Academic Freedom Is Often a Difficult Journey, Even in a Liberal Society
BYLINE: Amelia Naidoo
Among the greatest apostles of academic freedom are surely Nelson Mandela, who once ordered the re-installation of old South Africa colonial artworks in the name of freedom of expression, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who spent most of his adult life in a Siberian prison because of his passion for truth and academic freedom.
Both these men fought life and death battles for the greater truth, believing that without it a country has no “soul or conscience”.
However, academic freedom is often a difficult journey even in liberal societies.
Closer to home, the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) presents an example of fractures appearing in the hallowed firmament of academic freedom. Since last year some academics have been singled out for their outspoken views on the governance of the university, with punitive measures taken against those who don’t tow the line.
Among those targeted for their “inappropriate behaviour” in speaking out against the university was Rhodes University sociologist Professor Jimi Adesina. He condemned a gagging order placed on the university community during its industrial strike last year. Delivering a lecture at Howard College recently, he spoke on academic freedom and reminded UKZN academics of their social responsibility as intellectuals.
Although he was not barred from speaking, his lecture was not announced on the university’s internal notice system, as is normally the case with other lectures.
Commenting on the lack of advertising, university council member Professor Nithaya Chetty, in a letter to the UKZN executive, said: “This should begin to raise alarm bells to all of us about the type of university we are building.
“That we were not able to publicise an academic lecture by the president of the South African Sociological Society (Adesina) is shameful to me.”
In another matter related to the much-publicised industrial strike, the institution has targeted two union leaders, Professor Evan Mantzaris and Fazel Khan who, among other things, commented to the media on university issues.
Mantzaris and Khan face disciplinary inquiries that could see them dismissed from the institution. Mantzaris has been suspended from campus and banned from having any contact with university employees or any access to the campuses.
The tension at the university is palpable.
Hardly anybody is prepared to speak to newspapers on the record or openly challenge management for fear of being singled out and punished, or losing a job.
“Although our academic freedom is assured in our constitution, the actual reality on the ground is that people are scared,” remarked one lecturer. …