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Onwards (or Backwards) into the 21st Century at UCT

7 May 2007 - 11:45

By Assoc Prof Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

Inaugural lectures are opportunities for colleagues who have achieved full academic rank to showcase their work and to "launch" their ideas and scholarly pursuits publicly in the presence of peers and other members of the university community. These lectures usually have a freshness that offers new insights. They inspire, set the tone and offer leadership to those who will follow, both students and fellow members of the academic community. Professor David Benatar's inaugural lecture last week broke with this tradition by discussing themes, concepts and arguments that are well-established in debates on affirmative action, at least since the 1980s.

All are in agreement about the timeliness of Professor Benatar's application of the globally familiar anti-affirmative action arguments to concerns that some have about equity policies at UCT. Professor Benatar opened a window through which we can look to see how far we have come in our transformation polices, and where we are headed. The invitation by Professor Martin Hall to debate the issues Professor Benatar raised in his inaugural lecture was an important opportunity for us, staff and students, to enter into an honest debate and to hear views from opposite ends of the debate on the university's equity policies. Sadly, this opportunity was lost when Professor Benatar unilaterally decided to change the terms of engagement agreed on between himself, Professor Hall and me as chair of the debate on Monday (16 April).

What astonished me was not simply that Professor Benatar decided to change the rules of engagement, but that he considered it even conceivable that he could proceed along his own terms. A basic principle was violated: the maintenance of a respectful level of decorum in a debate between colleagues.

The gist of the question and answer format of Professor Benatar's "debate" with Professor Hall had to do with his interpretation of the university's appointment policies as race-based, and his insistence that racial preference is tantamount to making appointment "on grounds of biology and not on ability". Most of what Professor Benatar called the "to and fro" of debate as a way of "getting to the truth" was a carefully crafted line of questioning - at times conducted like an interrogation - which attempted to force Professor Hall into accepting the biology for ability thesis.

I was troubled by Professor Benatar's narrow focus on singling out race when the university's policy, clarified repeatedly by Professor Hall, plainly recognises the pivotal role of academic merit and professional excellence for staff appointments. Professor Benatar seems more concerned about the racial transformation of staff appointments at UCT than he is about the shifts in the gender landscape at UCT. The question is, why? The university's employment equity policies also consider merit along with gender and disability as grounds for preference. The "biology" of gender - and the fact that there are more white women in positions of leadership than there were when he was a student at UCT - has not raised his ire. Nowhere in his argument does Professor Benatar complain that a white female employee, who may be preferred on the grounds of the university's equity policies, may be hired "on the grounds of biology and not ability". Surprisingly, his "weighting of race affects quality" argument does not seem to apply to an approach that would favour heavy weighting on class, which he is advocating.

There are fault lines in Professor Benatar's anti-affirmative action language. Focusing on class instead of race in the South African context may, in the end, be a distinction without difference for the majority of the poor, who are black people in all their diversity. This is particularly true in the Western Cape. UCT's policies ought to consider how best to create opportunities for the many young people whose world of disadvantage may close the door of opportunity and lock them into perpetual cycles of exclusion. We cannot be blind to the racial inequities that continue to exist in our country. Our policies of fairness and equity at UCT must address the problems of economic need; they must also continue to address the issues of gender and race.

This debate on the university's equity policies is happening at all levels of our existence - as students, as staff, white and black, male and female. Some of the debates are part of the larger context of our search for identity in a changing society, and they touch our deepest and most hidden fears about what it means to be white at UCT, and what it means to be black. These issues require a much more thoughtful debate and mutually respectful dialogue. The test of our progress will be measured by our ability to learn to talk to one another, and to really listen to others who may be different from us. UCT is not the same university it was 25 years ago. Change may be happening too fast for some. It may be too slow for others. And yet many may feel that nothing has changed at UCT. These feelings and perceptions may be at the heart of our deepest, unnamed fears. No single discipline can provide answers to the challenges we face as an institution. Diversity has never been more important than it is now. We all must draw from our different perspectives, bring our best collective thinking, and consider the new opportunities for dialogue that Monday's debate at UCT created.

Professor Benatar's inaugural lecture has raised a subject that affects all of us at UCT. Our commitment to critical analysis, to challenging and questioning the university's policies, is part of our right to freedom of speech. Academic freedom also means speaking responsibly, listening appreciatively and conducting ourselves in public debates with one another with the integrity that a world-class university requires. By engaging in public debate about difficult questions that affect our institution we are responding to a call to become role models of all colours and levels of advantage or disadvantage, and to lead with grace and elegance in the name of this institution that has such a great vision for transformation.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at UCT. Her critically acclaimed book, A Human Being Died that Night: A Story of Forgiveness, won the Alan Paton Award in 2004. In the same year the book won the Christopher Award in the United States and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Gobodo-Madikizela's book has been released six times, including translations in Dutch and German.