The vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Njabulo Ndebele, is emerging as a rare critic of what he sees as South Africa's intellectually moribund, internally bickering and morally bankrupt ruling elite, writes Karen MacGregor in Durban.
In articles in national newspapers and a recent speech to editors, he calls for a deeper understanding of problems such as corruption and for engagement with "an environment of new conceptual challenges".
His actions emphasise the role of universities as free-speaking critics, whom Tony Blair's Commission for Africa said were key to reviving African institutions.
Professor Ndebele used the tenth anniversary dinner of the South African National Editors' Forum in Durban last month to support the country's increasingly critical media and "the corrective capacity of robust public opinion".
Citing a rising number of court actions against the press and a view that "certain things must be tested in court before they can be released to the public", he warned of the danger of courts becoming "instruments of a new kind of censorship".
He said the ruling African National Congress kept rehashing decades-old debates while politicians, who were once liberators, were now "merely tolerated".
Professor Ndebele said: "We need a new public space that allows for vulnerabilities to be expressed, shared and addressed, that replaces the brazen heroism of old with the fragility of a bubble that can yet withstand huge atmospheric pressures."
Meanwhile, the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) has written to Malegapuru Makgoba, vice-chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), urging him to "stem the trend" of declining free expression at the institution. It raised the case of Fazel Khan, a sociology lecturer who faces a disciplinary committee for speaking to journalists about an article in the university newsletter.
The article was about a film Mr Khan had co-directed. However, it did not mention Mr Khan, it said that his co-director was the director and it cropped Mr Khan out of a picture, the FXI said.
"An aggrieved Mr Khan was very critical of the newsletter when approached for comment," the letter says, adding that the criticisms would be used against Mr Khan in a disciplinary hearing where he faces possible dismissal.
The FXI said the case was an example of the wider erosion of freedom of expression at KwaZulu-Natal, where "a climate of fear has taken root" in the past six months.
T. D. Chetty, the university's executive director for public affairs, said:
"Freedom of expression at UKZN is alive and well. The basis of the disciplinary action against Mr Khan is that he misrepresented these events to the press. Such conduct can never fall under the banner of freedom of expression."