Statement from the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Wits University on responses received regarding Mr Mcebo Dlamini’s recent comments

As of today, Mr Mcebo Dlamini is no longer President or a member of the SRC. The rationale for this has been articulated in a letter that was sent to all students a short while ago, and need not be the subject of this communication. However, I thought it appropriate to write to those of you who have engaged me and my colleagues through emails and social media to express your abhorrence for his statements on Adolf Hitler, his racist remarks regarding whites and his anti-semitism.

You are all absolutely right to be outraged by Mr Dlamini’s statements and his subsequent defence of those statements. I too am appalled, and we are all embarrassed by the fact that it came from a leader within our own University community. This is why I took the unprecedented step of releasing a public statement condemning the President of the SRC of my own University.

However, I want to engage some of you about the inherent assumptions in your own responses. Many of the responses were perfectly legitimate, reflecting outrage, as they should, within the boundaries of civilised discourse and a non-racial ethos. But there were some that I believe reflected the very racism that they were condemning. Some responses included the unacceptable use of words such as ‘monkey’. Some included opinions about the new South Africa and its propensity to be corrupt, racist and xenophobic. Some glorified the Wits of old and lamented its decline. Then there were others that urged me to inform Mr Dlamini that it was whites or Jews who led the struggle for the freedom that he now enjoys. These responses provoked their own racist responses, spinning into a never-ending cycle of racism.

I must say that I found all of these statements as offensive as Mr Dlamini’s which, however racist, did not justify the racism that they provoked and in fact seemed to expose the dirty underbelly of racism that many of us subtly or unsubtly share.

There are many problems in the new South Africa and it is legitimate for us to be critical, as many of us at Wits have been for many years. But contemporary South Africa is not wholly defined by corruption, racism or xenophobia. It is also marked by new opportunities for people who were previously excluded, by a robust civil society and a critical press, and by decency among ordinary South Africans, many of whom came onto the streets in their thousands only two weeks ago to say that the xenophobic attacks were not in their name.

The Wits of old was on one level a great place of opportunity and a haven of sanity in a racist and authoritarian world.  But it was also a place where black students and others were deliberately excluded from many of the opportunities that were provided to their white counterparts. The contemporary Wits is far more diverse and cosmopolitan, and yet still continues to produce the excellent research and teaching outputs for which the University has always been renowned.

In addition, it must be said that there were many people from a variety of racial, political and religious backgrounds who sacrificed much for our freedom. Joe Slovo and Ruth First are often mentioned, but there are also many others, including our great stalwarts Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko, Amina Cachalia, Ahmed Timol, Helen Joseph, Bram Fischer and thousands of others. Every one of them engaged in the struggle and made sacrifices because they were African patriots and great human beings. They did not do so as a result of being Jewish, Christian, Muslim, white or black. Indeed, it does them a great disservice to highlight their race, ethnicity or religious orientation when commenting on their contributions to our collective freedom.

I am engaging you on these issues because I believe that too often we see the racism in others and fail to observe it in ourselves. It is important that we ask questions about our own inherent assumptions. It is also important that we do not allow our public discourse to be dominated by the right wing and racists on all sides, and allow it to spiral into a never-ending cycle of racism, tribalism, xenophobia and religious fundamentalism which our country and this world can ill afford. It is also important to call out our own when they begin to engage in racist diatribes.

This has been a painful episode for all of us. It has been totally embarrassing that one of our own could have reflected the very intolerance that this institution has stood against for all of its history. But perhaps if we use it as a learning experience, and a chance to internalise the non-racial that we so often espouse, then Mr Dlamini will have made a contribution to our community that he never intended.

Professor Adam Habib
Vice-Chancellor and Principal
University of the Witwatersrand

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