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The silence of the academic lambs

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?


  • 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.


  1. Lockstock Lockstock 24 July 2011

    They’re appropriately, a cowardice of curs, in every respect.

  2. Nguni Nguni 24 July 2011

    You left out the anti-apartheid academics who failed us first: the ones that just got on a plane and left the mess, corruption and anarchy they helped create, behind. They joined the queue in another of their creations, the ‘brain drain’..

  3. Nazir Ahmed Osman Nazir Ahmed Osman 24 July 2011

    This article is precise and truly scary. It goes on to say that”concentrating only on what affects them directly..” and this begs the question. if what happens in South Africa all that matters? Look at the opression and killing by the Israelis of innocent Palestinian women and children in the only other existing APARTHEID state of Israel, outlawed by the UN but tragically supportd by the EU and the USA. Look at the incursions of the US and its allies and how they wantonly kill millions for unimaginably wrong reasons, including women and children in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Look at the opressive Saudis and other despots and how the USA supports them overtly and covertly.

    If we want justice, we must seek it everywhere, not just in South Africa. The world is one place. Lest we forget: An injustice tolerated somewhere is an injustice accepted everywhere

  4. David Brown David Brown 24 July 2011

    A mortuary……

  5. Aristotle Aristotle 24 July 2011

    Very true. Isn’t it ironic that the heroes of academia who had so much courage facing down the apartheid regime are so terrified, timorous and cowardly now. Was it ever really about intellectual freedom and social justice? A cynical view may be that the universities had nothing to lose by criticising the old regime and always knew where there bread would be buttered in future. And now they have shown that in the new regime, power is much, much more important than principle and justice. Universities have become tyrannies of silence, unable to say a word against the tiny parasitic political elites and their abuses of power. Maybe one day some will have the guts to speak out. But by then, like people learned in 1930’s Germany, it will be too late.

  6. Walter Pike Walter Pike 24 July 2011

    Yes, you are right. I am also dumbstruck by the silence of both academics and students – and obedience. It is not a good thing.

  7. J du Preez J du Preez 24 July 2011

    WSM, NO, the majority of academics may just be sitting, but a small minority are continuing bravely with their activism.

    They are making a seamless transition from their pre-1994 activism into what they perceive as the logical conclusion of the delivery of the country to “the majority of the people of South Africa”.

    In recent weeks, they focused their courageous activism against a small ethnic minority, by “defiantly” pointing out this minority’s unworthiness to exercise their constitutional rights to freedom of expression. The gist of these academic activists’ wisdom is that this ethnic minority of unmentionables are as guilty as Eve in Paradise and has to “make themselves invisible and unheard”, and to live “as quietly and decently as possible”.

    The academics, icluding varsity philosophers and ethics lecturers, fearlessly stood up against this small ethnic minority, telling them to be “humble” and even to refrain from “airing one’s view on the political situation in the public realm, realizing that it is not one’s place to offer diagnoses and analyses, that blacks must be left to remake the country in their own way.”

    Indeed, those in power and/or into stripping of state assets owe these academics a great debt.

  8. Dave Harris Dave Harris 24 July 2011

    What you fail to understand about the UDF, which btw comprised of 99% of black (African, Coloured and Indian) youth, is that they inherently saw themselves as part of the then banned ANC. During the 90s they saw through the divide-and-conquer tactics of the apartheid regime so the majority opted to become part of the ANC and presently work within our government on transformation initiatives like affirmative action, land reform, education reform, health reform etc. that are so vehemently OPPOSED by the DA. The DA of course, is where the majority of conservative white voters (NP, HNP, CP, AWB …see ) found their new home after our liberation.

    Yes, Mbeki’s HIV/Aids denialism was disgraceful and destructive, but its strange that don’t speak out against private companies that are now opposing our present government’s plan to distribute drugs to AIDS patients? Why can’t you commend President Zuma building AIDS awareness through testing?

    You speak against the Protection of Information Bill but refuse to give the ANC credit for giving us free speech for the FIRST TIME IN HISTORY? Your strange silence against the utter failure of self-regulation mechanisms like our toothless ombudsman system, actually condones the flagrant abuse of our free speech rights by our media mafia and their “bloody agents”. See my comments here for proof.

  9. Maria Maria 24 July 2011

    Will, you have overlooked someone right here on TL: Bert Olivier. Have you forgotten his recent post on the Bill you refer to (apart from all the others that are truly activist about larger issues, such as the injustices of capitalism):
    He was also openly against apartheid during that era, and published a strong piece taking a stand against it in the late 80s (it made use of Rorty’s work to attack apartheid, and argued for the unbanning of the ANC). Bert has not changed his critical stance since then, except that now the abuses of the new power-elite is his legitimate target.

  10. benzo benzo 24 July 2011

    SA under apartheid was the political pawn in Africa to hold the Russian invasion and supported by the USA and UK (and other anti communism).
    When Berlin wall fell, apartheid had done its job and de Klerk was told to let go.
    The current mess is ours to sort out while the erstwhile supporters dance around the hot stew they created.
    What to do?
    Put barreers to emigration of “brains” (R100.000 for each year in university and R20.000 for each year thereafter)
    Professors and the likes, are notorious for their loyalties to “where the money comes from”. Expose them where you can. A two liner can kill a twenty page article if published at the right time and place.
    If you, William, are serious about your article, I love to see your follow up. I will support you all the way. Keep me informed.

  11. brent brent 24 July 2011

    Nazir Ahmed Osman, there is another Apartheid state in the world, it is called Pakistan. It was carved out of a united one state India in the teeth of opposition by the Indians. For your information the Apartheid govt of SA used Pakistan, as originally split into East and West, as moral/practical justification for their Grand Apartheid policies.


  12. Mike Mike 24 July 2011

    I found your comments on the lack of interest from my Alma mater, the University of Pretoria, disturbing.

    However, a cursory Google search found the following statement condemning the proposed protection of information bill. It took me all of a minute to find this article, which makes me doubt the validity of your claims regarding institutional silence.

    I think, if anything, the problem is a lack of communication between these institutions and the media, not one of cowardice on the side of academics.

  13. mundundu mundundu 25 July 2011

    those bêtes noires [ahem] are considered bastions of elitism which the government can easily ignore because the government is allegedly focused on “the workers” — who are apparently defined as those people who were unable to finish school due to poverty/crap school conditions/poor grades and are thus doomed to crap jobs unless they can wiggle their way into the youth league eschelon.

    the government doesn’t have to listen to them, and so it won’t.

  14. Ernst Marais Ernst Marais 25 July 2011

    The cowardice or selective morality is not only limited to Academia.

    Max Coleman edited a book in 1998 for the Human Rights Committee called: “A Crime against Humanity – Analysing the repression of the Apartheid State”.
    Therein he lasted all the incidents of a political nature that lead to human life’s being lost, blaming it (of course!) on Apartheid.
    These include the 14,000 casualties during the ANC/ Inkatha War in the 4 years preceding 1994.

    I have looked in vain for a similar catalogue from Mr Coleman for the atrocities since the ANC took over.

  15. Kwame Kwame 25 July 2011

    Any profound academic will tell you that the challenge is not necessarily that they are silent, but a question of wether or not those who control the flow of information and the media have the skill to listen. Our public discourse has been reduced to what the media controllers will allow to go through or not. Hence, I’m not surprised that WSM will not even know where to look for a good perspective of events because the inherent platform that he writes from, is designed to seek and praise antagonists who will howl louder and more extreme.

    Journalists, editors and the media have now positioned themselves as the kingmakers of our public discourse, and if they don’t agree with your perspective you are simply marginalised. This article displays some of that media arrogance that dictates that all academics will simply fall in line and follow their master, by simply taking a position against POIB with no regard to what their own views are on the matter.

  16. Judith Judith 25 July 2011

    Jonathan Jansen has definitely spoken out, so I don’t know where you’ve been

  17. MoBear MoBear 25 July 2011

    @Nazir Ahmed Osman,
    Of course all “islamic” states are paragons of virtue. The “Religion of Peace” is playing more than it’s fair share in the world’s atrocities.
    Israel is defending itself against terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.
    Oh, and let’s not mention the saintly Al Shabaab and it’s part in the famine in Somalia and other atrocities.

  18. Amasende Hagu Amasende Hagu 25 July 2011

    Actually, not only are universities cowardly, they are such hotbeds of thought control and political correctness that I think a Freestate ultrarightwinger or a conservative theologian would probably show more real intellectual freedom and mental agility. Reading another trendily ‘left’ viewpoint from a leading lady at UCT last week, who railed about phallocentric thinking without commenting on the vaginocentricity of her own article and learned experience (only joking – just showing how made up labels don’t make an intelligent argument), I realised just how ‘right’ amd yet ‘not right’ much of academia really is…

  19. Mark Mark 26 July 2011

    Do you expect academics to lead some sort of revolution? As if anyone listens to them anyway.

    The ever increasing corporatization of universities has changed the face of academia. Whereas under apartheid the institutions may have been on the forefront of critique and public engagement, now universities are ‘degree factories,’ where youngsters go; dreaming of a piece of paper which (hopefully) guarentees their future job security.

    Students do not attend university to be politically engaged. Most of them want qualifications in order to get jobs. Many of them don’t know the first thing about critique. They study ‘degrees’ which teach them about business models and how to implement bereaucratic procedures.

    The forces of revolution can no longer be found in our universities because they are essentially corporations competing for money. Gone are the days of intellectual engagement for the sake of knowledge itself. If academics devote time to commenting on public affairs, and if such commentary is unpublished in accredited journals, they are discouraged to do this by the very structure of the institutions in which they work. Universities want money, not ‘leading minds.’ The competitive nature of the beast demands ‘production,’ not ‘thought.’

    All we can do is hope that the select few who study under the banner of truth will have the courage to speak out. Let’s hope their voices do not fall on the deaf ears which seek only job security in a troubled economy.

  20. The Creator The Creator 26 July 2011

    Mark is right, of course; most academics today don’t dare speak out against abuses (real abuses, not cooked-up junk like the Protection of Information Bill) because they know they will risk their jobs. In the apartheid era, university administrations on many campuses stood up against the government; now they don’t.

    Some academics, of course, do stand up for issues, but the media pays them no attention unless it happens to be convenient.

    Most importantly, the ideal of collective struggle has been destroyed, replaced by corporate-funded special-interest groups like Right2Know. As a result, academics, like everybody else, have lost their sense of solidarity with causes and their responsibility to social needs.

    The only reason for singling out academics, among the general collapse of civil society and democratic debate, is anti-intellectualism. Blame the pointy-headed tenured radicals!

  21. WSM WSM 26 July 2011

    @Judith: There has been no official response from the senate or council of Free State, whatever Jansen might have said in his private capacity. My source is the media division of the university, but maybe you know something they don’t?
    @Maria: The article notes that there are individual instances of activism. It is the silence of institutions that is under fire here.
    @Mike: Pretoria, according to their media liaison division, has as yet taken no official stance on the legislation. What you are referring to is a conference held at the law faculty of the university.

  22. BillyC BillyC 26 July 2011

    @ Mark.

    It took 19 comments before anyone got to the nub of the problem. The 60-70’s student bodies such as SRC’s, NUSAS, SASO were drivers of intellectual dissent and political activism in an neo liberal academic milieu. Many white and blacks paid with lengthy jail sentences, banning and death (Yes, Dave Harris – a number where white).

    Today, campuses like UKZN are totally corporatized with any dissent suppressed in draconian Stalinist style. Lecturers are so busy trying to get an impossible target 70% pass rate, one cant blame them for ducking below the radar.

    21st century students are more likely to be demonstrating for free tuition, pass-one-pass-all, better food and 5 star digs than fretting about freedom of speech and academic excellence

  23. Larry Lachman Larry Lachman 27 July 2011

    We must acknowledge that there is a very powerful barrier to activism in the new South Africa, especially if it targets the new regime and its cadred leadership structure. This barrier is the fear and ignominy of being labeled a racist or a sell-out, or a coconut.

    WSM should know the fealing well.

  24. The Creator The Creator 27 July 2011

    No, Larry, there’s no barrier to “activism” — you get paid for being an “activist”, which wasn’t the case twenty years back.

    The issue is what kind of “activism” you are talking about. You can say what you like about the government, but God help you if you attack big business.

  25. Char Coal Char Coal 27 July 2011

    @ Brent. Israel is not ‘another’ apartheid state.
    It isn’t one at all!
    Arabs in Israel enjoy healthcare and education. They are able to serve in parliament and the lawcourts. They are free to practice their religion.
    (This cannot be said of any Islamic country which disallows freedom of religion and practices the most virulent form of ‘apartheid’ – its treatment of women.)
    Mobear rightly says: “Israel defends itself against terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.”

    Nazir Ahmen Osman is a deplorable form of troll: He deflects the topic – then uses it as a platform to air fabricated invective and false anti-Israel propaganda. i.e. “Look at the opression and killing by the Israelis of innocent Palestinian women and children in the only other existing APARTHEID state of Israel.”
    The world’s greatest atrocities are committed by Muslim extremists.

    Speaking of ‘The Silence of Academia’ – and much more than ‘The Silence of the ANC’ by allowing the cancer of Julius Malema (besides many others in power)to continue their unconscionable corruption and racial crudeness – is ‘The Silence of Millions of Muslims’ with regard to the iniquitous atrocities committed in the name of their religion.

    “Evil flourishes where good men do nothing”

  26. Char Coal Char Coal 28 July 2011

    Unless his fragile health has been matched by failing mental capacity, we could also, perhaps, add “The Silence of Madiba’ during recent years
    to the blatant criminalty, corruption and ineptitude that treid to camouflage itself under the ANC label.

    The ultimate icon of this country, and honoured with more than 250 lifetime awards for the legacy he left: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white … the rights of all people shall be the same regardless of race, colour or sex … All national groups shall be protected by law… ” has uttered not one word of condemnation against the corruption circus that the ANC has become (song-and-dance routines by Zuma and Malema).

    Perhaps over the past few years he has been ‘past it’. What a pity!

  27. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 30 July 2011

    Apartheid made things simple.

    It required no great vision or courage – moral courage, anyway – for individuals or institutions to defy the Nats: you were on side with the rest of humanity (another reason why Nats supporters are now entirely extinct, incidentally).

    Finding your true voice in a multi-sided rights-based ‘democracy’ is much more demanding than knocking a tyranny.

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