||Nithaya Chetty's stand at the University of KwaZulu-Natal has reminded
us all of our duty to protect academic freedom, writes Patrick Bond
December 10, 2008 Edition 1
Eye on Civil Society column
WITHOUT exception, I assume we all want our university to get up from
its knees, get back to work and get off the front page of The Mercury.
There is probably no academic institution in the world receiving the
kind of morbid attention that the University of KwaZulu-Natal is now,
and it's all negative, unveiling the most self-destructive frustration
in even our most senior colleagues.
I am guilty of harbouring frustration, and also of sharing it in the
newspapers, so I must ask colleagues for forgiveness for this column and
yesterday's front-page story about today's Centre for Civil Society
Human Rights Day seminar on academic freedom.
Attempts to advertise the seminar last week apparently appeared as a red
flag to a bull, namely deputy vice-chancellor Peter Zacharias, who asked
me to dissuade outgoing Prof Nithaya Chetty, the president of the SA
Institute of Physics, from being our main speaker today.
Though I haven't met these two scholars, their very different approaches
to academic freedom should come into healthy dialogue, if the university
is indeed a hotbed of intellectual inquiry.
Zacharias is encouraged to give his side of the story to our seminar,
chaired by Prof Dennis Brutus. As I noted in an invitation yesterday, we
will keep a seat open for Zacharias on the speaker's platform and hope
he fills it.
Others are also welcome. Maritzburg dean John Cooke and Howard College
dean Donal McCracken banned meetings of academics who were going to
discuss the Chetty case last month. They banned the meetings on the
grounds (recommended by the university's industrial relations director
Paul Finden) that such gatherings would interfere with Chetty's and John
van den Berg's disciplinary proceedings.
Both were charged with bringing the university into disrepute and
revealing university senate proceedings - facing dismissal, a punishment
far out of proportion to the supposed crimes.
As their colleagues, our inability to organise in defence of such
gatherings at that time might have empowered their opponents.
Zacharias wrote to me last Friday saying Chetty could not attend today's
seminar because he was required to restrict his visits to campuses to
meeting friends. This seminar would violate that agreement.
I don't know if Zacharias considers Chetty his nonfriend, or even his
enemy, but he shouldn't. Even if he does, he should still feel welcome
at Memorial Tower Building F167 at noon today - as must anyone reading
this, for all centre events are free and open to the public.
Zacharias would join Chetty and two other distinguished university
faculty members who will give their views: Mokong Simon Mapadimeng, the
president of the SA Sociological Association, and former university
education dean Robert Morrell, who is author or editor of six books on
gender studies (and himself victim of a ban on a meeting of academics
that he tried to organise two years ago).
Tragically, Chetty has chosen to resign his post as deputy head of the
physics school rather than face more of the debilitating institutional
bullying that distracts him from teaching, research and professional
service. (We at the Centre for Civil Society know this feeling, having
been told in July that we'd have to shut our doors on December 31,
notwithstanding healthy research outputs and funding, a decision we
still aren't sure has been reversed.)
Several other intellectuals have tried to teach us that if we aren't
defending our rights - especially today, international Human Rights Day
- we could zig-zag down the Zimbabwe path.
Rhodes Prof Jimi Adesina, then president of the SA Sociology
Association, warned of this danger in a UKZN Forum speech here two years
ago while fighting off two defamation lawsuits filed by university
pro-vice-chancellor Dasarath Chetty in the wake of Adesina's concern
over the muzzling of UKZN academics.
Dr Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela offered this assessment of the university in
an article last week: One finds that when people have been in positions
of power in academic institutions for too long, they are sometimes
caught up in rigid bureaucratic styles where the only rule that matters
is obedience to authority. A spirit of dialogue among colleagues is
At the university, we are fortunate that Nithaya Chetty stands tall
against the kind of bullying that vice-chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba and
Zacharias are accused of. For example, Zacharias banned Chetty's
going-away party on Friday night from being held at a campus venue.
Chetty would have faced such bans on socialising in certain places with
his friends, solely because of skin colour, as he grew up first near
Richmond and then in Pietermaritzburg in the mid-1970s.
Apartheid notwithstanding, Chetty represented South Africa in the
international youth science olympiad in London the year he matriculated,
and was first-ranked matriculant in South Africa. He entered university
in Pietermaritzburg - getting special ministerial permission because of
the Quota Bill - and then did post-grad studies at the famed physics
department of the University of Illinois, replete with Nobel Laureate
teachers. Returning to South Africa, he won the prestigious National
Research Foundation president's award in 1997 and also has two Fulbright
I will meet Chetty for the first time today, but know from his CV that a
profound intellectual has graced the university, and has graced us all
by showing us our own responsibilities to speak up.
Indeed, when Robert Mugabe regularly attacked freedom of expression and
association at the University of Zimbabwe, he helped conscientise a
whole generation of democratic leaders (among them Tendai Biti, Tawanda
Mutasah, Trevor Ncube, Deprose Muchena and Arthur Mutambara), and as a
student there in 1989 and 1990 I, too, was inspired.
But we all have certain baggage to acknowledge and transcend. For me,
it's hard to transcend a privileged background of birth as a protestant
in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and a youth in semi- segregated Alabama
under governor George Wallace and president Richard Nixon. I'm still
trying to shake off influences of the society they forged, as are so
many white South African men.
If Zacharias was raised under the influence of Ian Smith, he deserves a
certain understanding, even sympathy - but only if he confronts whatever
oppressive baggage he still carries around, and addresses our seminar,
where he and all other potential nonfriends of Nithaya Chetty are
welcome to provide insights into academic freedom, as Chetty bids us a,
hopefully temporary, farewell.
Patrick Bond is the director of the Centre for Civil Society; he
co-edited the book Climate Change, Carbon Trading and Civil Society
which was launched at Ike's Books last month.