Optimism of the will

If there’s one struggle that’s looking on the up at the moment, it’s the fight to get Ashwin Desai’s job back at the Centre for Civil Society, where I work. Ashwin’s one of few veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle who has neither self-destructed nor self-enriched. Click here for a fine interview with him in Z Magazine, and here for an excerpt from his excellent We are the Poors. The uncompromising honesty of his analysis might explain why, now, he’s being banned from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, as the University refashions itself as a credentialing institution for the middle classes.

Here’s the story.

Ashwin applied for funding earlier this year to undertake research on the history of race and sport in South Africa. He’s clearly got the skills; his scholarship on the politics of poverty in Durban, his deep engagement with anti-apartheid struggle, and his history of research on sport in South Africa – including co-editing “Blacks in Whites – A century of Cricket Struggles in KwaZulu-Natal” – clearly mark him as qualified for the job. But the Vice-Chancellor, Malegapuru William Makgoba, instructed the selection committee at the University of KwaZulu-Natal not to consider Ashwin’s application. Makgoba also prevented Ashwin from coming back to campus even as an unpaid honorary fellow.


It goes back to struggles in the post-apartheid academy, in which Ashwin fought against the then barely-reconstructed managerial forces at the University of Durban-Westville. In 1996, in a move that saved many of his fellow protesters their jobs, Ashwin made an agreement with the Vice Chancellor of UDW under which he resigned, and submitted to being banned from entering the campus. He then taught at the Workers College in Durban for a number of years, as well as continuing his activism, most famously with the Concerned Citizens Forum.

In 2003, Ashwin was appointed to the position of an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Natal’s (UN) Centre for Civil Society. The University of Natal, clearly, had no objections to his appointment. Further, Saths Cooper, the then Vice-Chancellor of the UDW, lifted the ban against Dr. Desai from entering UDW. In 2003, the predominantly Indian UDW and largely white UN were merged to form the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

So this is where it gets odd. For a while, Ashwin was free to work on campus. But then, towards the end of this year, the university administration began to grumble. The source of the trouble was rather quickly identified as William Makgoba, the Vice-Chancellor, who had got it into his mind that, actually, the old banning order was in fact still valid, despite its being rescinded by his predecessors. So Ashwin became a persona non grata on campus. The Vice Chancellor made clear that if he wanted his job back, he’d need to supplicate in front of the university senate, and they would deliberate on it, with the matter being kicked to committee and, in the best case scenario, Ashwin getting six months back pay and no job. Makgoba’s tactic is, however, nonsensical – there are no grounds for demanding that Ashwin submit before the university senate, because he has done nothing that would demand such a move.

The question, then, is why the Vice Chancellor would want Ashwin out, and why he’d be prepared to draw such attention to himself to do it. Two answers suggest themselves. One traces Makgoba’s appointment to the Vice-Chancellorship to his connections with the ANC, and understands that he is the drone of the Ministry of Education, at which are employed a number of people against whom Ashwin protested while at UDW. This answer, in other words, sees Ashwin’s persecution now as the cold revenge of old adversaries.

The second answer lies in the Vice-Chancellor’s proposed R27 million (US 4.3 million) cut of staff salaries and bonuses next year. It’s going to be hard for Makgoba to make these cuts without staff discontent, and he may believe that Ashwin, ceteris paribus, is the only man with the right sort of experience to lead the fight against the management. In this, the Vice-Chancellor is mistaken. There are many among the staff who are prepared, and wise enough, to take him on. Tying up Ashwin with bureaucracy is a profoundly ill-advised move. Ashwin has already moved his research money elsewhere, and there are many folk among the staff who are prepared to take on the administration. Makgoba seems to have shot himself in the foot here. But he’ll only find out when staff get back from the holiday break in January. And when they do, the staff will have words. Of course, Makgoba’s tactic will be to buy the union leadership off, as he did last year. If he succeeds with this tactic two years in a row, it’s the union membership, not leadership, that deserves a good kicking. As President Bush tried to say a little while back – fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

These reasons for Makgoba’s behaviour are neither comprehensive nor mutually exclusive. But there’s a enough truth in both to be deeply worried. And many have already expressed their concern by writing to the Vice Chancellor. Among them, are David McDonald , The Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa , Issa Shivji and Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Noam Chomsky, Michael Albert, Naomi Klein, and Avi Lewis.

Do drop a line to Makgoba and let him know what you think. He’s at

Professor M.W. Makgoba
Howard College Campus
University of KwaZulu-Natal
Durban 4041
South Africa

fax: +27-31-262 1873

You can now sign an online petition in support of Ashwin Desai here.

Update #2
Zackie Achmat, nominated for the Nobel Prize last year, Chair of the Treatment Action Campaign, has written in support of Ashwin here.

Update #3
As people trickle back to work, the number of signatures on the petition is on theup. Do sign if you haven’t already. I’m not usually a fan of online petitions, but this is almost certainly a case where your signature will make a difference – our vice-chancellor is very sensitive to international opinion. And Makgoba has been sent two more letters, from Dennis Brutus and the Combined Staff Association of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Update #4
From Richard Pithouse, on Jan 19th, who writes:

Last night there was a fantastic meeting in Wentworth – supported by people from Sydenham, Abahlali baseMjondolo, Meerbank, Chatsworth (Westcliffe) etc, etc. There was a petition against the banning of Ashwin Desai and lots of people spoke about their deep appreciation of Ashwin’s commitment to struggles in Wentworth. Hundreds of people signed the petition last night and it will be taken door to door now. Des D’sa said that he’s aiming at thousands of signatures.

In other news, Rhodes University has asked Ashwin to move his work on sport there, with the anticipation that “your presence on campus will add greatly to the critical intellectual environment that we are attempting to foster at Rhodes.”

Update #5
The debate drags on, with Makgoba behind a shield of technicism. He took his dog and pony show to SAFm today. You can find a transcript of the show here. Makgoba’s “I can’t do anything about it, I’m just a bureaucrat” line is disingenuous, and it is pierced very effectively by this letter from UKZN’s biggest union, the Combined Staff Association (COMSA).

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