ANC and thuggery have some of our universities on the run – Business Day, 5 October 2015

Something alarming is going on at the University of Stellenbosch. About a month ago Piet le Roux, head of the research institute of the Solidarity trade union and a member of the university’s council, sent out a tweet which, in English translation, read: "Blade Nzimande and transformania won’t win. Support the Afrikaanse Alumni Association."

By John Kane-Berman 

Something alarming is going on at the University of Stellenbosch. About a month ago Piet le Roux, head of the research institute of the Solidarity trade union and a member of the university’s council, sent out a tweet which, in English translation, read: "Blade Nzimande and transformania won’t win. Support the Afrikaanse Alumni Association."

The demands for transformation at Stellenbosch are clearly partly motivated by a desire for vengeance against Afrikaners. This is bad enough, but there are other issues at stake as well.

Shortly after the tweet was posted, a spokesman for Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande said the council should "discuss Le Roux’s continued membership (thereof) at this critical moment in the transformation of the nation’s universities".

The council has subsequently appointed a committee of five of its members to investigate Le Roux’s "actions and pronouncements".

A storm in an academic tea cup over an innocuous remark, you might think, except this is a university supposedly committed not only to free speech but also to academic freedom.

These necessitate a willingness both to entertain debate on controversial issues and to stand up to the blandishments of ministers, including ones under whose jurisdiction they supposedly fall.

The committee is to investigate Le Roux’s "actions and pronouncements" in the "context of legislation and the code of conduct for members of council".

It will be fascinating to discover what legislation he might have violated. But if the university’s code of conduct permits it to discipline Le Roux, it will be clear that there is something wrong with the code.

Many years ago, when the National Party sought to impose its version of "transformation" — apartheid — on South African universities, a visiting British academic delivered a lecture in which he described them as "universities under siege".

Today, the title would have to be "universities on the run". It doesn’t apply to all universities, but it applies to many.

They are on the run, first, before the government’s demands for societal "transformation". These embrace racial quotas wherever they can be legislated or bullied into operation, cadre deployment wherever this can be implemented, and the capture of all "centres of power" too weak or supine to resist.

Second, universities are on the run before student thuggery, as we saw most notoriously six months ago at the University of Cape Town.

Le Roux was right to use the term "transformania". An obsession with the concept of "transformation" is now one of the dominating political forces in the country.

It is as much an obsession with our ruling party as its previous incarnation was with the National Party, until that party was eventually forced to abandon it.

But whereas one of the factors that led to the demise of apartheid was growing intellectual dissent — including, in the end, at Stellenbosch — transformation in its current guise faces little opposition, even though its destructive consequences are becoming increasingly apparent.

The attempts to silence Le Roux must be seen in this context. They are ominous.

So is the fact that Stellenbosch found it expedient to appear before Parliament’s education portfolio committee to explain its transformation policies.

Even though universities draw most of their funding from Parliament, they are supposed to be autonomous institutions.

As a communist, Nzimande presumably does not believe that any institutions are entitled to autonomy. He has previously equated independent institutions with "bourgeois democracy" and as threats to the national democratic revolution.

It is a pity that some universities in the country do not put up more of a battle for their autonomy — which is, after all, one of the hallmarks of intellectual freedom.

• Kane-Berman is a consultant at the South African Institute of Race Relations

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