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South Africa's activist social justice research centre under attack

By Dennis Brutus and Patrick Bond

August 6, 2008 -- Durban's University of KwaZulu-Natal vice-chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba is expected to deliver an edict that the Centre for Civil Society will close on December 31. The reason given by dean Donal McCracken to a sceptical School of Development Studies (where the centre is housed) is that staff do not have "permanent" funding. But neither do most of the university's research units, and there is money in centre reserves for at least a couple of years, plus ongoing donor support for many of our projects.

Hence this "execution" will be doggedly resisted because UKZN still has many staff and students who remember the struggle for non-racial democracy and don't mind speaking out to challenge misguided decisions.

As the two most senior academics in the centre, holding an honorary professorship and tenured research chair, respectively, we will resist, despite what a UKZN internal report recorded -- an environment of "intimidation and bullying", in which management "deploys power rather than intellect", as Rhodes professor Jimi Adesina put it.

The decision is misguided for many reasons, not least for overturning the official recommendation of a five-month University Research Review finalised in February, which advocated strengthening the centre and giving it more autonomy: "Closing down or removing the centre from UKZN does not appear to be an option as it was rejected by all interviewees and panel members. Through its international recognition and standing, the centre has put UKZN on a world map in social science, a position the university dare not risk to lose."

Newsmakers

On the local map, the centre has offered nearly 100 free events a year, including seminars, conferences, micro film festivals, literary celebrations and the Harold Wolpe Lecture, Durban's main lecture series.

In Howard College, several hundred community residents join academics on the last Thursday of each month to debate newsmakers and intellectuals, global and local -- such as, this year, commentator Xolela Mangcu, Soweto activist Trevor Ngwane, filmmaker John Pilger, Kenyan feminist Eunice Sahle and Zimbabwe democracy activists Judith Todd and Joy Mabengwe, as well as local anti-xenophobia campaigners Baruti Amisi, Pierre Matate and Orlean Naidoo.

Among our inspirations is Fatima Meer, whom we host this Sunday in Chatsworth in celebration of her 80 years of commitment and wisdom, as well as her decade of support to the "new social movements" in the original Concerned Citizens Forum which in 1998 helped renew urban justice advocacy across South Africa.

Meer's Wolpe lecture last year called for a progressive, post-nationalist liberatory politics to emerge from the grassroots, like the creative spark generated in 2001 when the World Social Forum in Brazil rose against the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.

With our centre's assistance, the Social Movement Indaba network and Diakonia Council of Churches hosted a local equivalent in January, drawing 400 community and labour leaders. Among those present were many who resisted Inanda Dam displacement, Treatment Action Campaigners and Congolese inner-city traders who hang in against all odds.

Evidence of abuse in the authorities' diktat to shut the centre ranges from a flawed process, to extreme race and gender implications, since contract termination affects a dozen black staff, most of whom are working class. The only paid staffer who should retain his job, McCracken told us, is the sole white expatriate (a writer of this article, Bond, whose government research subsidies more than pay his salary).

In addition to UKZN's threat to this centre and a generation of new critical scholars, a great deal of concrete research activity is now at risk.

UKZN claims it has South Africa's "second best" research profile (after the University of Pretoria).

A modest contribution comes from our centre staff's peer-reviewed articles, chapters and books -- 58 in 2007 with an average 50 a year since 2005 (and no, these fortnightly Mercury columns don't count) -- which rank us at the top of the university, measured per academic employee.

High productivity arises from documenting and interrogating the social laboratories of Durban, South Africa, Africa and the world, where contradictions generated by globalisation and the flawed character of post-colonial politics create conflict.

We have sought sites and research areas -- climate, energy, water/sanitation, global and national political economy, survival strategies and community philanthropy, the rise of social movements in Africa -- where these contradictions tell us more about society, politics, economy, gender, race, environment and other social relations than we would normally get from our academic armchairs.

Conflicts

Beyond merely trying to understand the conflicts, serious scholars will contribute to addressing them in a non-violent manner, such as through international legal strategies that the other writer of this article, Brutus, contributes to.

He does this with the Jubilee and the Khulumani Support Group, aiming for US$400 billion (R2951billion) in reparations to be paid by apartheid-era US and EU corporations -- which hopefully will frighten them enough to think twice about their next investment in the Sudan, Zimbabwe, Burma and the like.

The danger of the centre's approach to knowledge production, "praxis", is that the research generated sometimes threatens the privileges of power.

Two years ago, the same authorities banned Ashwin Desai from continuing employment at the centre and at UKZN, amidst a haze of confusion and weak excuses. We lost a major Human Sciences Research Council "Race and Redress" grant as a result of this interference. In 2003, the US Agency for International Development retracted a multimillion-rand donation after centre founder Adam Habib spoke out against the Iraq war.

That sort of style the centre encouraged from the outset: honest and courageous, combining the left brain's love of rigorous detail, and the left side of the body's beating heart.

UKZN management has stabbed this centre, but it cannot be allowed to die.

So this is really all about politics, and whether a university can host a critical mass of professional academics and community scholars devoted to social justice.

The formal appeal against CCS's closure is posted here http://www.nu.ac.za/ccs/default.asp?2,68,3,1575#letter

If you have testimonials about the wisdom of closing CCS, please let us know, at dennisbrutus2002@yahoo.com and pbond@mail.ngo.za and these will be posted at http://www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs. [Please post them in the comments box below as well.]

[Patrick Bond directs the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Dennis Brutus is a veteran anti-apartheid activist, having been jailed on Robben Island, as well as being a renowned poet. This article first appeared in the Durban Mercury at http://www.themercury.co.za/index.php?fArticleId=4544608.]

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