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Universities shouldn’t sacrifice autonomy for pro-Palestinian politicking



South African Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande, on 6 May expressed his “dismay and disbelief” at the decision of Stellenbosch University’s senate to vote against a motion of “genocide and destruction of scholarship and education in Gaza”.

He labelled the decision shameful and called on “all progressive members of the council, the alumni, the workers, and the student leadership at Stellenbosch University, to condemn this morally bankrupt and profoundly racist decision by the senate”. Three days later, Foreign Minister Dr Naledi Pandor appealed to students and university administrators in South Africa to follow the lead of their United States and other international counterparts to join the Palestinian solidarity cause. Leaving aside the thorny question of the autonomy of universities, should we follow the lead of these two cabinet ministers? My answer is a decisive no.

Often, the full importance of an event or set of events is known to us only years later. In conflict situations, disinformation from all sides is real. How can universities respond to a conflict which we don’t fully understand? Universities aren’t intelligence services, they aren’t militaries, humanitarian agencies, or foreign ministries. In this polarising world, one needs the dispassionate, reasoned, and reflective nature of universities even more to understand the roots of conflict.

According to the Geneva Academy of Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, there are 110 armed conflicts currently taking place in the world. Should South African university senates respond to all of them? Should we issue 110 statements on all these conflicts? The pressure being placed only on Israel gives rise to the question of why Israel is being singled out? This in turn opens South African universities up to the charge of antisemitism.

It also raises the question of what we hope to achieve with these statements? Just between 2015 and 2024, there have been almost 200 United Nations resolutions again Israel. What has been achieved? Will Jerusalem shake if a South African university condemns its actions in Gaza?

It’s also abundantly clear that certain conflicts are privileged over others. No South African university had any discussion of the 377 000 people killed in the war in Yemen or our government’s complicity in arming those countries involved in attacking Yemen. How about the six million killed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with 31 000 more deaths being added every month? Do they get a mention? What about a statement on the brutal civil war in Sudan, where tens of thousands have been killed, millions have been displaced, and famine has seized the country. Far from condemning the actions of murderers, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa hosted General Hemedti (Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo) in his official residence in January this year. Hemedti has a long history of human rights abuses. He was a commander of the Janjaweed militia in Darfur which committed unspeakable crimes against a defenceless population. In that instance, South Africa chose to protect his boss, field marshal and president, Omar al-Bashir from an international warrant for his arrest from the International Criminal Court. Three hundred thousand lives were lost in Darfur, and South Africa did its utmost to protect the guilty.

This begs the question: do African lives matter less than Palestinian lives for South Africa?

It seems that the African Nation Congress has politicised the issue of Israel-Palestine in a cynical attempt to shore up its faltering support base. Others have suggested more malevolent reasons for Pretoria’s stance. Last week, 160 lawyers wrote a letter to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging Washington to investigate the allegations that the South African government accepted bribes from Iran to accuse Israel of genocide at the International Court of Justice. If true, consider this foreign policy capture – a variation of state capture – with grave implications for our foreign policy and our country.

In this situation, what should the role of universities be? In my view, no statement should be issued on any conflict. Universities aren’t activists nor ideologues. This position goes to the heart of what a university stands for. We engage in critical reflection. We stand for diversity, intellectual engagement, and tolerance. We promote peace by teaching our students to respect the proverbial other and divergent opinions. We nurture empathy, and shatter stereotypes by approaching our subject matter in an even-handed manner.

Returning to Israel-Palestine, the only breakthrough in the peace process was the Oslo Peace Accords facilitated by Norwegian academics in a track-two peace initiative. They could successfully engage with both sides since both parties trusted their impartiality. Should South African universities issue a statement at the urging of our cabinet ministers, we’ll surrender this impartiality and foreclose any opportunity to engage constructively in this conflict, end the carnage, and create the conditions for an enduring peace for all.

Perhaps more importantly, no South African university should sacrifice its detached academic stance in favour of the ruling party’s agenda in a short-term attempt to bolster electoral support. No South African university should surrender its autonomy to a state which has so spectacularly failed its citizens.

  • Dr Hussein Solomon is senior professor at the Centre for Gender and Africa Studies, University of the Free State.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Steve

    Jun 3, 2024 at 1:22 pm

    One of the few sane moslem voices in South Africa, a jihadi centred ANC led fiasco.

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