Professor plans to bring ‘two kinds of publics together’

It is all about bridging the gap between students, academics and the general public. This is Jay Pather’s vision for the Great Text/ Big Questions public lectures taking place this month.

Professor Pather is an Associate Professor at the University of Cape Town and the director of the Institute for Creative Arts (ICA) which is based at the university’s Hiddingh Campus in Gardens.

Professor Pather said he had been involved with the ICA since 2010. “My desire as an academic has always been to make the two kinds of publics meet. Sometimes the lectures are massive and sometimes small. Whatever the size is, the idea is that the events have other spin-offs and that’s why I like them.”

Professor Pather said the series started about seven years ago and was first conceptualised by Professor Imraan Coovadia.

“It was a way of grabbing the imagination of the public. We felt a great need for it to be not just a lecture but to have the discussion afterwards. We want people to linger, to talk and to develop their ideas. Over the years it has had a range of different subjects.”

This current series focuses on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) – its vision, successes, failures and public perceptions then and now. UCT’s Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission (IRTC), which recently set up its steering committee, also looks into the Shackville protests that took place on UCT’s Upper Campus in February 2016.

Professor Pather said the series had moved from creative arts to literature, political and social contexts and even science. “At the end of last year during the student protest, there was the idea of the shack TRC.

“The resurgence of something like a TRC was very interesting for me in particular. The TRC was successful on many levels but also unsuccessful. I think there was a feeling that once the TRC happened then our work was done.”

This is what led to the idea of revisiting the original TRC. “It was about understanding its successes, failures and how we can continue to draw from it. It is also about how we can develop it and make it into something more robust.”

He said these lectures included people who were at some level involved with the TRC to start the discussions.

“One of the big successes (of the TRC) was that it gave some hope to society. The plan was for everyone to live together and it had a lot of promise. There was a great need at the time for forgiveness.”

However, Professor Pather said, there were problems with the outcomes of the TRC. “It was about people who had committed very identifiable crimes. It was either hell of generous or very stupid because at some point there was going to be a backlash. The one was an internationally condemned policy and the other was a fight against this. The big problem with that construct was that it didn’t take into account systemic violence. That continues to be because there are these psychological scars that have not healed. It also had no indication of reparations nor economic parity (and) wasn’t revisited in any kind of substantial way.

“We’re in a ridiculous situation now where what we are trying to do is to make the townships more liveable but the very idea of a township is absurd. Especially the kind of conditions that exist in some of the townships because of the lack of basic services. What we didn’t do was to question our spatial sickness. The spatial sickness has led to all kinds of issues of violence and crime. We have not been able to address this because the only people that can address this is government. The idea was a very noble thought but the brutal thing was that government thought that was all that was needed.”

Professor Pather said it was important to have the lectures open to the public. “We want to have a university without walls and interplay between the public and students. We are also in discussions to take some of the lectures to Khayelitsha.”

He added that they had been working with the organisation Theatre for Change who expressed interest in the lectures. “It is about finding the bridge between that generation and this one. There has been a bit of inter-generational tension and I think it is important to have a space to talk. We hope that these lectures will be able to move to various space in the city.”

He said the issue of spatial segregation caused by apartheid was an extremely topical subject and something that came up often in the lectures. “This is the first time we’ve ever had a theme. We look at topical subjects that affect the students and the public. The TRC was something that we were very aware of because of the student protests.”

Professor Pather encouraged people to come to the lectures, saying they were accessible. “We’re hoping to continue with these kinds of lectures in order to keep our audiences informed in an active and talking way. Our lecturers are always aware that they are on a public platform.”

The last lecture in the current series features renowned psychologist and conflict mediator Nomfundo Walaza on Tuesday April 25. The current series ends at the end of April. For more information on the series visit the ICA’s website at