Universities and students have become embroiled in controversies and chaos ahead of South Africa's fourth democratic elections on 22 April. Last week, nine University of Zululand students were hospitalised after political tensions boiled over into violence. There have been protests in Durban and calls for the vice-chancellor of the University of South Africa to quit because of his perceived support for an opposition party.
There has also been debate about the ruling African National Congress' plan to create a dedicated tertiary education ministry. Even president-in-waiting, Jacob Zuma, has waded into higher education issues.
At the heart of the problem at the University of Zululand lies political intolerance and old tensions between supporters of the ANC and the opposition Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). This resulted in bloody internecine conflict in KwaZulu-Natal province from the mid-1980s to the 1999 elections, a conflict that cost more than 14,000 lives.
Old tensions and hatreds bubble up ahead of elections. Trouble has been brewing for some time at Zululand between student supporters of the IFP-aligned South African Democratic Students Movement (Sadesmo) and ANC-aligned South African Students Congress (Sasco), with no-go areas on campus for both groups.
Last Sunday, Sadesmo activist Bongani Ndebele was confronted by a dozen men while walking through Sasco 'territory' after a Student Representative Council meeting. "I tried to escape but they overpowered me. I was assaulted and stabbed," Ndebele told The Mercury. "Other students from Sadesmo decided to revenge my assault and that's how it all started."
Ndebele was stabbed in the buttocks and was one of the nine students hospitalised. Some students reportedly jumped out of windows after being assaulted in their rooms. The attacks prompted the university to postpone some examinations, and many students left for home to escape possible harm. A strong police presence on campus appears to have achieved calm.
In another incident at the University of Zululand, seven Sadesmo students attacked a convoy carrying Julius Malema, President of the ANC Youth League, to speak on campus. The students were arrested and appeared briefly in court last week accused of public violence.
Motor-mouth Malema, currently South Africa's most controversial political figure, has been touring campuses around the country addressing student election rallies. He has used campus platforms to spew insults at non-ANC politicians and supporters, including official opposition leader Helen Zille, who he labels "racist". He apologised to Minister of Education Naledi Pandor for mocking her "fake" foreign accent.
One of Malema's stops was the University of KwaZulu-Natal, which - like other universities in the province - has been hit by student unrest this year. Two weeks ago, a protest over inadequate aid and academic expulsions turned nasty and students were injured when police fired rubber bullets into a rampaging student crowd.
A law student, who did not want to be named, told The Daily News an examination had been disrupted when noisy protestors burst into the exam venue and threw stink bombs. She said the protest was like a political rally: "All the protesters were wearing ANC T-shirts and carrying ANC banners...It was a sea of yellow.
"The protest subsided but then started again: "Everyone was running in different directions. The protesters were screaming, smashing window panes and banging on doors, while trying to escape police," the student recalled.
Earlier this year, the Durban University of Science and Technology was closed after student protests and staff strikes over financial and other issues spiralled out of control. There were also clashes between ANC and IFP-supporting students at Mangosuthu University of Technology. The unrest at Durban institutions appears to be resolved, as least for now.
Last month, around 400 ANC-aligned students and staff at the huge distance University of South Africa in Pretoria went on the march with a litany of complaints. Activists slammed Vice-chancellor Professor Barney Pityana for his perceived support of a new political party, called the Congress of the People (COPE), and, after accusing him of using university resources to support the party, demanded his resignation.
Pityana hit back, saying unionists and students had levelled allegations against him for six months but had "failed to produce any evidence" or even prove he was a member of COPE. "Even if I was, I have a right to associate with any political party of my choice," he told reporters.
Political intolerance on campuses is of grave concern but of immediate potential impact is a plan announced by ANC leaders to split the Ministry of Education into two, with one ministry for schools and the other for tertiary education.
Two weeks ago, Naledi Pandor confirmed that a new ministry was on the cards. There had been discussions on the issue and, though it was necessary to wait until after the elections to see what would happen, "there's a huge possibility", she told a media briefing in Durban.
Earlier ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe, who has floated the separate ministries idea over the past year, told a business forum in Cape Town the ANC would be finalising the plan within weeks. Mantashe has said the national education department is too big for one ministry to effectively oversee.
The move was in response to South Africa's massive skills shortage and the need for an improved education system to produce more professionals in critical fields such as engineering. "There is a strong view in the ANC that we can't go on with business as usual in education," Mantashe said. The education system needed to be in line with the economic needs of the country.
Some education experts have urged caution on creating ministries but the idea has attracted significant support. Professor Mary Metcalfe, of the University of the Witwatersrand school of education, told Business Day two ministries could strengthen leadership of the education system. But "it will be critical for these two ministries to work together effectively as there will be areas of functional overlap", Metcalfe said.
The Council on Higher Education has also backed the idea, pointing out that many countries employed a two-ministry model to useful effect and that the ANC's proposal indicated a strong focus on all levels of education was seen as a critical development.
Zuma caused ripples of interest in higher education last month by meeting with academics and opinion-makers at the University of Johannesburg. He said universities must critique government's strengths and weaknesses in order to remain relevant.
Zuma stressed that academic freedom and institutional autonomy were constitutionally protected in South Africa. But he said it should be possible for universities and the ANC "to engage each other" on a regular basis without undermining these rights.
Universities needed to assist in promoting dialogue about transformation, provide solutions to national problems through research and to align themselves with South Africa's national human resource strategy, Zuma added. They needed to move away from the 'ivory tower' to become multi-purpose and socially relevant knowledge organisations.
Universities also needed to think about the type of graduates they produce. "To what extent are we affirming the African identity of this country and our people? The graduates we produce should be Africans in culture and outlook."
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