Academic freedom in contemporary South Africa

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Picture: Leon Lestrade African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Section 16 of the Constitution which addresses freedom of expression declares that everyone has this right which, inter alia, includes:…academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines academic freedom as the right of teachers and students to teach, study, and pursue research without unreasonable interference or restriction from law, institutional regulations, or public pressure. Its basic elements include the freedom of teachers to enquire into any subject that evokes their intellectual concern; to present their findings to their students, colleagues and others; to publish their data and conclusions without control or censorship… For students, the basic elements include the freedom to study any subject of concern … and form conclusions for themselves… 

Professors Davids and Waghid both of Stellenbosch University have penned a most revealing and perceptive article in relation to academic freedom entitled ‘Unlocking academic freedom’ (The Star 14 March 2019). In this piece they explore a new phenomenon appropriately designated ‘disinvitement’, which they explain was first coined by the American based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. It involves a practice in which speakers who having been formally invited to address an academic audience at a university are subsequently unceremoniously ‘disinvited’ by having their invitations summarily withdrawn. 

This Foundation discovered that between 2000-2017 there were 192 incidences in which students or members of the university staff had agitated for certain speakers to have their invitations to address university audiences withdrawn giving rise to ‘disinvitement’, as explained above. This phenomenon has raised its iniquitous head in South Africa. As examples they cite the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) withdrawal of an invitation to a prominent journalist, Flemming Rose, to present the distinguished T B Davie Academic Freedom Lecture. The ostensible reason for this was that Rose was the foreign editor of a Danish newspaper that had published cartoons portraying the Prophet Muhammed.

The extreme irony of this situation was that the historic TB Davie Academic Memorial Lecture was initiated during the darkest years of apartheid rule in South Africa as part of a strategy by UCT to keep the right of academic freedom alive after the Verwoerd Government introduced notorious legislation in 1959, inappropriately called the Extension of Universities Act,  to prohibit the liberal English-speaking Universities, inter alia, UCT, Wits and Natal from enrolling persons of colour. To their inestimable credit staff and students at these universities vigorously opposed this iniquitous attack on academic freedom. 

Their heroic stand in this regard included annual ceremonies, such as lighting a flame to symbolize and to commemorate this cardinal freedom which inter alia, included the T B Davies Lecture at UCT. Some of the student leadership at the time were severely punished by banning for their courageous stand on academic freedom and other related issues by the draconian apartheid governments, under Dr H F Verwoerd and BJ Vorster respectively. Some went into permanent exile, never to return. They paid a great price and sacrifice in their endeavours to keep alive the ideal of academic freedom.

Liberals like myself, who recall the principled conduct taken by motivated students in fighting for academic freedom in the very dark years of repressive apartheid rule are horrified that this device of ‘disinviting’ has recently been used to rescind an invitation to UCT’s former Vice-Chancellor and distinguished academic, Dr Max Price. It was asserted in defence of such ‘disinviting, that bringing him to the campus might retard, rather than advance academic freedom. 

In ‘disinviting’ a person of such excellence is not only a patent insult to Dr Price, but indeed constitutes the very antithesis of true academic freedom as is guaranteed in section 16 of the Constitution, referred and quoted above. Something has gone fundamentally awry when a small group of radical persons are allowed to subvert a seminal right of academic freedom at a University like UCT and so doing depriving the university constituents, both staff and students, of hearing a person of such excellence and experience in university administration in very testing times as Dr Price, because their opinion what he might say would ‘retard rather than advance academic freedom’.

There are other indications that all is not well in relation to academic freedom at universities like UCT, in relation to, for instance, academic appointments. It appears that the fundamental principle of non-racialism is also being subverted with very few persons, other than Africans, being appointed and a policy of aggressive affirmative action apparently being pursued and as a result academic excellence as a criterion for appointment is being seriously eroded.

A paradigmatic change is required to prevent not only inroads into academic freedom but to prevent the decline in the international standing and reputation of our most prestigious universities at the inordinate cost to South Africa, its economy and social cohesion. Academic freedom is not some mystical esoteric and lesser right, but one that is fundamental, inter alia, for a flourishing economy which requires the kind of highly skilled, well-educated and informed persons of integrity who can provide the inspired political leadership for our country and its economy, which is so urgently required at this critical juncture in our history.

George Devenish is Emeritus Professor at UKZN and one of the scholars who assisted in drafting the Interim Constitution in 1993.