31 August 2017

South Africa: An Open Letter to Mahmood Mamdani

opinion

What I find ironical is that you should visit the University of Cape Town as a reform evangelist when the spirit of the #RhodesMustFall which you are celebrating has been quietly and steadily stirring in Makerere Institute of Social Research since last year (and even long before that), largely due to your capricious and dishonest leadership.

Dear Prof Mamdani,

I find your reason for returning to the University of Cape Town (UCT) as reported - i.e., 'Because Rhodes fell' - staggeringly disingenuous. Perhaps 16 years ago, your younger self cared sufficiently about the implied ideals. What the Rhodes memorial represented, and what the agitations for the over-due reforms across the so-called white universities (UCT, Stellenbosch University, University of Pretoria, University of the Witwatersrand, etc) targeted was the colonial proclivities of the institution and its historical links with imperialism (including its darkest form, apartheid) and the resultant structural injustices. The #RhodesMustFall campaign was anchored on strong demands, that have rocked South African universities for the greater part of the last two or three years, for structural and institutional reforms. The guns of those campaigns are still smoking. When those agitations began to simmer towards the end of 2012, first as hissing and slowly spreading signs of discontent among students and faculty, I was still a doctoral student in Stellenbosch University. In my institution, it revolved majorly around the language question, but pointed towards wider discontents across most of the country's major universities.

[I know, from your UCT address and in our previous discussion, that you view the success of Afrikaans in the South African context as a progressive case of how an African language can be elevated to the status of a privileged language. But I think this view deliberately ignores the fact that Afrikaans, though developed on the African soil, evolved as an imperial language and its success cannot be disentangled from the role the Afrikaners played in the imperial project in South Africa. Like English, Afrikaans was, and is, a language of power.]

Anyway, back to the topic, what I find ironical is that you should visit UCT as a reform evangelist when the spirit of the 'Fall of Rhodes' which you are celebrating has been quietly and steadily stirring in Makerere Institute of Social Research since last year (and even long before that), largely due to your capricious and dishonest leadership of the unit. Last week, you sanctioned an evaluation which sought to focus (at least insofar as the students viewed it) too narrowly on gender concerns among the students. What you conveniently neglected to paint for the students was the impetus behind this apparent concern for reforms, how you have been caught flat-footed, literally with your pants down and how the move was an act born more out of fear for the dark clouds that have ominously gathered over MISR than genuine desire for reforms.

Fortuitously, the students dismissed the initiative as insincere and declined to cooperate with your evaluator, noting that there are far bigger and more urgent problems bedeviling the unit that need to be attended to holistically. Still, I think that your initiative to manage the festering disquiet among the students instead of letting it flare out of proportion as it did in 2016 (which ironically also drew inspiration from the #RhodesMustFall campaigns) is a gesture in the right direction. I only hope you will listen to the students and the faculty, whose dissenting voices may sound to you too feeble to be concerned about for the moment.

MISR is overdue for reforms. Staff, students and faculty feel so beleaguered. In MISR, examination process, which in any university worth the name is sacrosanct, has steadily been reduced to a process of pre-determining who retains and who loses his or her scholarship, a process whose outcome for some students seems predetermined, and the only reason MISR has so far gotten away with it is because of the weak institutional oversight. And students increasingly (and not without evidence) have come to view the MISR examination as a rigged process, or traps set along their path, its end being not evaluation but the settling of old-scores. Students who fail and thus lose their Good Academic Standing do so through pre-determined processes.

You've in the past invoked policies, procedures and practices through which MISR is run. Unfortunately, these instruments are so whimsically and selectively applied as recent evidence (which I would be gladly willing to share) has abundantly made clear to anyone who cares about the disturbing trend.

In my January 2017 memo, for instance, I called you out for using the MISR Academic Board simply to rubber stamp your prior decisions such as the termination of Naku Mubarak's scholarship. Any careful administrator would have paused and reconsidered his step. But not you. You went ahead to direct Mr. Simon Musoke, the MISR PhD Administrator (who isn't even a university employee), to write and sign the letter dated 28 January terminating Naku's scholarship. Even though the letter was ostensibly written to the student, in the fraudulent MISR style, the unit went ahead to circulate it to the relevant university offices copied in, without actually serving it to the student himself! The letter was copied to the university officials and surreptitiously smuggled into the student's file in CHUSS as the student has just recently found out.

The student was deliberately and maliciously kept in the dark about his status as a scholarship holder and as a university graduate student until just about two weeks ago when he sought clarification from the College. This is just one of the many demonstrable cases of dishonesty, duplicities and forgeries that characterize how the Directorate of MISR functions. If you think I'm overstating the case against you and the Directorate from what you may claim is an isolated case, you ask me to substantiate with more incontrovertible evidence as one who has recently been part of the Directorate.

Naku kept asking you about his fate (since it was becoming increasingly hard for him to support himself) but you kept telling him that the Board is yet to sit and determine his fate. Really? When you knew that you had already irregularly terminated his scholarship at the onset of the semester in January 2017 (and you simply had the Board rubber-stamp it on 20 January 2017?)

When in May 2017 poor Naku approached you to apply for a dead year, you were hypocritically sympathetic and regretted the delay in deciding his fate! And in granting or approving it, you even had the audacity to leave him hoping! What callousness! What depth of sadism! You don't care about anyone but yourself! You don't give a damn about the fate of your students except the few that blindly grovel before you and blindly worship and spy on fellow students for you.

I won't mention by name the many student who, having forfeited their jobs, joined MISR with such high expectations, have now decided to quit the unit having seen it for the fraudulent project that it is! There are many who are looking for alternative scholarships as an exit strategy. Many more rue missed opportunities that they had to forego to join or retain their MISR scholarship. It is not yet too late to restore these students' hopes and expectations.

Yet another student (whom I won't mention by name because I haven't been given a go-ahead to do so) after losing her funding, was blessed to have a Good Samaritan who was so kind as to agree to pay her tuition. But you and your lackeys (some of whom are self-confessed feminists) have adamantly refused for over a year to clear the student or read her work and release her to progress. The student feels lost and miserable and is deeply frustrated. Mahmood, the heart with which you've condemned some students to an uncertain fate is truly sadistic and monstrous.

Mahmood, just these cases above, and many other flagrant cases of office and institutional abuse that you've presided over in your six years in MISR, as I've documented, especially in communication to university officials, with you copied in in the interest of transparency, make one wonder how you can, with a clear conscience, sanction the release of your return to UCT as a reform evangelist on a MISR mailing list. You seem to imagine that you have your playing cards so close to your chest!

If, as implicit in this return to UCT, you sufficiently care about presiding over a humane order and are genuinely glad to see 'Rhodes fall' symbolically in your own unit, then you should lead in dismantling citadels of capriciousness, prejudice, segregation, victimization, callousness, sadism and gross manipulation of institutional procedures, structures and hierarchies, all of which you have perpetrated or been complicit in perpetrating in MISR as I've documented and is prepared to adduce more documentary evidence.

I don't know whether there's a memorial or a physical embodiment of these vices in MISR. Even if there isn't any, I would long to see you lead in dismantling and eventually lead the celebration of the fall of MISR's Rhodes so that we can all join in our local rendition of Rhodes Has Fallen!

The rot and discontent in MISR is so thick you can cut a hole through it.

JAMES OCITA is former Deputy Director (Finance & Administration) at Makere Institute of Social Research (MISR).

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