Sociology head is forced into hiding

September 8, 1995

Former University of Ulster sociologists, Ronaldo Munck and Honor Fagan, are in hiding on a boat in Durban's marina, living in fear of their lives. They are being protected by an armed guard provided by the University of Durban-Westville.

They find hard to believe a series of events that have unfolded since they arrived in South Africa just over a year ago, keen to contribute to in the extraordinary changes taking place in the country.

"We would still like to contribute - if only we were given the chance," said Professor Munck during an interview with The Thes at the Point Yacht Club. Dr Fagan, his partner, did not want to be quoted.

Professor Munck and Dr Fagan arrived from Ulster to take up posts in the sociology department at UDW in July 1994. He had been appointed head of the department, and she a temporary lecturer. But within weeks the two academics found themselves embroiled in a series of disputes which led to threats of deportation against Ms Fagan, a court case, theft from Professor Munck's office, the trashing of their home, slashed tyres, and countless threats, insults and allegations.

Two actions by Professor Munck placed him firmly in one of two politically-divided factions of academics involved in a power struggle on campus. First he joined an ANC-supporting group backing then vice chancellor Jairam Reddy, who was coming under fire from a more radical grouping allied to the university's powerful Combined Staff Association (Comsa). Second, along with the deans of the faculties of arts and engineering, and the heads of politics, history and philosophy, Professor Munck signed a letter to Comsa criticising the organisation, among other things, for being "undemocratic".

Divisions between the two factions deepened. The first move against Professor Munck was made when lecturers in sociology publicly accused him of being a "fly-by-night conservative". This he is clearly not - but at least he was used to battling.

Professor Munck was born in Buenos Aires in 1951. In 1969, while he was a student of sociology, a military dictatorship seized power and he was forced into exile. He fled to England aboard a ship in 1970, and enrolled at the University of Essex. He was there for seven years, completing a degree in sociology specialising in Latin American studies, and a PhD in the sociology of development.

He then settled in Northern Ireland, where he lectured in sociology at the Ulster Polytechnic and University of Ulster for 17 years and wrote ten books, most of them on political and sociological issues in Latin America and Northern Ireland. He also met Dr Fagan, a sociologist involved in women's studies and adult education.

A second move was made against Dr Fagan in September, 1994. Colleagues tipped off the department of home affairs claiming that she was working illegally at UDW. Officials burst into a class while she was teaching, and ordered her to pack up and leave the country with their son. After a great deal of wrangling, the university managed to prevent her deportation. An angry Professor Munck told the lecturers involved that they had "gone too far" - but the following day he had a restraining court order slapped on him. The case was later thrown out of court, but relations worsened steadily.

In the last week of September, a group of about 20 students stormed a weekly sociology department meeting and, along with some lecturers, voted to oust Professor Munck as head of department. Shortly before the incident, the students had written an open letter accusing him of campaigning against Comsa, wanting to fire three sociology lecturers and helping to form an alternative staff association.

"To defuse the situation, which I thought could turn violent, I agreed to stand down as head while management looked into the issue." The students later apologised in writing for their behaviour. An investigation ended in an announcement by Professor Reddy that Professor Munck would be reinstated in January 1995. But it was not to be. Professor Reddy's departure from UDW in late 1994, to chair the National Commission on Higher Education, was followed by calls from some lecturers for the university to hold a commission of inquiry into Professor Munck's reinstatement and the department.

He agreed: "I was happy with the idea of the problems being opened up and properly investigated."

The inquiry was supposed to last a week, but took six months - and its findings are yet to be published. Meanwhile, even more sinister incidents began occurring.

Professor Munck's office at the university was burgled - he does not know exactly when, but private correspondence stolen was submitted to the inquiry. And in early May his and Dr Fagan's home was burgled and vandalised. The burglars urinated on the couch and scrawled "Viva PAC" and "Viva APLA" (Pan Africanist Congress and Azanian Peoples Liberation Army) on the walls. An article he had written about the political situation at UDW, and evidence he was collecting against some lecturers were prominently displayed in the living room. "We felt very threatened," he said. Professor Munck went on sick leave and, on the advice of police, he and Dr Fagan went into hiding with their son.

He told UDW he wanted to leave, but was persuaded to stay on and fight his case. They were soon tracked down to the marina. First the tyres of their car were let down, and later the tyres were slashed. Subsequently, a senior member of Comsa has received death threats, had his office broken into and insults spray-painted nearby, and another Comsa member has been beaten up and gone into hiding.

In late May, Comsa signed a resolution calling for Professor Munck's suspension for nepotism, misconduct and talking to the press while he was under investigation. Within a week, UDW's students' representative council issued pamphlets accusing Professor Munck's opponents of dirty tricks and causing tension on campus. In July, UDW announced disciplinary proceedings against Professor Munck and two of his opponents in sociology. Students once again took up the cause.

In early August, student protests demanding Professor Munck's reinstatement and the release of the findings of the inquiry caused UDW to close for a week. In the last week of August, Professor Munck was informed by UDW that he was to be reinstated as head of department. He is back at work and, hoping that the sociology saga may finally be over, he and Dr Fagan have decided to stay on.

Throughout the year, despite the troubles, Professor Munck has continued to work unofficially as head of department. He is introducing a new sociology programme, and collaborating with other departments.

"Despite everything, it has been worthwhile coming here. We are involved in projects that could make a real contribution to transformation in South Africa. We just wish people would let us get on with our work." Above all, he says, he and Dr Fagan feel a commitment to their students: "It was the students who saved us."

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