UCT convocation descends into chaos

Insults, shouting and disruptions mar debate of no confidence in executive

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Photo of UCT convocation meeting
Protesters stand at the front of the UCT convocation AGM.

The University of Cape Town (UCT) Convocation AGM descended into chaos on Thursday evening. It was marked by shouting, interruptions, insults and booing. Some attendants criticised president of convocation Barney Pityana for his handling of the meeting, but it is unlikely anyone could have chaired it successfully.

The meeting was extremely noisy, with numerous interjections and heckles. Few speakers identified themselves by name. And there was not enough documentation for all the attendants, including this reporter. It is therefore impossible to report the event as accurately as we would like.

The meeting started at 5:30pm and ended at about 8pm. Little was achieved. The main concern was a motion of no confidence, proposed by Timothy Crowe, in vice-chancellor Max Price and the senior UCT executive for its negotiated agreement with Fees Must Fall protesters on the eve of UCT’s exams. It’s unclear what the implications would have been had the motion passed. Council, not Convocation, employs Price. And although the meeting was well-attended — the lecture theatre on middle-campus was overflowing — it represented a tiny fraction of the university body, though it is possible Crowe wanted a further ballot put to the entire university. In any case the motion did not appear well-supported, based on the widespread applauds in response to a critique of it by Advocate Geoff Budlender, though we cannot know for sure because the meeting closed without it being voted on. 

Here is the text of the motion:

Shortly after the meeting began, and a number of minor quibbles were settled, Fees Must Fall protesters walked in front of Pityana, holding up banners. A protester removed her shirt to expose her breasts and remained that way for the rest of the meeting. 

One of the protesters attempted to speak but was booed by a large number of people. A heated debate ensued. Dr Lydia Cairncross proposed that the Fees Must Fall protesters should be allowed to hold a silent protest. Budlender seconded the motion, and the meeting proceeded calmly, at least for a short while.

Pityana then delivered a speech, surrounded by protesters, in which he favourably cited Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib’s criticisms of some aspects of this year’s student protests and their academic supporters. But Pityana also welcomed the issues raised by the student protesters.

When it was Price’s turn to speak he asked the barebreasted protester not to stand in front of him. After a brief exchange of words she took her place alongside him.

Price defended the agreement he reached with the protesters, pointing out that it allowed exams to proceed without disruption. He said that the protests had wide support though only a minority favoured disruption and a university shutdown. He also explained some of the complexity of dealing with the protests. Admitting that the academic year was not completed entirely successfully he pointed out that about 16,000 students wrote exams. He listed statistics demonstrating the excellent academic performance of UCT, including that the number of A-rated researchers has doubled since he became vice-chancellor in 2008.

Then Crowe was given an opportunity to explain and move his motion. At this point the meeting became increasingly unpleasant as the number of insults and interjections grew. When Budlender attempted to explain why he opposed Crowe’s motion, Chumani Maxwele persistently interrupted him, accusing Crowe of being a racist. Pityana however refused to allow Maxwele to speak. Eventually Budlender spoke, explaining that because one might disagree with the decisions taken by the executive that doesn’t justify a no-confidence vote. He described Crowe’s motion as unreasonable. He was loudly applauded.

Read GroundUp’s story on the agreement signed on 6 November between UCT and a group of protesters.

Cathy Powell from the Law Faculty then spoke about the failure of the executive to consult staff during negotiations with the protesters, but a kerfuffle on the opposite side of the lecture theatre made it impossible to hear her. A protester shouted “Shut up you bitch” repeatedly. It was clarified for this reporter that the owner of a campus food outlet and his staff had started their own protest on the other side of the theatre, holding up posters with threats allegedly made at them by Fees Must Fall protesters. These included: “You come back @ work at your own risk”, “You come here you die” and “We will kill you bitch”. It appears the convocation protesters misinterpreted these posters as being aimed at them, when in fact they were meant to depict the threats they or their fellow-protesters allegedly made. The ensuing argument was ugly and the meeting, despite a few moments of clarity, never got properly back on track.

Pityana made an effort to calm matters and condemned the use of the word “bitch”, but he endured constant interjections. At this point members of convocation began to trickle out the venue. 

Former SRC president and current COO of the South African Institute of Race Relations Gwen Ngwenya then attempted to speak, but she was continuously interrupted by Maxwele. Eventually she managed to make a point that her lack of confidence was in the agreement reached with the protesters on the eve of exams, rather than in the individual members of the executive. She argued that you can’t negotiate for non-violence; it’s a constitutional given.

Cairncross then spoke against the motion of no-confidence, arguing that the reconciliation commission agreed to on the eve of exams was in the entire university’s best interests. 

Following some argument on points of procedure, Pityana asked if there were any proposed amendments to the no-confidence motion. Gao Nodoba from the Faculty of Commerce said that he agreed there should be a no-confidence motion in Price and the executive but for very different reasons to those given by Crowe. He accused the UCT executive of not supporting transformation and the student demands until they were forced to. He accused the executive of carrying out “indecisive, visionless fixes” and “inconsistently applying institutional rules”. He proposed an amended motion of no-confidence which was welcomed by the protesters.

Much interjection and shouting followed this. Eventually Professor Hugh Corder moved that the debate be closed and voting proceed. This was voted on 102 versus 15 (many didn’t vote and many more had left by then). The protesters became incensed at this point, as did Nodoba who wanted to know why his motion hadn’t been voted on (or perhaps debated further - it wasn’t clear). It’s possible that it was Pityana’s intention to allow such a vote, but it became increasingly obvious that the meeting had become unmanageable and there were not enough people left to have a meaningful vote on anything. Soon thereafter Pityana closed the meeting, apparently because it was simply impossible to continue it.

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Dear Editor

We were there because someone decided that they'd use this opportunity to assert themselves. Mr Crowe must have known it wouldn't be acceptable to have Max Price resign or removed. He must have expected it would have led to disruption. It was fodder for his narrative about how inhumane and criminal the protests have been. He said as much, refusing to call the protesters what he really thought because of civility. Someone pressed him to call them what he really thought.

This was thinly disguised supremacy; it was met with the disdain and chaos it deserved.

The people holding up the signs must have known it would have incensed people there but also hoped to use the opportunity to assert themselves and legitimise the continued exploitation of workers. They had no place there; they also needed to have their narrative of civility upheld and the protesters shown to be unreasonable.

The whole debate was shut down on a point of closure. Ultimately stifling an opportunity to have everyone have their say. (The business of the AGM had been concluded, I was willing to be there all night to see a useful end to this.)

Ultimately because these people had the guise of order and procedure they seem to be the ones in the right, while the real violence and unpleasantness, the fact that they were there on the backs of people like those protesting, seemed to be unreasonable.

The last thing you missed was the exchange between Max Price and Chumani Maxwele. That was an example of how well both have handled the situation and got UCT where it is today. An inconsolable Chumani was taken aside by Max and seriously engaged with so that he no longer needed to make his point to the wider audience about the obviously racist motion. We are in a better place because of RMF and FMF. Max has done well in his part of getting us here.

Dear Editor

I would like to correct miss-representations of information underpinning and events that took place at the Annual General Meeting of the University of Cape Town Convocation ‘held’ in UCT’s Kramer Building on 15 December 2016 and give some of my own perspective.

First, contrary to Advocate Geoffrey Budlender’s statements and reiterated in this article, my motion did NOT even suggest, let alone call for, the resignation/dismissal of Vice Chancellor Max Price and his deputy VCs. It called for the 100000+ registered alumni to be:

“balloted (anonymously and, if willing, by fine-scale ‘self-identification – by ‘race’, gender, age, etc.) to consider a vote of no-confidence in Dr Max Price and his senior Executive acting as representatives of the interests of the UCT Community as a whole in negotiations with UCT students, staff and others who have been adjudged to have broken the law under the pretext of legitimate protest.”

This motion was yet another of my and other’s attempts to ascertain – democratically via polls/referenda - precisely what the views of the UCT Community are (by ‘race’, age, gender, employment status, etc.) on what’s happening (and will happen) at UCT vis-à-vis a broad range of critical issues.

Time and again, Dr Price has refused to conduct such surveys and has ignored/dismissed the results of a range of polls and petitions, conducted to date, all of which challenge his and the DVC’s actions/inactions.

Indeed, with regard to my motion, Ms Gwen Ngwenya (former UCT SRC president and current COO of the South African Institute of Race Relations – with whom I’ve communicated only in the last two weeks) and I had agreed that she should attempt to reinforce the true intentions of my motion with an amendment concerning the status of Price et al. Unfortunately, she was unable to do so because she was continuously interrupted by Mr Chumani Maxwele who was granted conditional amnesty according to the November 6 Agreement. Mr Maxwele and at least eight other ‘protesters’ had invaded the meeting with their dated placards, one of which read:

“No student should be exculded (sic) as a result of historical debt”.

There was no objection from or deterring action by Dr Price, Mr Royston Pillay (UCT’s registrar and Secretary of the Convocation) and/or Prof. Barney Pityana, chairperson of the meeting. In the end, at the urging of Dr Lydia Cairncross (Faculty of Health Sciences) and Adv Budlender, the ‘protesters’ were allowed to stay and protest “silently”.

They did protest, but not in silence. Indeed, despite a polite requests from Dr Price, they refused to stand back while he made his presentation and address him as “Dr Price”. His presentation comprised selected performance statistics that supported UCT’s recent successful functioning.

In any event, I would, once again, like to make my views on Dr Price’s actions/inactions crystal clear. His exclusive ‘negotiating’ with and persistent pandering to the most implacable violent and destructive ‘protester’ elements has encouraged them to become progressively more demanding, intractable and aggressive. His equally persistent exclusion and arguable repression of what I call the excluded “silenced majority” of students, staff, fee-paying-parents and alumni has resulted in their alienation. What some of them and I want him and his team to do is cease their biased actions and deliberate neglect, and get on with the job that they are hired to do, undertaking the duties defined within their job descriptions while staying within the bounds set by UCT’s fundamental principles of Academic Freedom and pursuit of truth as individual students and many academics see it.
When I spoke after Price and attempted to explain my motion and to counter some of his claims, I was interrupted and jeered persistently and labelled variously: “racist” and “Jim Crow”, “apartheid activist” and “killer of black people” (by a woman attendee who refused to give her name when allowed to comment and aggressively confronted a legitimate alumnus when she was photographed). Later, Mr Maxwele called me a “known racist”.

Adv Budlender followed, and was similarly harassed (by Maxwele) – but not vilified. Furthermore, he praised (as did Dr Cairncross later) the abovementioned Agreement as a significant achievement, even though it was based (pointed out by Ms. Ngwenya) on “negotiated non-violence”.

When (as required) the seconder of my motion (Dr Anna Crowe) attempted to add her perspective on my motion, she was also harassed repeatedly.

Dr Cairncross then spoke against the motion of no-confidence, arguing that the reconciliation commission agreed to on the eve of exams was in the entire university’s best interests. 

Another clear impression not chronicled in Mr Geffen’s article is that other individuals and/or ‘factions’ within UCT feel (irrespective of ‘race’ and employment status) ignored, even alienated, by the UCT Executive through its lack of consideration of, or inconsistent response to, their concerns. If there was one thing “consistent” at the meeting it was the ‘protesters’ (who were there primarily to sabotage the “no-confidence motion”) overt, uncensored and gleeful way they saw fit to use filthy language and racist and sexist epithets. One poor academic trying to tell her story of the earlier protests as part of the debate was mocked openly, with mimed clown-tears and cat-calling.  

What’s the bottom line?

I agree that my motion (regardless of interpretation and/or amendment) “did not appear well-supported” and probably would have been voted down. My hope was that some significant support for it would have made the Executive more willing to consult with and cater for the “silenced majority”.

As we left the building, I heard a young person exhort “There will be no UCT in 2017!” Her fellow crowd members supported in glee.

Is she and her ‘like-thinkers’ someone who should sit with, or opposite to, Dr Price at the nebulously defined and populated Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission?

Indeed, aren’t Maxwele et al.’s action breaches of student conduct and therefore violations of the Budlender/Cairncross-praised Agreement?

Let’s see what happens.

Dear Editor

It is incorrect that “convocation [descended] into chaos”. I am a member of convocation and there is no chaos here. The AGM did – but that is a tiny fraction of membership.

I was opposed to this motion because it was clearly a stunt – convocation has no power to dismiss the VC, a tiny minority is present at such meetings and I do not recall formal notice of the motion or the opportunity to vote by proxy, so an outcome could hardly be considered representative of a body that is largely physically incapable of meeting in one place.

While there is a lot to question about the way university managements have handled protests – particularly the shallow numbers game many have reduced transformation to that has stoked anger and frustration – a motion attacking the VC for a peace deal is ludicrous.

Dear Editor

That anyone is surprised by the hooliganism that disrupted what ought to have been an ordered and dignified meeting of the UCT Convocation displays a dangerous naiveté.

The "protesters" have been moving the agenda at UCT for close to two years now, and are well on their way to achieving their goals. A reasonable person might well ask what their goals are? One can only speculate, as their demands change as frequently as the Cape weather. The only constants in this process are disruption, intimidation, hooliganism, arson, and assault, not to mention an overarching thread of narcissism, and degradation of what was an internationally competitive university. Yes, UCT is still highly ranked internationally, and, yes, it can still boast of an impressive research output, but be under no illusion that either of these will survive in the medium term. What occurred at the City University of New York ( CUNY ) in the '60's, in many respects not dissimilar to what is occurring in SA universities, will repeat itself here, soon. When that happens, there will be much hand-wringing, and lots of finger-pointing, but it WILL be too late, and the consequences will not bode well for the country.

Dear Editor

The Convocation meeting took me back to the late 80s and early 90s at UCT (the Conor Cruise O'Brien affair; the strike, burning tyres and disruption), when - like Tim Crowe and Ms Ngwenya - some members of the UCT community and the public expressed their outrage at the actions (or deliberate abstention from action) of the University executive, claiming that their failure to impose retribution on the offenders was a disgrace and a betrayal of what UCT supposedly stood for.

Today's disturbances are on a far greater scale but the same judgements and choices apply, and I have no doubt that if Dr Max Price and his colleagues had gone the route apparently demanded by Tim Crowe and others, there would have been no examinations and only an extremely dismal future.

Dr Price's choice of a 'restorative justice' approach is very far from being - as has been suggested - a form of capitulation or appeasement. On the contrary, it takes courage to resist outraged and self-righteous demands for a blame/enforce/punish approach - a short-sighted quick fix which only promotes a cycle of charge and counter-charge.

I thank those responsible for getting us this far under extremely testing circumstances, and I wish them continuing courage and clarity of mind.

Dear Editor

My wife and I attended the UCT Convocation meeting last Thursday in order to vote against the motion which was to be put by Prof Crowe: “that the UCT Convocation be balloted ...to consider a vote of no confidence in Dr Max Price and his senior Executive...” We believe that the scanty knowledge of the protest’s complexity and its inaccurate reportage would have biased the results, that it’s a destructive way to express disagreement within the University community, and that the agreement between University management and students, the focus of Crowe’s motion, creates the channel to build on the debate around student demands and turn the university into an institution with which all students and staff can identify with fully and be proud of. A more militaristic alternative to Price’s conciliatory approach, by contrast, would simply escalate division and violence.

Unfortunately the meeting was ruined by a mixture of misunderstanding, sheer wrong-headedness and procedural pedantry.

There were two main misunderstandings. The protesting students wrongly believed “this meeting has a right wing agenda.” Most people were there to reject the rightist motion and to show support for the agreement that had been negotiated. Second when a small group produced a few posters one of which read: “We will kill you, bitch,” almost everyone first interpreted this, understandably but wrongly, as directed to the protesting students. It opened wide the floodgates of anger and wild behaviour.

In the volatile circumstances, it was unbelievably ill-conceived and the meeting never recovered.

There were a number of pedantic interpretations of procedure. The meeting began scratchily way with a proposal from the floor to close it on the grounds of inadequate notice. With 10 times the number of people in the hall than usual, it was quite unnecessary and bound to evoke suspicions of manipulation. Why wouldn’t the chairman allow Gao Noboda to put his amended motion, and allow Chumani Maxwele to speak – even if not exactly correct in procedural terms? It’s true that dozens of people wanted to speak, but these were two urgent black voices in a room full of white people. Isn’t it time such voices are given time? Because they were not given time, the meeting was forced to close.

The sad thing about this meeting was how quickly the mixture of misunderstanding, stupidity and procedural pedantry polarised the audience into black and white. Sad because I guess 90% of the audience are probably 90% in agreement about the transformed UCT we want. Thank goodness there was a black chairman!

Fortunately, in the fog of confusion, there were bright lights:

The courage of black protesting students to face up to the mainly white audience
The speed with which agreement was reached for their protest to be silent
The outstanding contribution of Advocate Budlender in warning against the dangers of ignoring what oppressed or powerless people are trying to say and the inspiring one of Dr Cairncross who pointed to the agreement as opening the way to the Great Project of transformation.
A thoughtful and thought-provoking chairman’s report from Dr Pityana, full of humanity and understanding
Perhaps above all the articulate, fair-minded, open-handed report of Dr Price as well as his effective and balanced contribution, when things got noisy. People could experience, many for the first time, the intensity and complexity of what he has had to face day after day, and must have been impressed by his calm authority, his capacity to recognise people opposing him, addressing them respectfully and by name even when they were being appallingly rude, his effectiveness as leader and negotiator

Finally, it must be said that the meeting left the UCT community with the challenge of turning its transformation into a Great Project, of working together to make the institution one which is deeply rooted in (southern) Africa and owned by all South Africans. It calls for positive leadership, a willingness to accept new leadership, a refusal of violent action, an openness to other narratives, an avoidance of grandstanding and un-nuanced rhetoric and the imagination you expect from society’s intellectuals.

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