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Duncan, Jane  (2006) Our academic freedom must be safeguarded. Sunday Independent : -.

Published on the web by Sunday Independent News Paper on January 21, 2006

What exactly is going on at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN)? Is academic freedom really under threat, as has been argued recently?

At the heart of the problems brewing at the university is a looming contradiction between the university as an organ of state and its stated objectives of being "critically engaged with society" and "[supporting] social transformation and redress".

This contradiction has found concrete expression in conflict between an increasingly embattled eThekwini municipality and a number of radical-activist scholars located in the university's sociology department and the Centre for Civil Society (CCS).

While much public attention has been focused on the exclusion from the university of Ashwin Desai, a CCS honorary research fellow and political activist, others such as Richard Pithouse and Fazel Khan have been under pressure as well. What one infers from a close reading of recent events, as well as several on-the-record statements, is that these scholars are under attack for challenging power both inside and outside the university.

The person ultimately responsible for managing this contradiction is Malegapuru William Makgoba, the vice-chancellor. If recent events are anything to go by, he is not managing this contradiction very well.

In December Desai was prevented by Makgoba from taking up a position, on dubious grounds. The problem dates back to 1996 when, on the eve of the university's merger with the University of Natal to become the UKZN, he led a bitter struggle unifying staff, students and workers at the university against retrenchments and fee increases.

Desai apparently agreed to an out-of-court settlement at the time with the then vice-chancellor, excluding him from the University of Durban-Westville campus in return for charges relating to his activities being withdrawn against him.

The next vice-chancellor, Saths Cooper, overrode the settlement and reinstated Desai, as he apparently did not want to deny the university an academic of Desai's calibre. After the merger, Desai worked at the CCS.

On applying for the new position, Makgoba ruled Desai out of the running on the basis that the ban was still in place, but that the council could rescind the ban if Desai made written representations to it.

Makgoba has portrayed himself as the neutral upholder of a ban that he has no power to contest (which he is clearly not doing). He has used the supposed existence of the ban as a poor excuse to prevent the CCS from exercising its freedom to employ the best candidate purely on the basis of academic merit.

So why does he not take a stand on the matter?
Could it be that Makgoba has brushed the dust off the ban now because the university is heading for a strike over pending budget cuts totalling R27 million? Discontent is also rising in the student body over exorbitant fees. Desai clearly has the experience to lead worker and student resistance to these problems - a prospect that management must find daunting.

As the dream of "massification" of the post-apartheid tertiary education system founders on the rocks of the government's fiscal austerity drive, the management is challenged with containing the threat of instability.

One method - learnt so well from the past - is to root out the potential "instigators", the third force.

There is also mounting evidence of official concern over the role of this academic third force in neighbouring community struggles.

Desai and the others have become involved in various ways in social-movement struggles against poor service delivery, the most significant being Abahlali Base Mjondolo, the shack-dwellers' movement.

Pithouse has written extensively about the movement, while Khan is undertaking research documenting the impact of service delivery in the settlements. They were also present when clashes took place between the authorities and the movement, exposing to international audiences some extremely embarrassing blunders by the municipality (such as a march in Foreman Road that was banned on truly ridiculous grounds).

In the process, they have attracted the ire of the authorities. On the day of the Foreman Road march, the police reportedly told Pithouse that if they saw him again in the informal settlements, they would beat him up. He claims that they accused him of inciting the informal-settlement dwellers, and cited an intelligence report relating to his activities. The CCS has also reportedly been accused of being behind the "unrest".

Obed Mhlaba, the mayor of Durban, has accused unnamed NGOs of "fomenting and pushing certain agendas" to attract funding.

Khan has also been intimidated. Makgoba has told him that Mhlaba is angry with him; Makgoba has also been quoted in a local newspaper as saying he had heard that Khan and Pithouse "are not doing research, but they set themselves [up] as councillors in the area". When Khan asked him for his opinion on the matter, Makgoba stated that he did not have an opinion at the time, but would wait for information from Mhlaba to be presented to the council.

Mhlaba has accused the academics directly of being "determined to pull down our movement [the African National Congress] ahead of the elections" and "interfering with the council's plans".

Khan has been questioned by the crime intelligence unit about his and Pithouse's roles in the informal settlement marches. Reportedly, the municipality and intelligence services have asked repeated questions about where the resources are coming from for the mass demonstrations, with one key question being, "Where is the money coming from for the red t-shirts"?

The rooi gevaar has reared its head at a time when local government elections are pending and the shackdwellers' movement has threatened to withhold its votes from the ANC for poor service delivery.

Municipal officials must be deeply concerned about their futures. Therefore it is not surprising that official fingers are pointing at the university for "instigating unrest" and that Makgoba has been put on the spot.

Whether Makgoba has been approached by the mayor's office to act on these problems is unclear, but his professed "neutrality" in the face of pressure on the freedom of the university's academics suggests that he does not want to upset the status quo.

The Desai matter merely reinforces the pro-status-quo impression. To the extent that he has created this impression, it is important that Makgoba pronounces publicly on this matter.

Two more inferences can also be drawn from these events. The status quo outside the university is uncomfortable with socially engaged research, and the status quo inside will not take a position.

Yet similar complaints are not heard about a growing body of research in academic institutions that is engaged, quite instrumentally, in supporting the state's drive towards global competitiveness.

Is it because such research is so richly rewarded by the state in a climate of crippling budget cuts? If the university reinforces the hegemony of the status quo, then its "independence" and freedom are not compromised.

But if the university threatens its class interests, then this freedom will be thrown into crisis. State resources must not be used to embarrass the state.

It should surprise no one when politicians challenge academic freedom, but it is the duty of academics to resist these attempts rather than feign neutrality. If the erosion of this freedom is allowed to take place unchallenged, then academics will have truly failed South Africa.

Academics must not be allowed to give this freedom away. After all, this freedom is not theirs to give. In terms of the constitution, it belongs to us all.

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