Lifting the lid on #FeesMustFall protests

Outspoken South African academic Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of one of the country’s leading institutions, the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), said he would have like to have seen greater ethics among student leaders during the #FeesMustFall protests which effectively kicked off on the Wits campus in 2015.

“Too many leaders said one thing in public and did another in private,” he told University World News in an interview shortly after the launch on 6 August at Wits of his book Rebels and Rage: Reflecting on #FeesMustFall.

Habib found himself at the centre of the storm at Wits when violence erupted in 2016 along with an arson attack on campus, prompting him to call the police to maintain calm and ensure the safety of students and staff.

“A lot of activists decided that they wanted to disband structures of deliberation like senate and council and replace them with a mass meeting. This was utterly nonsensical; it’s a kind of anarchism that needed to be challenged.”

#FeesMustFall was born at Wits in October 2015 following the announcement of tertiary institution fee increases and continued throughout the country until former president Jacob Zuma announced a freeze on tuition fee increases for 2016. Protests continued sporadically in 2016, ending finally with the announcement of a new plan by Zuma around free education for poor students in December 2016.

Politicisation of protests

There was no doubt, according to Habib, that the student protests became politicised.

“Politics at the time influenced #FeesMustFall but there’s no doubt it began spontaneously. Soon after its success, when former president Zuma declared no fee increase, and that the state would pay for it, it unravelled because both the ANC [African National Congress] and EFF [Economic Freedom Fighters] tried to capture parts of the movement. The Democratic Alliance also tried [to do so] unsuccessfully,” he said.

Habib said student leaders had shown hypocrisy in their behaviour.

“They engaged me quietly, and then said [publicly] they were not on campus engaging me. They opposed exams and then they came to ask me permission to write quietly. It’s that kind of hypocrisy and duplicity which has become characteristic of our political leadership.

“… That was a tragedy and it had to be challenged … Too many of these activists learnt their politics from the likes of [former president] Jacob Zuma and [Economic Freedom Fighters leader] Julius Malema, which meant they were more focused on the spectacle than the outcomes,” he said.

Released in March to a mixed reaction from both supporters and critics, with some academics collectively penning a riposte in a weekly newspaper, the campus-based launch of Habib’s book was delayed by examinations and other commitments but finally took place on 6 August with Habib in conversation with former broadcast personality Redi Tlhabi.

On the rationale behind the book, Habib told University World News that #FeesMustFall was a momentous occasion in South African higher education with the protest itself ending the political economy or the business model that had been underlying higher education since 1994.

Habib said he believed it was important to tell the story of what happened – who was involved, what the challenges and trade-offs were and the lessons to be learnt from #FeesMustFall.

Crude analysis

“What I’m worried about is what I call the crudity of the public discourse on higher education and #FeesMustFall. Amongst progressives there was the view that noble, revolutionary, left-leaning students, interested in social justice, were being opposed by a neoliberal state and neoliberal vice-chancellors. I thought that was a crude analysis and was not an accurate reflection of the issues.

“On the opposite side you had a view that these were a marauding bunch of protesters who didn’t understand the complexity of the modern world and were looking for everything for free. That was problematic partly because it did not recognise the challenges of higher education and that there was a problem in the system; there was a problem with the business model and within the political economy of higher education post-1994.”

Habib said he was “under no illusion” that his book would be entirely objective.

“I was a player in the game, so I decided to write a memoir which tells the story of #FeesMustFall from my perspective, why we made the decisions we made, who we engaged with and what the difficulties were,” he said.

“I don’t believe I bring an objective voice, but I do believe I bring a unique angle to understanding #FeesMustFall partly because unlike student activists, I got to grapple with trade-offs, I got to grapple with choices. I also could tell part of the story that nobody knows about, the part that involved the engagement of the president, engagement with other vice-chancellors and the engagement with the minister, and all of those things. I do think certainly at the story level, I tell a unique story that not too many people know.”

Habib said he concludes with two chapters on how to achieve free higher education, looking at all the models that have been advanced.

A complex world

“I end off with a chapter on the lessons to be learnt for social justice because I don’t see myself as a neoliberal architect. I agree with the importance of social justice. I agree with the importance of social inclusion, but one must do that thoughtfully because if you do it badly you could destroy higher education. Sometimes some people don’t understand the complexity of the challenge and they tend to see the world through the prism of saints and sinners; the world is much more complex than that.”

Asked how he would have handled the protests if he had been a student, Habib said: “There’s a whole chapter there [in the book] that says: ‘Look, I don’t have a problem with you engaging in #FeesMustFall; it’s a legitimate struggle. The question is how you do it’.”

Although he conceded that the student protests had succeeded in changing the financing of higher education and had catapulted the issue of fees into the political arena, he said: “At the same time, I would have fought against the violence that prevailed in the #FeesMustFall campaigns.”