South Africa

Interview: UCT Vice-Chancellor Max Price

By Marelise Van Der Merwe 16 November 2015

Last week, MARELISE VAN DER MERWE met with University of Cape Town’s Vice-Chancellor, Max Price, after a rough few days of protest during which the university’s Senate Meeting was violently disrupted, the rumblings of discontent within Nehawu grew louder, and the tension reached boiling point on the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and the University of Western Cape campuses. Here’s what Price had to say about the way forward.

* This is an edited transcript. Part II, which will be published later this week, focuses on the issue of insourcing and negotiation challenges between workers, students, management and Nehawu. – Ed

Max Price, when Daily Maverick met with him the first time last week, looked tired, but better than one might have expected; under the circumstances, one might even say chipper. The impression one gets, talking to him, is that the situation at UCT is a little more contained – not only because the protests have been slightly less volatile than on other campuses, but because the university had begun discussing the processes now set in motion some years ago. In some ways, what is happening now is a vastly accelerated version of what may have occurred in any case. Overall impression? The Vice-Chancellor is cautiously optimistic.

DM: I’m sure this is a shot in the dark, but I am going to ask it anyway. Would you hazard a prediction as to how long the protests might continue?

MP: At other campuses, of course, I do not know. At UCT, there’s a very small group which I think will carry on until the university closes for the year. I say a very small group because I think they sometimes include students from other universities. I’m not sure how many are our students. Perhaps there are about 40 or 50 that are still wanting to disrupt the university and prevent the exams. I do not imagine they will stop before the end of the academic year, which is the end of November. But we will try to manage that, and try to prevent it from causing any disruption.

What are your expectations for the start of next year?

We have talked about the Nehawu issue [see Ed’s note above]. A lot of this, right now, is because Nehawu does not seem to be able to get all the workers on side. I’m hoping that by the beginning of next year, Nehawu would have sorted out its issues. I think if that’s the case, there wouldn’t be very much around which protests would still be focused.

There might still be issues of student debt, and students being allowed to continue with their debt, but I think we can get closer to an agreement. We are close to an agreement already on that.

More importantly, this – I’ll call it a tsunami – this three-week national student movement overtook a much longer-term, slightly lower key transformation movement. And that was the RMF (Rhodes Must Fall) group originally, and groups aligned with it.

That still has a way to go, and will continue and should continue. Transformation is a long-term thing. I’m hoping that through engagement with the SRC and RMF group, we can incorporate them into processes and into the transformation programmes. They may choose to stay outside of those structures and rather lobby or campaign. Then I imagine those sorts of protests would continue. But throughout the year, those were not disruptive. It was not coercive. Nobody was pushed into participating if they didn’t want to. I would hope that we return to that mode of protest action and activism. That gives energy to the transformation campaigns and process.

There has been concern about the level of intimidation on various campuses, yes. Is that a concern for you?

Those are strike tactics, when labour strikes become violent or intimidatory. It is a huge concern. We’ve had that at UCT, with students telling us they cannot continue studying while other students are protesting. I can only say that we condemn it. That was partly why we closed the campus why we did. We didn’t feel that we could protect students adequately. It is a very worrying thing.

Can you give us some insight into what perspectives have changed for you personally and professionally during these protests? 

We haven’t faced this scale of crisis in my seven-and-a-half years in this position. What made it a crisis, for one, was the national scale of it. Two, the proximity to exams, and not finishing the exams, has such negative consequences for so many students and those graduating. Thirdly, multiple issues came very quickly. The focus on fees came quickly and had to be resolved quickly, and was followed very quickly by the insourcing issue. And a whole lot of other issues that then came to the table, plus the issues that Nehawu is having…. In order to respond, and to respond quickly, the key lesson is the difficulty of keeping the wider constituencies really informed. So, when you are negotiating with students or the union or the government, it is happening so quickly that there is not really time to go back to the campus and to different constituencies, who are the silent majorities, and say to them: ‘This is what this group is demanding and this is what we are thinking – what do you think?’ And it is really because of the number of issues, and all coming on top of each other.

And so, the casualty in this process has been adequate communication… not just communication in the sense of saying what is going on, but the opportunity for others to get involved or to express their views or their support. So, to some extent, in addition to having to deal with the immediate negotiation partners or negotiation challenges, you also had to deal with unhappiness from broader stakeholders, who were saying: We have been left out of this, what is going on? That’s one of the things I would try to do differently; to have someone dedicated to better communication and soliciting views. And linked to that, to try not to negotiate only with one group, or the group making the demands – which might not be possible, because they are the groups making the demands, and they might not be willing to include others they feel might dilute their position. One would rather make it clear that you might not sign agreements, or make concessions without broader consultation. But you can say that now, although under the pressure of the moment you might not be able to do that. That’s been the most critical set of insights.

The most challenging thing has been the daily judgement that we had to make, whether continuing the process of negotiation will buy sufficient support from groups in opposition to either win their support or to ensure that you have won the support of enough of them … versus on the other hand the sense that if you make a concession that will signal that you are willing to make more concessions; that a forceful tactic works. So it is about trying to make clear what one’s bottom lines are, so it is not an incremental shift of position. I think we did that. We understood the impact and the need. We understood very early on that nothing other than zero fees would work. That’s why the VCs got together and went to government. At UCT, we saw quickly that insourcing was a very critical issue, and we should make up our own minds. I think some of the other universities have reached a similar point, but with a slightly longer course.

So how did you manage the divisions in views between representative groups, then?

We do not know who supports what. But our view is that the majority of the students in the Left Students Forum, even in FMF (#FeesMustFall) and RMF, are serious students, genuine students, students who would have been eligible to write exams and want to write. The issues that they are raising are genuine issues. In a four or five-page list of demands, 75% we understand where they are coming from, and we would like to support. The main constraint would often be finances. And so we want to address that as reasonably as possible. The other 25% of demands, which maybe look like they are there in order to make it impossible for us to agree because they are so extreme or radical, we presume are coming from other people in the group.

We do not know in advance how big each of those groups are. We have some intelligence about that but we are not sure, because those groups will be showing solidarity with each other to make the core stronger. We just have to make the reasonable assumption that those who are genuinely committed to the success of the university will, within the group, try to argue for writing exams and for some sort of compact with us. They may not be strong enough to swing it, and we may end up with the group splitting, and some of those who think we have done what we, can peeling off, and those that do not will continue to be the hardcore group.

I really do not want to paint them all with the same brush. They are different groups. They have different agendas, and different commitments to a solution.

There are, of course, also very different ideas on methods. From even the first week, there was a difference in views within the student body, and some expressed frustration with the movement structure and leadership.

I think that is one of the real challenges, in this year of protest and beyond these three weeks. An insight is that the nature of these current social formations is modelled on the tactics of the occupy movements. It is an article of faith that there is not a hierarchy; it is a radical democracy where all decisions are taken by plenary groups; that nobody can be identified as a leader, so that they could not be picked off, in a sense. There is mass accountability. There is a democratic idealism, but the reason bureaucracies and organisational structures exist, is because, by and large, that has never been successful. It was not successful in the occupy movements, and it has not been successful, really, in other anarchist movements.

That may be a lesson that these students are learning. If you do not have rules, and forms of discipline that determine a defined membership, movements can easily be infiltrated or taken over by other groups with other agendas that are powerful in organisation. Their whole mission can then be altered by other groups that can come in. So they have fatal flaws in terms of their missions. That is partly what we are seeing now.

That does not help us as management. If the movement splits or is influenced by another group, it makes it much harder for us to make progress. I do not take any joy at all in the fact that they are vulnerable in that way. I would much rather they had the kind of structures and leadership that could hold us to an agreement.

When it is come down to the actual negotiations behind closed doors, how would you describe that process? 

It is been more difficult than I expected – there has been a real lack of trust. There is almost bad faith between the parties. We are negotiating with an umbrella structure, #FeesMustFall, that represents disabled students, mental health issues, UCT Queer Revolution, the Left Students Forum, RMF, and, actually, there are six or seven groups, and they have different priorities, but they wish to present a united front. One group may be willing to concede on something, and another may not.

Even the sequence in which we discuss something can be the subject of debate amongst them on one hand, and between them and us on the other. That is one reason why it is been really difficult. And then, not being confident that they have the kind of structure where, if they were to sign something, they can guarantee that all students in their movement will support it, and be back during exams. All the negotiators present may agree and there may be another group that says, well, we are still not happy, and that group may be left outside of the agreement, so have we gained anything? It is the multiplicity of organisations and agendas. In the absence of a representative structure with membership, when someone says something, it does not bind everyone.

As for the bad faith, it comes within a history, in a context of conflict over the year with RMF, where things have happened, and both parties think the other has acted in bad faith. Most critically it came in context of the interdict, and police action on campus on 19 and 20 October, where people had either occupied the Bremner building or barricaded it, and were arrested. Their experience of that, I cannot comment on; I was not there, and the video is not very clear. But they say their experience was of police brutality, and they blame the university for having enabled that, by calling the police to clear the barricades.

From our point of view we feel the goalposts have been moving; that we started off with two clear sets of issues, namely zero fees and insourcing, and then new sets of issues came up. So I think that is why it is been hard. And so the work to be done, if we can do it, is to try to get back into a good faith relationship.

There have certainly been some fault lines deepening between protestors and there have been differences amongst academic and support staff as well – I suppose bad faith, as you put it. Does the university have any plans in place to repair relationships going ahead? 

For most of the university, we have seen a greater coming together, particularly after the senate meeting. Many senate members and academics were completely shocked. They had not seen that kind of unreasonableness: a big group of students making demands very rudely, attempting to humiliate people they were meant to be negotiating with, becoming, not violent to the extent of trying to injure us, but throwing things. I think that that has shifted where many people in the university were, who felt that we were not doing enough to negotiate, and to avoid confrontation.

We have got to get back to talking; there’s no other solution. A lot of the demands are reasonable. We are open to engage with anyone who will engage in a dignified and respectful way, and does not just want to insult and bully. And I think we have to. We cannot get past this otherwise.

Obviously there has been a major focus on transformation at UCT this year. Do you agree that it is an overdue conversation? And how do you intend to take the transformation conversation forward in a way that might avert further protest action? 

Yes, it is overdue. It got a lot of impetus in March, April and May. It lost a bit of momentum during the July holidays. We needed to go through a mediation process, and that was stretched out. No one wanted to come back to the transformation forum until that had been resolved. So we lost momentum. And then we had challenges getting the necessary groups together. At a level of process, I’m feeling disappointed that we lost some momentum, but we will pick it up again.

At a level of activities, we have continued very actively, and will continue to do so. The Council, with the SRC, appointed two task teams to look at names of buildings, and statues and symbols. Those groups have started working, and sent a call-out to campus to help us identify symbols and artworks that are culturally offensive or politically problematic.

We have initiated a curriculum transformation, and reform process in faculties, and at university level. One of the issues around the question of more black academic staff, especially professors, has been the structure of promotions committees. Some of the promotions committees used to be almost exclusively white because they were exclusively professors, and there were so few black professors. Structures have changed to include people from all ranks, so there are much more diverse groups now.

We have a process to examine the criteria for promotion as well. Although I do not believe there are any racially prejudicial criteria, there is a suspicion that there may be, so we are going to review it. We have launched a programme called Next Generation Professoriate. Thirty-five people who are black academics have been identified, many of whom are senior lecturers. The target is that they should become associate professors in the next five years; or if they are associate professors they will become full professors.

We are putting a lot more money into employment equity positions. If we can identify a black academic, even if we do not have a vacant post, we would be able to appoint that person until a vacant post comes up, so that we do not lose that person while they are around. This applies to people who have finished their PhDs or post-docs, and would like to have an academic career, but find there is no post vacant. So we have invested at the developmental level.

At government level, the government has launched a programme called NGAP [New Generation of Academics Programme]. They have funded about 120 black South African PhDs, and we have five of those posts. These are people that get jobs from the time they start their PhDs. What this does is that it competes with other job opportunities. The government funds the PhD part, and the university funds the job. Government has only been able to afford 120 or 140, but have promised to do more each year until they reach 400. I am worried that with subsidising the tertiary education shortfalls, they might not find the money anymore, but we will have to see.

Another area of transformation has been opening spaces for discussion. Every faculty has been holding faculty assemblies, where students and staff get together in a big lecture theatre and the staff are there to listen and say, What are the issues? Why are you feeling unhappy? And they have been very productive. I think the staff have learnt things. You live in the organisation, you work in it, you think you understand how it works, you have black friends and black students, you assume that they would tell you if there was an issue, and in fact that does not happen. There have to be enough people who feel sore about something, and encourage each other to talk about it, so that that happens.

This is controversial, but a number of faculties have created fora for black or queer students only. The idea of having racially exclusive fora is anathema to a non-racial society, and the Constitution, but we have encouraged it, because we have had to recognise that if you see yourself as marginalised or oppressed, or not having a voice in an institution then you will not speak in front of those people who normally intimidate you, for whatever reason. So these have been helpful to identify these shared experiences, and articulate them. Why do I come to this university from a school where I was top of my class, or where I was very confident, and I now experience this? a black student might say. That is something that is best discussed with people who feel the same way. All of these things are dimensions of transformation that we will continue to push next year. DM

Photo of Max Price by Michael Hammond.

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