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):