DAVID BENATAR: Yonela Diko's tired refuge


What does one do when one cannot undermine an argument? The unprincipled will attack the person delivering the argument. That is what Yonela Diko does in an opinion piece entitled “The fall of white domination is not the fall of UCT”.

Having presumed to racially classify me as “white”, he then presumes to know what is happening in my head and what motivates me. He purports that since 2015, I have been “feeling displaced” by “black” students’ rebellion against “white domination”. He said that I “seemed threatened and shaken”, was “clearly feeling” my “cultural capital slipping away”, and that I want my “colonial rights back”.

He does not consider the possibility that what I am mourning is not the fall of “white domination” or the loss of my purported “cultural capital” or “colonial rights” but rather the very real damage that has been done to the University of Cape Town since 2015.

Nowhere does Mr Diko take issue with any of the evidence of this decline that I offered in rich detail in The Fall of the University of Cape Town. Indeed, there is no indication at all that Mr Diko has read the book. He appears to judge it by its title.

That title, he says, is at odds with UCT’s rankings. These rankings, he claims, show no evidence of UCT falling. We may set aside the fact that the value of these rankings is highly disputable. If Mr Diko had read – and understood – my book, he would have known that the rot I have diagnosed is not likely to manifest (yet) in university rankings. He is like a man who denies the beetle inspector’s warning because the house is still standing and looks so nice after its recent repainting. The problems I describe are insidious ones that erode an institution from within and can be glossed over – until they no longer can be.

What is the evidence that Mr Diko has either not read my book or not understood it? The answer is that where he comments on factual matters (rather than merely opining) he gets the facts wrong.

For example, his characterisation of the proposal put to the Faculty of Humanities is false. Those who made the proposal were not asking for their vegetarian and vegan dietary preferences to be met, as Mr Diko implies. Instead, the proposal was that all animal products be removed from the menu at faculty events, as a symbolic stand against the abominable treatment of animals and the impact of animal agriculture on the environment.

Mr Diko is also mistaken in suggesting that this proposal was a response to the Fallist movement “on a random day at the heart of Fees Must Fall”. If he had read Chapter 4, he would have seen that this is not the case. The proposal had its origins in developments that began well before the start of the Fallist protests.

Mr Diko suggests that the reason the dean, Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, attempted to keep the proposal off the agenda was because he had his “hands full with more pressing matters”. He also suggests that Professor Buhlungu was nonetheless accommodating by saying that “he would consult others before the board has a discussion on the next meeting”. Here again Mr Diko is writing fiction – as he would have seen if he had read the relevant chapter. In fact, Professor Buhlungu refused to put the proposal on the agenda for quite different reasons. In doing so, he was acting ultra vires.

When a dean acts ultra vires, one has two options. Either one meekly accepts his rewriting of the rules and the arrogation to himself of powers he does not have, or one challenges him. The view of the Black Academic Caucus is clearly that which of these options one should choose depends on the purported “race” of the respective parties. How do I know this? Read the book. I provide ample evidence that Mr Diko has simply ignored.

It is also false that my court action against the Black Academic Caucus amounted to “questioning their legitimacy”. Instead, I lodged court action because the caucus had ignored my PAIA request for, inter alia, their membership list. The caucus prefers to continue operating as a secret society on campus. I shall reserve further comment on this matter until it has reached completion.

In contrast to the terrible things that Mr Diko says about me, he praises Chumani Maxwele, a man whose activities include not only strewing human excrement on campus, but also assault, very probably arson, and alleged intimidation. These and other exploits are also discussed in my book. Nowhere does Mr Diko discuss those. It would be interesting to know which, if any, of Mr Maxwele’s actions Mr Diko condemns – and why he has been silent about those in denying that the University of Cape Town is falling.

David Benatar is a professor of philosophy whose previous books include Better Never to Have Been (Oxford, 2006), and The Human Predicament (Oxford 2017).