Parts 1 and 2 in August and September 2017 respectively looked at the campaign for the University of Cape Town (UCT) to boycott Israeli universities and the likely consequences for UCT if it succeeded (see here).
So this is where things currently stand: During 2017 The Palestinian Solidarity Forum (PSF), a recognised student organisation, sent a memorandum to the Vice-Chancellor calling for the university to implement an academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions and guidance on the university’s procedures to do so.
The Vice-Chancellor referred the matter to the Senate Executive Committee (SEC), which acts a gate-keeper for the Senate. The Senate is accountable to the Council on issues of academia and research. The Council governs UCT.
The SEC, in turn, referred the matter to the Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) to make a recommendation on the PSF’s boycott proposal to the Senate and the Council.
The AFC considered representations from the UCT-Palestinian Solidarity Forum (PSF) and the South African Union of Jewish Students.
Subsequently, the AFC appeared before the SEC to argue for its proposal. The AFC rejected the PSF’s proposal, but proposed to the SEC an alternative recommendation. The AFC’s proposal has been described as less a boycott than “a limiting measure pertaining to formal relations with Israeli academic institutions directly complicit in the illegal occupation of Occupied Palestinian Territories”.
The SEC resolved that the AFC’s proposal be submitted to the Senate, accompanied by a note that the SEC itself did not support the AFC’s recommendation. The SEC’s grounds were that in the SEC’s view,
- it would be contrary to academic freedom;
- a lack of clear definitions for the terminology in the proposal would make it unenforceable; and
- it would give rise to questions of inconsistent application.
Finally, on 24 November 2017, the Senate decided to refer the matter back to a joint meeting of the SEC and AFC to discuss the reasons for the SEC’s lack of support and to put forward a clearer position to Senate.
This SEC-AFC meeting is due to take place next week, on Wednesday 25 April 2018. The agenda of this meeting raises some curious issues.
The agenda refers to the Senate’s reasoning, outlined above, stating that the Senate requires the SEC to craft a clearer position. This should mean that the SEC should resolve the issue of clarity; whether it chooses to consult with the AFC in the process is up to the SEC. It doesn’t make sense for the Senate to dictate how the SEC performs its function. Maybe the Senate doesn’t trust its own SEC. Or perhaps it’s standard practice.
Consequently, the PSF requested that its original submission should be considered at the SEC-AFC meeting as well. This, the AFC agreed to.
The proper procedure for students to raise an issue with the AFC is through the Students’ Representative Council (SRC). The SRC is the only student body formally recognised by the UCT Statute to interact with the Senate and the Council. But the SRC has been completely bypassed.
“Functions, powers and duties of the SRC
21. Subject to the provisions of this constitution, the SRC:
21.1. makes representations on behalf of students, in particular to the Council, Senate, Institutional Forum, and other bodies and officers of the University;
21.3. makes recommendations … for the recognition of or withdrawal of recognition of any student society or organisation;
21.6. affiliates to bodies and organisations outside the University and represents students in such structures;
The SRC must be wondering how the PSF, which operates under the auspices of the SRC, has managed to go straight to the top. It not only doesn’t have the standing to go over the SRC, but it hasn’t even consulted it.
The final curiosity concerns the submission by the South African Jews For Palestine’s UCT Branch (SAJFP) for consideration at the forthcoming meeting. The SAJFP may have “a branch” on campus, but it has no legal standing. It is not a student body formally recognised by the SRC. As such, the SAJFP has no business making representation to UCT’s highest decision-making bodies. Yet, an outside organisation with no standing at the university has been given a platform that hasn’t even been afforded to the SRC.
The over-arching mystery is why the pro-boycott lobby is getting privileges that others can only dream of? The mishmash of process dwarfs the PSF’s own contradictory, unproven or false arguments.
No university anywhere in the world has resolved to impose an academic boycott on Israeli universities. UCT would be an outlier.
And, as UCT has not had any connection with an Israeli university since 2013, a resolution on a boycott certainly wouldn’t be a matter of urgency. In the circumstances, it would just look like self-righteousness. It suggests that somebody’s political agenda is being pursued rather than the needs of UCT itself.
Most importantly, however, such a resolution would provide no benefits (likely the opposite) for UCT’s students, who must have more pressing issues to be addressed. At least, they now know that they can bypass the SRC and go straight to the top – UCT will need a lot of luck in arguing that the normal procedures can’t be bypassed.
Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the SA Institute of Race Relations (IRR)