Managing global conflicts and democratic space at Wits

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

There is a global conflict playing out in the corridors of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). On the one hand, there are the advocates of the Palestinian struggle calling for the academic and cultural isolation of Israel. On the other, members of the Zionist lobby oppose any such attempt to isolate Israel. In between there are multiple shades of opinion, most of which are crowded out in the acrimonious public discourse over the issue. The contest at Wits over these controversies has raised managerial challenges, some of which have been covered in the media. This, and the fact that Wits is a public institution, prompts us to explain the managerial dilemmas of this struggle, and how we are managing them.

We are not surprised Wits has become one of the primary platforms for this conflict. It is one of Africa’s great academic institutions and one of South Africa’s most vibrant universities. Winning a significant political platform for one’s position at Wits provides one with access to a highly influential constituency. We believe this is why both sides have targeted Wits so aggressively.

Another reason could be the remarkable transformation that has taken place at Wits in the past two decades — through the diversity of its people, programmes and ideas that bring to the fore divergent views on complex issues. Wits has sizeable communities that belong to the major religions of the world — perhaps one of the most complex social microcosms in South Africa. This concentration of multiple views and ideas in one intellectual space makes Wits a compelling platform on which contentious issues are raised and debated.

For the first time in its history, Wits appointed a vice-chancellor of African ancestry in 2003 and then a Muslim to its top post this year. Given that Adam Habib has a Muslim and political background, religious and political activists on both sides have clearly been galvanised by his appointment, either fearing or hoping for a change in Wits’s position on Israel. Yet both sides have made a mistake by treating Wits and its vice-chancellor as synonymous. Wits is greater than its vice-chancellor or any other members of its executive team.

Moreover, when the vice-chancellor and the executive act, they do so in a capacity beyond their individual ideological or religious predisposition. They act to advance the mandate of the university, a key element of which is to retain the institution as a free space for competing ideas.

This is why we welcome a thorough debate on issues related to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and others, in an open and tolerant environment. We expect and allow for freedom of expression and protests on key issues. This is part of the learning experience of our students, where they can become active citizens of South Africa and the world. We also demand that, while debate and protests happen, they do so within the parameters and boundaries established by our collective university community and within the laws of our country.

In recent days, when students protested against the concert of the German-domiciled Israeli pianist, we had no problem with the act of protest. But when 11 members of the Wits community allegedly violated university rules, impinged on the rights of others, broke up the concert and in effect violated academic freedom, we acted and subjected them to disciplinary hearings. To ensure that the processes were fair and independent, we appointed outside legal expertise to preside over the hearings.

The Wits Students’ Representative Council (SRC) has demanded we drop the charges. They suggest our refusal to do so emanates from the pressure from donors who support Israel. There have indeed been some individuals who have threatened to withdraw their donations. Our responses have been categorical. We will not be threatened or cajoled by "cheque-book diplomacy".

We will act, but we do so on principle, not because of the threat or promise of donations. The vast majority of our donors are driven to give not by the ideological predisposition or religious affiliations of a vice-chancellor, but rather by their commitment to the principle of human solidarity and the public-good purposes of the university. They give because they want to empower us to deliver more to present and future generations. We applaud this gesture of human solidarity and we are convinced most of our donors will continue to be driven by gestures of human goodwill and social commitment.

On the other hand, some political and civic leaders have also demanded that we drop the charges and that Wits should boycott Israel. Zwelinzima Vavi of the Congress of South African Trade Unions has called on the university’s rich tradition of progressive political struggle, and the memory of academics such as David Webster, to motivate the case for Wits’s adoption of an academic boycott against Israel. However, Wits is neither a political party nor a civic movement. Rather, it is a university and as such is meant to be an intellectual space for diverse views to be heard, even if those are not shared by the vice-chancellor. If we were to act against those views, or to prevent them from existing within the institution, then we violate our essential mandate: to build and retain an intellectual space for the pursuit of diverse ideas.

Does this mean Wits as an institution is always and will always be neutral? No. We are a university that shares the values enshrined in the constitution. Those values enable the building of a world-class, cosmopolitan university with an African orientation. Those principles also allow for a plurality of interpretation of how they translate into specific political situations. These interpretations we leave to our academics, students, alumni and their organisational expressions. Rarely do we as a collective translate these values into specific political situations. And in the rare cases that we do, as we did under apartheid, the decision is made through a laborious process of consultation and decision-making by every single stakeholder associated with the institution, and every single structure within it, including its SRC, academics, support staff, convocation, alumni, senate, council, clubs and societies.

Wits has not taken a position to boycott Israel, and in keeping with the principles of the constitution, leaves its interpretation open in this specific case to its various stakeholders. Our academics, staff, students and alumni are given relative autonomy to make decisions in this regard in line with their own conscience. Our responsibility as vice-chancellors and institutional executives is to protect this measured autonomy in making these decisions because it enshrines the principle of academic freedom within the institutional architecture of Wits.

Indeed, even if Wits had taken a collective institutional position in this regard, we would still protect the academic freedom of dissidents in our midst and the intellectual space for them to articulate their views. This philosophy governs our decisions pertaining to the Palestinian-Israeli issue and other similarly contested, controversial matters.

We believe that not only is it in line with our celebrated constitution, but it also speaks directly to our mandate as vice-chancellors to build a world-class African university in the 21st century.

Written by: Adam Habib and Loyiso Nongxa

Picture credit: Business Day

• Nongxa is the vice-chancellor and principal of Wits University and will hand over to Habib on June 1.This article was published on Business Day.