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Preserving the Intellectual Freedom in our Institutions: “Making the pedagogical more political and the political more pedagogical” 2006-02-16
Sipho Seepe

 * Academic Director, Henley Management College. This was the Graduation Address given on May 10, 2005 at the Tshwane University of Technology

Through research, teaching and learning universities fulfill their primary functions – the discovery and dissemination of knowledge. The fulfillment of these functions depends on creating an environment that allows free exchange of ideas. In its policy on Free Expression, Peaceful Dissent, and Demonstrations, Yale University describes free exchange of ideas as an obligation of a university. The policy describes intellectual freedom as “the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionables, and challenge the unchallengeable. To curtail free expression strikes twice at the intellectual freedom, for whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessarily also deprives others the right to listen to those views.”

Freedom of expression “provides a forum for the new, provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox. Free speech is a barrier to the tyranny of authoritarian or even majority opinion as to the rightness or wrongness of particular doctrines or thoughts”. The University of Yale policy further notes that the responsibility of maintaining this freedom lies with every member of a university – it is an obligation!

The real test for intellectual freedom is when an unpopular view is expressed. The real test is whether we are able to reconcile ourselves with the “freedom for the thought we hate”. An appreciation of this means that we would open our campuses even to those individuals whose opinions we find repugnant. Those opposed to their ideas are free to invoke their right to protest – which is an expression of the same right. The Yale University regulation requires that the protest be peaceful and the demonstrations be orderly. Disruption of lectures and academic activities infringes on other people’s right.


Indeed, the history of human development is marked by ideas that were on the margins or that went against the grain. Advancement in science and technology are the product of the intellectual project in our universities and in society. As I argued elsewhere,

“Great leaders "make the times" by delighting us with new insights and perspectives. Their profound insights, often beyond our comprehension, advance thought and influence subsequent thinking. The likes of Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, Malcom X and Karl Popper come to mind. Others are "made by the times" by rising to the great challenges and crises of their time. Closer examples are Stephen Bantu Biko, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Some are not only "made by the times", they also "made the times".”

It is important to mention that the individuals concerned were experts in their own fields. Their discoveries were informed by identification of numerous anomalies in the explanations or theories associated with their field of interest. Contrary to the prevalent nonsense in this country, no politician has come with a new scientific or medical insight!

But we have also seen the intellectual project being undermined in our country. As I continued to argue that:

“In our times and in this place, the HIV-Aids epidemic is the greatest challenge. It is unprecedented in medical history. It does not recognise any artificial or natural boundaries be it race, colour, class, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, social origin and social standing. The fact that the virus mutates rapidly makes it exceedingly complex. This threat has invited all sorts of gurus who are prepared to proffer solutions. It has united people who would normally not find common cause with each other. It has also brought into sharp focus the debates around science and democracy. Carefully handled, these debates had the potential of transforming our society into a theatre of scientific and intellectual experiments. The debates would have explored the feasibility of incorporating indigenous knowledge within the mainstream scientific and medical systems.”

Unfortunately, the debates on HIV/AIDS far from nourishing the intellectual habit, have led to the undermining of academic expertise. Medical knowledge and expertise is continually challenged by those who have no clue of what they are talking about.

“South Africa has become, at government level, a purveyor and compost heap of discredited ideas…Having failed to initiate a creative debate on science and democracy, these debates have, instead, exposed major flaws in our understanding of democracy. There is a general lack of appreciation of the link between democracy and freedom of expression, and democracy and development.”

A few scholars who dared raise their voice in protest have been the subject of abuse. Save for Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, the silence from the university leadership has been deafening. Judge Edwin Cameroon referred to this phenomenon as the crisis of truth telling.

Commenting on the spineless black political leadership in the United States of America, African-American scholar Cornell West could as well be referring to the crisis of intellectual leadership at our universities. He writes in Race Matters: "Present day black political leaders appear too hungry for status to be angry, too eager for acceptance to be bold, too self-invested in advancement to be defiant. And when they drop their masks and try to get mad, their bold rhetoric is more performance than personal, more play-acting than heartfelt."

The crisis of truth telling afflicts our universities. It has tragically affected the intellectual and academic projects in our institutions. They lack the courage to defend the academic project.

The culture of disruption, reminiscent of years of struggle, engulfing our universities is a manifestation of the crisis of intellectual and political leadership. Encouraged by the culture of dismissing and labeling critics as ultra-right, ultra-left, rightwing, counter-revolutionary, etc…, students have hurled abuse, intimidated and held institutional managers hostage. No productive education can take place in such an environment.

Putting it elegantly in the 40 th Hoernle Memorial Lecture, Professor Jonathan Jansen Dean of Education at the University of Pretoria notes that when the intellectual project ceases, then the university ceases to exist.

"A university ceases to exist when the intellectual project no longer defines its identity, infuses its curriculum, energises its scholars, and inspires its students. It ceases to exist when state central and interference closes down the space within which academic discourse and imagination can flourish without constraint. The university ceases to exist when it imposes on itself narrowing views of the future based on ethnic or linguistic chauvinism, and denies the multiplicity of voices and visions that grant [such] institutions their distinctive character. And the university ceases to exist when it represents nothing other than an empty shell of racial representivity at the cost of academic substance and intellectual imagination." (Mail & Guardian, 28 Jan-13 Feb 2005 edition)

Ideology of transformation

The above development is made possible by our willingness to submit to the ruling ideology – the ideology of transformation.

The Oxford Dictionary (Advanced Learners 6 th edition) provides a succinct definition of ideology as constituting both ideas and beliefs.  It describes ideology as (i) a set of ideas upon which an economic or political system is based; (ii) a set of beliefs, especially one held by a particular group that influences the way people behave.

The extent to which an ideology is embraced by an individual or group is a function of specific psychological and material interests. Ideology manifests itself differently to different individuals.  Those who feel intensely will assume an activist and propagandist role, others will be more passive and others simply fellow travelers.  The latter are likely to be unconscious of the ideologies underlying their thoughts and behaviour.

Ideologies are responsible for the maintenance of socio-political systems. In oppressive societies the oppressed are known to have become apologists and participants in their own continued oppression. Inasmuch as one can establish a connection between oppression and ideology, the same can be said of democracy and ideology.  The point is: ideology legitimizes social and power relations thus making these seem normal to members of society.

The changes and policies enacted in South Africa are premised on transforming the entire system from the ‘geo-political apartheid imagination’ to that suited to the post-apartheid environment.

Unfortunately, and owing to the fractious history and intolerance, transformation has become a self-legitimating ideology. Officially sanctioned pronouncement and process are justified and are gradually presented as non-negotiable imperatives of transformation. Invoking transformation renders all discussions irrelevant. The ideology of transformation rules supreme. In the scheme of things, black intellectuals are expected to, and have been willing to support the projects of the new government – whether they make sense or not. Regarding this, Jansen (in another paper) writes:

“The first thing that strikes one is the silence of black intellectuals on most of these concerns [presidential position on HIV/AIDS, the Zimbabwe crisis, the manufactured plot against the president, etc.]. From one crisis to the next, the voices of leading black intellectuals, with or without expertise in the relevant fields, were simply absent. One can only wonder, for example, whether the silence of the medical establishment had to do with concerns to vital resources, the loss of prized jobs and access to social and disciplinary privilege; that such losses might explain the silence or the belated and muted response from a few.”

The power of the ideology of transformation was evident during the unveiling of the National Plan on Higher Education and the subsequent decision to merge and incorporate black institution into formerly Afrikaner institutions.

Like all groundbreaking initiatives, the proposals provoked a howl of protest from various sectors.  The proposals were seen privileging certain institutions at the expense of others, or legitimizing inequalities and attitudes spawned by apartheid. Indeed, some respondents employed passionate and rabble-rousing discourse – ‘declaration of war’, ‘institutional genocide on black universities and tecknikons’, ‘betrayal of the struggle’, ‘intellectual disgrace, a political disaster’.  The proposals were perceived to be part of an insidious strategy to close black institutions, a denigration of blackness and an endorsement of the notion that ‘white is good, west is best’.  (For greater elaboration on this point, see Seepe, 2002.) 

The South African University Vice Chancellor Association (SAUVCA), ever cautious indicated its support for the Plan albeit with reservations.  In particular, the Association noted that the ‘Plan identifies rational objectives for the higher education sector, but an examination of the strategies to be used reveals areas of potential tension’.

It continued ‘the Plan provides no detailed blueprint for its own implementation, preferring instead to outline a “framework” for action.  This leaves the Plan open to many variables leading to several possible end-result scenarios - not all of them desirable.’

Despite numerous concerns and reservations from the higher education sector, it did not take long before the entire higher education capitulated to the ideology of transformation. If the present furore between the justice ministry and the judiciary is anything to go by, the ideology of transformation is not limited to educational institutions. Concerns have been raised that if “the legislative proposals were adopted as they stand, the executive would become involved in administering the courts and training and disciplining judges to an extent that is fundamentally incompatible with the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary” (Camerer, 2005). Fortunately, these concerns seem to be shared by all senior members of the judiciary.

The challenge for the graduates and the university is to reclaim education as a practice of freedom. We will be giving concrete expression to the creation of a truly democratic society. Are we up to the challenge?


1.  Aronowitz S., & Giroux H.A, 1993, Education Still Under Siege, 2 nd edition, Bergin & Garvey, Wesport, CT

2. Camerer S., 2005, Business Day May 5 Fixing the bench to the party line

3. Jansen J., 2004, 40 th Hoernle Memorial Lecture, When does a university cease to exist? Mail & Guardian, 28 Jan-13 Feb 2005 edition)

4. Jansen, J. 2002, The (Self-Imposed) Crisis of the Black Intellectual: Jonathan Jansen's Wolpe lecture, University of KwaZulu-Natal.

5. SAUVCA, Executive Response on the National Plan on Higher Education.

6. Seepe S., 2001, Mail & Guardian December 14, Challenge by our times

7. Seepe S., 2002, June 15 Critical Endorsement of the National Plan on Higher Education, Quarterly Review of Education & Training in South Africa, Volume 9, Number 2. Education Policy Unit, University of the Witwatersrand.

8. Yale College Undergraduate Regulations 2003-2004.


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