Why this pardon for UCT’s student activist is so inadequate

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Today, around 250 fact checkers from around the world will arrive in Cape Town for the sixth international fact-checking summit: Global Fact 6. Picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

As a former UCT Council member, I was pleased to learn on June 28 that students implicated and involved in various protests at UCT in 2015, 2016 and 2017 have been vindicated by the withdrawing of disciplinary cases against them. This after the university’s council adopted the Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission (IRTC) report which began its work in February last year following a negotiated agreement between UCT’s executive, the students’ representative council and other student organisations that took part in the protests that unfolded at UCT, including the #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall and Shackville protests.

The move represents an important nod to justice, but it somehow sticks in the craw. How can it not? The withdrawal of cases implies an act of forgiveness for wrongdoing, not absolving the innocent of unjust guilt. Yet, the said wrongdoings were committed not by students for who they were. But, according to the IRTC observations, largely by the university in an environment of “a massive, systematic undermining of the rule of law.”

Also, the Constitutional Court contextualised the events in question in a related case when it stated that, “the group of protesters, including the applicants, were engaged in a “#FeesMustFall” protest because they could not, amongst other things, afford the university fees. At the heart of the protest was a “seething” sense of injustice that prevails among university students and South Africans at large at the failure of the state and universities to provide free, quality and decolonised education to South Africans.” Many strongly believe that, if forgiveness is to be considered holistically and realistically, it is the persecutors – not the persecuted – who should be begging for it.

That’s because the struggle for access to free decolonized education has not been one of the powerful suddenly, of their own accord, becoming more enlightened. As the African American statesman Frederick Douglass pointed out in the 19th century: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.” The struggle for access to free decolonized education was, and continues to be, a case study of how courage and determination from below – rather than generosity and charity from above – drives social change. Indeed, it was a difficult, courageous, often miserable struggle met with powerful, often vicious resistance. It continues to be so, as acknowledged by the UCT Council statement when it referred to “some disagreeing with one or more aspects of the IRTC report.”

I can hear the criticisms of this argument before they are even uttered, especially in view of the puzzling and self-defeating decision by UCT Council to publish, together with the IRTC report, varied responses to the report, even though I disagree that some views are likely to “enrich what is likely to be ongoing conversations about transformation and reconciliation in our university.” Some might say this was a different time, a different age, and it is wrong to apply today’s values to the past considering that there has since been a change of leadership at UCT. There should now be gratitude at the university’s generosity, not least given the granting of freedom to pursue academic and career ambitions, not just to those whose student records had disclaimers, but also to students who had accepted the offer by the National Prosecuting Authority to undertake community service in exchange for court trials, too.

It is difficult to empathise with these arguments and not point at inadequacies of UCT’s portrayal of the gesture of withdrawing the cases. Lives were destroyed by unjust actions enforced by the university, while none of the individuals who gave orders have been called to account and take responsibility for their actions. The effects of this injustice are still felt today by current and former students.  The published varied responses to the report also confirm that the misery inflicted by this persecution is still poorly understood and appreciated, despite extensive efforts by the IRTC to ensure that the report does not leave impressions “which may inadvertently benefit those already privileged.”

Many students expelled by the university or barred from university premises have not yet been able to complete their studies, and no plans have been announced to admit them back to the university. Some were only readmitted after a relentless struggle, and their readmission was only achieved way in the middle of the academic calendar. While on campus, these student leaders were continuously harassed with charges and stop-start hearings that disrupted their focus on studies. It was through psychosocial support of activists that many, but not all, managed to successfully complete their studies.

Lives were wrecked; students were humiliated; they lost scholarships; they were ostracised by their families; many lived lives of fear, misery and shame; they felt the anguish of rejection by their own university which pressed criminal charged for trespassing against them (although charges kept changing at each court appearance), and never saw the need to withdraw those charges so that the NPA could remove the cases from the court roll; their relationships all-round were destroyed.

It is fashionable now, particularly among those who resent the key IRTC findings that relate to restorative justice, to claim that the struggle is over. We readmitted expelled students, did we not? We’ve even pardoned those facing internal disciplinary charges. Where is the gratitude? Yet, the legacy of persecution by the university, police and private security alike still looms over us: the damage inflicted on the lives of hundreds of people who are part of the broader UCT community. Despite the transformation of attitudes because of the work of student activists whose disciplinary cases have now been withdrawn, many at UCT are still exposed to racism and intimidation from the earliest of ages.

A society that still fails to accept the genuine constitutional and human rights import of struggles for access to free decolonized education waged by students causes much higher levels of mental distress among students, along with its grimmer symptoms: mental illnesses, alcohol and drug abuse, even suicide. UCT has had a fair share of cases across students-academics-staff spectrum, and statistics remain alarmingly high.

Neither triumphalism nor gratitude are the right responses to the withdrawal of disciplinary cases or the IRTC recommendations in general. They might undoubtedly be a source of justified vindication to those who were persecuted and still aspire to further their studies or to apply for jobs, those who endured lonely years of hatred and rejection, and finally have some official recognition of the injustice they suffered. But the institutional failures listed in the IRTC report which appear to translate into systematic racial discrimination that underpinned those persecutions has not gone away. Even now, most students who were part of the #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall and Shackville protests coming to terms with who they are in an institution where “no one is prepared to stand up and claim that UCT is not racist” before the IRTC internalise shame because of the failure of the institution to accept them properly. The damage will continue for many decades, unless stakeholders collaboratively take bold action soon.

The correct response to the IRTC recommendation is also to pay tribute to those who struggled, and to learn from their courage to finish what they started. No gratitude, no triumphalism. Only optimism that injustice can be overcome, and determination to defeat it. 

Nkosikhulule Xhawulengweni Nyembezi is a human rights activist and a member of UCT community.