030614. University of Western Cape, Bellville campus. Picture Henk Kruger/Cape Argus

There’s some petty stuff being thrown around, but it would seem the power struggle at UWC really does matter, says Mike Wills.

Cape Town - Was Henry Kissinger speaking about the University of the Western Cape when he famously said: “Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small”?

At one level that truism definitely applies to the depressing events being played out in Bellville as there’s some petty stuff about unpaid airfares and inexact protocols being thrown around. But, on another level, it would seem that the power struggle on the campus really does matter.

For those who haven’t been paying attention, the rector of UWC, Brian O’Connell, has been locked in a fractious contest with the chairman of the convocation, Brian Williams, in what has been dubbed “the Battle of the Brians”.

At the moment Brian Dubya is on top after winning a court case to force his reinstatement following a council vote to remove him and then narrowly squeaking an election victory among graduates at the weekend.

You have to wonder why Brian Oh even bothers. He’s been in the post for 12 years and is due to step down soon. He’s served with distinction during a tough time for tertiary institutions and surely this is someone else’s fight for the future?

My perception of O’Connell is of a thoughtful and insightful man, so maybe his very willingness to join the fray tells us that it is a significant event.

Ironies abound in all of this. Brian Williams’s public CV plays heavily on his career with the CCMA and as an “expert in the field of conflict resolution and mediation”, something he has a doctorate in, nogal. And yet he has singularly failed to find common ground with O’Connell.

Williams is also a former trade unionist, yet Cosatu’s Tony Ehrenreich wants him out because he has “undermined” the organisation, and Nehawu reacted to Williams’s claims of its support with a wonderfully dismissive statement that he was spouting “mischievous revolutionary tosh”.

And while we’re using the language of the sandpit in the comrades’ playground, Williams himself says all the allegations made by O’Connell “are noise diversions and vacuous red herrings”. Really, all of them! Those don’t sound like the words of a skilled conflict resolver.

There’s no doubt there’s plenty of politics in play here. As already noted, the unions have their oars in, as does the ANC Youth League on Williams’s side and the SRC demands that UWC “remains a university of the left”, whatever that might mean.

If this goes on much longer, then the minister of higher education, that old hypocritical Marxist Blade Nzimande, will be finding an excuse to intervene and that’s never good news.

From a distance, this looks like a common enough story in the business world of two bulls in the same kraal and, in the absence of the rector and the convocation chairman finding a productive way to work together, it’s a fight to the end which has to see a loser.

It’s grim, zero-sum game stuff which would deeply sadden the late Jakes Gerwel who played such a prominent role in lifting UWC out of its original apartheid confines.

My sympathies lie fundamentally with O’Connell, first because he’s rightly standing firm against the SRC having too big a say in the running of the varsity. And second because to drag the matter to court, as Williams did, was a big step down the wrong road even if he did get the ruling he sought.

I suspect the high court judges all along were wondering what on earth they were doing wasting their time considering a niggardly procedural dispute between two smart people with 10 academic degrees between them.

* Mike Wills’ column Open Mike appears in the Cape Argus every Wednesday.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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