Statement: UCT Council's decision on Israeli academic boycott

Progress SA hesitantly welcomes the decision by UCT Council not to adopt Senate's resolution regarding the proposed boycott of Israeli institutions.

Although Council's refusal to adopt Senate's resolution means that academic freedom has lived to see another day, we also note with concern that UCT has once again failed to take a conclusive step towards protecting academic freedom at the University.

In a communiqué issued by UCT’s Communication and Marketing Department yesterday, it was stated that Council reserves the right to dissociate itself from academics and academic institutions who directly or indirectly support the violation of human rights. In other words, Council “reserves the right” to tell academics and students what they are allowed to think and who they can associate with.

We do not believe UCT Council has this right at all.

Academic freedom entails that matters of political conscience are left to the discretion of the individual within an academic institution. Some academics, for example, may believe that the correct response to human rights abuses is to refuse to engage with academics from certain countries. We support these academics' rights to make such choices for themselves. Others, however, may disagree and rather favour an approach of open dialogue and argument. We do not believe that one approach should be prescribed by University management: this kind of authoritarian decision-making simply cannot happen at a University that claims to be committed to freedom of opinion and expression. 

If UCT accepts the viability of this kind of authoritarian control in principle, we would be left with a potentially absurd situation in which academics are not free to associate with anyone from a country whose institutions are suspected of 'enabling' human rights abuses. This would include (according to Amnesty International) China, Venezuela, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Yemen, Turkey, Myanmar, to name but a few. UCT would not benefit from such isolation, and neither would the people of those individual countries.

Of course, it is doubtful that the Palestinian rights lobby has considered this on such a principled level. They are a single-issue pressure group, whose goal is specific to one set of nationalist interests. We can therefore hardly expect them to have considered how the adoption of their views as general institutional policy would have disastrous ramifications when applied to a broader set of situations. 

Yesterday, Council had an opportunity to bury this issue once and for all. It chose not to, and rather chose a political compromise, passing decision-making responsibility back to Senate. This raises concerns of its being an attempt to evade pertinent issues and deceive the public into thinking it was taking a principled stand. This further bears witness to the necessity of our questioning the University's devotion to the sacrosanctity of academic freedom.

For over two years, this matter has been tossed around in Senate and other bodies with no clear resolution. This not only reveals the lack of decisive and principled leadership at UCT, but also the issues of political apathy and self-censorship amongst academics which have resulted from the ostracisation that liberal-minded academics have faced in the wake of violent student movements and the institutionalisation of radical ideologies.

Progress SA implores members of UCT Senate to be sober-minded when reconsidering this issue at the next meeting of Senate and to consider the ramifications for the institution for many years to come. We will remain relentless and steadfast in our mission to ensure that civil liberties are protected in all public spaces in South Africa, in accordance with basic moral principles and the Constitution. 

Media enquiries to be directed to Tami Jackson (Chairperson, Progress SA):

Progress SA rejects, with contempt, the proposed academic boycott set to be voted on by UCT Council on 30 March 2019

Progress SA notes the decision by UCT Senate to endorse the proposed academic boycott of Israeli institutions by the University.

On March 15, a recommendation from UCT’s Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) was adopted by UCT Senate to prohibit the University from engaging with Israeli academic institutions. This measure attempts to link institutional academic engagements to human rights-related factors that singularly focus on Israel’s alleged actions, and no other country or territory in the world.

Progress SA is not surprised by the AFC’s tactical and careful wording of this recommendation, which follows its obsession to push through this boycott measure over a year of its having meetings and deliberations on this issue, above all other pressing matters of academic freedom at UCT. The rewording, however, does not mitigate the fact that the proposed measure is a serious threat to academic freedom at UCT.

In a campaign last month, Progress SA highlighted the fundamental importance of academic freedom to the very existence of the University. In response to our questioning University management’s attitudes to academic freedom, the Vice-Chancellor affirmed that UCT is committed to ‘open debate and academic freedom’. We therefore find it strange that the Vice-Chancellor and her deputies presided over the meeting of Senate that approved this proposal, without so much as registering a single reservation that it would harm the freedom of academics and students to associate with whomever they choose.

Any limitation of academic freedom will severely damage UCT’s reputation as a bastion of academic inquiry. It comes at the expense of ordinary students and staff wishing to pursue their academic activities freely. This, of course, was expected due to UCT’s ever-increasing hostility towards both academic and intellectual freedom across its various disciplines.

The AFC has one simple task, and that is to safeguard and defend academic freedom at all costs. It is ironic and patently clear that a committee reserved for just that is not fit enough to carry out its mandate, and bizarrely recommends the limitation of academic freedom.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a complex issue, and Progress SA does not purport to offer any solutions to it, or to take any specific position on it at this stage. Solving world conflicts, is not, however, the primary and indispensable function of a university. The primary and indispensable function of a university is to provide a space for free thought and rational enquiry, where learning and teaching can flourish unabated. The fact that the AFC would deny UCT its ability to perform this function is a travesty.

We therefore urge members of UCT Council to do the most rational thing and reject this proposal as nothing more than an attempt to hijack the University’s power for the interests of a narrow ideological faction.

Progress SA will remain unwavering in its mission to ensure freedom-loving students and citizens at large are not suppressed by the ever-increasing culture of antagonism toward liberal values in every sphere of our society.

Media enquiries: Tami Jackson (