Toxic politics push ‘welfare’ universities to the brink

Political parties should be banned from university campuses in South Africa, according to a number of leading academics and senior administrators, including vice-chancellors who attended a recent academic round-table discussion on the book Rebels and Rage: Reflecting on #FeesMustFall by University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) Vice-Chancellor Professor Adam Habib.

“The protest movement is run by self-appointed commissars. In South Africa and across the continent, many aspiring student leaders seeking election to student representative councils (SRCs) have been sponsored in cash and in kind by political parties. So, they are more loyal to their political godfathers than their university constituents,” Professor Nico Cloete of the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University told the meeting, which was held at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study.

In South Africa political parties including the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have been accused of working through student protest leaders to undermine and corrupt the nationwide #FeesMustFall student movement, which emerged in 2015, to win access to limited resources within higher education and the broader society.

Higher education institutions meanwhile are buckling under the weight of the new social welfare responsibilities foisted upon them – trying to meet many of the housing, health and nutrition needs of poorer students and provide them with a path to employment opportunities, but without the necessary resources and budget.

Excessive welfare demands

The combination of excessive welfare demands from increasingly poor cohorts and the political contestation implemented through continuous violent unrest on campuses has left universities “standing on a knife’s edge”, according to Cloete, while unrest has left many staff and students suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Associate Professor Lis Lange, deputy vice-chancellor for teaching and learning at the University of Cape Town.

“Student politics are supposed to be principled and romantic,” Professor Habib told the meeting, but now they were “toxic”. Citing the number of #FeesMustFall protest leaders who had subsequently become members of parliament, he said havoc had been fomented on campuses to achieve short-term and often personal political ends.

Habib said moderate views among the student body were continually silenced by extremists during the 2015 protests and a climate of fear established in which academic dissent on the issue of decolonising the curriculum was effectively suppressed.

Characterising the quality of campus engagement, Professor Jonathan Jansen, formerly vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State (UFS) and now at Stellenbosch University’s education faculty, said violence had been normalised on campuses and “sloganising” was used instead of argument. He said as identity politics had become the dominant political agency, tribalism and the race of the speaker, rather than their intellectual integrity, came to shape the acceptability or otherwise of their position.

Cloete said mutual exchange between political parties and student leaders in an effort to influence university governance and produce effects at the national political level took place at higher education institutions around the world, which served as training grounds for future politicians. This type of interaction is viewed as largely beneficial.

However, the findings of a study into attitudes towards democracy on campuses undertaken across Africa by the eight-country Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa (HERANA) indicated that the roles played by political parties at universities on the continent tend to have destructive consequences.

Campus politics – A zero-sum game

Cloete said that in the African context, where democracy may be fragile and partisan contestation for limited resources was rife, the competition for political influence and profile on campus became a zero-sum game. As a result, one of the core functions of universities – the socialisation of students as citizens – had been co-opted by political parties battling for positions, visibility and resources, and promoting a parochial view of citizenship.

Referring to the findings of a ministerial task team into the burning and destruction of property at North-West University’s Mafikeng campus in February 2016, Cloete said the unrest “had little to do with race or colonialism” but rather stemmed from students aligning themselves with rival ANC factions, in line with splits within the provincial party, as they sought election to the SRC.

He also noted how Jansen’s bid to ban political parties from the UFS campus in 2016 had led to the university’s SRC president, Lindokuhle Ntuli, calling for his removal as vice-chancellor.

Referencing the performative nature of student politics described in Habib’s book – for example, how student leaders would deliberately spread lies about their vice-chancellor in an effort to discredit him – Cloete argued that their political duplicity was not so much a matter of their (lack of) moral character but rather a strategy commonly employed by the rent-seeking political class to which they were seeking to gain entry.

In order to address the challenge, he advocated preventing political parties from operating on campus – a proposal that was widely affirmed at the round-table which was co-organised by Cloete and Jansen and attended by more than 30 senior academics.

National political crisis

The party-political capture of student activism was seen by the meeting as symptomatic of a larger, national political crisis in which the state has broadly failed to deliver the development premium upon which its promise of inclusive, equitable access to economic opportunity depends.

In this context, universities have not only become strategic sites in the contestation for material resources and social capital, they have also been made responsible for providing services that would normally fall within the purview of the public or private welfare sectors.

With the rise of what has been dubbed the “welfare university”, vice-chancellors have had to deal with many issues that are not part of their universities’ core mission, according to Wim de Villiers, rector and vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University, who sponsored the round-table.

The problem is a systemic one, said UCT’s Lange. Acknowledging the benefits of free higher education in homogenising and creating equality in society, she said the tertiary sector nevertheless had to be funded somehow.

In Mexico and Argentina, where universities are non-residential and the school system prepares university entrants for the world of work, students pay their own way in terms of off-campus living costs. Large middle-class tax bases or onerous student loans fund the system in other countries. But the fundamental socio-economic conditions for free university education have not been created in South Africa and universities are left to address developmental challenges that are not of their own making, she said.

Failed state

“A failed state has passed the burden to higher education,” said Lange. “For example, students cannot access food or medical support, so universities are expected to provide this. There is a national unemployment problem, so universities insource their workers.”

Meanwhile, the resources for the successful reproduction of student life remain in short supply. Some students send home a portion of their National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) grant to support relatives. Many students eat poorly, live in overcrowded accommodation and find it difficult to travel to and from campuses, she said.

The responsibility for addressing these students’ needs adds to universities’ complex management burden. “Universities run estates, health services, hotels, residences, transport, gardening and catering services – you name it,” said Lange. “And at some institutions they have as many as 65,000 students who are there to be dealt with as ‘customers’.”

The scale of the challenge, combined with pressures exerted by student unrest, have led to an almost permanent state of crisis management and there are clear limits to what the universities can provide, as articulated by Habib: “We can ameliorate the situation for students with initiatives such as food schemes, etc, but we cannot take responsibility for the failed development project.”

However, this is not a position that has won any great sympathy with protesting students who have argued that the violence they have inflicted upon universities is justified by the long-term structural violence that they and their families have had to endure. In this regard, despite their principled objections to the use of violence as a means, senior academics at the meeting acknowledged the effectiveness of social mobilisation under the #FeesMustFall banner as well as some of the movement’s achievements.

Student achievements

The student protesters successfully highlighted the importance of transformation at universities; and, in terms of extending the student subsidy, had, according to Habib, “achieved in 10 days what vice-chancellors had been debating for 10 years”.

In this regard, it was also noted that university vice-chancellors themselves could have achieved more if they had come together as a sector to raise common concerns with the government rather than continually seeking to gain comparative advantage over each other.

In the aftermath of the #FeesMustFall protests, many progressive senior academics remain wary of questioning student demands, fearful of being labelled “conservatives”, said Habib. He noted that one form of self-censorship is to mouth vague platitudes in support of the need for decolonisation and transformation while avoiding any real discussion of how these should be implemented for fear of inflaming populists who are shaping the terms of the debate. Nativist rather than cosmopolitan ideas of identity hold sway, said Habib.

Meanwhile, Jansen noted, the idea of non-racialism as fundamental to inclusion in South Africa has been supplanted by the validation of a particular idea of what it is to be “black”; and the spectre of tribalism – the rights of one group or nationality over those of another – has risen again.

“We don’t have the courage to have the real conversation,” said Habib. “The university is no longer the space for discussion of ideas.”

Habib’s frustration is conveyed by his original proposed title for the book: At My Wits’ End – a play on the name of the university that he still heads but also an expression of the trauma experienced by South African vice-chancellors tasked with engaging student-protest leaders determined to frustrate their best efforts at negotiation.

However, the book is not all about despair. Like others dealing with South African higher education, such as Jansen’s As By Fire: The end of the South African university, it also offers a broader view of the plight of higher education and offers some suggestions as to how this vexed subject may be better addressed.

Mark Paterson is a senior journalist and communications consultant with a wide range of non-governmental, government and academic organisations.