The coming academic boycott of Israel at UCT, Part 5 - Politicsweb

9 May 2019 - The can keeps being kicked down the road – which may not be a bad thing at the moment.

Sara Gon

Debate on whether the University of Cape Town (UCT) should impose a boycott on Israeli academics d academic institutions continues – in a process has been going on for over one-and-a-half years.

We thought that it might be concluded when the UCT Council met on 30 March 2019, but not so. The Council is the highest decision-making body at UCT and it had to consider and decide on the Senate’s resolution to impose a boycott. The original proposal to boycott was referred to the Senate by the ironically named Academic Freedom Committee.

The Senate’s resolution, which was passed on 15 March 2019, read:

"The University of Cape Town Senate took a resolution in favour of a proposal for UCT to not enter into any formal relationships with Israeli academic institutions operating in the occupied Palestinians territorities (sic) as well as other Israeli academic institutions enabling gross human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories.”

However, when the university Council met on 30 March 2019, it resolved as follows:

“Council did not adopt this resolution of the Senate. It was the view of the Council that a number of issues required clarification, including a full assessment of the sustainability impact of the Senate resolution, and a more consultative process was necessary before the matter could be considered any further. Council resolved to refer the matter back to the Senate.”

This was a case of ‘kicking the can down the road’, but an interesting one. It is still very possible that UCT will ultimately resolve to impose a boycott, but, implicitly, the Council has rebuked the Senate. The “clarification”, an “assessment” and particularly a “more consultative process” suggest that a body as large and august as the Senate messed up the process in its – or at least some of its members’ – zeal to impose a boycott.

The Senate is the top body for determining academic matters at UCT, and it is academic matters that are at the heart of such a significant decision.

The majority of those who were present at the Senate meeting in question decided on a boycott – but on the grounds of a sloppy investigation that fell short of the supposed investigative rigour of serious academics, which is an embarrassment for UCT.

First, UCT has no relations with Israeli academic institutions or academics, so consideration of this issue is really just a form of virtue signalling to the rest of the academic world.

Second, it suggests – though we have no minutes to verify this – that the few anti-Israel academics on the Senate had considerable effect in the discussions. Some of these academics are members of Boycott Sanctions and Disinvestment South Africa (BDS).

Third, the Palestine Support Forum (PSF) and other pro-Palestinian representation were crucial to the information the Senate considered. Yet the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) and others were denied the opportunity afforded to PSF, and their submissions were excluded from the Senate’s documentation. The PSF’s documentation was included in the agenda pack.

This is incomprehensible. There can be no more relevant interest group than SAUJS and yet pro-Israel and Jewish opinion wasn’t allowed. That a body such as the Senate allowed matters to proceed in this way is not just designed to boycott Israeli academia, but is an onslaught on the right of freedom of speech and opinion so egregious that UCT should be intensely ashamed.

The Senate has an obligation this time around to make its decision in the most procedurally fair manner possible. It must obtain as much information from all sides of the debate as is necessary to make an informed decision. The Senate must, in making a decision and to the extent required, comply with the university’s Statute.

The next meeting of the Senate where this issue is on the agenda, is to be held tomorrow, 10 May. We understand that the Senate will not vote on the issue at this meeting. It will only hear and discuss a report back by the Senate Executive to the Senate.

The can keeps being kicked down the road – which may not be a bad thing at the moment.


1. See Parts 1, 2 , 3 and 4 from August  2017 to 17 March 2019 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

2. To quote UCT’s website “as of 1 January 2019 the membership of Senate stood at 363”.

The composition of the Senate, like the Council and other responsible bodies, is governed by “The Statute of the University of Cape Town as amended”. The Department of Higher Education obliges universities to enact an institutional act with rules and procedures to govern the functioning of the university.

The Senate is responsible to the Council for UCT’s academic and research functions. In terms of the Statute it comprises -

-   the Vice-Chancellor (1),

-   the Deputy-Vice Chancellors (3),

-   the deans or acting deans, and 6 deputy deans of faculties (12),

-   the heads and actings heads of departments (53),

-   the professors - associate professors are not included (36),

-   elected academic members of staff (1),

-   members of the support staff (4),

-   Students including at least two post graduates and one member of the Students Representative Council (6),

-   members of Council (2), and

-   not more than thirty-five persons co-opted by the senate (if more than ten are co-opted they must be drawn from the academic staff reflecting the diversity of the academic staff.) [Our underlining] 

So, according to the Statute, the Senate can have a maximum of 164 members at most. A quorum is a third of the Senate, namely, 56 people. The question, then, is who are the other 199 people on the Senate who participated in the decision to boycott Israeli academia? Was the Senate’s resolution lawful?

Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by sending an SMS to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs)