US President Barack Obama
US President Barack Obama

Bid to honour Obama splits UJ

By Bongekile Macupe Time of article published Jun 16, 2013

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Johannesburg - The University of Johannesburg’s decision to confer an honorary doctorate on US President Barack Obama has split the institution, with some staff and students expressing their unhappiness about the degree – scheduled for later this month. Obama will speak at UJ’s Soweto campus on June 29, when he will be honoured.

But the university’s move has angered the institution’s community. Some UJ students who spoke to The Sunday Independent were furious that they were not consulted and that their peers at the Soweto campus were asked to vacate their residences before June 29.

Deputy vice-chancellor Professor Tinyiko Maluleke said on Saturday that the matter had not been finalised.

Maluleke said they had taken note of the concerns about the decision to honour Obama, but for everyone who was against the idea there were people who were “joyful”.

A student, who asked to remain anonymous, said most Soweto campus students found out on Facebook that Obama would be at their campus.

The matter also surprised members of the senate, who learnt about the plan at a meeting on Monday. An unnamed source said members were furious when they were told the matter would be discussed.

In the end 135 out of 250 senate members voted on the matter and the majority supported the motivation. It was then up to the council, which met on Thursday, to endorse it.

An e-mail was sent to council members on Tuesday informing them that the university wanted to honour Obama and that this would be an additional item on the agenda.

On Thursday, 80 percent of council members voted in favour, according to a council member.

The Sunday Independent is in possession of the motivation document distributed to council members on why the university wants to honour Obama. The document lists Obama’s achievements since taking office.


Student Representative Council (SRC) president Levy Masete said they were not impressed by the decision.

“It cannot be that an individual that either is or supports unequal human and territorial relationships, based on ideas of superiority and practices of dominance, and involving the extensions of authority and control of one state or people over another is honoured by our university that we continuously strive fully to transform,” he said, adding that the university must not support an “imperialist” or “inhumane” Obama.

The SRC has joined forces with UJ staff, the Muslim Students Association, the South African Students Congress, the Palestinian Solidarity Forum and the Young Communist League and formed a coalition called “UJ, no you can’t honour Obama!”.

On its Facebook page, the coalition said it was “horrified” by the university’s decision. “Awarding an honorary doctorate implies that the person has contributed extraordinarily to a better life for all. Obama has done the opposite. It is astonishing that the UJ senate would contemplate tarnishing the university’s reputation in this way. We reject this decision by the UJ senate and declare that Obama is not welcome.”

The coalition had also asked people to sign a petition expressing their “discomfort” about the university’s plans.

One of the senate members believed to be opposed, Professor Steven Friedman, declined to comment, saying the university had asked for the matter not to be discussed in public until it was finalised.

But on Facebook this week, Friedman expressed his misgivings about the university’s decision.

Friedman said only four senate members spoke against the decision, but “were met by a deluge of people speaking for”.

“It was clear from the debate that the vice-chancellor was set on awarding the honorary doctorate and that senior university management was backing him. The key issue to me was that this was an insensitive act because it ignored the feelings of many students and staff who would be offended by the award.”

The security provisions for Obama’s trip to Africa are expected to cost the US government tens of millions of dollars. The visit to Africa is said to be the most expensive of his tenure.

And instead of depending on local police, military and hospital for assistance, Obama and his wife, Michelle, will come with a navy aircraft carrier with a fully staffed medical trauma centre stationed offshore in case of emergency.

Military cargo planes will airlift in 56 support vehicles, including 14 limousines and three trucks loaded with sheets of bulletproof glass to cover the windows of the hotels where Obama and his wife will be staying.

Obama’s visit has led to spats between the ANC and the DA, whose parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko asked Speaker Max Sisulu to invite Obama to address Parliament.

ANC chief whip Mathole Motshekga dismissed the request as a publicity stunt as Obama was not a guest of Parliament. The request was rejected. – Additional reporting The Washington Post

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Sunday Independent

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