YONELA DIKO: The fall of white domination is not the fall of UCT


In 2012, the University of Cape Town's then vice-chancellor, Dr Max Price, gave an important lecture to the university alumnus and students entitled, 'Can UCT be Elite without being Elitist.

Price was making no apologies about the University being an elite Institution and how he was pursuing that with greater vigour and determination. He was, however, equally concerned that some stakeholders within the university such as academics, students, did not seem to share the sentiment but were instead of the view that the university was elitist and this elitism was in fact Eurocentrism.

Price spoke boldly about what he considered a troubling divide in the sense of ownership black students had of the university compared to their white counterparts.

Spending some time in the black townships to find out what black learners thought about UCT, Price learnt that township learners did not feel UCT was a black-friendly university, preferring to apply first to other institutions such as the University of the Western Cape as their first choice. This was in stark contrast to learners from Bishops or Rondebosh to whom going to UCT was almost like a birthright.

Part of the problem was the experiences of black students already inside the university who no doubt influenced the black sentiments outside. In Price's engagements with black students, the very Victorian or colonial architecture of the university immediately made black students feel displaced. Then the Eurocentric approach to learning mostly led by people who did not look like them, the largely Western curriculum, the white dominance on the social environment and the sense of black deliberately being failed on critical courses all made many black students feel never truly settled in this place, never feel their feet firmly on the ground in what should be a home that they should have a great stake in.

UCT, of course, was a microcosm of the experience the entire country was having in the racial divide that penetrated all spheres of society. The 1994 transition was always going to be difficult for white-dominated institutions and if they thought all they needed was to embrace the new influx of black students and academics into an established university culture and be happy ever after, they would soon face a rude awakening.

Unfortunately, for a university that had been established without black participation, hoping for black students to be meek and malleable faced with a culture that was not built for them, it was always naive of the university to think they won't face pressing black demands. In fact, opened in 1826 - the oldest university in the country - UCT would not accept black students until the 1950s, accepting only a handful; that's almost 150 years later.

Unfortunately, black students and academics were not coming to the university to wonder at the accomplishments of the colonial masters. They came to the university to be part of it, to claim their stake and where that proved too stubborn, to upend it and break down the old ghosts, habits, cultures, attitudes that had kept blacks outside looking in. It was always going to be a painful process.

Like all aspects of the South African transition, incremental as it were, there would be no big sudden moves, no radicalism, a black vice-chancellor here, a black dean there. One or two black faces giving lectures and a measured amount of black students intake. One black vice-chancellor after another, the white dominance of the institution that made a black child feel alienated was just not going away.

The tipping point

Then 2015 happened and whatever unwritten contract or understanding there may have been between the oppressor and the oppressed, built as it were on gradualism and incrementalism came to its head. The impatience with change and transformation reached a tipping point and collapsed the stitches that had held the University together.

One man led the charge. Chumani Maxwele symbolically defaced the colonialist statue of Cecil John Rhodes, sending the university into a tailspin as the hidden underbelly of black students victimisation, undermining of black academics, sense of being deliberately pulled back, not truly belonging, not being given a stake in the curriculum and the naming of the university structures. This would send a tremor to all white universities and out into the country that still had blacks being second class citizens in what was clearly a white mainstream world.

Here, at a point where black demands of the institutions are mounting so that the university could no longer ignore them, is where a white professor, David Benatar, begins his own rebellion against the rebellion, which would culminate in a lost court case and a book entitled 'The Fall of the University of Cape Town'.

David Benatar feeling displaced

At the height of these university uprising, with white students and academics divided over whether to support the black cause or to defend their dominance which now seemed threatened and shaken, Benatar, whose father was also a UCT Professor, clearly feeling his cultural capital slipping away, decided to fight back.

While the university was clearly preoccupied with appreciating and accommodating the long-overdue black demands, Benatar, like those mischievous people who try to misdirect and invalidate the 'BlackLivesMatter' cause with 'AllLivesMatter' or 'AnimalLivesMatter' right in the middle of a black cause, Benatar decided, on a random day at the heart of Fees Must Fall to demand of the then dean of humanities, Prof Sakhela Buhlungu, for vegetarian and vegan food to be served at Board meetings. #VeganLivesMatter

Clearly hands full with more pressing matters but not wanting to dismiss Benatar, the dean said he would consult others before the board has a discussion on the next meeting. Benatar apparently insisted the matter be discussed then, and when this was denied, he walked out.

Naturally, and because of the timing as it were, with black people left with no more margin of tolerating disrespect of its senior academics by white academics, the Black Academic Caucus charged forward against Benatar for his behaviour against a black dean and started issuing very critical public statements. In turn, Benatar saw no reason to apologise to the Dean but instead took the Black Academic Caucus to court, questioning their legitimacy.

After five years, the high court dismissed Benatar's case as frivolous litigation in a matter that could have been resolved within the university.

Benatar must have known that his litigation is frivolous and will be dismissed and so he decided to do what all people whose story cannot stand court legal scrutiny, he wrote 'The Fall of the University of Cape Town.'

Even before one could get his hands on this book, there was just no evidence that UCT was falling. Instead, UCT has been a rising star, climbing the university world rankings each year and its subjects and research continuing to be rated among the best in the world.

The University of Cape Town has been rated as Africa’s top university in the 2021 Academic Ranking of World Universities. The university is also ranked 10th worldwide among universities in countries with emerging economies according to the 2021 Times Higher Education Emerging Economies University Rankings. It maintained its position from 2020 and remains the top-performing institution from Africa.

How can this be a university that is falling?

The institution is also placed 109th in the 2022 US News & World Report Best Global Universities Rankings, with its top five subjects ranked in the top 100, including an outstanding position well within the top 20 for infectious diseases

How can this be a university that is falling?

According to the Quacquarelli Symonds World University Rankings 2022, UCT is among the top 18% of universities worldwide and is tied with Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn (Germany), the University of Sussex (United Kingdom) and the University of Virginia (United States).

So it has been with incredulity that one had to see Benatar's book on the shelves. If the professor thought the accommodation of black demands by the university will lower the university standards, he was sorely mistaken.

It is now clear that the book itself has been a journey of one bitter man who wants his colonial rights back.

Yonela Diko is the former spokesperson to the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation. You can follow him on Twitter: @yonela_diko