Academics discuss violent threats against HE leaders

The killings of university staff on and around South African university campuses have triggered some soul-searching among academics, which came to the fore during an Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) round-table discussion on 27 January.

Assaults, insults and physical attacks with reckless abandon towards staff, including professors, academics and administration workers, are driving the current efforts within the sector to interrogate the root causes of the problems and to provide appropriate solutions.

The discussion took place against the backdrop of a list of incidents involving university leaders and staff.

In 2018, Professor Gregory Kamwendo, a dean at the University of Zululand, was shot dead at his home in Empangeni, in 2022 University of Limpopo lecturer Professor Mohamed Saber Tayob was shot dead in Polokwane.

Also in 2022, Petrus Roets, the head of fleet management at the University of Fort Hare, was shot in a suspected assassination in the Eastern Cape while driving home from work and, most recently, the University of Fort Hare Vice-Chancellor Sakhele Buhlungu’s bodyguard, Mboneli Vesele, was gunned down in a suspected assassination.

Describing the developments as a crisis engulfing leadership in universities in South Africa today, Professor Jonathan Jansen, the president of ASSAf, led the 10th Presidential Round-Table Discussion titled, ‘The Threat to Leadership in South African Universities’.

A future universities ‘never anticipated’

“We have a history of violence in our country [where there are] minimal consequences for these kinds of atrocities,” said Professor Themba Mosia, the vice-principal of the University of Pretoria.

“Violent protests, historically, have been directed and managed by students, but we see a different phenomenon now, [namely] the reluctance of the police to act decisively, especially when there are protests,” he said.

Mosia, the chairperson of the Council on Higher Education from 2013 to 2022, a statutory policy advisory and quality body, has experienced numerous threats and violations of human rights as a higher education leader, including being held at gunpoint on campus, the witnessing of university infrastructure being vandalised and himself and top university leaders using protection services. At the time, Mosia was displeased that many of his colleagues believed that the top management were just staging the incidents.

“I’ve seen too many of these violent activities,” he said, explaining, that they are caused by the scramble for the meagre resources that universities have, in particular the infrastructure and efficiency plans.

“I think it’s because our economy has been declining for quite a while and the [types] of corruption that universities are facing are very sophisticated. Unless we have very sophisticated information-technology surveillance, we will continue to have these issues,” said Mosia.

Professor Saleem Badat, a former vice-chancellor, said: “These are, indeed, dangerous times for university leadership.” Badat, at present a research professor at the College of Humanities at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, agreed with Mosia that the fight for resources reflects the morbidity of the general political economy of South Africa.

Individuals and syndicates have captured various public institutions because of a dithering state. The collusion between criminals and political officials and a lack of leadership and management capacities suggest that these individuals and syndicates will besmirch, intimidate and kill anyone who gets in their way. The fact that universities command millions of rands in resources made them fair game for thieves, he said.

According to Badat, universities’ financial resources have been the objects of theft, fraud, [suspicious] tenders and scams, but universities also offer different kinds of rewards. Access to financial aid, admissions to universities for those who don’t meet admission requirements, especially to certain degree programmes, obtaining degrees and the conferral of status, like professorships, without wanting to put in the work, are part of the problem, he explained.

All of these have great currency at universities, especially for those who are desperate for paydays at any costs, irrespective of ethics, morality and legality. That is why you find that degrees are being awarded fraudulently, plagiarism and publishing in predatory journals take place, unscrupulous external examining and peer review happen, and there is the dubious awarding of honorary doctorates, Badat said.

Mosia saw higher education as a reflection of a state that has failed itself and where citizens, who were caught napping by the euphoria of democracy, have neglected to ensure basic human rights protection and the right to life.

Like Badat, Mosia has also seen how people look for kickbacks within the system, and that criminality has become pervasive. Yet, the police seem helpless, and private security is profit-driven.

“The university, for many of us who have decided to stay for the public good, has changed dramatically,” he said.

The character of violence at universities

Professor Adam Habib, the former vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and now head of the School for Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, United Kingdom, said violence on South African campuses has a structural character.

There is a deep-seated inequality in South African society that is pervasive in higher education, which has created the scramble for resources that the universities have, he said.

“We should be conscious that the problem is not all of the same gravity from campus to campus,” he noted. For example, the threats that an institution such as Stellenbosch University may experience, are not as life-threatening as those at the universities of Fort Hare or Zululand.

“The reason that violence continues is because we have a selective interpretation of violence … [When it is] perpetrated against people we know we get very angry and condemning. Where the violence is perpetrated by people whom we ideologically agree with, we tend to be indulgent,” he said. “We need to deal with both the structure and the complicity and indulgence of violence by all actors,” he added.

There are universities, including academics, who conduct themselves in the most reprehensible and dubious ways and they effectively become complicit in questionable activities, especially where university senates avoid their accountability. All of these corrode the fundamental purpose and functions of universities, said Badat.

Did corporatisation cause the problems?

Professor Nomalanga Mkhize, a departmental head of history and political studies at Nelson Mandela University in South Africa, was critical of the kind of university leadership that is being praised and rewarded.

It leans more to shaping their career paths at the expense of the academic project for the whole country. One of the core problems faced by the older cohort of university leaders or vice-chancellors was to think about what universities were offering society as a cultural project, she said.

Mkhize said that, somewhere in the transition between the end of apartheid and the coming of corporatisation, university leaders seemed to be happy with their academic project, with all their perks, and they became ‘super vice-chancellors’, but less critical.

Mkhize is right, said Badat. The complicity and the collusion on the part of leadership is legendary. Criminality, fraud, nepotism and corruption thrive institutionally when a government and state officials provide platitudes rather than effective steering and sensible policy interventions.

He said there is a lack of ethical and effective leadership by university councils and senates which is worsened by the lack of institutional capacity and the personal capabilities to lead and govern and manage. “We think anyone can run universities,” Badat said.

Even as corporatisation was coming in and giving all this power to executive management, it created more aggressive cultures in institutions, trade unions and student bodies, which became more aggressive, said Mkhize.

At a time when our vice-chancellors were intellectuals, they could wield that power and deal with the brutal culture by just being intellectuals, she said, but that era of intellectual vice-chancellors has gone.

“It is not a surprise that it was Gregory Kamwendo and Sakhele Buhlungu who have faced the most violent threats – and also provided the strongest resistance. “All this comes down to what we are offering society as universities,” she said.

She saw the degradation of the academic project in South Africa as real, and “it’s in the hands of academics and incentive-based management”.

“Why do you guys still allow performance management to dominate universities?” she asked.

The academic project, the cultural project, the intellectual project has been completely derailed, she emphasised.

Mkhize offered a solution, saying it was important to study the problem and do away with the corrosive nature of the power struggles that emerge as new classes of black people, new management, new trade unions, new academics, new professoriates, are fighting for positions.

“So we have to get back to that fundamental question. What is the university supposed to offer society? What is the cultural purpose?” she asked.

For Badat, a capable government and effective development state is required while, at the same time, he warned against proposing quick-fix solutions that could be of doubtful efficacy.

“We must also be extremely cautious that our proposals do not further securitise our universities in unfortunate ways, because that will severely compromise a sociology of learning and knowledge-making.”