BIG READ: The man who saw the abyss ... only to fall into the gutter of race
Former UCT head Max Price’s certainty in the correctness of his position turned him from a progressive saviour into an agent of the black elite
Max Price has written a gripping defence of his role as vice- chancellor of the University of Cape Town (UCT) during the RhodesMustFall and FeesMustFall protests of 2015/16. His memoir reveals his certainty that his tactics — and strategy — at the time were correct.
In his assessment, his propitiation of student protesters successfully averted terrible violence. He dismisses critics for failing to understand the gravity of the situation, the moral and strategic necessity for institutional transformation, and the nuances of his arguments and actions.
Price documents his path to UCT from modest anti-apartheid activism through his revelation, when dean of medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand, of the need for ongoing racial redress. As vice-chancellor from 2008 he faced a perfect storm of falling government subsidies, rising student numbers and (he asserts) institutional complacency, especially regarding the anxieties and alienation felt by many first-generation students.
The book touches on his dealings with the government over university fees, his strategising with other vice-chancellors and includes occasional anecdotes (the one about the American wanting to buy the Rhodes statue being the best).
The book reminded me of Price’s impressive calmness in the face of provocation, and provided insight into the personal toll he took. When he writes that he wanted to leave the job but did not, fearing the government would take over the university if he did so, I sympathised and was grateful that he stayed.
He wonders, in the conclusion, why he had not been more stressed at the time (joking that he might have to work that all out in therapy later). Yet it is clear from his account how terrified he was in the face of the Fallist protests: he struggled to sleep, his family planned escape routes out of the house in the event of arson, and packed photo albums and emergency supplies in the boot of their car.
The threat of violence during the protests, especially in 2016, was real: people were injured, vehicles and art were burned, classes were disrupted by sjambok-wielding thugs, faeces and urine were thrown around inside university buildings.
UCT was divided, as Price says, between those wanting more security to enable continued teaching, and those objecting to any “militarisation” of the campus. In his account, he learned early on that bringing in the police was risky and counterproductive in mobilising support for the protesters. Allowing protesters to occupy buildings, and even shutting down the university to facilitate negotiations with them, was (he argues) both morally correct (as many of the demands were legitimate) and strategically necessary (to prevent further violence).
The tactics of intimidation were clear to all of us trying to teach at the time. But reading the book it was a revelation to me how fundamentally Price believed that the situation was on the verge of spiralling entirely out of control.
Absent negotiations, he suggests repeatedly in his analysis and in the snippets from his diary, UCT would have fallen into a violent abyss: students could have been killed; the university (rather than merely his office) and his official residence might have been torched; extremists would have been strengthened and provoked; exams would have been cancelled entirely (rather than truncated and delayed) and the university would have lost its international standing and gone bankrupt.
In his account, Price stood between the university and the apocalypse.
Nothing, it seems, was worth the risk of violence. When he took the controversial step of disinviting Flemming Rose (the former editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten which had published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad) from speaking at UCT, it was because he feared violent reprisals from Muslim radicals (even Islamic State). Rose had been invited by the Academic Freedom Committee to present the annual TB Davie lecture on academic freedom, and when the committee refused to disinvite him, Price did so himself — presenting his regrettable decision as a necessary act of responsible leadership.
But for many, including Prof David Benatar and other members of the Academic Freedom Committee, this was an overreaction. In his own book, The Fall of the University of Cape Town, Benatar points out that Rose had been able to speak without incident the next year (including to Benatar’s philosophy class). Price reacts angrily to this. He insists that his advice — from unnamed friends, clerics and university leaders — was credible. He asserts that the fact that Rose could lecture, violence-free, the next year was evidence of the reasonableness of his position not to allow the lecture in 2016.
The “trust me, I knew I was doing the right thing” tone of the book is irritating but perhaps understandable in a memoir. Even so, Price’s failure to consider his critics more seriously — he responds to Benatar’s substantial book only once, in a footnote — highlights the “trust me” theme that runs through the book.
Price’s certainty in the correctness of his position appears to have insulated him from the need to act democratically or even consultatively. Whereas Adam Habib, then vice- chancellor of Wits, consulted university departments and polled the university community over keeping the university open in 2016, Price did not.
Two faculties at UCT — science and law — held polls indicating that, as at Wits, there was overwhelming support for classes to continue. Price, however, decided it was more appropriate to suspend university activities and negotiate with protesters. Habib, by contrast, insisted on law and order, and university teaching continued with limited disruption.
Price is clearly stung by the criticism that he was excessively propitiating and concessionary. He emphasises that he had acted firmly in bringing in private security and public order policing at key moments — and in seeking interdicts and prosecuting (and expelling) key vandals through university disciplinary procedures.
He argues that private security was at a premium and even if UCT had been able to contract in more security, the lack of a perimeter fence made it impossible to follow the Wits option. He emphasises how he resisted demands to provide amnesty to convicted protesters, even though this extended the disruption.
On November 6 2016 the UCT executive signed an agreement with protesters providing “clemency” for those convicted of disciplinary offences, the idea being that full amnesties would be considered by a future “institutional reconciliation and truth commission (IRTC)”. Price presents this as a win, saying that he would have been prepared to offer amnesties earlier because “utilitarian reasoning” dictated it would have been worth the price of allowing exams to proceed.
Price’s utilitarian reasoning, of course, rested on his unshakeable premise that the (remaining hardline) protesters had the power, even in November 2016, to unleash mayhem. This was questioned at the time. Critics pointed out that Price had been negotiating with an unrepresentative Africanist grouping which — as one of its leaders admitted — was exhausted, marginalised and unable to effect any further university shutdown.
Price dismisses this criticism for taking the activist’s comments at “face value”. As was the case with Flemming Rose, Price simply knew better: violence lurked, just waiting to explode and reduce the university to ashes.
Price never deals squarely with another criticism made at the time that he was legitimising a politics of racialised offence. Rather than engage with the underlying ideology that denigrated “white” voices as inevitably privileged and racist and assumed that only “black” people could experience (and legitimately talk about) racism, Price adopted a racialised lens himself.
He assumed, without evidence, that the predominantly white academic staff would not have supported earlier efforts to move the Rhodes statue or rename buildings, and he talks about “black students” in an undifferentiated manner, as if they were all equally alienated and offended by UCT’s institutional culture. He himself takes the politics of “black pain” at face value, never pausing to consider how its hyperracialised worldview was inimical to respectful, empirical, investigation and debate.
Fallism ... was about framing transformation and redress along purely racial lines ... benefiting those best poised to take advantage of race-based opportunities: the ... black elite. Denigrating white voices and taking for granted that the university was institutionally racist served to further this elite project.
Price emphasises that UCT cross-subsidises poorer students by charging full fees to richer students. But he is naively puzzled by his inability to explain to the FeesMustFall protesters that reducing fees would thus undermine UCT’s ability to protect poorer students.
Fallism was never about redistributing to the poor. It was about framing transformation and redress along purely racial lines — a strategy that benefited those best poised to take advantage of race-based opportunities: the existing and future black elite. Denigrating white voices and taking for granted that the university was institutionally racist served to further this elite project.
Price observes, during the protests over the Rhodes statue, that “in the view of black students, debate was irrelevant and pointless” and that there was “nothing to discuss”, the statue simply had to be removed. His preference at the time (with which I agreed) was to move the Rhodes statue to a different location on campus, where it could be contextualised and challenged.
That the UCT senate (comprising mainly professors) voted in favour of the student demand to remove the statue entirely was, in his view, regrettable but nevertheless a “vindication” of debate — and thus a kind of learning moment for students. Yet this was also an early illustration of the power of the new racialised worldview to frame issues in stark terms (as racist or antiracist) and to legitimate or denigrate voices based only on skin colour and nationality.
Whereas Habib was critical of those at Wits who adopted this racialised approach, Price appears to have ignored the ideology altogether. He was thus surprised that the IRTC, which was set up through a process dominated by protesters, assumed UCT was institutionally racist without conducting any investigation (there was nothing to discuss, of course) and recommended blanket amnesties. Price calls the report a “huge disappointment” for its multiple factual errors, ignoring counter-evidence and even court documents.
He should have known better. There was a predictable straight ideological line from the racialised intolerance and assumptions about institutional racism made by Fallist protesters, to the fact-free, racialised assumptions of their ideological fellow travellers on the IRTC.
This is the tension running through Price’s book. On the one hand, his actions are framed by his fear of the threat of apocalyptic violence posed by protesting “black students”. On the other hand, he never questions — even years later — the ideology that rationalised that violence and which continues to threaten the liberal foundations of the university itself.
Price traces a link between his early anti-apartheid activism and his contemporary concern to recognise and propitiate continued “black pain”. He presents this as a journey of progressivism and so is deeply hurt by criticism from old comrades, notably when he removed art deemed to be too colonial, too white or offensive to “black” people from UCT’s walls. He argues that this was a matter of curation, rather than censorship, and despairs at how he has been misunderstood.
What he fails to understand is that many older progressives, me included, work with a different idea of what progressivism means. At the university level, it means not only protecting academic freedom and artistic expression, but more fundamentally, the necessity to question dogma and the vested interests behind all ideologies.
• Nicoli Nattrass is a professor at the School of Economics and co-director of the Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCwild) at the University of Cape Town.
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