Goals and means – Reimagining the South African university

2015 was a tumultuous year for the higher education sector in South Africa. Transformation moved to the heart of the national discourse through two sets of events: the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements. Collectively, these became the largest student social movements since the dawn of South Africa’s democracy in 1994.

It shook up the state, changed the systematic parameters, and began the process of fundamentally transforming our higher education sector.

The #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements emanated from two major challenges facing higher education: alienation and access.

The #RhodesMustFall movement, in which students at the University of Cape Town demanded removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, captured the alienation of the largely black student population at the university and reflected valid concerns about institutional racism and-or the slow pace of transformation at universities post-apartheid.

Transformation movements were established at all of the ‘historically white’ universities, and while they were focussed on specific institutional challenges, all questioned institutional identity and what it meant to be an African institution in the 21st century.

The #FeesMustFall movement began at the University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits, and spread across the country, culminating in student marches to parliament in Cape Town and the Union Buildings, the seat of government in the administrative capital Pretoria.

Its high point was when President Jacob Zuma, after negotiating with student leaders and vice-chancellors at the Union Buildings, conceded to a 0% fee increase for 2016. In that moment, students had achieved, in a matter of 10 days, what vice-chancellors had been advocating for at least 10 years, namely bringing down the costs of higher education.

The #FeesMustFall movement, whose principle concern was access for poor black students to affordable, quality education, gave notice that the 0% fee increase concession was merely the first step in a broader struggle for free education.

The discontents of the students are undeniably legitimate. It is unacceptable for black students not to feel at home in South Africa’s public universities. Neither is it acceptable for talented students from poor communities to be denied access to higher education.

Both challenges need to be urgently addressed by all stakeholders, including university management, academics, students and government. Addressing these challenges is not only positive for students, but it would also enable the agenda of inclusive economic development and help to challenge the high levels of inequality within our society.

The Marcuse vs Adorno debate

This is of course not a new debate in the global academy. It is in part related to the one that took place in the late 1960s between Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno.

Marcuse, in his desire to find a social movement capable of overthrowing capitalism, ignored the student movement’s shortcomings, its illiberal expressions and sometimes violent actions. Adorno, who had been a direct target of these actions, was appalled by its Stalinist tendencies, brutality at significant moments, and embrace of the politics of humiliation. He feared as a result that it would tip over into a fascist movement.

Achille Mbembe’s recent reflection on this debate and its relevance for the student marches on the Union Building last October demonstrates that these hopes and fears animate South Africa’s transformation and student struggles.

But it also suggests the need to learn from those earlier social struggles and the analytical reflections thereof within the global economy so as to avoid the mistakes of our collective past. It is to this end that I engage in this reflection.

Reimagining or transforming

For universities to lead social change, they have to exist within a higher education system that is responsive to the diverse and multiple needs of the economy and society.

Any serious analysis of higher education over the last two decades must confront the challenge of trade-offs among equally important, competing imperatives, and the contesting philosophies that have come to define the post-apartheid education project.

Two compatible sets of principles should govern the executive and strategic operations of South African universities.

The first, found in the preamble of the Constitution, demands that public institutions simultaneously address the historical disparities bequeathed by apartheid and build a collective national identity. The second, written in the manifesto and architecture of any great university, is the imperative to be nationally responsive and cosmopolitan at the same time.

The responsibility of the executive in the university is not to undertake one or the other. The real challenge is to advance all of these priorities simultaneously. Managing the balance between competing imperatives is then the real challenge confronting university executives.

[Habib goes on to describe and analyse the very different approaches different universities have taken on issues of race and transformation, and their consequences, as well as the major challenge of transforming the (currently mostly white) face of the senior professoriate. – Africa Editor] Click here to read the full lecture.

Critically reviewing #FeesMustFall

Many media houses concluded 2015 by declaring it the year of the student. In many ways it was deserved. The students put affordable, quality higher education and the insourcing of vulnerable workers on the national agenda in a way that has not happened before.

Yet we are only at the beginning of this social movement of transformation in higher education. This year has seen a new round of student protests, and their trajectory will fundamentally influence the transformation dynamics of higher education itself.

For this reason, if not any other, there is an urgent need to critically review the 2015 protests, understand their strengths and weaknesses, and learn lessons for the social struggles ahead.

One striking feature of the protests is that they were organised beyond party and ideological divides. It was this that brought thousands of students and their supporters onto the streets. It was also this multi-class and multi-racial alliance that shook the state and prompted it to be partially responsive to the students’ demands.

Yet this united student movement fractured soon after Zuma announced the 0% fee increase for 2016. This was partially due to the natural process of the mainstream of the student body withdrawing and concentrating on completing the academic year after their immediate collective demand had been achieved.

But as important a causal factor in the fracturing of the student movement was that political parties and ideological groups reasserted themselves to project their own agendas onto this social struggle. The result was that the movement fractured into a cacophony of ideological and protest voices, each with their own distinctive blend of educational and political demands.

If the student movement is to again be brought together across class and racial boundaries, and have the political potency that it demonstrated in the week when it marched to parliament and the Union Buildings, then it will need to address a number of strategic issues.

Perhaps the most immediate is the racial essentialism that afflicts certain strands of this movement. This racial essentialism is particularly pronounced in certain sections of the ‘student transformation’ movement and in some political parties.

It is of course driven in part by the cultural alienation that black students have experienced, particularly in historically white universities. It is also intellectually justified by selective readings of Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko.

But rejecting an assimilation into Western mores and historically white norms, or asserting the importance of black leadership, does not need to lead to an automatic degeneration into the crude racism that is sometimes displayed by certain factions of the student movement.

Neither is it intellectually legitimate to read racial essentialism into the ideas of Biko and Fanon. It is especially an injustice to Biko, given that he wrote in the crucible of apartheid. To now interpret Biko literally in 2015, without understanding the distinction between apartheid and democratic South Africa, is to do a disservice to the intellectual legacy of one of South Africa’s fallen heroes.

The problem is in part with the broader narrative that has come to accompany some parts of students’ political resurgence. Too many students glibly dismiss both the contributions of earlier generations of activists and the 1994 political settlement itself.

Particularly obnoxious is the dismissal of the contribution of Nelson Mandela by some young activists who have accused our collective icon of having sold out.

Even if we ignore the temerity of a group of ‘born free’ [born post-apartheid] activists to pronounce on the contribution of a leader who gave 27 years of his adult life to imprisonment for the anti-apartheid cause, one still has to question the intellectual wisdom of reading the 1994 political settlement from the perspective of 2015.

This is not to suggest that the 1994 settlement cannot be criticised. I myself have been very critical of its compromises, neo-liberal character, and propensity to corruption. I have also been particularly scathing of its enabling of increased economic inequality.

However, this must not result in the misleading conclusion that no successes were recorded in the struggle for emancipation by the 1994 settlement. It is worth underscoring the fact that the generation that preceded the current students, whatever their mistakes, left the world a far better place than the one that they inherited.

And while the current students may be correct to demand a measure of humility from our political elite and institutional leadership who have become complacent by the entrapments of power, the leadership and activist base of the student movement itself could do with a dose of the humility that it demands of others.

Worrying propensity to violence

Equally worrying is the propensity to violence by some strands of the student movement. Again, it is important to state that the vast majority of student protestors respected the boundaries of peaceful protest.

I recall a moment at the height of the protest in the Wits concourse when private security entered the premises unauthorised, leading to a serious momentary altercation with the students. The student leaders I was with – including two of the most militant – surrounded and protected me. At no point during my engagement with the students did I feel threatened.

Yet, despite my personal experience, it would be hard to deny that there has been a greater propensity to violence by certain strands within the movement.

At the most basic level, this was reflected in the attempt across campuses to close off entrances and exits by lying in front of the gates. No attention was given to the fact that this violated the rights of others. It prevented parents from picking up their children, staff and students from leaving the campus, and even some individuals from visiting their doctors.

Protestors were so focussed on their rights that they had forgotten their obligation to respect the rights of others. And while it is the goal of peaceful protest to create inconvenience and disruption, it is definitely illegitimate to violate the rights of others on such a wide scale.

The propensity to violence manifested itself at extreme levels as the protests wore on.

It was most volatile at the University of the Western Cape, Cape Peninsula University of Technology and Tshwane University of Technology, where there was widespread violence, residences were set alight and the universities had to be closed. But it also manifested at other institutions including the universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch and the Witwatersrand.

At Wits, when some protestors partially set alight a bookshop and a university vehicle, police were called in. At Cape Town, a university bus was set light, as were some vehicles at Stellenbosch.

Protestors suggest that the resort to violence was prompted by university authorities who called in the police. While this was definitely the case at some institutions, in many others including Wits, police were only called in once protestors had already resorted to arson and violence. In Wits’ case, prior to the police being brought in, some students in the men's residence had to protect their own residence from arson.

Misinterpreting Frantz Fanon

There is no doubt that the violence was in part facilitated by strands of the movement that deliberately adopted a strategy of violence. In part this was prompted by particular interpretations of the writings of Frantz Fanon who was seen as an advocate of revolutionary violence.

It was suggested that poor black people are daily confronted with structural violence as they have to experience the consequences of inequality, poverty and corruption. In this view, it is therefore legitimate to respond with violence to protest this structural violence.

But the rationality of this argument breaks down when it is subjected to even a little scrutiny.

First, Fanon wrote about revolutionary violence in the crucible of the colonial struggle. It is not legitimate to transpose those ideas to a democratic era which, however flawed, provides the space not only for protest, but also the right to vote out the political elite.

Second, how is the struggle against structural violence advanced by attacking other students and destroying university property that is intended for the housing and teaching of students themselves? If anything, such actions are likely to consolidate the effects of structural violence against the poor and marginalised.

Finally, such actions compel the state to respond with force in order to protect public property, thereby creating a militarised atmosphere that works against the immediate interests of the protestors and the legitimacy of the protests itself.

Equally damaging to realising the goals of the movement is the failure of some strands within it to recognise that success will result not from a single event, but rather from a process of continuous struggle, engagement and negotiation.

The achievement of quality, affordable higher education is going to require trade-offs, both within the institution and society as a whole.

The Department of Higher Education and Training estimates that the total cost will be in the region of an additional R56 billion (US$3.5 billion) a year, R19 billion for increased subsidy and a further R37 billion in increased funding to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, or NSFAS.

Some strands within the movement are not prepared to think through trade-offs, and are sometimes not even interested in negotiations, at the institutional or national level. But such an approach is damaging to the movement for it allows decisions around trade-offs, and therefore the substantive outcomes, to be determined by a narrow group of political and institutional leaders.

To be fair to the student leadership, not all are averse to engagement and negotiation. In the presidential task team and even in the national negotiations on the 0% fee increase for 2016, student leaders were at the heart of striking the compromises that were required.

Similarly, at the institutional level at Wits, student leaders were important to negotiating solutions to the financial challenges confronting the student body, and were also instrumental in fashioning compromises in the task team on the insourcing of vulnerable workers.

The problem is that the broader narrative of the movement has been opposed to trade-offs and compromise, with the result that negotiations have been continuously bedevilled by issues of legitimacy.

Reflections on the solidarity of academics

Perhaps it is even more necessary to subject the conduct of some of the academics who supported the movement to critical reflection.

Again it is important to note that the broader academic support base of the movement behaved impeccably within the boundaries of legitimate solidarity action. But again, there were strands within this support base that acted in ways that must be questioned.

First, there was a shocking level of casualness about violence among some members of staff. Not only were many silent about the abuse of the rights of non-protesting students, but some even had the temerity to articulate views that suggested violence may be a necessary protest strategy in certain institutional contexts.

Second, a number of academics actively participated in the de-legitimisation of institutional structures of governance. Under the pretext of democratising the senate and council – a legitimate demand – they proposed a series of solutions that demonstrated a worrying lack of understanding of both context and the post-apartheid history of reorganising governance arrangements in the higher education system.

Indeed, many were oblivious of the fact that a number of the recommendations they advanced had been attempted some 15 years earlier in some institutions with disastrous consequences. These academics had forgotten the cardinal rule of progressive transformation; that thoughtful activism and appreciation of context are necessary to avoid unintended consequences.

But perhaps the most damaging feature of the engagement of this strand of academics was their failure to understand the importance of trade-offs in enabling progressive outcomes.

Many of these academics were at the forefront of struggles to increase salaries, enable insourcing of vulnerable workers, and reduce fees without any recognition that there may be a tension between these demands.

Some have opposed all of the trade-off recommendations that have emerged – including increasing student numbers or introducing more measured salary increases for academics – around how to sustainably finance the costs of simultaneously addressing all these demands.

Where to from here?

So what are the achievements of the student social movement thus far?

First, they have not only achieved a 0% fee increase for 2016, but have also compelled the state to cover the fiscal burden of the decision through an additional grant of R1.9 billion to universities.

Second, the presidency has accepted the recommendations of its task team on short-term financial challenges for the university system that include, among others, an additional grant to universities in 2016 of R4.6 billion to cover the costs of underfunded and unfunded NSFAS students.

Third, there is now an explicit commitment at the highest levels of government, NSFAS and the private banking system to establish a new funding vehicle in 2017 to assist middle- and lower middle-class students with financing the costs of higher education.

Finally, a presidential commission has been established to investigate free education for the poor and a sustainable fee regime for universities.

The 2015 student protests then not only won short-term gains for immediate fee concessions, but also opened up the systemic parameters to enable an investigation into the restructuring of the fiscal foundation of post-apartheid higher education.

But establishing a new sustainable fiscal foundation that is progressively grounded on the principle that higher education should be available to all qualifying students without any financial hindrance will not magically appear. It will require ongoing public action and institutional engagement.

For this reason, the following lessons of the 2015 student protests need to be learned:
  • • Avoid racial essentialism and racism, and challenge it whenever it rears its head. It de-legitimises the cause and undermines the unity in action required for success.
  • • Avoid public violence and the violation of the rights of others on principle and because it undermines public support for the cause and provokes a securocratic response from the state.
  • • Recognise that successful social action requires both public action and institutional engagement. Each is necessary if progressive outcomes are to be realised and the fear of leadership co-option must not lead one to avoid the latter.
  • • Recognise that progressive outcomes will entail trade-offs. Ensure that such trade-offs are part of a public deliberation and not the preserve of a narrow political and institutional elite.

The events of 2015 have forever changed South African higher education. The student movement has opened up the systemic parameters in ways that were previously unimaginable. They have succeeded where other stakeholders, including vice-chancellors and other higher education executives, have failed.

As a result, South Africa is now in the second stage of a fundamental overhaul of its post-apartheid higher education system: 1994 was the first stage, with de-racialisation at a macro level, but this failed to address the class and philosophical narratives of what it means to be an open, inclusive and cosmopolitan African university.

Now, the latter stage is upon us. As we begin to conceive of the possibility that it will culminate in a successful, sustainable, progressive outcome, we need to be mindful that this will require hard debate, social action and imaginative thought.

There is a danger in this moment that if we allow the current populism to be unconstrained, it could result in a higher education system that enables access, but destroys quality. This is the history of the continent and it would be a tragedy if it were to be repeated.

From 2016 onwards it is going to be a political and intellectual struggle between these two outcomes. We need to not only collectively support the student movement, but also to learn the lessons of our past actions. We need to think through the consequences of our choices, we need a thoughtful activism, and we need to be principled in our solidarity.

Returning to Achille Mbembe’s reflections on the Marcuse-Adorno debate: he concludes that Marcuse was wrong in both excusing “the politics of brutal practicism” and in his belief that the student movement would lead to the destruction of capitalism. Instead Mbembe argues that capitalism was emboldened. Yet Adorno also miscalculated when he suggested that the student movement would evolve into a fascism.

Both Marcuse and Adorno, Mbembe believed, also failed to comprehend the security-freedom conundrum. “Not all security arrangements,” he maintains, “are inimical to freedom. Freedom in and of itself does not automatically guarantee security. Each needs to be supplemented, for which neither angelism nor callousness will suffice.”

Mbembe’s solution is for “an ethical pragmatism – a pragmatism that is open at its ethical core to being constantly contested. The conundrum will never be permanently resolved”. As Mbembe indicates, “we will have to learn to live with irresolution”.

But it is the practice of this ethical pragmatism that holds the ultimate prospect of a South African higher education system that is accessible and transformed, nationally responsive and globally competitive, diverse and cosmopolitan.

This would not only be good for the nation, but also for the global academy. It would allow South African institutions to develop and imbibe the corpus of scientific knowledge, apply it to our context, reimagine and innovate it, and contribute it back to the global academy.

It will also allow us to produce graduates who are simultaneously African and human; citizens of both the nation and the world. This is, after all, the primary responsibility of any university in the 21st century.

Professor Adam Habib is vice-chancellor and principal of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. This article is a shortened version of a lecture he delivered at University College London on 25 January 2016 as part of the “African Voices” series, titled “Goals and Means: Reimagining the South African university and critically analysing the struggle for its realisation”. Habib is a member of the board of University World News – Africa.