Sun Dec 04 14:17:23 SAST 2016

Night of the long scarves

Tanya Farber | 2016-11-01 08:12:43.0
POINTS: Penny Andrews says UCT staff are feeling anxious
Image by: RUVAN BOSHOFF

The fault line is growing deeper by the minute: are you with the protesters or are you against them?

The soapboxes on either side are buckling under the weight.

Photographs of police brutality and student violence billow out in the space of public opinion.

Sentiment on either side, it seems, calcifies easily in a post-fact world, but in one building at the University of Cape Town there is a woman sitting obstinately on a couch knitting a purple scarf.

She will not be pushed either way. She treats that fault line like a conversational trap made of flimsy thread and knits another row.

She is Penny Andrews, the university’s dean of law, who in January became the institution’s first black academic in that position, returning from the US to do so.

Now she is on a mission to make sure her students don’t join the ranks of the unemployed by abandoning their degrees.

“This is what I am telling my students. By finishing your degree you’ll have the power to unsettle the world. If you take up this fight at the expense of your education you will join the ranks of the unemployed and there’ll be nothing you can do about it,” she says.

Andrews was an activist at university in Durban during the liberation struggle.

A close friend never finished his degree as he, like many others she says, “put liberation before education”.

But now in her 60s, she says “my education gave me choices and influence that he never had”.

“I grew up in places like Bonteheuwel and Kensington. I know what it takes to overcome all that to get a tertiary education,” Andrews says

On this particular day there had been a senate meeting.

A crust of security guards folds around the building and Andrews says she can’t bear the stench that lingers almost two weeks after protesters threw buckets of sewage across the floor.

What also lingers is a story being whispered in the halls of academia.

Andrews came under such harsh verbal attack by some students for continuing the academic year that she was brought to tears after 30 years of die-hard commitment to student-centred learning.

“The students are the whole reason we have universities, so I am never going to stop my support for them,” she said.

“But I was saddened that when the students called an assembly they made allegations against me. They were pretty mean to me.

“Students are hot-headed and they will say stuff. But I am comfortable with what I have done and don’t feel like I have to change.

“Their strategy was to humiliate me, but I don’t feel humiliated.”

Andrews knows where it is coming from.

“I am the dean in a university with a racist history that has not done the hard work of real transformation over the past two decades, but now we have to figure out how to move forward.”

She stands by her decision to continue with the year, and says of the incident: “It wasn’t a game-changer. I will always care about them. As my friend says to her teenage daughter, ‘no matter what you do, you can’t get me to stop caring about you’.”

Where does one draw the line?

“I’ve drawn the line. I totally disapprove of the methods. I support addressing inequality, but I don’t support intimidation or throwing rocks or sjambokking other students. I will not tolerate or condone unlawful conduct.

“You need to build up support for a mass movement like the UDF or TAC did. You can’t go around intimidating people into supporting you.

“Their call is too broad — unlike the TAC, which took a single issue and focused on it.

”The students have made this all-encompassing call about so many issues. It makes it hard to respond.”

She will also have no truck with “progressive” academics who say no to securitisation on campuses.

“The ones who say no security on campus are the same ones who can’t breathe without ADT guarding their houses.

“We live in a securitised society and you can’t get away from that,” the dean says, adding that non-academic support staff in the faculty were feeling “anxious and traumatised” as people had tried to intimidate them into leaving their offices.

Her final word on her own public display of sadness is: “It didn’t change my sense of my job or what I have to do.

“I know exactly what it takes to give yourself options in life and I am going to try my damnedest to get the students to work hard, be principled, and have high expectations of themselves.”

One row plain, one row purl.

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