South Africa

Op-Ed: Why is the state not a target of student protests?

By Judith February 20 October 2015

As protests raged at the Universities of Cape Town, Rhodes and the Witwatersrand, President Jacob Zuma managed to magically distance himself and his government from the crisis. In the midst of the chaos unfolding at Wits, one waited to hear from Higher Education Minster Blade Nzimande. He was missing in action until Monday when he called a press conference. One could not help but think that that was rather too little too late. By JUDITH FEBRUARY.

University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) vice-chancellor Adam Habib, is not usually someone who can be described as short of energy. Yet, the news clips of Habib sitting cross-legged while surrounded by protesting students saw him looking rather defeated by it all. Around him students sang and protested as if he held the public purse in his hands.

Predictably, similar ‘copy cat’ protests have now been held at Rhodes University and the University of Cape Town (UCT). Entrances to UCT, Rhodes and Wits were blockaded while students attacked cars with sticks on Empire Road in Johannesburg.

Self-styled leader of the UCT #Rhodesmustfall movement Chumani Maxwele was seen on SABC news speaking on a cellphone while on camera waiting to be interviewed. Celebrity activism seems to have its pay-offs.

The debate regarding tuition fees is not a simple one despite President Jacob Zuma’s ill-conceived ad-lib comments about the matter as he marked Press Freedom Day on Sunday. This being a country of extreme ironies, Zuma wished the gathered media a happy Press Freedom Day just seconds after he announced that a Media Tribunal was on the cards and the ‘Secrecy Bill’ was still being considered. When asked about the crisis in our universities, Zuma predictably failed to offer enlightenment. Instead we received off-the-cuff platitudes about the importance of education and that it really should be cheaper or even free. As usual our president managed to magically distance himself and his government from the crisis. In the midst of the chaos unfolding at Wits one waited then to hear from Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande. He was missing in action until Monday when he called a press conference. One could not help but think that that as rather too little too late, especially after Nzimande said: “This is not a crisis.” One wonders what might constitute a crisis for the minister?

Technically, Nzimande’s written statement could not be faulted. It made all the right noises; the Task Team on Higher Education will report to the president by the end of November (another task team, one asks?) on matters of financial exclusion and transformation, students need to be given space to engage but likewise violent protest is unacceptable. The statement went on to say: “Funding for poor academically capable students disbursed though the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), has increased from R441-million in 1997 to over R9.5-billion in 2015. While funding has increased considerably, it is clearly still insufficient to support all poor and academically deserving students. Processes for improving the disbursement of funds, and concerted efforts to root out fraud, as well as sourcing additional funding to support students are currently being implemented.”

In addition, students also needed to hear management’s concerns, he added. How long will it take for ‘processes’ to improve the disbursement of funds, one wonders? And what is the depth of ‘fraud’ within NSFAS? One would imagine these questions are also occupying protesting students’ minds.

Nzimande will hold a meeting with vice-chancellors and university leaders on Tuesday. Yet, it seems rather ex post facto, as universities appear locked in battles with students unprepared to listen or entertain alternatives other than scrapping fee increases. It might well be time for vice-chancellors to say to Nzimande that they are unable to deal with the situation of social instability on campuses unless the government steps in decisively and assists in restoring an environment conducive to discussion and debate. A Wits student interviewed on television said assertively: “This is about the battle of ideas.” It seems very hard to find the battle of ideas when any reasoned debate has been overtaken by barricades. Management says students had time to provide input on the question of fee increases and students say they were not afforded a proper opportunity. Is there space for mediation in this polarised atmosphere?

The issue of tuition fees is a complex one. There are no easy victories no matter what Wits students believe they may have accomplished under duress this past weekend. A university needs to pay its bills just like everyone else as Rhodes vice-chancellor Sizwe Mabizela said when trying to address students. Staff and services need to be paid for and someone needs to keep the lights on and the research going. If state subsidies are diminishing and costs increasing, then there is a serious imbalance. University management cannot solve these structural challenges themselves and so the state, university management and the private sector need to put their heads together to come up with a long-term solution. How higher education is structured comes into play too as well as the space for a greater variety of post-Matric options. Some thoughtful debate has been taking place on social media and elsewhere on practical costed options for running a university but they don’t seem to be gaining mainstream traction during the protests. Scrapping fee increases will merely serve to postpone the vexed question and the same debate will be had next year and the year after.

The most vexing part of the protests has been the targets and again, the intolerance associated with them. At UCT, the Bremner administration building was broken into forcefully. Presumably the brazen students believe that there will be no consequences to their actions as they refused to allow management to leave campus. Barricades at UCT, Wits and Rhodes denied those wanting to enter campus the right to do so. It seems as if students need to turn to violence or preventing others from exercising their right to free movement or their cause will not gain the cache it currently has. Perhaps it is time then to improve the quality of the argument instead of raising voices and in that way gain more far-reaching support from the student body?

But the strain of intolerance within student politics takes place in a broader context of a country straining at the seams with instability and inequality. In such a context we have seen the ruling African National Congress (ANC) itself become increasingly intolerant of criticism as its insecurity in government increases. What better example of such state paranoia and insecurity might there have been than the storming of Parliament by police during this year’s state of the nation address? On that day a part of our democracy died and while the president sat back chuckling, it also gave free rein to other elements of disruption and chaos to take hold in other institutions in our country.

It’s all up for grabs. #Rhodesmustfall will say that part of ‘decolonising the university’ and the mind is about bringing down the sacred cows one by one. Yet, in such a context of a lack of proper and inclusive debate it becomes impossible for anyone but those shouting the loudest, erecting barricades and holding hostages, to be heard. Logic is sacrificed at the altar of opportunism and short-term gain.

Furthermore what has been striking has been the targets chosen by students protesting the increase in tuition fees. Surely, the state should be as much of a target as university management? It seems inconceivable that Nzimande has escaped the students’ ire while they hold vice-chancellors hostage. The NSFAS is riddled with corruption. Perhaps that should equally be the subject of protest or indeed the excess of cars, hotels and other accouterments of power our politicians, Nzimande included, are so fond of? How can the debate be had without understanding that the state has a key role to play in dealing with this crisis? Many students protesting at Wits were, ironically, wearing ANC colours. No harm in that but perhaps that is why government is not being held to account as vociferously as it should? And perhaps that is why Gauteng basic education MEC Panyaza Lesufi has been so keen to come out in support of students. Do allegiances run too deeply pro-ANC within certain parts of the student leadership at Wits? The answer is not self-evident but the questions need to be asked. The Economic Freedeom Fighters has been standing alongside the ANC on the Wits campus it would seem and these uneasy political alliances can be heartening in some way, as we need to reach across political divides. At the same time, one senses just a little bit of political opportunism between the lines.

Many within the university communities are so afraid of the toxicity with which the debates around tuition fees and the so-called ‘decolonising’ of the university have taken place that they dare not speak out.

Labelling has become the new sparring tool in South Africa and so some are excluded from the debates about ‘black pain’ and still others labelled ‘settlers’. Our history is difficult and painful but we somehow need to find each other amid the increasingly deep divides. If we want to do so then speaking out is crucial and also fundamental to any institutions of higher learning. They surely ought to be able to accommodate a fair exchange of ideas and not a rule by protesting tyranny?

Protest and violent expression seem to have become our default language in South Africa and a throwback to our past. In a constitutional democracy we also need to find new ways of engaging and deliberating thoughtfully across a table and negotiating difference. This year UCT’s council was held hostage by #Rhodesmustfall students who barged into the meeting and danced on tables. At some point someone has to be bold enough to suggest that such conduct is incendiary.

The debate on tuition fees has multiple dimensions and while university management bears responsibility for solutions, they cannot shoulder the entire burden. Pierre de Vos of UCT has interestingly raised the constitutional one for instance: What is the constitutional duty of the state in relation to university fees? Could that be the subject of a Constitutional Court challenge for instance and might students seek to pursue such a line of argument?

So yes, inequality is biting. In South Africa it is structural and it won’t be solved overnight. The problem is that violent barricades and denying others their rights to free movement show not critical-mindedness but only small-minded intolerance. One cannot help but think that the state has the larger role to play here. Mabizela, Max Price and Habib are easy targets right now. What students should be doing is putting equal, if not more, pressure on our elected government to deal with the issue and show leadership.

Leadership is in short supply in South Africa. The vacuum at the very top has endless consequences for social stability and our ability to forge a social compact across divides. We will be paying the price for this lack of leadership for decades to come.

It was Aristotle who said: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” South Africa needs more measured debates and approaches to problem solving. We are far from that at the moment. That is mostly because the politicians have been unable or unwilling to tackle difficult issues and so benefit when the buck is passed to someone else. Watching a crisis unfold seems to be a lot easier than trying to deal with it. DM

Photo: The Wits protests on Monday took to the streets in Braamfontein, closing down the roads. (Greg Nicolson)

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