Graduation day at UWC. The university's successes were hard-earned, says the writer. Picture: Independent Media Archives
Graduation day at UWC. The university's successes were hard-earned, says the writer. Picture: Independent Media Archives
Dr Cherrel Africa
Dr Cherrel Africa
As a staff member of the University of the Western Cape (UWC), I feel disheartened by the pummelling the university often endures.

Please allow me to explain. Also please note that while I am currently the acting spokesperson of the university, I write this letter in my personal capacity.

In June 2014 I wrote to this media house responding to an article titled “Rector transformed the former ‘bush college’”.

At the time I received a substantive apology from the editor. Your newspaper also responded by saying, “We take our duties as a responsible newspaper very seriously and welcome frank and constructive engagement with our content, positive or negative”.

It is in this spirit that I again raise these concerns.

On March 16, the Cape Times ran a front-page article with the headline “Do you know this rapist?” A smaller caption stated “Repeat offender may be stalking at UWC”.

The article leads with: “Police probing whether a repeat rapist may be stalking female students at UWC have issued an identikit.”

There were two incidents of sexual assault on campus premises - one in May 2017 and one early this month. We view these incidents in an extremely serious light and the journalist outlined some of the measures being taken to improve safety on campus. Sexual violence is a societal problem we should all be grappling with in a meaningful way.

Yesterday I wrote directly to you as the editor to raise concerns about the article. I appreciate that you called me to explain that the article was also based on information from the police.

Dr Cherrel Africa

You explained the possibility that there was a repeat offender and that the article was therefore not speculative. As I indicated, I accept your explanation and the need to focus on sexual violence and raise awareness about these issues.

I also indicated that the article leaves the impression that UWC is under siege differently to other institutions and society at large. Perhaps this is an unintended impression, but it speaks to larger perceptions regarding UWC.

I cannot help but reflect on the broader perceptions of UWC and this is why I feel the need to respond as a staff member. Consider the following:

On February 21, two shortlisted candidates for the position of new vice-chancellor of UCT gave their presentations to representatives of various campus constituencies. Dr Heidi Raubenheimer, a member of UCT council and academic at Stellenbosch University, posed the question to one of the candidates: “I just want to call the elephant in the room some of us would look down on UWC, can you tell us why we shouldn’t?”

Besides the range of emotions the questions evoked in me, that question livestreamed to the world has real-world consequences for the staff and students of UWC.

In the context of a rigorous debate around land reform, the university finds itself in an extremely difficult position.

The university has spent considerable time negotiating about land use with the City of Cape Town.

We have only recently found out that certain tracts of land belong to the Western Cape provincial government. The details of this difficult position are not in the public domain because the rector of UWC values a constructive relationship with the City of Cape Town and the provincial government.

He and his team have been trying to quietly resolve the matter behind the scenes. Indeed he had no knowledge of the fact that I was going to write this open letter. The fact is that our students ultimately would pay the price if these negotiations fall apart - perhaps journalists can pick up on this matter and do some further investigations.

On the issue of safe and reliable public transport to UWC, I have since 2011 been lobbying for an improvement in this regard.

I raised the issue with Premier Helen Zille at a campus event. I also raised the issue in writing with the mayor of the City of Cape Town, Patricia de Lille, the deputy mayor, Ian Neilson, as well as Brett Herron, Mayco member for transport and urban development.

After seven years there has been no substantive progress on the matter. The essence of the response has been that we should have a shuttle service like UCT’s Jammie Shuttle - we simply do not have the resources.

On the note of resources, our fees are substantially lower than those of wealthier universities. With the introduction of a full-cost subsidy for qualifying students, wealthier universities will receive far higher subsidies from the state for equivalent degrees.

I cannot help but wonder why we face this constant uphill battle. Tertiary institutions in South Africa have been dichotomised through apartheid, which sought to subjugate some institutions and elevate others.

Not only did UWC successfully resist a label and role that it found to be illegitimate, it also leveraged the debate to challenge power dynamics in South Africa. Why must institutions that have faced a set of deep challenges emanating from their roots in apartheid still in 2018 continue to face this situation?

South Africa is a country rebuilding itself from the ashes of the past and UWC plays a particularly special and important role in that rebuilding process. UWC is the kind of place that not only grows on you, it grows in you. That’s why the slogan “I am UWC” is so apt.

It’s the kind of place that provides moments of possibility for deep and profound change. But those moments are only made possible through commitment, resilience, hard work and grit.

At UWC we provide quality tertiary education to students who would not ordinarily have access to it. While striving to be an institution of excellence, we play a major role in helping to transform South Africa and in reducing the deep inequality which continues to pervade our society.

Many of my colleagues passionately share this sentiment. I have been a staff member at UWC since 2010. UWC is not a perfect institution - I don’t think there is such a thing. However, it is where I choose to be. When the rector asked me to consider standing in as the university’s interim spokesperson, I availed myself without hesitation because I understand the importance of reputational issues, and while the role is challenging, I can easily advocate for an institution that I truly believe in.

There are so many success stories at UWC - they are too numerous to mention. And your newspaper does indeed cover these stories.

Thank you for the invitation for me to discuss issues of mutual relevance. I appreciate it and will be taking you up on your offer.

I am disheartened when I consider broad societal perceptions of UWC - perceptions of people like Dr Raubenheimer. I would like to extend an open invite to Dr Raubenheimer and any other stakeholder who “looks down on UWC” to come to our campus. Come and engage with us. If you have issues to raise, my door is open.

To the mayor’s office and the premier’s office, we would love to have an open engagement and conversation about the environment and land surrounding our campus, as well developing a plan for improved public transport.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but sometimes I feel like we are David fighting a thousand Goliaths. Despite these blows and punches, we will continue as an institution widely recognised by many as a vibrant intellectual space where people engage with matters of real significance at the highest levels of competence. The successes of UWC as a formerly historically disadvantaged institution have not been through some magic formula - they are through hard work.

My colleagues display commitment, resilience and grit. They pour their lives into UWC because they understand its transformative potential. Certainly when we need to tackle issues we do so because we are a reflective institution. My plea is for responsibility in the public domain. Reputational damage affects the lives of our students.

These are students who are trying to improve their lives and those of their families and communities.

* Africa is a professor in the Department of Political Studies, and acting spokesperson at the University of the Western Cape