UCT’s lack of principle

  • Milton
In much the same way as University of Cape Town (UCT) academics took Karl Marx seriously in the 1970s and 1980s, so they have now heeded the advice of the less famous Marx. “These are my principles and if you don’t like them… well, I have others,” said Groucho.

Groucho would be applauding UCT. Last November, the senate roundly defeated a motion to boycott Israeli institutions. Debate was correctly focused on principle, and not on the intricacies of a hundred-year conflict. Let’s face it, no one on either side will convince their antagonist. Importantly, the senior executive of UCT formally shared the senate’s majority view.

Less than four months later, the senate – and those who attended the meeting of what was once a serious and august institution – turned on its principles.

UCT’s council – the institution’s highest authority – debated the senate’s decision last Saturday. The outcome suggests a stalemate. On the one hand, the council did not have the stomach to endorse the senate’s call for a boycott. On the other, it lacked the ability to support unequivocally the free exchange of ideas. In an obvious fudge, the council has now asked the senate to reconsider the matter, possibly in the hope that it will defeat the call to boycott and avoid catastrophic consequences.

The council ought to have rejected the senate’s resolution on principle, but it failed to do so. In what appears to be an obvious attempt to appease the anti-Israel lobby, it has introduced its own resolution which, inter alia, condemns all gross violations of human rights in the occupied territories and (wait for it) “elsewhere in the world”. This removes the stain of identifying only the Jewish state.

More disturbing, however, is a clause in which UCT reserves the right to “dissociate itself from those academics and academic institutions that support [directly or indirectly] the violation of human rights and/or enable the violation of human rights”.

This should be of immediate concern. The door to mischief-making is open, and the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement will surely be smiling. On the other hand, in the event of a legal challenge, the resolution might not pass constitutional muster. This remains to be seen.

Many leading UCT scholars are shocked by the turn of events. Even in a country that has regularly shot itself in the foot, UCT’s actions have raised alarm. Arguably, the senate’s decision (and the council’s mealy-mouthed response) will cause even greater damage to the institution than the events surrounding the #FeesMustFall protests.

And all this has, ironically, been initiated by the Academic Freedom Committee! I kid you not! Oh Groucho, where art thou now?

That some individuals have a moral investment in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is their right. But for a university to pronounce on such a complex conflict is another matter. Enemies of the Jewish state see the clash through a South African prism. Jews are alien settlers, the arm of western imperialism. They also believe the academic boycott of South Africa aided the demise of apartheid. In that case, however, the issue was incontestable.

Surely the advocates of a boycott must acknowledge the fact that there are two sides to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – or as they say in the arts block on University Avenue, two narratives. Yes, the occupation has been too long and yes, the occupation is harsh. But this is an unresolved war.

Israel has indeed been at war with its neighbours since the United Nations (and not only Western countries) voted in November 1947 to partition Palestine (then a British Mandate) into a Jewish state and an Arab state. In its formulation, Jerusalem was to be an international city. But the Arabs refused to accept the decision of the United Nations and, as soon as the British withdrew in May 1948, five Arab armies invaded the nascent Jewish state. The rest is history, entangled and complex, and fraught with arguments on both sides.

The UCT council has opened the way for BDS activists (of whom there is no shortage) to work towards a back-door boycott. The council should have taken an unequivocal and principled stand. A boycott is an infringement of academic culture. Instead, it has fudged the issue. The bottom line is that the council resolution enables UCT to prevent an academic from engaging with a scholar from a country deemed to be “enabling” human-rights abuses. This could be Zimbabwe, China, or a host of countries. Of course, we know which it will be.

Shame on UCT.

  • Milton Shain is Professor Emeritus of Historical Studies at UCT. His latest book, ‘A Perfect Storm. Antisemitism in South Africa, 1930 – 1948’, was published by Jonathan Ball in 2015.


  1. RadEditor - HTML WYSIWYG Editor. MS Word-like content editing experience thanks to a rich set of formatting tools, dropdowns, dialogs, system modules and built-in spell-check.
    RadEditor's components - toolbar, content area, modes and modules
    Toolbar's wrapper 
    Content area wrapper
    RadEditor's bottom area: Design, Html and Preview modes, Statistics module and resize handle.
    It contains RadEditor's Modes/views (HTML, Design and Preview), Statistics and Resizer
    Editor Mode buttonsStatistics moduleEditor resizer
    RadEditor's Modules - special tools used to provide extra information such as Tag Inspector, Real Time HTML Viewer, Tag Properties and other.

Follow us on