a crime. The mark of the Jekyll, given his genius for spreading confusion, is that instead of asking a question about avoiding a crime, we are considering the number of potential admirers the vice chancellor holds in his imagination. What if he counts them wrong? What if these admirers are purely imaginary and never materialise? Couldn’t I choose to swap some of these future admirers to be treated with simple equality?

The vice chancellor presented a number of additional arguments of stunning implausibility. He argued that imaginative writing, like a novel or a poem, could not be judged as an art but rather, like organic chemistry, by the number of citations to it in international academic journals. No writer or artist, musician or composer, dancer or poet has ever been judged like this at UCT, nor anywhere else I could find in the 1 000-year history of the academy. Precedent, however, has no force in the Jekyll philosophy. And as precedent disappears, so does the ability to see discrimination because every case can only be considered in isolation. Such bias is not as subtle in parts of UCT as is sometimes imagined. There is no commitment, in sections of the university, to equality at the level of procedure, from the right to be interviewed to the chance, given to some, of having your application evaluated in advance. I am not saying it happens in every case, or in every faculty. I am simply saying that it does happen and the institution has closed down every possible remedy.

In his defence, the vice chancellor is one of the mildest of Jekylls, without the love of backroom manoeuvering of the adult of the species. In 2009-2013, to take one example, in the humanities faculty, the secret denunciation reappeared, as if to confirm the old charge fondly remembered by the vice chancellor, about Moscow on the Hill. An administrator would promise a student anonymity and confidentiality in exchange for his or her writing a letter criticising a faculty member. You would be called in and told that there was a critical letter. When you asked to read the letter, you would be told that it was impossible because the writer had been guaranteed confidentiality. If you asked who the writer might be, you were politely but firmly reminded that, after all, the writer had been offered anonymity. Later you might find out that the letter was critical of your teaching style, or your sense of humour, or the lack of updates to a website – nothing that couldn’t have been said or done in the open. I have never heard of a university that practises this method of denouncing its own staff without some grave underlying charge. UCT doesn’t seem to learn. The racial dynamics of this type of intrigue devastated the university’s reputation in the Mafeje case, as it recurred in the 1990s, and in the Mamdani affair. However the victims of this institutional culture come in all the colours of the rainbow.

The signal of discrimination at UCT is clear when you look at what is typically required of different members of staff. In my faculty, the typical black professor holds a named chair and an A rating from the National Research Foundation. The typical white professor holds a C rating and no such chair. Significant discrepancies exist at the level of minimum citation counts, national and international publication, time to professorship, and even age (not that every or even most white staff benefit). In Jekyll discourse, however, these discrepancies vanish behind an ambiguous adverb. When the vice chancellor argues that more than 20 years “typically” separate a doctorate from a professorship, he means this in two ways. For black staff, he means “typically” as a general minimum, otherwise there would be as many below the 20-year mark as above it (and there are next to none who have risen to the rank of professor in a shorter period). For white staff, he means “typically” as an average, otherwise there could not be cases of white men becoming full professors in their 30s unless they somehow earned doctorates in their teenage years. When the vice chancellor suggests that a black member of staff is too young to be a professor in his or her mid 40s, forgetting that white men can be professors 10 or 15 years earlier, he is recreating aspects of a system that we dismantled at considerable cost. And when Mr Jekyll uses the fact that 72% of UCT’s support staff, including secretaries and groundsmen, are black, in order to demonstrate the institution’s sincere desire to create a 72% black majority in the faculty, he can only be checking to see if anyone has noted the disappearance of Dr Price. In any event, it would take 1 000 years at the current net increase of half a new black academic per year.

There is one underlying truth that Mr Jekyll and Dr Price share with Helen Zille, and that to some extent explains their reluctance to engage with issues of discrimination and even racial violence in which our own students have been implicated. Trouble is general in the country, sparing few workplaces and neighbourhoods, political parties and other institutions. White recalcitrance cannot be the singular motive force for so universal a deterioration. Our inheritance from the National Party is the willingness to run institutions at low levels of legitimacy with respect to parts of the population – UCT has high legitimacy among most white faculty in my experience, but low legitimacy among its black staff and students – along with a love of inequality which makes us unwilling to submit to equality in the courts, on the roads, in the workplace. This hierarchy makes Mr Jekylls out of Dr Prices, as it did to Thabo Mbeki. The desire to maintain high legitimacy and the discipline of social equality are ways in which otherwise unequal societies like the United States and European countries keep their institutions healthy. Our love for privilege, any kind of privilege or exemption no matter how harmful, is decomposing the country before our eyes.

We may be unable to redirect the country, but UCT management can save the university from crippling polarisation by opening it to a reckoning with its recent history. The obvious candidates to lead such a process – Njabulo Ndebele, Adam Habib, Jonathan Jansen – being occupied, I nominate someone equally talented and familiar with the dilemmas and opportunities of transformation – the Max Price of 2008. The current vice chancellor has come out in favour of the removal of the statue because it is a reminder of what Rhodes did in the service of empire. Dr Max Price, however, will know that the statue has become active as a symbol of everything that UCT has left undone since 1994.

Main Photograph: University of Cape Town students during the #RhodesMustFall protests this week – from Twitter

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17 Responses to “The Day of the Jekyll”

  1. Morena Thabo
    March 25, 2015 at 9:46 am #

    As someone who was judged by his headmaster at secondary school as not suited to even go on to the school’s sixth form (because he wisely knew I did not have the academic ability to pass the GCE A Level exams that would have led to my going on to university) after over fifty years, I am still dumbfounded by the nonsense people who not only go to universities come out with, but by the justifications those who run such places of tertiary education use for their opinions and actions.

    For all the things that can be said against Rhodes, if it had not been just for him but for every European who ever set foot in Africa, the continent would not have the roads, railways, airports, hospitals and universities it has today.

    All the minerals that have immeasurably increased the living standards of almost every African country would still be in the ground. Agriculture would still be slash and burn. The descendants of African leaders such as Shaka would have carved up the continent as they had wanted to, making their own empires just as Shaka himself was doing

    From Asia, the Arab slave traders (not mentioned in this article) would have increased their hold on Africa, no doubt imposing the totalitarian religion of Islam on the whole continent. Instead Africa got the more tolerant but still foreign Christianity.

    Universities per se are as foreign to Africa as was Rhodes. They are as European as was Rhodes. Why are they tolerated if his statue is not?

    In parts of the former USSR there are statues of Stalin and Lenin. They act as visible reminders of what these two men did in industrialising largely peasant countries in the twentieth century. Yet they brought misery and death at the same time.

    Where is the perfect man who did not have two sides to his character.

    Tearing down the statue will not alter a jot what the man did. But it will remove a visible symbol of a person who made not just South Africa but the whole of Africa what they are today.

    Shutting one’s eyes only leaves a person in the dark.

    • Lea
      March 30, 2015 at 10:17 am #

      You are a wise man, Morena. Shutting one’s eyes only leaves a person in the dark is so true.

    • Jim keya
      March 30, 2015 at 10:45 am #

      @ Thabo Morena sadly your views on Arab slavery, African universities or universities in Africa, and African wealth in minerals may be shortsighted. Africa is and was the citadel of innovation and education. The earliest university was founded in the 12th Century in Timutual, in present day Mali. Similarly in the present day Egypt (35000 years ago) Zaire, Cameroon and Nigeria (8,000 years ago) there are known people who pioneered in Maths. These people had the earliest known systems of counting. The same Africans (Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Ghana, Egypt, Ethiopia) pioneered thousands of years ago in Navigation, Medical procedures, Medicine, metalurgy, architecture, engineering, astrology, and other sciences.
      Libraries, the Internet, universities are awash with this knowledge.
      So even if we had no minerals or visat at ions from Indian, Persian, Arab, European, or aliens we would have interacted with the outside world and share our knowledge.
      On the Rhodes statue those of us at University of Cape Town cannot underscore the need for inclusion of blacks in the management and teaching at the university. The call for removal of the statue is a sideshow and a manifestation of lack of reform or transform-at-ion at the largely white Anglo-Saxon male led university. Black South Africans the autochotonous and majirity people of South Africa is the only place in Africa that still refuses to learn from their brethren on the rest if the continent. Like many other Africans, they should have removed imperialist symbols at independence. You said “Shutting one’s eyes only leaves a person in the dark”, we say, Majority rules, that is the light shed by democracy.

      • Jim keya
        March 30, 2015 at 12:53 pm #

        sorry I meant Timbuktu

  2. Shuaib Manjra
    March 25, 2015 at 12:33 pm #

    for more of Max Price’s liberal sophistry watch the discussion the Academic Boycott of Israel. Count the number of times he contradicts himself: : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r_FQhyr4wQQ.

    Of course some of it is sophistry, much of it simple bullshit

  3. Musa
    March 25, 2015 at 1:27 pm #

    Your headmaster was right.

  4. Vic
    March 25, 2015 at 9:49 pm #

    Indeed, Musa. His (Morena Thabo’s) headmaster was spot on.

  5. Hlubi Mzamo
    March 26, 2015 at 1:29 am #

    @Morena Thabo. Your headmaster was right. Go and re-read history books. Shout if you need help identifying which ones and where to find them.

    • Morena Thabo
      March 27, 2015 at 7:11 pm #

      Someone else said “History is written by the winners.”

  6. Mzwandile
    March 26, 2015 at 9:00 am #

    Morena Thabo. Your headmaster was spot on!!! He couldn’t have made a better judgement of your intelligence. Have you ever had of Timbaktu university in Mali that was established around the 12th century. Long before Rhodes set his foot in Africa there were scholars, well with your the type of brains that you have there my man, I mean the same one that you headmaster picked up at the very early stage of your development. Its hard to imagine that you’d even read about such.

  7. Manu
    March 26, 2015 at 10:18 am #

    @ Thabo, I get the feeling you’re forever grateful to your headmaster.

    • Morena Thabo
      March 27, 2015 at 7:36 pm #

      I’m always grateful to those wiser than me.

  8. Morena Thabo
    March 26, 2015 at 11:30 am #

    Musa
    March 25, 2015 at 1:27 pm #

    “Your headmaster was right.”

    Thank you, Musa. He was indeed, and I knew it at the time.

    For over half a century I worked variously as a soldier, a hotelier, a horse groom, an assistant civil engineer, a field geologist, and delivering and installing central heating and plumbing systems, and refrigeration equipment for shops and cafes.

    All a lot more practical and beneficial to mankind that so much of the hot air emanating from both universities and government buildings.

    Over the border from South Africa, Lesotho benefited from my time there as a hotelier, an assistant civil engineer, and a field geologist.

    Do good quietly.

  9. Mx
    March 26, 2015 at 1:28 pm #

    That last parting shot speaks volumes: “everything that UCT has left undone since 1994.” None of the VCs have done anything about genuine transformation at this university. One could (problematically) argue that it has taken the presence of a white male VC to bring this to the boil… previous black VCs have also left the issue unaddressed… race and progressive politics are not necessarily aligned.

    Mamphela Rampele has shown her true colours through her acceptance at the World Bank (a truly conservative body) and her subsequent behaviour at the helm of Agang.

    I disagree that Njabulo Ndebele is one of the right people to head this debate up: his response to this protest has been lukewarm at best, and he also presided over a long period as VC in which nothing was done.

    But it’s easy to pretend transformation is ‘not an issue’ when the head of the organisation is black, even though everybody else is white. Rampele and Ndebele both need to answer to this tacit complacency.

    My sincerest respect to the student body who have led this debate and pushed for genuine transformation. They’ve done more in 2 weeks than all the overpaid faculty combined in 20 years.

  10. Minenhle
    March 28, 2015 at 9:52 pm #

    @Thabo even if You Own a PHD it serve No Purpose if you are not informed. Read a book Titled “How Europe underdeveloped Africa” 1972

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