I’ve received a couple of emails asking about a recent letter the Vice Chancellor of Wits University sent to the entire campus. The letter was a response to allegations lead by the Palestine Solidarity Committee that “apartheid era” styled racial profiling took place on campus during Limmud.
During Limmud, a small silent protest was allowed just outside the entrance to the building where the lectures took place. I have been told that the number of protestors allowed was agreed upon prior to the start of Limmud.
Outside the campus, some individuals, draped in Palestinian regalia, were prevented from entering the university. Whilst private security was on-hand to ensure the safety of all Limmud attendees, when I entered the campus it was the Wits security that allowed me in whilst preventing a young screeching Muslim man from entering. It is clear to me that race was not a factor in deciding who to allow onto campus. In fact, during the course of Limmud, I noticed many black students attending some of the lectures I was in. But even if I hadn’t seen black students, why on earth would Limmud, a liberal and progressive Jewish movement, prevent black and Muslim people from entering the campus? What would they possibly have to gain from such discrimination?
I’d be interested to know why it seems that students reported their allegations of racial profiling to the PSC. Are they the gatekeepers of racial equality on campus? My conclusion is that people who were barred entry, were those that were looking to join the protest, which had already used up its allowed quota. I say this because the allegations have been spearheaded by the PSC, whose strategy on campus is often to hurt Israel by painting its supporters as apartheid loving racists. The PSC’s cries of racism are equivalent to Bernie Madoff shrieking antisemitism!
I have reprinted the letter from Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal professor Loyiso Nongxa. It’s a despicable display of cowardice, giving into the accusations, almost accepting them as fact, and then ordering an investigation. In the letter Prof. Nongxa explains his personal view, that anyone (and that would include students) who can justify what happened in Gaza, should not be welcome to Wits University. This means that almost all Jewish students who support Israel’s right to self defence, in the eyes of the Vice Chancellor, should not be allowed at Wits.
It’s an extremely heated issue and its obvious from his personal views that Prof. Nongxa has sympathy with the cause of the students making the allegations. Without the investigation even starting, he issues an apology and thereby accepts the allegations as fact – “I would like to apologise to the all people who felt targeted because they were Black.”
The investigation will be headed by former apartheid activist advocate Geoff Budlender.
From: Vivienne Rowland
Dear Members of the Wits community
Yesterday, at rather short notice, I met with a group of students who issued an ‘open letter’ that was circulated widely, expressing their concerns at Wits having hired one of its venues to an external Jewish organisation, Limmud, who invited a controversial speaker to their event over the weekend.
I undertook to initiate a formal investigation based on the disturbing allegations contained in the letter and in other communications that I have received in this regard.
It was brought to my attention, during the meeting, that (certain sectors of) the University community wanted a public statement to be issued from the University about the events of the last few days. The students informed me that failure to do so would lead to the conclusion that the University associates itself with the views and actions of the controversial speaker. I found this assertion disturbing, particularly because it reduces the commitment of the University to issues of human rights, freedom of speech and the right to protest, to a single event and how we respond to it.
My position as the Vice-Chancellor does not always qualify me to speak on behalf of the Wits community on all matters. Sometimes I do, when I am confident that the majority of the University community would support that stance, the Dalai Lama issue being a recent example. I don’t feel confident that I can speak on behalf of the Wits community when it comes to the complex politics of the Middle East, and especially the ongoing conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis. I do have personal views that I will express below, knowing that certain members of the Wits community will be vehemently opposed to them.
As a South African who lived under Apartheid and who was once stripped of South African citizenship and declared, against my wishes, a citizen of a pseudo-country which I did not recognise, I am appalled at what is happening in the Middle East. There can be no justification for what I see as atrocities committed against civilians. My late mother taught me that, as an adult, we should treat every child as our own. The traumatic experience of the children of Gaza haunts me. The destruction of people’s homes and livelihoods and the loss of their limbs and body parts horrifies me. The human being inside me would find it difficult to welcome to my home, and Wits is my home, anybody who would justify what has happened there, whether it’s based on legal, religious or historical grounds.
But we live in a diverse community and a country which values and celebrates differences and diversity and as the Vice-Chancellor of a public institution which invariably reflects this diversity, I have to uphold the values of freedom of expression which is an integral part of academic freedom.
I believe that many of us have not thought carefully about what it means to live in a society that celebrates freedom of speech – universities are spaces where all views should be aired and heard. Many of us have not thought carefully about what it means to live in a non-racial or non-sexist society. Sometimes we tend to impose on others our sectarian view of that future democratic, non-sexist and non-racial society.
Let me now offer a preliminary response to some of the allegations in the “open letter”. The first time I received notification about the weekend event at which Lieutenant Colonel David Benjamin was to speak, was on the morning of Friday, 7 August 2009. I responded to the student concerned and informed her that I was leaving for the Eastern Cape and that I would refer the issue to colleagues in the Vice-Chancellor’s Office. The students that I met with yesterday seem to disbelieve this response and one even called my response “outrageous”. The investigation will possibly throw some light on this issue. I appointed one of my senior colleagues as Acting Vice-Chancellor in my absence. On Saturday, I received correspondence between the Acting Vice-Chancellor and the students on their concerns and endorsed what was being discussed. The correspondence was cordial, respectful and spelt out the University’s views on freedom of speech and right to peaceful protest. On Tuesday, I received a briefing on how the difficult situation was managed in my absence and at short notice. I take full responsibility for all the decisions that were taken on my behalf while I was away - they are now my decisions.
Let me stress that I am appalled by allegations of racial profiling. There is no place for that in South African society and certainly no place for that at Wits. I would like this to be part of the investigation. If we are to look at this as an opportunity to learn about what it means to live in South Africa in the 21st Century, I would like us all, as members of the Wits community to reflect on our own prejudices around this matter. How many of us become uneasy or even panic when we see a Black, African male at night and instinctively worry about being robbed? What comes to mind when we see a Muslim woman wearing a burka or a Rastafarian student donning his colourful garments? This is racial profiling that we may be guilty of knowingly or unknowingly.
There have been questions raised about the presence of external security on our campus. This is a complex matter on which the University community should advise. There have been many instances when external security has been present on our campus without incident. Possibly the key issue here is how they behave when they are on our campus. It has been brought to my attention that people were photographed and that there are concerns that these photographs could be used for illegal or suspect purposes. I have already raised this matter with the parties concerned.
Another issue has been the use of University venues and how the University should exercise its responsibility in managing what takes place in these venues. This is again another complicated matter. Wits provides a platform for various (and often conflicting) views to be aired, and forms part of our commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of speech. As the Vice-Chancellor of Wits, I was not given the power to ’vet’ people who come onto campus, nor do I think that any one person within the University should have the right to do so.
Lastly, the students that I spoke with seem to feel that the senior management of the University have let them down, in not living up to their expectations with regard to the values to which they are committed and that they believe this University stands for. I am saddened by that and would like to apologise to them for feeling that way. I would like to apologise to the all people who felt targeted because they were Black. Earlier this year Prof. Yunus Ballim and I met with students who felt hurt that they have been targeted because they identified themselves with the State of Israel. They told me that this is part of their identity and upbringing. I was equally saddened by that and again will apologise to them for that hurt. I am saddened by the feeling of alienation of some Black students at Wits and apologise to them for that hurt. I am saddened by cases of violence against women students, in many cases these perpetrated by fellow male students. I would like to apologise to them for the hurt, some suffer in silence and never report these incidences. I am saddened by the acts of violence against gay and lesbian people. I am saddened by the intolerance that I witness in our community.
As I have indicated, I will be appointing an investigation into the matter and I will advise the University community as soon as more details pertaining to the terms of reference and timelines are decided.
Prof. Loyiso Nongxa