You are here:   Features > Conor Cruise O'Brien and an African tragedy

As an authoritarian Afrikaner nationalism gave way to an equally authoritarian African nationalism and the years slipped by, the Conor Cruise O’Brien affair remained a key point of reference for South African liberals who saw it as beginning of a slide away from civil rights under ANC governance. Chaskalson was appointed the first head of the country’s Constitutional Court, while Ismael Mohamed was made head of the Supreme Court of Appeal. Kader Asmal returned in triumph from Ireland to become a minister in the ANC government. Dr Welsh continued his distinguished career at UCT through to retirement but expressed complete alienation from the institution in the wake of the O’Brien affair. His magisterial work, The Rise and Fall of Apartheid, signals his honorary attachment to Stellenbosch University and makes no mention of UCT.

A generation later in 2015-2016 the Rhodes Must Fall movement began at UCT when a student threw a bucket of faeces over Rhodes’s statue in an event carefully planned with the ANC-supporting Cape Times, who helpfully had a photographer on hand at that exact moment. Gradually the Rhodes Must Fall movement morphed into a demand for free university education and for the “decolonisation” of higher education.

Rhodes Must Fall was a wholly unelected movement (which often included township activists brought onto the campus to swell its ranks) and it used violent means to gain its ends. Hundreds of paintings belonging to the university were hauled out and burnt, the Vice-Chancellor’s office was burnt down and on other campuses copycat action followed in which all manner of student residences, libraries and lecture halls were torched. Other students and faculty were intimidated, rapes occurred, syllabi were changed under threat and all manner of university norms violated. Faculty morale plummeted, with many academics seeking to leave UCT or take early retirement. UCT fell sharply in the international university rankings and applications from foreign graduate students fell too, as did alumni donations.

The Vice-Chancellor, Dr Max Price, again followed a strategy of accommodation, exculpating the Rhodes Must Fall activists, even those found guilty of violence, agreeing to “decolonise” the university and to do it in conjunction with the activists. The university agreed to set up its own version of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to inquire into the guilt of the university and its faculty under apartheid. In effect the authorities’ decision to take the path of all-out concession meant that faculty felt completely unprotected from the intimidation that was now rife. But every new concession was denounced as insufficient by the activists who had demanded it, causing the authorities to make yet further concessions. The era of the Red Guards had indeed arrived. It was not clear what would be left of South African higher education at the end of this tumult. Older faculty members looked back to the O’Brien affair, sighed, and wondered if it might have been different.
View Full Article

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.