The Extinguished Torch of Academic Freedom

Cape Town - 160216 - Dozens of protestors burnt all the paintings and photos of white people in UCT. Some dating back to the 1940's. Picture: David Ritchie
Cape Town – 160216 – Dozens of protestors burnt all the paintings and photos of white people in UCT. Some dating back to the 1940’s. Picture: David Ritchie

One of the paintings destroyed in the Rhodes Must Fall protest is “The Extinguished Torch of Academic Freedom” by Keresemose Richard Baholo. He was the first Black South African to receive a master’s degree in Fine Art from the University of Cape Town. In total, five of his paintings were destroyed. “The Extinguished Torch of Academic Freedom” was part of a series by Baholo that hung in Jagger Library on the University of Cape Town campus.

BurningArt-AshleighFurlong-20160116_largeOther than the one image of the painting burning, I otherwise have no other sense at this time of what it looked like. And the only other knowledge I have of the series of paintings is, so far, from a 2013 post entitled, “Academic Freedom in a Democratic South Africa,” in which John Higgins explains that the series of paintings, “form part of a permanent exhibition that commemorates the university’s resistance to the key instrument of racial segregation in the apartheid era, the 1959 Extension of University Education Act, and celebrates the final stage of its repeal in 1993.”

His point is to otherwise argue against policies that he sees as a threat to academic freedom in general and to the “core skills of humanist education – often referred to as the skills of a ‘critical literacy’ – [which] have much to contribute to the public good in ways which are being denied, or simply made invisible by the terms currently dominating higher education policy.”

What further deepens the issue of academic freedom and the public good of critical literacy in South Africa at this time is the history of the Torch of Academic Freedom itself. An account of the origins of the Torch of Academic Freedom, and of the symbol of the Extinguished Torch of Academic Freedom, was provided by John Cartwright in 1997. It is worth quoting at length:

“In 1957 the UCT SRC and the local committee of NUSAS were much involved in organising protests and demonstrations against the threatened legislation enforcing university apartheid – at this stage, these public protests were entirely a student initiative. In that year, the hypocritically named Extension of University Education Bill was due to come before Parliament for its second reading.

“As some people may not know, the second reading of a bill is the crucial one, the occasion on which time is provided for extended debate. We therefore decided that this was the crucial occasion to take our protest to Parliament itself, and we (I’ve no idea who exactly thought it up) decided to focus public attention on a torch of academic freedom, which would be extinguished on the occasion of the second reading (the third reading is a mere formality).

“The torch was made out of a wooden staff somewhat less than a metre long, with a shiny tin can nailed onto the top. In the can were rags soaked in paraffin. On the night before the Parliamentary reading, we set it up at the top of the Jammie steps, in the semi-shelter of the portico, lit it, and held an all night vigil, taking turns of a couple of hours each. It was cold and windy, with scattered rain.

“In the morning we quietly put it out and took it by car to the Hiddingh Hall campus, where we re-lit it. I – being a keen runner at the time – had been deputed to run down the Avenue with the flaming torch and into Parliament Street. I jogged down, keeping a careful eye on the flame, turned right at the bottom of the Avenue where the awful military statue of Smuts now stands, and right again up Parliament Street (which was not at that time closed off with gates) to the entrance of the House of Assembly.

“Despite the chilly weather, quite a crowd had gathered in the street. Waiting on the steps of the House of Assembly was Neville Rubin, Chair of the SRC, wearing a leather glove on his hand. I went through the gate and stopped in front of him, and he extinguished the flame with his gloved hand. We then went in to the public gallery for the debate, and listened to Viljoen, the Minister of Education, spouting the usual Nat rubbish.

“The arrival and extinguishing of the torch was filmed by BBC television and shown on Richard Dimbleby’s Panorama programme. I regret that I do not remember the names of the other students involved in planning and carrying out this demonstration.

“It was only in 1959, with the implementation of the new Act, that UCT as a body took to the streets in protest and took over the symbol of the extinguished torch” (“Origins“).

I need to discover further the use of the extinguished torch in student protests on the University of Cape Town campus over the course of the next three decades. So far what I know is Robert Kennedy gave a speech on the UCT campus in 1966, on the occasion of the “University’s Day of Reaffirmation of Academic and Human Freedom.” He entered Jameson Hall following a procession led by a student carrying the extinguished torch of academic freedom. On the stage from which he spoke sat an empty chair left for Ian Robertson, President of the National Union of South Africa Students, who was banned from appearing in public and from speaking to the media by the apartheid government (“Ripple Hope speech“). Here is the full text of Kennedy’s speech praising the youth with the courage to work for change: “A Tiny Ripple of Hope.”

Erik Erickson, in Life History and the Historical Moment, recalls giving the T. B. Davie Memorial Lecture at UCT in 1968. The ceremony began with a procession led by a woman carrying the extinguished torch of academic freedom, followed by recitation of a proclamation:

“Without consultation with our University, without its consent, and, in our view, for no sufficient reason, a law has been passed authorising the Government to impose restrictions based on colour. . . . We dedicate ourselves to the tasks that lie ahead: to maintain our established rights to determine who shall teach, what shall be taught, and how it shall be taught in this university, and to strive to regain the right to determine who shall be taught, without regard to any criterion except academic merit” (169).

The torch of academic freedom was re-lit on July 20, 1994 (International Dictionary of University Histories, 458), a year during which aggressive admissions policies resulted in students of color comprising a majority of the student body.

Whatever else I find, the initial power of Maxwele’s protest seems to have been dissipated by protesters who seem to have lost sight of the larger historical project of decolonizing the university.

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