Max Price, Statues and Storms: Leading Through Change (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2023)

THERE’S a song in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance that has the refrain ‘A policeman’s lot is not a happy one …’ A modern-day South African version might well substitute the word vice-chancellor. The latest memoir is by Max Price who headed the University of Cape Town (UCT) from 2008 to 2018. His book deals largely with the watershed years 2015 to 2017 when South African universities in general came under sustained pressure from various student movements.

This had a long history, rekindled at UCT by the RhodesMustFall campaign focusing on removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes that gazed northwards towards the Hottentots Holland mountains from a prominent perch on the campus. Rhodes was an imperialist celebrity, a ruthless businessman and one of the founders of the racial capitalism that continues to blight South Africa. That UCT had not removed the statue long ago is testimony to complacency; confirmed by Price’s belief that this would have had insufficient support.  He also points out that the statue was just a symbol of wider dissatisfaction.

Price is from a student activist background at Wits University and was detained for twelve days in 1977. He was also in the 1980s a member of the anti-apartheid NAMDA (National Medical and Dental Association) and specialised in primary health care in rural areas. Having been a dean at Wits in the 1990s, a time of reconciliation, he came to UCT to succeed Njabulo Ndebele with all the appropriate credentials and experience on both sides of the barricades.

The RhodesMustFall campaign kicked off on 9 March 2015 when Chumani Maxwele drenched the statue with excrement. Within a month it had been removed, an appropriate fate for the malign values that Rhodes represented, and a decision that was now almost unanimously supported. Maxwele was not charged because he had not caused permanent damage. Before the statue’s demise the Bremner Building was occupied, another act of anarchy, but one that UCT chose to address in low-key fashion even though agreements were breached. On 8 April a Council meeting was disrupted. In the background Iqbal Survé’s propaganda sheet, the Cape Times, sniped away. These are themes that became recurrent in the ongoing crisis. Did Price perhaps consider entitling his book Fallism and Faeces?

The Rhodes statue issue and that of the renaming of Jameson Hall after Sarah Baartman were symptomatic of a broader protest against what was regarded by many black students as an alienating UCT culture. There was considerable sympathy for such protest and an extensive programme of academic support; but many drew the line at noise and traditional practices such as animal slaughter. Then there was a segment of hardline protestors who regarded university management as the enemy rather than a negotiating partner.

By October 2015 this protest had merged with a national FeesMustFall campaign that demanded a range of student funding reforms; and, increasingly, calls for free higher education across the board. It also incorporated a demand for the insourcing of support staff, for which UCT had a code of conduct. Here, universities were painted into a corner by cuts in government subsidy. Protest, which still had wide university and public support, was directed at campuses but the failure was one of many of the ANC government. UCT had made more effort than most to rectify the student subsidy gap particularly for the ‘missing middle’ students, but this in no way dampened protest which some commentators compared, perhaps unwisely, to the Arab Spring. 

A situation of solidarity began to fall apart with the entry of student movements linked to political parties; and the peeling away of specific interest groups with varying and shifting agendas. By mid-October the situation could be described as insurrectionary. Barricades went up and UCT shut down. Negotiations took place in front of hundreds, lacked decorum and often resulted in de facto hostage situations. Protest groups were amorphous with ill-defined leadership, behaved illegally, and negotiated in bad faith. This was justified as revolutionary. The elected SRC lost any authority.

A residue of solidarity was maintained with a protest at parliament directed at government; but in the face of criminal activity and intimidation on campus an interdict was sought. This enabled the police to act, but their presence became further cause of protest and the interdict was withdrawn. With a zero fee increase secured, protest concentrated on insourcing ‒ a more complex and time-consuming issue and one over which university administrations disagreed. Unions resorted to one-upmanship, students interfered and antagonised workers, and the situation was fuelled by rumour. Amid ongoing disruption resulting from a convergence of protest, staff morale plummeted. Academics were frustrated by extra work created by unrest and a Senate meeting was invaded by people hurling verbal abuse at members and throwing objects.   

Price points out with justification that he often had to make quick decisions with imperfect information. He was also negotiating with elements that he describes as anarcho-nihilist, a hard core acting out external agendas on the campus. Talks long into the night would result in apparent agreement overturned the next day by more demanding negotiators. There was criticism that the university gave in to student demands for food, but Price justified this by reasoning that hungry people are less likely to be conciliatory.

But the university drew the line at negotiating in front of crowds. It was on the back foot regarding communication, exacerbated by social media immediacy. Any considered and careful response by university management had long been superseded by half-baked or fake news on cell phones. The question facing the university was novel: how to manage anarchy? At the end of 2015 it was decided that this could only be achieved by a smaller crisis task team and a more detached role for the vice-chancellor.

However, with the new year, the challenge was compounded. Hopes of transformation vanished beneath anarchy, fragmentation and violence as an end in itself. Price suggests that the State Security Agency may have had a role. Campuses became proxy battlegrounds caught in the crossfire of insurrectionary activity aimed at the state and designed to create permanent crisis.

At UCT problems over student accommodation reignited the RMF movement with an accompanying occupation of buildings, intimidation and insults. The unhoused numbered only 80 when the infamous Shackville was erected. It obstructed campus traffic and was requested to move, which led to a small riot. Most seriously it also resulted in the invasion of nearby residences, theft of food and destruction of works of art. The vice-chancellor’s office was torched and a vehicle burned. An interdict was brought against agitators and unlawful construction; and later finalised. Eight students were served with disciplinary charges. Interestingly, the opening of an RMF exhibition was disrupted by a trans demonstration objecting to male domination. Naked protest became the vogue.

A second round of the FeesMustFall campaign erupted in September and October 2016, mixed up with other issues. Thuggery intensified and Price was held hostage at the Heher Commission hearings on the fees issue. While it deliberated, the government announced a zero fee increase for all students except the most prosperous. But in a sense this issue was now a sideshow subordinated to engineered ‘crisis, chaos and violence’. Vice-chancellors like Price were faced with the shifting, constantly radicalised agendas of the aggrieved. However, UCT was learning and began to livestream negotiations.

Inevitably, one contentious issue was the position of students facing criminal and disciplinary action as a result of earlier protest. Price argues that his main purpose was avoidance of violence and he is critical of universities that took more draconian action. He faced severe obstacles. One was geographic: a large, dispersed unfenced campus and numerous points of access; plus 23 vulnerable residences. Exactly who to negotiate with was a problem and many of the insurgents were not UCT students. Black students who took anything but uncompromising positions were accused of being sellouts. Nor did negotiations prevent closure of UCT in September 2016 and suspension of lectures when a mediated agreement was suddenly reversed by fresh extreme demands.

Relative views of the performance of private security and public order policing varied over time. Both had strengths and weaknesses; but these were often irrelevant as resources were too stretched in a general insurrectionary situation. Once UCT reopened in October, what Price describes as guerrilla warfare broke out. For example, the Steve Biko building was occupied and its clearance involved running battles that raised health and safety concerns. He admits that the situation exacerbated internal tensions and started to racialise them; criticising the dean of medicine Bongani Mayosi (who later killed himself) for marching against a decision of which he was part.

Price’s priorities in a situation of heightened national uncertainty were security and completing the academic year. He bent over backwards to be conciliatory, for example supporting the bail application of Masixole Mlandu, languishing at Pollsmoor prison . Nevertheless, he was again held hostage and, on this occasion, assaulted by Lindsay Maasdorp of Black First Land First. Exactly how he managed to maintain his composure was remarkable, but he was aware that the slightest false move, verbal or physical, could have enormous consequences. Further rioting and anarchy on the campus overwhelmed security and there was an attempt to murder two officers. Excrement again became a weapon, acquired through the theft of receptacles from portaloos. Their transport resulted in arrests about which some rare humour was generated.

Like many insurrections, this one gradually ran out of steam: a lasting settlement was reached in November and exams were written. Price regards this as vindication of his patient approach to wearing down the opposition. In six weeks, the protestors had achieved little amid absurd rhetoric about chimurenga and challenges to Western science. The most active protestors then demanded special treatment ahead of exams and this was granted in a decision Price characterises as tactical.

Perhaps that is the key question posed by this book: to what extent was principle abandoned by UCT? During 2015 there was well-supported and broad-based backing for protest action. But later that year this fragmented and the mood became insurrectionary. Even its instigators, some with no current connection to UCT, admitted that this was never supported by more than 10% of students and staff. In effect it meant that the country’s premier university was held to ransom by a relatively limited number of thugs who by their very attitude disqualified themselves from higher education. If the protest had started as a non-racial project appropriate to academia, all pretence of this had long since evaporated.

David Benatar has also dealt with this at length; what he describes as negotiated capitulation.1 At the time, Imraan Coovadia wrote a powerful piece accusing management of betrayal and of degrading and diminishing the interests of the majority of those at UCT, especially very poor students. He described the ‘sinister silence [of] Rondebosch’ imposed by rioters. The policy adopted by Price was bitterly opposed by many and for very good reason.

The controversy over artworks deserves close scrutiny. The bonfire of 16 February 2016 resulted in the destruction of paintings, some of them by Keresemose Baholo the first black MAFA at UCT, and photographs by David Goldblatt. The admirable Molly Blackburn was the subject of two torched items. Such destruction correctly brought to mind the Nazi Kristallnacht of November 1938. The excuse was a need for decolonisation; and the lived experience of students who claimed they were stifled. UCT’s failure to react attracted accusations of support for violent censorship. Price argues that it was ultimately all a matter of curation and that the lack of a gallery where an educational approach could be taken was a handicap.

This tactic of qualified principle wears ever thinner over the statue of Sarah Baartman. A nude figure, it was created by sculptor Willie Bester. Students demanded it be clothed to the anger of the creator who understandably threatened to sue over the infringement of his artistic freedom. It was located near the library and a member of staff courageously unclothed it. Price ordered the head of the library to cover it up and this was refused. Price relates that he considered bringing a case of insubordination ‒ heavy-handed managerialism to enforce censorship. (As a librarian, I am for once proud of my original profession.)

The case of Flemming Rose is similarly instructive. Editor of the Danish publication Jyllands Posten, which published controversial cartoons about Islam, he had been selected by the committee responsible for the annual T.B. Davie Academic Freedom Lecture. The invitation was traditionally issued by the vice-chancellor as a matter of routine and Price only later learned of the potential reaction. Falling back on his duty to protect, Price disinvited Rose on advice after the committee had stuck to its guns. Yet again the country’s premier university had fallen woefully short on freedom of expression.

Agreement may have been reached on 7 November 2016, but the following month protestors managed to wreck a Convocation meeting. The rules of a well-governed university had been trashed. While an uneasy peace had been established, the degree of collateral damage was extensive. Price achieved his objectives, but by compromising the principles upon which universities rely in the face of a relatively small number of insurgents. He points out that this will not happen again: lessons were acquired about online learning during the Covid-19 pandemic.

There is still no free higher education for all as students demanded. And UCT’s introspection ended with what Price describes as a travesty of a report from an internal truth commission process.  His successor imposed upon UCT a reign of racism and incompetence. Whether there was a causal link between the two administrations is an intriguing question.  

[1] David Benatar, The Fall of the University of Cape Town: Africa’s Leading University in Decline (S.l.: Politicsweb, 2021). There is a review of this book elsewhere on this website.