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UCT’s liberal ethos is under fire

A student who only gave her first name, Katie, argues her point with the protesters at the Rhodes statue at UCT. File picture: David Ritchie

A student who only gave her first name, Katie, argues her point with the protesters at the Rhodes statue at UCT. File picture: David Ritchie

Published Mar 27, 2015


The Rhodes statue debacle has raised the issue of who makes the decisions at UCT, especially around its revised student admissions policy, writes Ziyad Motala.

Pretoria - In case anyone has not noticed, the fever and the liberal delirium at the University of Cape Town (UCT) has spiked over the past few days. What started as a protest against the statue of Cecil John Rhodes has cascaded into a potent push for tangible institutional changes.

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Many are demanding the demise of the “liberal mob”, which they argue proclaim the language of equality but maintain policies, structures and a culture, which perpetuate white privilege. The demand is to: stop eulogising an ethos, which humiliates and patronises blacks; reverse the liberal hegemony as gatekeepers of the academy; increase the number of black faculty and professors; curriculum reform; transformation in the institution’s governance structure; and a revisiting of the new admissions policies, which seek to reduce the consideration of race. Every one of these elements are like a chain, each ineluctably linked to the other.

UCT is located over the remains of the Khoi and San. Entering the grounds of UCT, a publicly funded institution, with the signs of “private property”, not to mention the towering statue of Cecil John Rhodes underscores the tone-deaf liberal consciousness. An NGO, which has challenged UCT’s policies recently, noted “as a public institution, the proclamation “private property” is cocky and brazen beyond incredulous. Unless by some twisted logic, UCT believes Rhodes’ bequest entitles UCT to cast itself as a “private” institution, which can keep out the public, or ignore and distort the constitutional imperative of transformation”.

The revised admissions policy offers a teachable moment on deceit. Its assumptions upends the basic premise of our Constitution and distorts our social and political reality. The policy is formulated on a claim that many blacks “come from good schools and can be admitted on a competitive basis without the need for reference to their race”.

Hence, it seeks to elevate the consideration of other variables such as performance; class (socio-economic) and potential (regardless of race); and probability of student success. In future, “75 percent of students would be selected without reference to race, while 25 percent would be race-based”. The new policy purports to acknowledge the reality of race but further states it is concerned about policies “which impede opportunities for the individual”.

The policy is buttressed based on a claim of “change in the educational preparation of many black applicants to UCT resulting in them no longer being significantly disadvantaged and no longer needing affirmative action interventions”. There is a boundary between fact and discombobulation. If you distort the facts, then these are good points.

The account of a changed reality is spectacularly inverted, a journey through Disneyland.

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South Africa remains the most unequal society in the world. Race, as a rule, remains a class determinant. Blacks as a rule remain overwhelmingly underprivileged, despite the emergence of a tiny black middle class. UCT’s admission policy ignores the rule and creates an admission policy directed to the exception. Despite the emergence of a black middle class, racial inequality has exacerbated since 1994. The small black middle class still suffers structural disadvantages. If you pay attention to the facts, in conception, UCT offers pure gibberish and an incredulous and sinister work of fiction.

If UCT is truly concerned about the black middle class exceptions, lessons from India and other examples show that there are nuanced ways to exclude what is considered the “creamy layer” from deriving an unfair advantage. UCT has instead resorted to crafting a rule for the out-lier. Its approach to race and affirmative action is not based on main-stream international practice.

Instead, it draws from the vault of the most right-wing ideologues and conservative judges on the US Supreme Court, who opine about black perceptions of “inferiority” flowing from affirmative action and the resentment of the “innocent” white, terms contained in the UCT document.

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The judgment of Moseneke DCJ in the Barnard case, concurred by all the black judges on the Constitutional Court, offers a civics tutorial on our Constitution and political reality. The majority judgment disabuses the UCT cockamamie on the use of race and our constitutional imperatives. Those historically disadvantaged by past racial discrimination, the majority noted, will still need measures for equalisation because past disadvantage still exists.

There are historical realities and intangibles, which provide whites with a significant advantage. Professor Cheryl Harris, writing in the Harvard Law Review, refers to whiteness in the US as a property interest which exists 200 years after the adoption of the US Constitution.

In response to the conservative judges, whose approach UCT embraces, there are power structures which continue to advantage whites, and marginalise blacks. The arguments of liberalism and supposed meritocracy is not race-neutral. Instead, it is ideological and serves the self-interest of a privileged group, which downplays systemic inequalities, customs and the legacy of past racism.

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The sweet-talking vice-chancellor, Dr Max Price, has served as the poster boy to defend the revised policy. The more he and others talk, the less authentic they sound and the gimmickry becomes more overt.

When challenged on their revised policy, UCT administrators claim the new policy will result in increased black admission. If UCT provides facts with a template to measure how the current admission policy is failing blacks and how the revised policy will correct that, we can subject their position to scrutiny. It’s vintage UCT on display.

AfriForum will scream and rave to protect their group. UCT obfuscates and takes refuge in vagaries, and flinty facades counting on the leaky attention of the gullible. In the absence of empirical evidence, the not-so-hidden fine print speaks for itself. Their claim does not square with the words in their document. While the consideration of race is not entirely eliminated, it is considerably watered down in the first instalment of UCT’s world view where they state they seek to build a society “which does not distribute resources and opportunities based on one’s membership of or classification into race groups”.

Not that many would disagree with this ideal. In formulating prescriptions for the present, policy-makers must be clear about the ideal, the real and the mythological. To deny our overwhelming reality of race, the lingering existence of white advantage and the intangible benefits that advantage whites, constitutes racism in its vilest form.

Professor Anton Fagan, from the UCT law faculty, likens the use of race in admissions as akin to a pact with the devil. This view stands in contra- distinction to international human rights law and the view of our Constitutional Court. Some have tried unsuccessfully to gather information from UCT about the identities of the authors of their revised admission policy.

The Rhodes statute debacle has raised the issue of whose voice is presented in the critical decision-making at UCT. Who sat around the table and whose interests and perceptions of reality carried the day when adopting the admission policies? The authors of this document need to be outed and the public needs to know whether these views inform the teaching at UCT.

UCT has to be tamed, lest they continue as a citadel of conceit, privilege and terminal deceit. Our government needs to place UCT on notice that in the absence of radical change the government will intervene to ensure the constitutional mandate of equality is achieved.

* Motala is a professor of law at Howard University Law School.

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

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