NO UNCLE TOM: Xolela Mangcu, associate professor of sociology at UCT, reminds Crain Soudien, UCT deputy vice-chancellor, that we all have our distinctive conception of the idea of the university.

Xolela Mangcu

In his article “UCT stands devoted to debate”, Crain Soudien makes a statement that will and should not stand from an executive of an institution of higher learning. It should not stand because not only is it personally offensive, but also constitutes a fundamental assault on the idea of academic freedom on which universities are founded. It is the kind of statement that has sowed a culture of fear among many academics at UCT.

What Soudien says is so grievous to the integrity of the university that I will quote it in full, before asking the relevant institutional authority within the university to rule on its acceptability.

This is what he writes: “Worrying as Mangcu’s assessment of the admissions policy is, more disconcerting in some ways is his attack on the university itself and particularly on the idea of the university. As a member of this community, and particularly as one who has come to be recognised for his acknowledgement of the written word in his frequent references to famous scholars and institutions, this is surprising. His argument is an attack on the legitimacy of the very institution on which he, in his own work, depends.”

First, Soudien should know that I do not depend on the university. I work for the university. This is an express threat that if you depend on an institution, you should not dare criticise it. That may well be the case with political parties – and academics spend a lot of time criticising politicians for this intolerance. It may indeed be the case for business or other organisations. It certainly is not the case for universities. We speak and write what we like.

Second, he writes that I am attacking the idea of the university.

His threat shows that he and I have completely different understandings about the idea of the university. Mine is one where academic freedom reigns, and no one sitting in a position of authority can reign in legitimate academic debate. And let me refer him to a case that may be instructive, and by quoting the “famous” academics that he mocks.

By the way the reference to famous academics is what we generally do in our work at the university – to cite other scholars.

I have always found it interesting that people object when I make these references, when everybody else does as a matter of course. Or am I a case of the darkie who knows too much.

The case I have in mind is that of the conflict that broke out between the distinguished African American scholar Cornel West and Larry Summers at Harvard.

During the course of the conflict Summers, with characteristic executive hubris, complained, without any evidence, that West was skipping classes and that he was not writing serious scholarly work in the Harvard tradition.

West was not only a Harvard graduate but the university’s first black university professor – a position reserved for the most distinguished Harvard professors. West reminded Summers that “I am as much a part of the Harvard tradition as you are, and we all have our distinctive interpretations of it”.

This is just another way of reminding Soudien that we all have our distinctive conception of the idea of the university.

No threat that I am dependent on the university will make me come around to your idea of the university, or the epistemology you presume to lay out in your article. It just won’t convince me, and many of the students I have been engaged with over the past few weeks.

After his conflict with Summers, West left Harvard for Princeton, where he became a university professor yet again. That is the difference between West and I. I ain’t going nowhere.

Third, now let us come to the matter of the debate. This is the second time that a senior executive of the university has responded to me on how the university’s admissions policy was determined.

UCT vice-chancellor Max Price used language similar to that used by Soudien in responding to an article I wrote about the decision of the senate to do away with race as the prime consideration in affirmative action policies and to effectively make it secondary to economic disadvantage.

Price said I was insulting the university; now Soudien says I am attacking the university. Can anyone really expect a critical academic culture to emerge under such an environment. No wonder that so many academics at UCT are so reluctant to speak out publicly about the university’s policies. The students have emboldened us to search for what Václav Havel – another “famous” scholar, Mr Soudien – called our “innermost identities”.

Fourth, for the life of me I do not understand why Soudien insists – against the evidence – that those who are arguing for race are retaining apartheid classification. Soudien knows that the Black Consciousness movement subverted the apartheid concept of blackness and replaced it with a revolutionary concept of blackness.

And this is what I have been arguing for in calling for the retention of race in affirmative action. Either he is unaware of those definitions or he has not been listening to what I have been saying. Please, Professor Soudien, give those of us who study race some credit in our understanding and usage of the term black. It is not what you make it out to be and you know it.

One of the most insulting and patronising concepts to come out of the revision of UCT’s admissions policy is the concept of “disadvantage” that you and UCT have have adopted as the discourse of our oppression. No, sir, we were not disadvantaged. We were oppressed. The term “disadvantage” equates the oppression of black people to a game in which the rules were simply unfairly stacked against them.

Tamper with the rules a little, improve the provision of facilities here and there, broaden opportunities and your problems should disappear because no one would be unfairly “disadvantaged” any longer.

I have over the past few weeks interacted with black students at UCT. You have no idea how many times I have secretly prayed that you or Price were there to listen to the pain of black students – to their rage. The rage comes out of a sense of feeling despised – despised by their classmates, despised by their lecturers, despised by the university administration.

No amount of talk about economic disadvantage will ever capture racism as a psychological and cultural assault on black people – as individuals, students and as part of a community.

A much better framework is needed than the Habermasian ideal speech that provided the basis for rational debate, even in the face of racist attacks on our students. But these black students with a Biko consciousness would have none of that, and as they well should not have.

Your distortions of my argument notwithstanding, your idea that “we should hear all the views” in the middle of that assault on the very dignity and the very humanity of our children is mindboggling, to say the least.

The liberal approach to affirmative action that UCT has adopted loves the idea of helping poor black children because they can give them handouts and walk away feeling they have done something.

But the pain and anger of young assertive black middle class and working class kids frightens them. It is that pain that led the students to remove the statue of Cecil John Rhodes. Their interpretation of the idea of the university is vastly different from the one that the university is busy boxing them into.

But as the saying goes, the genie is out of the bottle. As black academics and students we will interpret the world from our vantage of historical experience as we see it, and not as you see it. The only thing I ask is that you and I should accept the validity of what West – that “famous” scholar again – calls our distinctive interpretations. But I can assure you that I am no Uncle Tom who sings for his supper.

I expect no one to be expected to behave like that in our constitutional democracy, let alone a university.

l Mangcu is Associate Professor of Sociology at UCT