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South Africa’s ivory towers have subsided into gated estates. The once-activist academics are disengaged and beslippered, warming their hands around mugs of Milo, studiedly ignoring the resurgent flames of ignorance and incipient tyranny crackling at the perimeter.

They were previously at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid and its injustices. They played a crucial role: a brains trust and resource base for the fledgling trade union movement and later the non-racial United Democratic Front; they used their international access and standing to spread information and focus pressure; and their research started sketching the extent of SA’s problems, as well as some possible solutions.

These men and women defied the Nationalist Party government with demonstrations, protest marches, and vigils. They applied their intellects to the ideal of a free, democratic and just SA, using every wily stratagem to keep that concept alive in the darkest of hours.

Then, after 1994, the majority of them became tired, or smug, or co-opted. Once they had sit-ins, now they just sit. Where they once were defiant, they are mostly now subservient, too timorous to speak out against even the most blatant erosions of freedoms and ideals that they once held dear.

There are some clear markers for faltering academic engagement in political and social issues. The first was the HIV/Aids denialism of former president Thabo Mbeki’s administration. The second is the moves against freedom of expression by President Jacob Zuma’s government.

Individual academics spoke out against Mbeki’s death-dealing policies, while the country’s medical schools were admirably undeterred in their groundbreaking research into the HI virus. But the absence of institutional outrage would have been simply inconceivable, had the Nats done what Mbeki did.

When it comes to the proposed Protection of Information Bill, there have been muted notes of dissent, but mostly around how the Bill touches on academics’ space for social science research. Such a narrowing of focus — concentrating selfishly only on what affects one directly and immediately — is the antithesis of the traditional university ethos.

A recent resolution by the senate — the assembly of all professors — of Rhodes University fails entirely to mention the likely effect of the Bill on the media and civil society, only that it is an “unwarranted interference” into research, despite “welcome government concessions”. At least Stellenbosch University’s senate called for the Bill’s withdrawal not only on academic freedom grounds, but because it “encroaches undeniably and drastically” on fundamental constitutional rights.

Although all institutions, through Higher Education SA, are party to a somewhat anodyne statement on the Bill’s “potentially detrimental” effect on academia, it is the universities of the Witwatersrand and Cape Town, those bête noirs of the apartheid regime, that have done most to salvage academic honour. Their response includes colloquia, public debates, newspaper articles, and the vociferous involvement of the universities’ executives.

The Wits senate was forthright in its criticism of the Bill and the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal. At UCT, both the chancellor, Dr Mamphele Ramphele, and the vice-chancellor, Dr Max Price, have been outspoken, with Price warning that failing an acceptable government redrafting of the legislation, UCT “would oppose it vigorously” in accordance with the university’s public mandate.

The vice-chancellor of Wits, Prof Loyiso Nongxa, similarly stakes out the university’s social responsibility to provide considered analysis and warns that the implementation of the Bill — in conjunction with legislation that would turn the SA Broadcasting Corporation into a government controlled broadcaster — would “constitute a bitter regression … and would strip citizens of the few tools we have to defend our democratic order”.

From the once-feisty University of KwaZulu-Natal, where management has over years run a sustained intimidatory campaign against academic free speech, there is unsurprisingly not a whisper of institutional concern. Nor at the University of the Western Cape. Nor at the University of Pretoria. Nor at the University of the Free State.

So for those depressingly few academics who, albeit with a sigh, still clamber into the trenches when democracy’s alarm bells ring, South Africans owe a great debt. Meanwhile, it is time for a new collective noun for a gathering of professors. Not a senate, but … a funk? A quail? A retreat?

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  • This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.

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William Saunderson-Meyer

This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day....

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