The following five articles about the issues of Free Speech at South African Universities were written by Sara Gon from the South African Institute of Race Relations. They were originally published on Politics Web.
(1) Our universities under threat
Universities have been the bastions of the freedom of expression in Western societies. They are the ultimate milieu in which freedoms can be experienced, expressed and tested. But the ability to express views freely has diminished on some South African campuses, and the potential consequences for society are chilling. This first of a series of five articles explores the erosion of freedoms on our campuses.
The spirit of the university has been abandoned on many of our campuses. The genesis of this erosion of freedom of expression, however, is to be found in America. We have just followed that trend and overlaid it with our own history. In the mid-1960s, students at the University of California, Berkeley formed a mass movement to demand more freedom of speech. Their success led to the student anti-Vietnam movement.
Fifty years later, Berkeley students and students at other elite universities became standard bearers in violently opposing the free speech and thought of those with whom they disagree. By the early 1970s, change had suddenly arrived with the ideas of the Deconstrutionists, French academics of the late 1950s. Deconstructionism is a philosophical movement and theory of literary criticism that questions traditional assumptions about certainty, identity, and truth. It asserts that words can only refer to other words and attempts to demonstrate how statements about any text subvert their own meanings.
A recession in the 1970s caused the job market in academe to collapse. According to Camille Paglia, academic, author and feminist, who started university in the late 1960s, Post-structuralism was “the ticket to ride” for ambitious young careerists.1.
Post-structuralism, together with identity politics, made huge gains in the 1970s. “The older academics proved helpless against a rising tide of rapid add-on programs and departments like women’s studies and African-American studies. The tenured professoriate seemed not to realize that change of some kind was necessary, and thus they failed to provide an alternative vision of a remodeled university of the future.”
Paglia says that assisted by “a swelling horde of officious, overpaid administrators”, North American universities became “political correctness camps”. Old-school professors were not prepared for the guerrilla warfare necessary to defend basic scholarly principles, or deal with defamation and harassment.
Privileged students in private Ivy League universities indulged in forms of protest, both physically and verbally violent, against opinions and people they didn’t like.
Some commentators have been surprised that student bodies that previously demanded freedom of expression have absorbed the victimhood culture and insisted that administrations clamp down on views of which they disapprove.
Social psychologist Dr. Jonathan Haidt of New York University attributes some of it to the parenting of the 1980s when children had no unsupervised time; there was always an adult around. Thus children didn’t get to deal with issues like insults and exclusion.2.
Haidt also cites the effect of social media on the peer group obsessions of teenagers in ramping up mob punishment.
Haidt identifies the victimhood culture as largely being a feature of the Ivy League “four year residential” universities. He describes them as “Lord of the Flies”-type environments, which ultimately require large complements of therapists and administrative staff to deal with disruptions.
The phenomena of political correctness, identity politics and victimhood culture create this toxic brew of intolerance, censorship and self-righteousness.
“But so much of political correctness is not about justice or creating a safe environment; it is about power. It’s about power and control.”3.
‘Politically correct’ was coined in the late 1920s by the Soviets to describe why the views of certain of the party faithful needed ‘correction’ by the party to accord with the party line.
Pablo Picasso’s artistic style didn’t conform to Stalin’s demand for the ‘Soviet realism’-style of art. However, Picasso belonged to the French communist party and Western communists wanted to exploit his name to recruit followers and support communist initiatives. So his art was deemed to be ‘politically correct’.4.
‘Identity politics’ was coined by Barbara Smith, a member of the black feminist group, the Combahee River Collective, in April 1977.
‘Identity politics’ is based on the interests and perspectives of the social groups with which people identify. The most common being race, gender and sexual orientation.
An aim of identity politics is for those feeling oppressed to articulate their experience of ‘felt oppression’ through a process of consciousness-raising.
The third phenomenon is the culture which grants ‘victimhood’ special moral status. Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, associate professors of psychology, describe the three main moral cultures: ‘honour’, ‘dignity’ and ‘victimhood’.5.
In an ‘honour culture’, if a victim breaches the strict codeof the culture, it brings dishonour and great shame to their family. Victims are tainted and often punished, sometimes even murdered, for inflicting such dishonour.
The ‘dignity culture’ created a set of moral values and behavioural norms designed to promote each human life as possessing immutable worth. This is irrespective of individual brutalisation or of existence at the bottom of the social order.
The ‘dignity culture’ developed amongst the farmers, master craftsmen and artisans of Northern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their tolerance of others helped them to sell their goods and they stood to lose from engaging in reckless violence.
‘Victimhood culture’ inverts the norms of the other cultures. Victims are not shamed; they are fiercely protected and awarded status for being victims. Ironically this culture has emerged at the wealthiest universities in America such as Yale, Columbia and the University of Southern California. The median family income currently at these universities is calculated at nearly R3,500 000.
‘Victimhood culture’ breeds resentment and hostility, but, at the same time, deference to prevailing ideas of ‘progressive’ academia. It crushes the dignity both of the alleged aggressor and of the accusatory victims. The mere assertion of hurt feelings and threat of conflict suffices to silence, and being silenced leads to self-censorship.
A manifestation of these current political concepts is ‘no-platforming’ – a crude negation of the right to freedom of speech in favour of a tyranny, which trashes a dignity culture for a victimhood culture.
In order to stop or ‘un-platform’ speakers from speaking, crowds shout at them, disrupt their lectures or even physically assault them. Students also take control of the administrations and the Student Representative Councils, setting the rules to determine who may speak and how.
The victims of ‘no platforming’ are often unexpected – feminist Germaine Greer, gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.
Brandeis University withdrew granting an honorary degree on women’s rights to Ayaan Hirsi Ali after a petition by 6 000 people accused her of “hate speech” against Islam because she denies that it is “a religion of peace”.
In The Closing of the American Mind, written in 1986, Allan Bloom, philosopher, academic and author, said that in modern nations “which have founded themselves on reason in its various uses more than did any nations in the past, a crisis in the university, the home of reason, is perhaps the profoundest crisis they face”.6.
Protests that began at Yale University from 2014 objecting to free speech, played a defining role in the extreme intolerance we now see, as the phenomenon erupted at South African universities soon afterwards.
Universities must stand up for the idea that it’s wrong to censor anyone or stifle debate, no matter who is offended and how many claim to be outraged. This culture of American university elites, however, crossed the Atlantic.
Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823. (Smses cost R1 Ts and Cs apply). This is the first of a five-part series produced with the support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.
1. Camille Paglia: It’s Time for a New Map of the Gender World, Quillette, Interview by editor Claire Lehmann, 10 November 2018;
2. Jonathan Haidt: The 3 Factors that Caused the Fragile Generation, Interview on ‘HiddenForces.io’, edited and published by YouTube on 7 September 2018;
3. William Deresiewicz: Power, class and the new campus religion, The American Scholar, Essays•Spring 2107, 6 March 2017;
4. A little history of ‘politically correct’, The Washington Times – Editorial, 15 November 2015;
5. Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning: Understanding Victimhood Culture, Quillette, Interview by editor Claire Lehmann, 17 May 2018;
6. Allan Bloom: THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND – how Higher Education has failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1987.
(2) The erosion of free speech on campus
This is the second article in a five part series. The first piece can be read here.
“At its best, a university should broaden students’ minds and horizons, allowing them to discern connections and analyse problems successfully, thus empowering them to change the world.” – Sun Kwok, Dean of Science at the University of Hong Kong.
In some spheres South African academia has punched above its weight in scholarship and research, some of which has resulted in Nobel Prize winners.
But South Africa’s universities have become vulnerable to an intellectual crisis identified in the 1980s by American philosopher Allan Bloom.
Bloom observed in 1986 that the social and political crisis of 20th century America was really an intellectual crisis. This was presented in the seminal and celebrated work, The Closing of the American Mind: how Higher Education has failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students.
He argued that the growing malaise stemmed from universities’ lack of purpose and their students’ lack of learning; from the jargon of liberation to the supplanting of reason with “creativity”. American democracy unwittingly “played host to vulgarized Continental nihilism and despair, of relativism disguised as tolerance”.
Adding to the mix of political correctness, identity politics and victimhood is the ‘post-truth’ phenomenon, which took shape in the past decade and particularly since 2015.
‘Post truth’ means that objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief – the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored. Post-truth politics became more notable with the advent of social media.
The move towards ‘progressive’/post-truth ideological strains in academia became noticeable in the 1970s in South Africa. What had emerged in American academia and student life was soon absorbed here.
Today, the development of these phenomena is particularly pertinent to universities such as Cape Town (UCT), Witwatersrand (Wits), Pretoria and Stellenbosch. These universities probably represent the most racially diverse campuses in South Africa.
UCT and Wits are regarded as South Africa’s pre-eminent universities locally and internationally. The pursuit of political correctness, identity politics and a victimhood culture, consequences of the above phenomena together with the so-called ‘Fallist’ protests, may change this.
Although the epicentre of leftist thought is to be found in the humanities, students from faculties such as law, the social sciences and the health sciences participated significantly in the Fallist protests.
Universities have since the 1990s been under pressure to increase access for black students and increasing demands to employ more black academics. The first has largely been addressed numerically. The latter less so; one of the significant reasons is that high-paying business opportunities for educated black people make academia a relatively unattractive option.
Academics have pointed to a significant proportion of white (particularly female) academics and staff who are committed to advancing black students or staff at the expense of rules and ethics.
Some universities have pushed for the employment of black academics in an effort to achieve quotas and signal their ‘virtue’, irrespective of the candidates’ suitability or professional standards.
The tenure of existing white academics prevents them from being forced out. However, many academics both during and since the protests have been harassed in the hope that they’ll resign. Some have resigned; those who do remain are under great pressure to go. Our universities face the very real threat of losing globally recognised academics while denuding faculties’ institutional memory.
Meanwhile, there has been a distressing failure of pushback against this. Centrists – politically speaking – tend not to participate in politics on campus, generally immersing themselves in interests related to their fields of expertise. Once exposed to the threats and rudeness of the progressive left, they back off. They’re not used to it. They aren’t used to being shouted at, and so they are easily intimidated. For decades, it’s been about the “science” of the subject; now it’s about fanaticism and virtue signalling. The centrists don’t understand this and don’t band together to fight it.
Fallist ideology is a carbon copy of the American Critical Race Theory (CRT) experience; the difference being that the ‘oppressed’ group here is a majority not a minority. The idea behind CRT is that the knowledge being taught is tainted by the stain of whiteness and so it needs to be ‘decolonised’.
‘Whiteness’ is one of many different racial identities, the strength of which is determined by four factors: group size, group power, group discrimination, and group appearance. Those who are part of a group that is the numerical minority have less power relative to other groups (although reversed here), experience more discrimination, and less resemble the majority group in skin colour. Blacks should have a greater sense of racial identity, while those who are part of the racial majority (and all its privileges) should put very little emphasis on their racial identity.1.
Many activist groups in South Africa regard themselves as part of an international Social Justice Movement: Fallist rhetoric is borrowed from Black Lives Matters and Occupy Wall Street. As internationally, such activism posits irreconcilable differences between oppressors and oppressed, assigning each a political and moral identity, eschewing negotiation and compromise for confrontation.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Pan-Africanist Students Movement of Azania (Pasma) successfully provided formal structures to allow the Fallists to take control of student politics at universities. Both the EFF and Pasma have been used as rallying points to push radical protesters into positions of power on campus.
We shouldn’t underestimate the complicity of academics in the Fallist movement. In the social sciencesand law, students have been taught that the whole paradigm of their fields is tainted and that something must be done.
Although there was distinct leftist thinking in various departments, until the protests erupted the centrists still had status and respect. (Indeed, it might be noted that the Fallist movement has even shunted out of the way what might be described as the ‘democratic left’.)
With a few exceptions, however, in the last few years there were no classical liberal pundits equivalent to those on the left. Departments that were too incompetent or too small to have an impact on the protests, still had an impact on favouring left-wing thinking.
UCT’s recognition of the Black Academic Caucus (BAC) was a clear act of applying double standards. It has no identified leadership, no structure and no copy of its constitution has ever been made available. The BAC was formally recognised notwithstanding its failure to comply with university rules.
BAC ‘members’ and supportive white academics stood squarely with the Fallists. They often opposed measures implemented by the vice-chancellor to deal with the chaos that erupted. (Revealingly, in late 2016, Prof Suellen Shay of UCT wrote a widely noted piece in which she said that universities would need to learn to ‘engage with chaos’.)
Another factor in perpetuating this politically correct environment is the same one experienced on American campuses: the growth in and power of administrative staff. Many staff members are at least sympathetic to left-wing ideas. The number of support programmes for students has grown exponentially. Orwellian-sounding ‘Transformation Committees’ in faculties require academics to ensure that ‘transformation’ is carried out and that it is not solely in the hands of the faculty leadership to force political correctness among their administrative staff and students.
Some university authorities are seen as weak, with their Councils and Senates pandering to illicit or morally dubious demands. Either the bodies are dysfunctional, uninterested or are captured by those who vigorously advance a politicised (and politically correct) agenda.
A cursory look at the curricula of some of the humanities faculties at our top universities reveals an emphasis on Marxist theorists and much less to no emphasis on classic liberalism – or indeed any other competing mode of thought. Julius Malema’s supervisor’s areas of expertise were “social movements, labour studies, biopolitics, governmentality, resistance, service delivery, nationalism and basic services”. His sources were Biko, Foucault, Agamben, Hardt and Negri, Fanon and Marx.
The sobering consequence is that our best and brightest are graduating with a zeal to implement an ideology that has been proved to be absolutely disastrous, in a world that operates on a completely different basis. Ironically, in a debate a few years ago, a vice-chancellor insisted that the university IS the real world.
Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823. (Smses cost R1 Ts and Cs apply). This is the second of a five-part series produced with the support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.
1. Mikhail Lyubansky Ph.D.; The Meaning of Whiteness – Pondering whiteness in the age of Obama;‘Between the Lines’ of Psychology Today,14 December 2011,
(3) The Fallists and the erosion of campus freedom
This is the third article in a five part series. The previous installment can be found here.
What role did the #Fallist movements have in eroding freedoms on campus?
The year 2015 saw the rise of a leftist student movement operating under hashtags such as #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall, #TuksSoWhite, #OpenStellenbosch and #AfrikaansMustFall.
The creep towards aggressive, threatening and disruptive behaviour in lecture theatres began to be evident in late 2014 and early 2015.
The phenomenon of protests, which reflected a social justice ethos taking shape, was triggered by #RhodesMustFall.
The coalescence of the phenomena of political correctness, identity politics and the victimhood culture were triggered when Chumani Maxwele threw faeces over the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town (UCT).
There appears to have been no indication at UCT that the campus was going to explode in March 2015. The #RhodesMustFall campaigners had never raised grievances about the statue before. The statue had been discussed some years previously with staff, but it hadn’t earned the attention of students. None of the issues the students raised at the time became issues of the protest. One of the issues, which were fairly prosaic, was the long-standing demand for accommodation.
Maxwele graduated in 2017 at the age of 33 and after seven years’ study. Even at his graduation he couldn’t resist shouting insults at former Vice-Chancellor Dr. Max Price while he was capping him – an irony without parallel since many believe that Price had ideologically supported Maxwele.
There is also evidence that Maxwele’s action may have been an outsourced act of revenge engineered by Iqbal Survé, the owner of Independent Media. Price asked Survé to stand down from his positions at UCT due to the controversy over his firing of Alide Dasnois, the editor of the Cape Times.
Price had then invited Dasnois to give a graduation address at the end of 2014, not realising that Survé’s daughter was graduating and Surve was present.1.
The eruption of the #RhodesMustFall protests and their success gave impetus to the destructive protests that followed on the country’s campuses from 2015 to 2017.
A good case can be made – and there are certainly staff and students who would make it – that had UCT management handled Maxwele’s initial act with appropriate firmness, the next two years might not have been so fraught.
Maxwele was not sanctioned in terms of UCT’s disciplinary rules and it quickly became clear that UCT authorities were going to approve the removal of the statue. It was, in other words, a stunning victory achieved through activism that was self-consciously confrontational, uncivil and – in invoking racial nationalism – inherently divisive. An indecent act of grandstanding and angry rhetoric gained traction to become a “movement”.
As in America, local protest movements drew in students who had genuine grievances and needs, which either were not being or could not be met.
Except for toppling the statue, the movement had no formal structure or philosophy, but it morphed into a range of different movements in different places. Neither the #RhodesMustFall nor the #OpenStellenbosch movements have any clear manifestoes or a concrete explanation of what exactly they mean by ‘transformation’ or what exactly they wanted.
These movements didn’t start the erosion of freedoms on campuses, but they gave it a huge impetus. The protests weren’t simply about a statue or about fees or about accessibility. Fallism is an ideological movement which at its root is opposed to the notions of individual freedom and self-fulfilment.
During 2016, the grievances of protesters around the country ranged from the demand for a ‘no fee’ increase, to a demand for free university education, to allegations of management’s support of a ‘rape culture’, to the removal of Afrikaans as the first language of instruction, to the creation of gender neutral toilets, to the removal of ‘colonial’ influences and to demands for more student accommodation.
These were demands that couldn’t always be met, no matter the attitude of university management bodies. No university in the country can exist without the payment of fees. Fee-free education could only have been granted by the government (a doubtful if not wholly unsustainable prospect in view of the country’s deteriorating fiscal state). The facts supporting condonation of a rape culture couldn’t be clarified. The removal of colonial influence was aggressively sought but unclear. Court action ultimately resulted in the demotion of Afrikaans at Stellenbosch.
Backlogs in accommodation was an issue universities were desperately trying to resolve – it had been a longstanding and well-acknowledged problem – but the protesters paid no heed. This resulted in the #Shackville protests at UCT, which led to the infamous burning of works of art, damage to university vehicles and invasions of residences.
One of the reasons for the impunity and violence that dogged these three years was the failure by some university managements to take a harsh or sufficiently harsh line by disciplining and criminally charging accused students. In the case of UCT, it was also about the appeasing – and unlawfully agreeing to amnesty for – the most egregious actors despite their expulsion that was the most problematic.
There is no doubt, however, that in the face of threats, anger and occupations, doing otherwise would have required an extraordinary amount of courage on the part of management. Management also had to deal with academics and administrative staff who supported the students.
If management needed to get police onto campus, sympathetic academic staff accused management of ‘securitising the campus’ as was done during apartheid.
Perhaps unwittingly, this showed the moral inversion that was taking place. Those wishing to protect the perpetrators of the Fallist-directed chaos view seemed unfazed that democratic societies have to protect their citizens from violence first and foremost. Thus the rights of protesters to act violently have to concede to the rights of others not to be subject to violence. Society has to work this way to avoid descending into lawlessness. Yet here, ideology trumped all.
Negotiation to deal with demands was extremely difficult. The demands were unclear, the process of negotiation wasn’t understood by the students, demands kept changing, as did the representatives to the negotiations. Key to resolving any dispute by negotiation is involvement by the same negotiators throughout the process so that consistency is achieved and administrations weren’t faced with new demands.
Sometimes management would be forced into embarrassing confrontations where they were instructed to say or do something meant to demean them in front of a crowd. Often they were just shouted down when they tried to communicate.
Other than indistinct demands, another feature of the Fallist movement was a lack of real leadership. While some people were clearly at the forefront of the protests, the movements generally adopted a position of being leaderless – they claimed to be democratic movements in which all were equal.
Without real leaders and structures, and without demands that were legitimate or could be met, the Fallist movements eventually burnt themselves out.
Perhaps this was indicative of the ‘chaos’ that Prof Suellen Shay had talked about – and a refutation of the possibility of ‘engaging’ with it.
What has been left, to a greater or lesser degree, is a dominant, ‘progressive’ culture that continues to gnaw at the continued presence of classical liberals in the humanities, a political correctness in behaviours that lack reason or logic, and an increased, and arguably inappropriate, role for administrative staff.
Three-years of Fallism resulted in damage of nearly R800 million on South Africa’s campuses. Some may see a slide in their reputations from which they’ll struggle to recover. Chaos indeed.
Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823. (Smses cost R1 Ts and Cs apply). This is the third of a five-part series produced with the support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.
1. Ed Herbst: Portents of anarchy – A pre-arranged #RMF agenda?, BizNews, Thought Leaders, 15 March 2016
(4) Fear on campus
The erosion of freedoms by ‘progressive’ movements at universities (including Fallism) is truly ominous. It is not least because it contravenes the Constitution. Understanding this puts into perspective just what is at stake.
The preamble to South Africa’s Bill of Rights describes it as ‘a cornerstone of democracy in South Africa’ which ‘enshrines the rights of all people in our country and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom’.
This makes clear that the Constitution protects the rights of all people. It does not exclude from protection whites, men, classical liberals or anyone else. It affirms the dignity, equality and freedom of all.
Public universities are ‘organs of state’, which are institutions that exercise a power or function in terms of the Constitution or that perform a public function in terms of legislation (Section 239).
Consequently, our universities are bound by Section 8 (Application) which provides that all organs of state (including universities) are bound by the constitutional obligations that apply to the State.
Fundamental rights that apply to all and have been eroded at our universities are the right to equality before the law (Section 9), the right to have one’s dignity respected and protected (Section15), and the right to freedom of conscience, thought, belief and opinion.
The most significant freedom to have been eroded – thus eroding the above rights – is freedom of expression, including freedom of speech, which the constitution sets out, unambiguously, in Section 16:
Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes
(a) freedom of the press and other media;
(b) freedom to receive or impart information or ideas;
(c) freedom of artistic creativity; and
(d) academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.
During the Fallist period and since, students who do not support the prevailing leftist orthodoxy have been discouraged from, threatened for or have become fearful of expressing their views and hearing the views of others.
Students representing the new orthodoxy adopted the if-you’re-not-with-us-you’re-against-us position. This position was expressed increasingly aggressively. A contradiction developed where, on the one hand, ‘progressive’ students demanded ‘safe spaces’ in which to have their views expressed and heard without being offended, while, on the other hand, the right of students to express opposing views was to vehemently rejected, as opposing views came to be considered as ‘violence’. ‘Safe spaces’ for some became very unsafe for others.
However, freedom of expression isn’t protected under the constitution if it incites ‘imminent violence’ or ‘advocates hatred based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and constitutes incitement to cause harm’. Much of the speech on campuses would be considered unprotected speech in terms of the Constitution.
Invasions of or rebellions in lecture theatres by Fallist students cowed other students who were reluctant to express views in case it led to a barrage of verbal and physical attack from the invaders. At UCT, two security officers were attacked by protesters and sustained significant injuries. Both were admitted to hospital.1.
The most notorious example of university management eroding freedom of expression was UCT’s 2016 revocation of an invitation to Flemming Rose, the Danish editor of the ‘Mohammed cartoons’. Former vice-chancellor Dr. Max Price overrode the decision of the Academic Freedom Committee, host of the event. The withdrawal of the invitation was based on three grounds; one, the most Kafkaesque of all, was that it would retard rather than advance academic freedom.2.
This process of disinviting speakers or ‘no platforming’ them (preventing them from speaking) has become a severely intolerant yet common form of prohibiting the expression of different views. In America, it has become a plague.
Freedom of artistic creativity at UCT is a matter of ongoing dispute concerning the works of art removed for safekeeping after the vandalism of #Shackville movement of 2016 at UCT.
Works of art have been covered, boarded up, removed or disappeared for alleged ideological purposes; management denies that this amounts to censorship.3. In an Orwellian twist, a UCT official tried to defend this: “Some may think the work is being censored, others – we would hope – will understand that a temporary restriction of view makes for another mode of seeing the work, less flat and obvious, more thoughtful and imaginative. So the exercise should be read as an essay in creative curation, and strictly part of the dynamic process of engagement underway.” The derided notion of ‘alternative facts’ springs to mind.
In 2015, after the removal of the Rhodes statue, UCT’s Council set up an Artworks Task Team of staff and students ‘to deal with transformation issues giving attention to questions of inclusivity and the University’s location in an African context as the basis of its work’. The Task Team isn’t involved with curating in order to refresh displays.
One of the most contentious works, Willie Bester’s sculpture of Saartjie Baartman, was covered up and then moved to an exhibition and has not been seen since.3
A Works of Art Committee (WOAC) was formed in late 2017 to develop clear curatorial policy guidelines ‘informed by the contexts of the university’s public spaces and developing an acquisitions policy’. It will establish an art museum for the university’s collection and create a platform for ‘engagement through ongoing curated exhibitions of the collection’.
A few of the destroyed works, including a triptych of Nelson Mandela, have been replaced by entirely anodyne art. This does not augur well.
The right to protest (Section 17) is demanded all the time in our society. However, this right is not absolute. There are at least two limitations:
– The right only extends to protests that are peaceful and unarmed (Section 17); and
– Is subject to Section 12 which provides that everyone has the right to freedom and security of the person, including the right to bodily and psychological integrity.
Rampaging groups of protesting students presented a real risk of damage or harm. So universities were obliged to try to protect those not protesting by calling police and security onto the campuses.
Some ‘progressive’ academics, who supported the students’ causes or even their unlawful actions, objected to these measures as ‘securitisation of the campuses’ and impediments to protesting, making the implementing of security measures falsely analogous to the apartheid era. This was notwithstanding that much of the students’ behaviour was criminal – assault, attempted murder, arson, locking people in burning buildings, petrol bombing offices and jumping onto a desk with a sjambok.
Despite what these academics said, a primary obligation of the state (and by extension a university) in a democratic society is to protect its citizens. The right to protest does not include the right to do so unlawfully. It’s not just a university’s right to call on the police: it is its duty. It is also a precondition for a minimally functioning academic environment.
Stifling freedom of expression has extended to the writing of papers or exams. Students have learnt which academics hold staunchly ‘progressive’ views and wouldn’t tolerate alternative views.
Instead of being judged on the merits and quality of their arguments, on occasion students have produced work to satisfy academics’ political views, rather than take the risk that marks would suffer because of intolerance by an academic driven by ideology.
Academics play a significant role in shaping the opinions of students. With the increase in social justice ideology, academics have had a huge impact on the development of identity politics and the victimhood culture in students and against classical liberal thought.
These events have had a stifling effect on otherwise courageous students who are prepared to exercise their rights but do not feel that the administration would support them.
‘It is a dangerous notion that a group of people, possibly with good intentions, can decide whether another group or person’s rights are worthy of being respected. It is even more dangerous when an undemocratically elected leadership of a student protest has the power.’4.
The growth of ’social justice’ ideology on our campuses ironically demands the erosion of rights and freedoms.
‘It shows that pursuant to so-called “social justice” there is absolutely no ideological impediment in limiting others’ rights to achieve their societal goals, and that is very dangerous territory.’5.
Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823. (Smses cost R1 Ts and Cs apply). This is the fourth of a five-part series produced with the support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.
1. Politics: Security officers hospitalised after Fallist attack – UCT, Politicsweb,19 October 2016;
2. Gwen Ngwenya: Op-Ed: Why the IRR has decided to invite Flemming Rose,
Daily Maverick, 5 May 2017;
3. Elisa Galgut & William Daniels: The Art of Bullshit at UCT, Politicsweb,1 November 2018;
4. Johan van der Merwe: Whose Rights are Right? published in Fallism – One Year of Rational Commentary, edited by Martin van Staden, Nicholas Woode-Smith and Nicolai Haussamer, published by Rational Publications 2017, Cape Town, South Africa;
(5) Fallism’s effects
The German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine once commented – in translation – that ‘where people burn books, they will at the end also burn people’.
An assault on ideas and their expression will echo far beyond campuses. Dr. Bret Weinstein, who resigned from Evergreen College after being labelled a ‘racist’, says that the culture of intolerance grew on college campuses first because colleges are ‘soft targets’. This is particularly the case in the humanities, which deal above all with ideas germane to the human condition. ‘The steady decline in humanities majors is an unmistakable signal that this once noble field has become a wasteland.’1.
The decline, the institutionalized intolerance, and the inability to debate and civilly disagree is now spreading to other institutions, including, in Weinstein’s view, ‘the highest levels of the tech sector and the press, with the courts not far behind’.
In America, the ‘progressive’ left has achieved numerous ‘successes’ in broader society beyond university. Examples abound. In 2017, engineer James Damore was dismissed by Google because he argued in a leaked memo that women were biologically less suited to technical jobs. A YouTube user received a ‘community guidelines’ warning for supposed hate speech for putting a video of a conversation between Sam Harris and Douglas Murray (authors who might best be described as classical liberals) on his playlist.
There have been claims of a ‘concerted purge of conservative employees at Apple’. Ian Buruma, renowned author and journalist, was forced to resign from the editorship of the New York Review of Books. Buruma published an essay by a Canadian broadcaster who had been accused of sexually assaulting women. The broadcaster, who was acquitted on all charges, had lamented his status as a pariah. He was accused of adopting a ‘self-pitying tone’. Many interpreted Buruma as ‘showing a lack of interest’ in the accusations against the broadcaster.
It suggests one of two possibilities: either the women’s movement of the past four decades in America has achieved very little, or the tech generation’s sense of what is unfair is so broad and over-sensitive that anything forms a basis for complaint.
Camille Paglia, academic, author and veteran feminist, has drawn attention to the consequences of this. She has found the ‘headlong rush to judgement by so many well-educated, middle-class women in the #MeToo movement” startling and dismaying. Their elevation of emotion and group solidarity over fact and logic has resurrected damaging stereotypes of women’s irrationality that were once used to deny women the vote’.2.
These (and analogous) trends, visible in the Fallist movement and in the pronouncements of numerous academics, activists and commentators, have been visible in South Africa, too. The possible impact of all this on wider society in South Africa is mixed. On the positive side, the number of university students, particularly in the humanities, who will be going out into the workplace is tiny and their ‘progressive’ views will have a limited effect.
The world of work will expect a student to adapt to the workplace. Graduates will achieve little by expecting a workplace to adjust to their expectations. Anyway, larger companies have long had personnel policies to deal with some of the issues that might concern graduates.
Graduates will have a great deal to learn in the workplace that they were never taught at university. The graduate needs to approach work with a level of humility and a preparedness to learn. Workplaces in general are not as accommodating as universities – and even those able to fit into social justice NGOs will find that they require work skills, too.
Likewise, government departments may provide a ‘progressive’ environment for employment – but ‘progressive’ policy-making does not guarantee a ‘progressive’ workplace.
South Africa needs many more people with technical and vocational skills than it has need for academics. Our basic challenges are so great that most of society won’t have the time or inclination to indulge the social justice temperament. We have a far smaller pool of opportunities and accumulated wealth than developed societies to subsidise this sort of ‘work’.
But the damage that is being done by the Fallist movement, and by indulgent academics and administrators, is real. The most immediate risk to our society is to the reputations and status of our universities unless we are willing to accept their diminution in status internationally, which we shouldn’t.
It matters to parents who pay fees whether our universities are places worth sending their children to. Middle class parents, many of whom are alumni of our universities, were horrified at the racism, threats and vilification their children faced from 2015. Some removed their children from universities to others locally or internationally.
For parents and alumni, it wasn’t just the racism and criminality that jarred; many saw an insufficient inclination or inappropriate interventions by university management to manage the crises. Parents and alumni were left angry and dismayed. They are also concerned that the value of their degrees is being diminished. They looked at what was unfolding and were concerned for the institutions, for the safety of those involved in them and at the prospect that the enormous financial sacrifices they were making would ultimately be for nothing. Never mind that a degree may not provide the totality of preparation for the world of work, if things progressed as they were, it would likely provide scant introduction to it.
There probably isn’t an immediate threat of resurrection of a Fallist movement, but what is being taught and by whom is of great concern. The insistence by the ‘progressive’ left that much of the knowledge taught is Western, as opposed to universal, is incomprehensible and worrying. The uncritical manner in which the need for ‘decolonisation’ has taken hold – with little debate about what this meant, why it was desirable, which aspects of which courses and what parts of the institutional culture should be revised, what could be removed and what should take its place – is a warning. This is a ‘debate’ that eschews debate, revelling instead in acclaim and moral force.
The brevity of the Fallist movements’ existence was due to unclear (and ultimately unachievable) goals, an incoherent strategy, a deliberate refusal to appoint leadership and general ill-discipline, rudeness, and criminality.
Currently, though, there is huge pressure, subtle and not so subtle, by ‘progressive’ academics, staff and students to press ‘progressive’ agendas. This includes changes to curricula, some of which may be justified but some may not. More insidious is the pressure on tenured white academics to resign.
And in the last few weeks, all of his has been aggravated by the relaxation of minimum admission entry requirements for a bachelor’s degree. Students now need just 30% in the language of learning and teaching at their institution of choice. Students would also have to obtain between 50-59% in four 20-credit National Senior Certificate subjects.
Distinguished Professor of Education at Stellenbosch University Jonathan Jansen is critical of the change. Jansen says: “This is a continuation of the mediocrity seen in the lower grades now being applied to universities.
“Now, universities will be taking even more students who are less prepared with an even greater failure rate, and this is bad.”3.
If some academics of stature feel that they can’t sustain the pressure, we are likely to lose them to overseas universities. We need to consider the evolution of private universities or ‘institutes of higher learning’.
There are about 200 private tertiary education organisations. Most provide technical or vocational training. Those that do provide academic education can’t call themselves universities, because they don’t provide the necessary breadth of facilities. They are ‘institutes of higher learning’.
The Stadio Group is one example of a private ‘university’, which offers business, commerce, education, training, creative industries, law, security and political science. Stadio is considering introducing faculties for information technology, engineering, manufacturing, agriculture, nature conservation, architecture, the built environment and ultimately a medical faculty.4.
For private ‘universities’, a humanities faculty staffed by top academics could attract more students because of a wider breadth of subjects. However, we can’t afford to rely on private ‘universities’ to fill the gaps.
The ability to express views freely has diminished on South African campuses. Society, however, looks to academia as the apex of intellectual rigour to uphold and develop our freedoms. Many universities which fought for freedoms under apartheid are succumbing to the illiberal forces of the hard left. Curtailing freedoms at universities has dire consequences for the continuing democratic nature of society. As Heine warned, the degradation of the battle of ideas can tip into a staggering debasement of society as a whole, not least its propensity to accept tyranny.
Paglia was horrified at how classical liberal academia did virtually nothing to fight the onslaught of the ‘progressives’. A great many university stakeholders are classically liberal and want their universities to advance not remove freedoms. But they must take the fight to the tyrannical minority and society must give them any help they need.
As Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said: ‘Always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor never the tormented.’
Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823. (Smses cost R1 Ts and Cs apply). This is the last of a five-part series produced with the support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.
1. Uri Harris: The Institutionalization of Social Justice, Quillette, 17 November 2018;
2. Camille Paglia: It’s Time for a New Map of the Gender World, Quillette, Interview by editor Claire Lehmann, 10 November 2018;
3. Jonathan Jansen: Lowering university entry requirements ‘a move to mediocrity’, Cape Talk, 4 December 2018
4. Chris Gilmour: Prognosis for private tertiary education positive in long term, BusinessLive PREMIUM, 19 September 2018;