South African Universities Shut Down: Anger, Impotence, separationsångest, yet Spirit of Hope
A person who supports liberation from oppressive structures generally (and South Africa has a long tradition of engaging in such a struggle) would welcome students’ engagement for an African reading of realities especially in a university set-up (thus “Rhodes must fall” movement) and for making university studies affordable (thus “Fees must fall” movement). So far so good;
But the current shut-down of campuses in many parts of the country is not immediately a logic consequence of these movements. For those of us who at this time go to a university campus on a daily basis the current shut-down comes through as an irrational act, detrimental to all. There is an element in the resistance movement that is bent on destruction. So, at our campus, known for being quite peaceful and a place that black students not least feel they are at home in, one morning “Campus Protection Services discovered petrol bombs and petrol containers hidden at various places across campus”. Apparently there are students, or people making themselves appear as students, who are bent on destruction and who couldn’t care less. At this point in time on various campuses extensive damage has been done to buildings, including libraries, cars have been torched etc.
What does not only frustrate me but also makes me very angry, is the fact that nobody seems to have a clue how this impasse is going to be resolved. I have to deal with the issue on a personal level, as it is something that concerns me directly, but I also want to relate to four different comments concerning our crisis: Arts Faculty staff meeting now a couple of weeks ago at UWC, Professor Tinyiko Maluleke’s comment in Mail&Guardian, October 14 to 20, Professor George Devenish’ article in Cape Times of October 20, Professor Jonathan Jansen’s article as well as that of Professor Nico Cloete in Financial Mail of October 13 to 19.
First the staff meeting of the Arts Faculty at UWC; the issue was: what do we do in the current situation (of a shutdown)? The situation: the students had 40 demands that had to be met before they would contemplate accepting opening the campus again and allow the ordinary activities take their course. It was the task of the university management to engage with the students on these demands (students= students’ representative council, all in favour of fees must fall campaign). One parent had been let in by default. He spoke. He said: I want my daughter to study, or I demand my money back. Everybody listened, but no meaningful response. I think this was one of the most useless meetings I ever have attended. Everybody was apparently afraid of blaming the students for anything, but violence is bad. Are we now talking about the lawless society? Since the early stages of this year’s student uprising one can also see a clear “patriarchalization”, meaning that the boys have taken over more and more, and subsequently physical violence is potentially at close range.
I left the meeting knowing that all staff were at a loss of what to do. Nobody had said anything that could lead anywhere out of the impasse in which we now found ourselves. And I was angry. I could not even go to my office and pick up one of my books. It is absurd, and totally irrational. Is there no pride in those who now are holding things at bay? Is there no pride in us being a university with some sense and some logic?? Here is no logic, just emerging madness…
Then you should at least read Maluleke’s comment in Mail&Guardian (a theology professor in Pretoria who figures regularly in this paper). Read carefully and you would discover that he (also) is beating about the bush. Brinkmanship is questioned, be it orchestrated by university management or students: “In this atmosphere of brinkmanship, the word engagement has assumed multiple and even contradictory meanings.” The only forms of engagement seem to be, for the time being, shut-downs or violence. It is as if students themselves have a contestation “in the manufacture and performance of outrage and rhetoric”. But Maluleke is quite cautious when it comes to confronting student behaviour. In the end the government is to be blamed. This is what everybody says (and rightly so) but such a statement is precisely what amounts to nothing (and everybody knows it).
Like I myself, Maluleke is deeply worried over the shutting down of campuses as he is aware of the ripple effects thereof. However one could only agree with him when he wonders why universities (read 25 something number of vice-chancellors) so far haven’t confronted the government “of the political party that, as recently as 2014, campaigned with posters proclaiming: ‘Vote ANC for free quality education’.”
George Devenish, emeritus professor of UKZN who assisted in the drafting of the 1993 interim constitution, says that “[t]he Academy of Science of South Africa has issued a stern warning that the country is facing the prospect of ‘permanent and irreversible damage’ to its higher education system, unless the chronic crisis unfolding in this sector is urgently resolved” (Cape Times 20 October, 2016). To date property valued at least R 100 million has been destroyed on campuses around the country. Devenish, as everybody else, puts the main blame on the government but also says that the incongruity of the student protest eventually could become fatal: “The protest is being pursued by a radical student leadership that is manifestly violating the rights of students who wish to complete the academic year. These radical students appear to be committed to closing down the institutions of higher learning at all costs, and in so doing, they are using or condoning violent demonstrations and arson.”
South African Universities Shut Down: Anger, Impotence, separationsångest, yet Spirit of Hope
But we should also listen to Professor Jonathan Jansen, who has just left the office as Vice Chancellor at the Free State University and is on his way to take up a position as guest professor at Stanford University, California; in other words, we could listen to a person who is free to speak his mind. And he does not mince his words.
What Jansen gives us is an utterly bleak picture, but a picture that we would have to face. To start with the emphasis on university education, as if that should be the goal of everyone, leaves the crucial, vocational education, that prepares people to work in a trade, a craft, etc., at a disadvantage.
But already in October last year President Zuma gave in and said to the students after their mass meeting in Pretoria that there would be no fee increase for the coming year. And he did, having come under severe pressure, create the impression on students that there is a direct causality on the part of the protesters: “make enough noise, cause sufficient disruption, and resort to violent attacks on public property, and eventually government pays attention and finds the money”.
The bigger picture tells us that similar unrest has been ongoing at universities in other countries in Africa, and where there does not seem to be a political resolution to funding crises on campuses. With this bigger picture in mind Jansen draws three conclusions for the (almost immediate) future: First, there will be “a steady decline in government funding”; second, there is a “creeping state of interference in the business of universities”. Third, universities go into a “chronic instability”, and as we know, this is the second consecutive year of disruptions.
The result is disastrous and can be seen by all who dare to see: students who can afford to pay, leave, the professors who can afford to leave take jobs outside the country (not least those with high ratings from the National Research Foundation) and “the academic facility begins to collapse”. For example, funding for libraries and general maintenance will immediately be drying up.
The very sad thing is that this account is given by somebody who is on his way out of here. The one who cannot do this may feel that he is now telling truths while saving his own skin. Be that as it may, his final words are not to be ignored. He says:
“Does the militant minority care that they are in the process of destroying the top academic institutions still left on the continent? Frighteningly, no. The logic of the militant minority is that unless everybody can get free education right now, then nobody should, and if that means razing universities to the ground, so be it. What was built up over a century could very well be laid waste in a matter of two to three years.”
Jansen says that with President Zuma remaining silent there is only one way left, to me amounting to wishful thinking, namely the coming about of “a broad, assertive, public action that supports free education for the poor but stands up to the militant minority…”
Two more facts have to be added in order to give a fuller picture. In the same issue of the Financial Mail Professor Nico Cloete, Centre for Higher Education Trust, brings in two seemingly fateful circumstances. Not dealing with those, makes any other attempt futile. He says that “fewer than 5 % of the poor qualify for entry into universities, while for the 5% whose parents earn over R600,000/year, the percentage who qualify to enter university is over 50%”. But this is not enough, because of those who enter university far from all are going to be capped at a graduation ceremony: “barely 50% of the undergraduate students graduate”.
Having said all this, I have to emphasize very strongly that the students have a case, and that has been so since last year and the “Rhodes must fall campaign”. The key point is that violence and force are not going to help. Democracy is about casting your vote, and there lies the power of change. Admittedly, students are many times at a loss when it comes to meaningfully influence things on campus. But there are ways. What should be exposed far more are the condescendence and intransigence shown by academic staff knowingly or unknowingly. Let’s be honest: many academics have just taken for granted that they could carry on as before. The story of Professor Mahmood Mamdani, now Columbia University, USA, then at University of Cape Town, and the debacle regarding an introductory course on African humanities more than ten years ago, is a case in point.
Instead of making “decolonization” another catch phrase students and staff have to embark on the issue of curriculum. It should be noted that all curricula and all sciences have to be involved, though in very different ways.
This is the area where students, the brighter the better, should give their contribution and that must come now, not later.
My heart is going out to the students, all of them, also those who have committed violent acts (crimes). There must be a way back to campus, to a campus of peace, but also of struggle, but an intellectual one at that. Staff are, let me repeat, largely responsible for the fact that very little discussion on curriculum of any substance has taken place. We are standing there with guilt, let us confess.
I said initially in this rather long letter that I am angry, and so I am. I cannot stand the situation as it is, meaning that I cannot at this moment go to campus to do my job. However, my anger could easily become destructive, and that is a state of affairs that I want to avoid. Luckily I am sensing, while writing this piece, that my anger evokes a fighting spirit within me. I want to fight the good fight, even though with peaceful means. After all these years, and I have by now been working with and in South Africa/Africa for almost 41 years, I cannot turn my back on things as they are on campus. Whatever this means in practical terms, I want to make my contribution both to a renewed curriculum as well as to a renewed sense of (peaceful) fighting spirit, not neglecting nor ignoring the poor students (of whom only 5% make it for the university), also not being complacent about the 50% undergraduates who never graduate.
But before anything else, let us get back to our campuses. I am missing the sense of community there at the University of the Western Cape, the talks in the corridor, the serious discussions in class, the (frequent, those who know me) tea break as well as a not so infrequent visit to Val’s restaurant.