Open Letter to Mr Salim Vally – Kim Berman

On the promotion of transformation, engagement, dialogue, transparency and a culture of anti-racism on the UJ campus:  How does that reconcile with an academic boycott?

Dear Mr Salim Vally,

I attended the excellent colloquium hosted by the UJ Transformation office and Anti-Racism network in Higher Education on Friday 26th May. I found your presentation on Transformation in Higher Education: Globalisation and Education, engaging, passionate and powerfully argued.

I fully agreed with your analysis on the need for transformation toward an African centred university, and your critical analysis of the corporate-model, profit-protocol university.

You concluded with an inspired way forward in your promotion of challenging the status quo through “agency, creativity and imagination”. (Those capacities to catalyse change are closely linked to my own area of research; my PhD thesis is entitled Agency, Imagination and Resilience: Facilitating Social Change through the Visual Arts in South Africa).

Kim Berman

The key point about “agency” if it is real, rather than a rhetorical posture, is that it is about the development of people’s capacities for self-directed democratic action. Developing agency is not a quick process. It depends on people cultivating the energies and capacities to be drivers of transformation from within communities or societies – it is not imposed from without, although groups outside can help catalyse and support change with a considered or collaborative intervention.

At the end of your presentation I was afforded a brief opportunity to ask a question.  I quoted your opening question related to what it means to be an African university. You asked: “How does our uniqueness enable us to constructively enter into dialogue with the rest of the world?” And I asked how you and members of the UJ Senate can reconcile that mission with academic boycotts as a strategy. I also asked why the boycott strategy was not applied universally and why academic scholars at Ben Gurion University were singled out. You suggested that the decision taken by the UJ was an indication of a maturing of the democratic process. I am aware of the debates and the arguments, and yet I remain unconvinced by this position.

You invited me to engage with you after the session as time was short. I am using this format of an open letter to pursue my question. I suggest that the call for an academic boycott is counter-productive and contradictory to “constructively entering into dialogue with the rest of the world”. It does not support agency which develops the capacities for self-directed democratic action.

From 1983-1990, I left South Africa to study in the USA. I joined the ANC and was active in disseminating the photographic images of Afrapix collective, ANC news briefings and was involved in the divestment movement of American universities situated around the east coast. The call for economic, cultural and sports boycotts were an effective and powerful tool for developing awareness among American students of the repressive and violent silencing of protest by the apartheid regime.  Academic boycotts did not feature as a strategy at the time. Heroic and brave individuals inside the universities in South Africa, particularly members of SASO, Nusas and academics, played a critical role in shaping the anti-apartheid campaign across USA universities.  My understanding of the role of university partnerships in social transformation was strongly shaped by this experience.

Ben Gurion University is known for its left-wing academics and peace activists (like some South African universities were in the 70’s and 80’s in South Africa).  Why then do we as South Africans not engage with dissident thinkers – both Jewish and Arab – in Israel?  Surely a serious transformation agenda needs to move beyond blanket categorisations towards deeper and more strategic engagement with potential agents of change.  Should we not be asking what UJ can do to help expand agency and imagination among students and staff at BGU, building on our South African experience?  And should we not also be thinking about how, through such engagement, we can develop the capacities of our own students to be agents of transformation?

I understand that UJ academics are not prevented from engaging with BGU; however, if they want to continue with research, such as the Water Research project, they have to do it through the back door and without the university’s sanction. This results in marginalisation and discrimination.

The Centre for Education Rights and Transformation is established to defend education and human rights and promote transformative teaching and learning. Part of its mission is “stimulating and supporting international, regional and domestic initiatives towards a universal culture of human rights, and more specifically, of human rights within education” (CERT on the UJ website).

As you acknowledged in your colloquium presentation, research continues to be pursued in the elite world of higher education, while activism and community engagement happens in broad fronts on the ground. In my view, one of our challenges as a transformed university is to start to bridge that gap; not through isolation, but through negotiation, dialogue, finding commonality in a vision of peace, freedom from oppression and equality.

I would argue that the mobilising campaign for the academic boycott of BGU does not support democratic change.

Harry Boyte, director of the Centre for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, a Graduate Faculty member at the University of Minnesota and a long-time leader in the international movement to democratise universities, talks about a distinction between agency politics and mass mobilising. Agency politics or organising, he claims, is based on a particular philosophy of the human condition: profoundly complex, with contradictory qualities, but always including potentially democratic elements and currents (in each individual and in each culture). It can be contrasted with “mass mobilising,” which assigns people to pre-set categories and labels, often resulting in demonising. Though it has old roots in the universal tendency to label and denigrate people from outside one’s affinity group/family/tribe, mobilising politics has taken new forms in recent decades, fed by positivist science, technocracy, market trends and mass communications (see Boyte, Civic Agency and the Cult of the Expert, for this distinction [pdf]).

For a transformation agenda to succeed, we need to re-imagine and create spaces that integrate academic scholarship with societal change and empowering public participation.  Our challenge therefore, is to work together and use our uniqueness as South African academics “to constructively enter into dialogue with the rest of the world”. The strategy of mobilising for academic boycotts blocks the mission of developing agency to pursue democratic change.

 Kim Berman

Associate Professor, Department Visual Art, Faculty of Art Design and Architecture

Please note: the sentiments expressed in this letter are my own

More from Ben Cohen on YIISA

If former YIISA director Charles Small is the equivalent of Stokely Carmichael, heaven knows where that leaves Columbia’s tenured anti-Zionist, Joseph Massad, or the London School of Economics, which carried out research funded by the Gadhafi Foundation.

Read the whole piece in The Forward.