Some thoughts about academic freedom (from 2016)

A SPOKESMAN for the SABC denied on Thursday that the corporation’s chief operating officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, had been approached to serve as the next vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town (UCT) on the long-expected retirement of the incumbent, Dr Max Price.

Members of UCT’s governing council have reportedly concluded that Motsoeneng’s successful reforms at the SABC showed he was well-suited to this role. This view was echoed at the SABC’s headquarters in Auckland Park on Thursday. One Motsoeneng staffer claimed UCT’s own recent institutional innovations had been an inspiration to the chief operating officer: “These moribund apartheid-era institutions have struggled to cope with democracy,” he noted. “That is why they have both reverted so quickly to apartheid practices.”

The two institutions operate with a similar financial model. The SABC’s chief financial officer commented, “the academics do all the teaching and all the research.

“University management then takes all the money generated and gives a little bit of it back to the academics. They also provide a bus service.”

Motsoeneng has reportedly applied the same model at Auckland Park, relentlessly squeezing overworked journalists while the ranks of overpaid middle managers continue to swell. Motsoeneng’s pay rose from R2.8m to R3.7m in 2015, generating outrage and controversy.

“It’s no mystery,” the chief financial officer explained. “His salary has been pegged against the top 20% of university vice-chancellors.”

Motsoeneng believes the philosophy of the two institutions is similar. “We are both firmly committed to the right to freedom of expression as enshrined in the constitution,” Motsoeneng noted at a recent SABC middle managers’ golfing gala dinner. “This right is a cornerstone of the institutional culture of both organisations.”

The chief operating officer cautioned, however, that “even the exercise of fundamental rights is not unlimited”. He later clarified: “This means you can’t actually say what you want after all.”

Motsoeneng recently issued a controversial instruction that SABC news should not screen coverage of violent service delivery protests, on the grounds that this encouraged violence. On apparently similar grounds, Price has now barred Flemming Rose, a Danish freedom of expression campaigner, from delivering UCT’s TB Davie lecture, an annual event designed to cherish academic freedom. Asked if it was ironic that UCT had banned Rose delivering a lecture on academic freedom, a university spokesman responded that, “we don’t want to talk about that because it might create a stir”.

Despite the apparent parallels, Motsoeneng is reportedly outraged that critics have likened him to Price. “There may be almost no evidence that televising protests results in more protest,” an SABC source claimed.

“But, there is even less evidence that Mr Rose’s presence on campus would have led to violence.”

The comparison further angered Motsoeneng because, “I imposed the SABC’s protest policy in a systematic and disciplined way.… UCT’s protest policy was a complete shambles by comparison.”

The chief operating officer was reportedly “appalled” by Price’s implication, contrary to all the evidence, that Rose’s speech might amount to “propaganda for war, incitement of violence or advocacy of hatred”. Motsoeneng also slammed claims he was after Price’s job. “UCT’s humanities faculty is full of dancers, musicians, actors, drama queens and media studies students: it’s worse than Auckland Park.”

“At SABC, some reporters dressed in black as a protest against censorship,” Motsoeneng’s spokesman observed.

“There’s been nothing like that at UCT — just lots of old guys wearing brown corduroy trousers and tweed jackets. We’ve been told that this is just the normal situation.”

“Maybe these lecturers do not care enough about academic freedom to protest,” the spokesman observed. “The reason Hlaudi will not move to UCT to crush dissent is that he is not needed there.”

• Prof Butler teaches public policy at UCT

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