Creating a desert where excellence can’t bloom

Creating a desert where excellence can’t bloom

Many years ago, Harry Oppenheimer suggested that “In Johannesburg there is nothing to see and in Cape Town there is no one to talk to.” Recent population shifts have altered the conversation imbalance.

But that does not mean each conversation in the Mother City offers reassurance.

Last Monday, I asked a senior academic at University of Cape Town’s law faculty whether there was any blowback from her administration on a widely-posted notice calling a mass meeting in her faculty to ‘decolonise UCT Law’. The poster hailing this great event also cautioned “Blacks Only. All oppressed, conquered, enslaved people of the African diaspora.”

My interlocutor advised that her faculty was ‘perfectly relaxed since the event is not an official meeting…and anyway very few students attended.” Intrigued by this line of argument, that numbers and officialdom cure any violation of the university’s non-racial principle, I ventured to ask a hypothetical: “what if a group of students called a whites’ only meeting on the campus. Would you be happy with that?”

She suggested that ‘historical context’ was the key differentiator in allowing discrimination. Presumably she is unaware of Christopher Hitchens’ put down that ‘historical context is always   a shady alibi’.

But few university administrators could be unaware that on the same day, news arrived that from 2018, funding for SA universities’ A-rated researchers will be cut by 90%, . UCT has around 35 such academic super stars. But the same government funds which can splurge R30m on a pension payout for Eskom’s Brian Molefe for 16 months work –nice if you can get it – can’t retain the country’s knowledge base. And then there is this week’s government-sponsored assault on school governing bodies; the cull on excellence continues.

UCT  has produced 5 Nobel Prize winners, an impressive total. Until you measure it against the University of Chicago which this month increased its Nobel haul to 90. But with the savage research cull here, expect no more laureates from our once premier universities.

Bret Stephens, the American journalist, recently wrote that the University of Chicago’s president Robert Zimmer was the best academic head in the US. Aside from prodigious fundraising, he is a stickler for principle. No doubt his views on the link between his university’s excellence and free speech would result in his being hounded out of UCT. After all that university disinvited its academic freedom lecturer last year, and this year hid away paintings it deemed some would find offensive.

Zimmer is not to be found in this fearful corner. He offered instead a ‘campus culture committed to discourse, argument and lack of deference.’

Doubling down on this view, all  first years are sent a letter warning them, ‘our commitment to academic freedom means we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

Such essential truths have a very hard swim in South Africa right now.

Later in the week I attended a dinner hosted by Cape Town businessman Philip Krawitz, where he suggested how the assault on excellence at institutions can lead to destruction.

He quoted management guru Dr Ichak Adizes, : “If the rate of internal disintegration exceeds the rate of external integration, a family, a company or a country will self-destruct. “

Adizes is  a  modern thought leader. But the wisdom of buying peace by conceding principle –or simply starving knowledge-acquisition of core funding, is very ancient.

Predicting the ruin of the Roman Empire, because its elites had bowed down before various plundering and mad emperors, the historian Tacitus warned, ‘solitudenum faciunt, pacem appelant’.

Since those seeking to ‘decolonise’ legal education have already scored a victory by removing Latin from the LLB syllabus, a translation is in order.

It means, “They make a desert and they call it peace.” We have been warned.

  • Leon (@TonyLeonSA), a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London
  • Featured in The Sunday Times
By |2017-10-30T21:23:51+00:00October 29th, 2017|South African Politics|0 Comments

About the Author: