Outgoing UCT Vice Chancellor Max Price’s last few days have not been all about tea, hugs, and reminiscing. The 62-year-old told News24’s Jenni Evans that he is looking forward to relaxing, learning to play the saxophone and doing some writing.
Max Price points to a small section of soot-covered window panes in his office as he packs up after 10 tumultuous years as vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, to make way for his successor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng.
“I kept that as reminder,” said Price, staring up at the blackened glass in the repaired corner office of the Bremner Building.
There’s a meticulous row of things to be put into a box that is perfectly squared on a ledge in the office which was petrol bombed in February 2016.
“It was mainly soot,” said Price of the incident in which nobody was injured.
The couch also survived, but the office was refurbished, finally providing an opportunity to replace the heavy wood panelling – that nobody had been allowed to go near with a paint brush – to a modern white. But he asked that some of the blackened cottage panes stay in place.
His windows were broken during ongoing picketing and protesting over fees, student housing shortages, the use of labour brokers, a call for a decolonised curriculum and an end to practices that students said left them feeling excluded.
The entrance to his office was also blocked in a student sit-in at one point.
But for now, there have been weeks of farewells and gala dinners for the 62-year-old, who grew up around Emmarentia in Johannesburg, before matriculating from King David Victory Park.
His final graduation ceremony on June 22 saw 350 graduates, and almost 60 PhD recipients being capped.
Among his last tasks was the release of the report of the Curriculum Change Working Group, led by black students, to deal with complaints about the slow pace of transformation.
Not everyone sad to see him go
As Price packed, he also issued a statement to say that, while the university supported the Decolonial Winter School being hosted there, it would not allow the racial division implied in a dinner invitation to an event restricted to “People of Colour”.
There was also a “self-review” of the finance department underway, with an online survey for anybody who wanted to participate.
He has already been given the goodbye watch – a fitness watch for the running that he loves, instead of the usual analogue timepiece – but his last few days have not been all about tea, hugs, and reminiscing.
“Max Price must go,” student leader Masixole Mlandu told News24 on Friday, adding that they were looking forward to Phakeng’s tenure.
Mlandu was among those at the forefront of the protests that began with the #RhodesMustFall demands which led to the removal of the Cecil John Rhodes’s statue from campus, and then evolved to #FeesMustFall,#OutsourcingMustFall, and the #Shackville student housing protest.
Many students were arrested and suspended from university, leading to further confrontation with Price at the fees commission hearings.
Price’s own son Ilan was among those arrested during the national #FeesMustFall uprising in 2015.
Price said that, when he got the call to say his son had been arrested, he felt “very proud”.
He said that, before the protests erupted, there had been a period where he was worried that the student body was becoming “apathetic”.
But he was also relieved that, although his child had been arrested, it had not been for hurting anybody or damaging property.
His daughter Jessica was also part of the tense meetings with students, and she was not in his corner.
“It was like Price on the left, and Price on the right,” he says, letting out a rare chuckle.
The charges against his son were eventually dropped, but this was not the case for everybody. Mlandu said he was still hoping to strike a deal with the National Prosecuting Authority over a community service programme.
No stranger to protests himself, Price was involved in student politics at Wits during the June 1976 student uprising and spent 12 days in detention in 1977 at the feared John Vorster Square, now known as Johannesburg Central Police Station.
He says his experience was “nothing” compared with the weeks, months and years that black students were detained and tortured by the apartheid security apparatus. However, he said the memories gave him personal insight into the latest wave of student protests, as police vehicles sped around a university campus all over again.
Price was part of a group of doctors who broke away from the established medical bodies – which did not challenge the government after Steve Biko died in detention – to form the National Medical and Dental Association (Namda).
For his efforts he said he was frozen out of public health posts in hospitals designated for black patients in South Africa, but went on to build up a CV that included being Dean of Health Sciences at Wits.
He attributes his early leadership skills to his “outdoorsy youth” and being a leader on four-day campouts, as well as his love of debating.
But he points out that, although debating gave him the confidence to speak on a public platform, it is about winning an argument in an eloquent way.
“Which is different from the skills of leadership where you actually don’t want to win an argument, you want to resolve differences.”
So what next for the man who has so often been in the eye of the storm?
Some time in London
Price said he plans to join his sociology professor wife Deborah Posel in London while she spends a year there for work.
He plans to pick up on the saxophone lessons he started at 50 – and perhaps master something along the riffs of Stan Getz.
Price already plays the guitar, with the protest songs of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, learnt amid the resistance to the war in Vietnam, in his repertoire.
He adds sheepishly of that time: “No one could have learnt guitar without [playing] House of the Rising Sun.”
He plans to rest, to walk around, go to art galleries, and of course, to write a book.
But in the meantime, he first has to figure out how his new fitness watch works.
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