“The university is a critical institution, or it is nothing.”
- Stuart Hall
When Graham McIntosh, the retired Cope member who had the notable ‘honour’ of being the longest-serving member of Parliament, recently penned two open letters (which you can read here and here) to the University of Cape Town’s executive director of alumni and development, Russell Ally, the right-wing backwater that is PoliticsWeb came alive.
In the long diatribes fraught with racist obsessions and misrepresentations, McIntosh makes public the political prerogative of the white liberal donor. Here, McIntosh reveals himself as a vocal example of how money, rather than freedom and justice, remains the real value base of the elite university.
His denunciation of UCT’s management is simple, albeit longwinded and discombobulated: vice chancellor Max Price has caved into the “racist” black militants whom he alternates between calling communists, anarchists, PAC members, inspired by the “heart of darkness”, and equal “to the barbarism of Isis in wanting to destroy the ancient artworks”.
Leaving aside the utter ridiculousness of such comparisons, McIntosh’s applies perennial racist tropes in characterising black resistance – that they are either being remote controlled by white leftists (because surely black people cannot think for themselves) or that they are of a violent, barbarous black culture (as if so-called black-on-black violence happens outside the context of the violence of white supremacy, patriarchy and imperial capitalism).
To prove his thesis that UCT is caving into a violent black culture, the former colleague of the (unacknowledged) racist, Helen Suzman, suggests (or demands) a set of research topics around the common theme of either black violence/irrationality or positive white contributions to black culture.
McIntosh even notes with pride how the “miscegenation” of black subjects and white colonisers in South Africa resulted in the improvement of the colonised through the adoption of white culture, language, and of course capitalist social arrangements. He absurdly ignores the power discrepancies in his account of colonialism.
But this article is not about the arrogant racism of people like McIntosh. It is about how he wields his power – both economic and racial – to hold hostage institutions that err towards the oppressive status quo.
In parading his wealth in an open letter, McIntosh offers the possibility of an eight-figure – and then later a 10-figure – endowment to the university. (McIntosh assures us, the reader, that he is not a “man of straw”, and so we must assume, because of his eminent status, that UCT’s management takes his offer/threat very seriously.
He is an elite white male offering, perhaps, more than R1 billion to strong-arm a university into denying the voice of poor and middle class black students who continue to bear the brunt of what remains a colonial university. In that light, I think it is fair to assume Price is sweating at the thought of losing such a massive contributions. In fact, since the fall of Rhodes’s statue, Price and his administration have been on a donor-pacification blitz aimed at ensuring they do not lose out on funding from liberal donors who are clearly perturbed by the upsurge of militancy on campus.
To the university’s credit, Ally responded to McIntosh by declaring that UCT is not for sale. Ally’s response was principled and direct: “We never allow donors to dictate the terms of their donations to us. It is always a relationship of mutual respect, based on shared values of fairness, equity, social justice and transformation.” Ally further asserts that “we have embarked on a process of transformation at UCT from which there is no turning back. Not for all the bequests in the world.”
Yet to leave the analysis here is a disservice to the reality that McIntosh has laid bare. Despite Ally’s seemingly good intentions and honorable response, it is simply misleading to claim that donors never dictate the terms of their donations and that there exists a relationship of mutual respect.
The truth, within the context of defunded public universities such as UCT, is that they are desperate for cash – so desperate that UCT management sold its souls to wealthy alumni/donors long before McIntosh came into the picture. Look no further than the defunding of the arts and social sciences in favour of moneymakers such as engineering and business management. Even the buildings at UCT express the priorities of its donors: the two newest buildings on campus house the engineering and economics departments.
In one sense, it may be difficult to blame Price and his administration. They desperately need money to maintain UCT’s preeminent (albeit inflated) status as an institution of higher learning, and the only way they are able to get this money is for the university to prostitute itself by making sure its ideals and programmes are in line with the wealthy liberal elite’s.
But in this case, although people like McIntosh may seem like crude outliers in the world of alumni courting and donor development, the more quiet liberal white donors and the foundations based on mostly white business capital will continue to hold UCT ‘in check’.
The decolonisation, democratisation and the decorporatisation of the university can simply never be on the agenda of management, regardless of the views of the students, faculty and workers. Management will always choose money over anything but superficial transformation and, thus, UCT will remain a neocolonial, authoritarian corporation that pays its vice chancellor 150 times its lowest-paid outsourced worker – unless management is forced to eschew this road by a critical mass.
Until then, concepts such as fairness, equity, social justice and transformation will continue to be managed within the confines of donor-driven ‘pragmatism’. What is at stake at UCT is the concept of education itself.
Gif: UCT Students met with tear gas from Police during a #FeesMustFall protest on the 19th October 2015