Alpha baboon article leads to libel case

August 18, 2006

A newspaper editorial by the vice-chancellor of a leading South African university, in which he likened white males to deposed alpha baboons, started a chain of events that has led to a defamation claim by an education professor.

Malegapuru Makgoba and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, of which he is head, are being sued for R200,000 (£15,500) by Robert Morrell of UKZN's School of Education Studies for alleged damage to his reputation.

The particulars of the claim contain an e-mail letter written by Professor Makgoba to 20 staff in mid-June this year, in which he mentions Professor Morrell's name four times and complains about "subversive forces" on campus and "pockets of resistance to transformation and equity... led by self-styled leaders who live in the past".

The e-mail, the legal papers claim, implies that Professor Morrell is unethical and underhand and "carried the additional sting that the plaintiff is a racist and is against transformation".

Professor Makgoba declined to comment on the legal action while it was active.

In the e-mail titled "Morrell rallying the troops to mountain hideouts", Professor Makgoba objects to a June 9 meeting held by a group of academics at a hotel between two UKZN campuses that was chaired by Professor Morrell.

The group drafted a response to a recent document by the Black African Academics' Forum, deploring slow transformation and calling, among other things, for blacks to be prioritised for appointments to redress the skewed racial make-up of UKZN's staff, who are 54 per cent white, per cent Indian, 17 per cent black and 2 per cent coloured.

The discussion paper by the "Morrell group", which attracted white and Indian but no black African scholars, agrees that racial inequities need to be tackled but disagrees about what action to take.

Tensions between the two academics first surfaced in an article by Professor Makgoba, "Wrath of dethroned white males", published in March 2005.

In it, he argues that many white males in post-apartheid South Africa behave like deposed alpha male baboons, complaining and resisting transformation. Rather, they should embrace the new reality and "learn kwaito, dance like Lebo, dress like Madiba (Nelson Mandela)".

The article provoked a flurry of debate in the media. Professor Morrell became a rallying point for disgruntled UKZN scholars after writing rebuttals in response.

Professor Morrell told The Times Higher that in recent years at UKZN, decision-making processes had become more managerial and centralised, academic input had declined and "many academics felt marginalised". He said that many of those were internationally respected scholars who were involved in the anti-apartheid struggle, and were committed to social justice and to higher education transformation.

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