South Africa

South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER: Adam Habib – the rock, the hard place, and the cruel beauty of an uncaring universe

TRAINSPOTTER: Adam Habib – the rock, the hard place, and the cruel beauty of an uncaring universe

Last week, University of Witwatersrand Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib made the Hail Mary desperation play of running an SMS poll, asking students and staff if they were willing to return to classes if the security apparatus standing sentinel throughout the campus remained there to keep them safe. It was another attempt to break the deadlock between students and management, following the renewed bout of #FeesMustFall protests that were the result of Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande’s recommendation that fee increases for 2017 should be capped at 8%. On Monday, a national higher education imbizo took place, which included all “stakeholders”. In the first of a series of profiles of South Africans working the frontlines of our troubled country, RICHARD POPLAK sits down with the VC, a man who finds himself as the face of Power, while wielding none of it.

Once a pedagogue, always a pedagogue: Adam Habib wants me to understand that there are three ways to tell the #FeesMustFall story. We are facing each other at Knead, a carb-peddling restaurant in Nelson Mandela Square. Habib is renowned for his Hadron Collider zippiness, but today he appears flat, faded, exsanguinated, leeched. He is losing his voice, largely because for the past week he has acted as Major-General in a war to “correct the messaging” regarding the countrywide #FeesMustFall Reloaded protests, a sequel to last year’s uprisings that have so far shuttered 17 universities, and threaten to kibosh the remainder of the academic year.

About the messaging, there has indeed been a surfeit. #FeesMustFall is the moment of rupture, the noisy (if inevitable) breach of the South African democratic project. The uprisings are as seismically transformative as were the 1968 student movements in France, or the Vietnam protests in the United States. No element of society has been left untouched; more ink has been spilled about FMF than Nkandla and Marikana combined. (Just Google the numbers—they’re astonishing.) What’s more, the protests have nowhere near reached their zenith, and nor has their influence: they have exposed the lie upon which our society is premised, unravelling everything we pretended to believe about ourselves. This is the splitting of the South African atom, and the mushroom cloud is currently in the process of engulfing us all.

So how, I wonder, does one pick three narratives from a near infinite number of possibilities?

The first and most obvious story,” says Habib, leaning over his cappuccino, “is about politics, strategy and unintended consequences. It’s an interesting thing: the nobility of the cause doesn’t mean the way you fight it is good. Sometimes, causes are lost because you don’t use the appropriate strategy.”

This wouldn’t be a conversation in 2016 if someone didn’t name-check genocidal lunatics in service of their argument, and Habib wants me to consider the career arcs of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. “He was committed to equality,” says The VC of the Cambodian revolutionary. “And he achieved it. If we get this wrong, the only way you’ll get equality is equality in misery.”

So far, we’re on target for exactly that.

The second story?

This is a tale about the South African vice chancellor position,” he tells me, postmodernly. “We are paid very well, I’m not disputing that. But it’s the shittiest job for the money you get. I receive a R2.7-million salary, with a R500,000 bonus — which I forfeited last year — against turnover of R5.4-billion. The assumption is that it’s a grand job, but it’s one that makes you go against the whole grain of your life.”

Habib is, of course, a political activist turned political scientist turned academic bureaucrat, and there was a period of time in this country — not so long ago, in fact — when his particular brand of patriotic cosmopolitanism felt like an authentic national aspiration.

I am a product of the 21st century,” he once said, “a hybrid of humanity, which transcends geographical and cultural boundaries. I am also defined by the wide variety of people with different backgrounds, languages and religions with whom I have interacted.”

He uttered those words just a few years before he was hired as Vice-Chancellor, back in 2013. The 21st century has moved on a little since then, and the current age demands that we end up eating our own ethos. He is trying to tell me, I think, how this country turns even the best of intentions into Shakespearean tragedies that culminate in the entire cast writhing in raspberry juice on a red-slicked stage.

Which brings us to the third story.

This one, it turns out, is about — me.

Part of this whole thing has been a failure of the press,” he says, mock sheepish. “The mainstream press I’ve given up on. But even the alternative press — Daily Maverick, Daily Vox — is so invested in the ideology of the cause, that….” He throws his hands up in exasperation.

Which brings us to the charm offensive — the endless roundabout of interviews and press statements, counternarratives and info data-dumps, all detailing the specifics of Habib’s last-ditch attempt to keep his school running. The Senior Executive Team at Wits has come out in support for “access to quality, free higher education for the poor and so-called missing middle” — AKA a tiered fee-paying structure that asks wealthier families to cough up their share. This, however, is counter to the #FeesMustFall movement’s demands — by free, they seem to mean free. A settlement will thus need to be negotiated. Meantime, his open-for-business strategy involves a mixture of private security and cops keeping the peace-ishness, lashed to a policy of “engagement” with students from whom his position has never been more distant.

And so, the cunning move: in preparation for Zuma’s education imbizo on Monday, an SMS poll was sent out to 36,000 students and over 2,000 staff, asking them, “Should Wits open on Mon 3 Oct subject to appropriate security protocols being in place. Reply with yes or no?”

The results were an overwhelming endorsement of Habib’s Hail Mary wager, with 16,739 of 21,730 respondents “voting” aye, and only 4,991 asserting “nay”. (Over 6,000 SMSes were apparently lost in Telcom purgatory, and 5,000 or so recipients did not respond.) This was market research rather than democratic engagement — Habib describes it not as a referendum, but as a “dipstick” — and it armed him with the rhetorical ammo he required going into the imbizo.

Our strategy is: we stay open,” he says. “We are almost at the point of no return.”


There are many who’d argue that the point of no return was not returned from a long time ago.

Like almost every last aspect of South African society, higher education is subject to divisions that cut along historical, racial lines. Some students can afford university. Most students cannot. The #FeesMustFall movement didn’t start at Wits — South Africa’s flyover country was riven by fee protests for years before the official 2015 media kick off — but Wits is the ingénue that benefits from proximity to all the cameras, the news carnies, the white middle-class gentry. Last year, following the Rhodes Must Fall protests, and when the university set the fee rise for 2016 at 11%, the movement was ready for its close-up.

Which is about when the country exploded.

Anyone who knew anything about these matters knew that big trouble was coming, Adam Habib very much included. The math, as the VC will readily admit, is appalling. Famously, the portion of funding universities receive from government has declined from 49% to 40% over the course of the past decade, while student fees have risen from 24% to 31% in order to cover the shortfall. Meanwhile, tertiary education inflation, as calculated by Habib and others, is about 4% higher than the regular rate of inflation, sitting now at around 6% per annum. This, he tells me, is because the inflation of higher education products is subject to the fluctuating exchange rate, and added to this are the costs of in-sourcing, which tacks another R120-million onto the balance sheet.

In other words, universities are not sustainable institutions. “We need 8%,” says Habib, “or we’re dead in the water.”

Okay, but how? Government subsidies don’t work, largely because they get people into the tertiary education stream, but not through it. The undergraduate block grant subsidy system pays the universities 70% for enrolment, i.e. for shovelling living humans into our venerable, if now slightly crispy, institutions, and a mere 16% for graduation completion. As for National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), no one knows how many recipients actually graduate, because the billion-rand scheme isn’t monitored for outcomes. Should a student excel and receive a bursary, adios NFSAS, which often means they can’t afford to pay registration fees in order to access their performance-based funding.

Subsidies are thus a con job that has encouraged transformation on the surface — in 2011, according to the Council for Higher Education (CHE), 81% of the South African tertiary education student body was black, up from 52% in 1993, while increasing the disparity in the number of those who successfully graduate. The gross participation rate — the percentage of possible students from the general population who make it to university — hovers at a grim 17-ish percent, a number that doesn’t cut squarely along racial lines: as of 2011, the participation among whites was 57%, while among blacks it was 14%.

It’s a cluster-fuck of notable proportions, and it could be argued that making this horrendous mess free is the equivalent of giving away gift packs of Ebola, with a side order of prostate cancer. After all, nothing is free, everything must be paid for, but free education was inherent in the promise of a free country, and that’s the loop that #FeesMustFall has been fighting to close. Wits itself may function as a successful research university, but regardless of how you slice it, the whole business comes down to the following:

The large differentials in earnings and access to jobs between the highly educated and the less educated lies at the heart of income inequality. The high wage premium to educated workers derives from a combination of a skills shortage at the top end of the educational spectrum, driving up wages of the educated, and a surfeit of poorly?educated workers competing for scarce unskilled jobs, thus dampening unskilled wages.

That right there is the mechanics behind a perversely, pervasively unequal society, a dystopian nightmare-scape that can only militarise the divisions between a handful of haves and masses of enraged slave minions. And while the above may describe a global snafu, when it comes to inequality, Azania will not be outdone.

This problem is both amplified and racialised in South Africa,” writes Nico Cloete, “[because] returns to higher education in South Africa are triple that of the United States, and like in the US are also racially biased.”

And so, young South Africans desperately need higher education in order to close an inequality gap that manifests (largely) along racial lines, but they can’t successfully navigate the system because a) it costs so much in fees and related expenses, b) too many students are unprepared for university on account of shitty primary and secondary education, and c) they find universities to be intellectually hostile environments accessorised with statues of mass murderers.

That said, without American-style community colleges or German-style vocational schools to sop up students destined to fall through the gaps, universities remain the only possibility for upward mobility in a country that all but pays its people to remain downwardly mired.

Enter the Fallist movement, which can be understood as a manifestation of South Africa’s two roiling revolutionary impulses. The first concerns the glacial pace of economic transformation, and the failure of the 1994 political class to incorporate tens of millions of black South Africans into the formal economy — the “some will get rich first” gambit employed by so many liberators-turned-rulers, in this case softened somewhat by a social granting system. The second seeks to “decolonise” public space in general, and the education system in particular, to depopulate it of dead white dudes and code African thinkers, perspectives, languages and literature into the operating system.

Which would serve as a middlingly concise description if all of this were occurring in a vacuum. But any movement featuring more than one person will always be hamstrung by factionalism, and that’s certainly the case with #FeesMustFall. In its microcosmic mimicking of every aspect of South African life, the Wits FMF movement may look like a unified bloc from outside the university gates, but that’s just not how our species functions. A day after the poll numbers were released, the ANC Youth League, linked to Zuma’s ANC faction, linked in turn to the SRC’s Progressive Youth Alliance members, shared with the nation a work of stream of consciousness prose-poetry:

The African National Congress Youth League want to take this opportunity to congratulate students of Wits University on their decision to go back to class. We congratulate them because in our view they have listened to the ANCYL President who has been spreading the call that the youth need to study, thus going back to class was more then necessary.

Secondly, we want appreciate the fact that students had to vote over this matter, which deepens democracy in line with NDR [National Democratic Revolution] and “D” in particular. We call for come and we call for all other student bodies to learn and emulate the students of Wits for going back to school. We call on the community of Wits University not to take serious the clown who has many names and surnames.

Police treating black humans at Rhodes like sacks of meat; rubber bullets cutting through campuses; cops fire clouds of billowing purple carcinogens; private security throw rocks back at students throwing rocks at them, Minister of State Security, David Mahlobo, speaks darkly of third forces and spectral threats.

Into the chaos walk the jackals.


Extremely bloody civil wars have unfolded for less. Habib knows this, but he’s less operating the gears of the process than being churned up by them.

What is the ethics of the struggle?” he asks me. “If there are no limits, then don’t be surprised if the response has no limits.”

The Vice-Chancellor’s implicit warning comes in response to an implicit threat: several weeks ago, students asked to deliver a memorandum to his residence, which he took to be an act of aggression against his family. The bonhomie that once saw the VC photogenicaly sitting among the students is all but gone — we are now in a game of hardcore political one-upmanship.

Trust has all but disappeared. “It’s like they’ll say anything,” claims Habib, becoming excited. “It’s like a Trump rally. They’re making it up as they go along.

This is my last play,” he continues. “We will prefer a negotiated outcome. Students start the programme, and we work towards a General Assembly in two weeks.”

This august gathering would be presided over by the university’s chancellor, and would bring together the council, the SRC, and other stakeholders into one room, with the intention of thrashing out a framework for going forward.

We would keep alive the struggle for free education for the poor and middle class, and build a set of recommendations saying that, ‘Together, we stand for the following…’.”

Habib has even offered to march with the students to deliver the memorandum.

So far, no dice.

The alternatives, Habib wants me to understand, are apocalyptic. Doctors, engineers, teachers won’t graduate, leaving the public and private sectors desperate for high skilled workers, driving up wages of those already in the earning stream, further exacerbating the divide. No new students would be able to enrol next year, further jamming up an education system that has already betrayed a generation.

I took this job, so I have to fulfill its responsibilities,” he says. “Do I destroy 37,000 lives so I can be ideologically comfortable? People say, get rid of the private security. But here’s the problem with the liberal intelligentsia: the inability to contemplate difficult decisions.”

Kill Wits, says Habib, or kill the University of Cape Town, and you kill the South African research university, ushering in an age of simple teaching universities that lose the best and the brightest to big education brands in snowy imperialist redoubts. Graduate students who can afford it, or those who win the prizes and the scholarships and the bursaries, will drift away to Britain, to the United States.

They say they want to decolonise, and you send graduates to the metropole? I don’t know about that. They say that Habib works for ‘white capital’, but 77% of Wits is black. If you truly represent the interests of the black child, then….”

But in South Africa, these days, everyone claims to represent the interests of the black child. For Habib, the whole dang mess comes down to the “crisis of expectation” — the promise of 1994 that has largely gone unfulfilled. Back in 1996, he reminds me, he wrote a piece called “The Myth of the Rainbow Nation”, which appeared in an expanded text called South Africa’s Suspended Revolution. He considers it to have been a warning: the postponed economic transformation would have to take place at some point in the distant future.

Well, bingo.

The imbizo, with a brief cameo from Jacob Zuma, came and went with much sharp rebuking and very little in the way of solutions. Zuma covered his ass, Nzimande stuck to his guns, while at a wrap-up of the ANC’s National Executive Committee, Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe maintained his barely concealed belligerence for the student movement. Employing zero elements of surprise, #FeesMustFall protesters tried to shut down classes by intimidating faculty and fellow students. Habib responded by issuing a statement insisting that classes would stay open, with an increased private security presence.

We understand that it is not ideal to attend classes with police at the doors of learning,” he wrote, “but we are left with no choice. We appeal to the Wits community to work with us to try to save the 2016 academic year.”

Welcome to South Africa: where negotiation is subject to competing PR wars, and the ex-apartheid activist becomes the leader of a bunch of rent-a-RoboCops, albeit minus the pepper spray and the weaponry that could lead to a reprise of 1976. Maybe.

Is compromise possible? Who can say? #FeesMustFall has been created by, and has also created, a generation of young South Africans who are entirely hostile to the old liberal humanist shibboleths that served as the foundations for our local brand of democracy. They speak a language that is all but incomprehensible to their forebears, and the two cohorts drift off in different directions — one into a version of the past, the other into a vision for the future.

That infinitesimal speck in between them is Adam Habib, who spins into deep space, untethered to either position, his only consolation the cruel beauty of the universe lying before him as he sinks into a hypoxic coma. Utterly powerless, he is subject only to the gravitational pull of history. Much like the rest of us. DM

Photo: University of Witwatersrand Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib (Photo: Wits)


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