South Africa

South Africa

Op-Ed: The National Student Crisis – What now?

The upheaval on South Africa’s campuses is a national crisis of great complexity with potentially vast long-term consequences. By RICHARD CALLAND.

This is a statement of the obvious. What is far less clear is how to resolve the crisis. There are no easy answers. Everywhere one turns there are painful dilemmas and bewildering contradictions.

And it is so much easier to condemn than to ask the question: why? As the crisis has taken a more violent and distressing turn in recent days, so it has seemed even more intractable and troubling, and so has required one to think even harder about it, it’s causes and what can be done.

Positions on either side of the debate have become even more entrenched. The politics of denunciation have begun to prevail.

The polarisation of hardened opinions makes it even harder, too, to hold on to the apparently conflicting position of both supporting the protests as well as wishing for universities to open so that the academic year can be completed.

One of the many disappointing aspects of the past few weeks has been that, despite their academic pedigree, so few of my colleagues have been willing to pose, let alone try to answer, the question ‘why?’

Like so many of the people who call in to talk radio stations, as I discovered first-hand a fortnight ago (when temporarily hosting a drive time show on Cape Talk), they are quick to condemn and prefer to focus on the effects rather than the causes of the current crisis.

It is a crisis that is fundamentally multidimensional: the student protesters’ grievances span the micro (fees and individual cases of student arrest or suspension) and the macro (inequality and injustice, lack of real transformation, the rights of workers on campus and on Robertson wine farms, and so on).

Yet, the dominant voice in at least some parts of UCT, and certainly in the law school where I am based, has been one-dimensional: you are either for the protesters “who are disrupting classes” or for the students “who want to learn”, even though, as their leaders keep pointing out, the protesting students also want to go back to class – but not until their demands are met.

Through this rigid binary lens, the protesters are billed as “barbarians” while those who don’t protest and try to return to class and finish the year untroubled are seen as the “civilised silent majority”.

At its worst, messages are exchanged on faculty WhatsApp groups that perpetuate this “them and us” attitude: “They are coming down the hill”; “lock your doors”; “prepare to evacuate”.

I do appreciate that the violence that has escalated in recent times means that some people feel very insecure and anxious about their own safety. Yet, I also feel that we have lost sight of the fact that “they” are our students.

Where this chasm is created, and gains deeper traction, as it has in my faculty, it is deeply harmful – to both the protesting students and to the negotiation process. Instead of locking ourselves in our offices we should have gone out together to greet and engage them.

We should be there to listen and learn. Because amid all the noise and confusion, there is much to be heard and learnt.

Reflecting the division within the university as a whole, other faculties and departments have adopted a very different approach. On upper campus, for example, members of the Department of Architecture Planning and Geomatics has been holding meetings outside its building every day as a community regardless of UCT being open or closed to resist returning to “business as usual” and to “normality”.

It is conceived as a non-hierarchical safe space together with staff and students participating on an equal basis, creating an opportunity to build some kind of social solidarity could be built or maintained, despite the anger and frustration on all sides of the debate.

Health sciences and certain parts of the humanities faculty have also found ingenious ways to try to create an opportunity out of the crisis. One second year health sciences student told me that he had learnt so much from the many engagements that had been held and his parents, far from fretting about whether he would complete the year, were enormously grateful that his political and social horizons had been so expanded; this learning, they felt, was going to be far more useful to him in his future life as a professional in our complex society than business-as-usual classes.

This prompts a different view of what is unfolding, does it not? Perhaps there are more grounds for hope and for renewal than we can yet see. Indeed, rather than concentrating on the divisions, we should all be on one side because, in fact, the things that unite us should be greater than the things that divide us.

We all want decent, quality education, at school and tertiary levels; and we want it to be equitable and accessible to all.

And, unless we are of a particularly closed mind, we should also all be willing to examine our curricula and consider how they can be improved by African ideas and thinking that have been neglected or ignored for far too long being incorporated to give greater texture and relevance to our curricula.

Clearly, we need to have a deep, unrushed, intelligent and open-minded, properly facilitated dialogue about this.

In this respect, I agree with Joel Modiri, writing on these pages, when he argued that “the Fallist call for decolonisation – however inchoate it may appear – promises to cultivate a truly rigorous and lively academic space and open up a much wider intellectual archive”.

This, in turn, provides tertiary education organisations with an opportunity to reflect, seriously, on their social purpose – as intelligent, forward-looking corporates have had to do in recent years. They have had to ask themselves the question: are we here to do more than just maximise profits and if so, what and how? By corollary, universities need to ask: are we here to do more than teach and research, and if so what and how?

The militancy of the student movement thus requires us to address this question urgently, since the underlying message of their protests is that the festering, unresolved issue of race and privilege, of economic opportunity and inclusion, and of accountability in the use of public and private power (I am trying to avoid using the word “transformation”, given how loaded and misused and charged it has become).

As a start: should the university not only be a place of learning, but also change – preparing students for the complex world that surrounds us, and developing its own positions on law, policy and governance, based on a progressive normative basis?

For UCT, this may, for example, require it not only to reconsider but to depart from its liberal heritage.

That the protests have taken a violent turn is deeply unsettling. But, very few of us want to have to try to teach and learn in classrooms guarded by heavily armoured private security men – that is not a conducive or acceptable learning environment for anyone, either short- or long-term – though, admittedly, and shamefully, there are reactionary hawks in our midst who have a hardline “lock ‘em up” attitude and who would prefer the militarisation of campus than to “appease” those students who “disrupt the academic project”.

And beyond the university, we should all be concerned about levels of injustice and racism that cling stubbornly to modern South Africa.

I learnt a great deal by listening when one of my students – Skhumbuzo – ever so politely interrupted my attempt to lecture the constitutional law class on October 5. Why, he asked, was I continuing to give a lecture when the protest movement had called for a shutdown and when many of the class were unwilling or unable to get to the lecture hall?

So measured and calm was he that we then engaged in a fascinating and constructive 45-minute discussion with the 50 or so other students present about the merits or demerits of the protest action and its strategy and tactics.

Good questions were put to Skhumbuzo about the use of violence, about unintended consequences, about whether, in fact, the aim was and is to ensure that the academic year will not be finished, and about whether the protest movement had not already won enough victories to justify a shift in tactics – an idea that international relations professor Vish Satgar, a former SACP and Trade union activist, advanced in the Sunday Times a few days earlier.

In sharp contrast, when Skhumbuzo appeared on “my” Cape Talk radio show later that day, some of the callers displayed an astonishing level of violence in response to his reasoned arguments justifying the protests and the call for a shutdown.

One caller, “Stan from Stellenbosch”, even suggested that the South African government should emulate the United States in 1970 when the national guard entered the grounds of Kent University and shot dead four protesting students. This, Stan argued, would resolve the crisis.

How many of the people who are so violently ill-disposed towards the student protesters have not met and do not know the people that they are condemning. Many speak from a position of ignorance as well as privilege. So, part of our responsibility as academics is to understand the views of all of our students so that we can help communicate them to the outside world.

That is why I was so eager for Skhumbuzo to come on the radio show so that listeners whose view of the crisis may well have been pushed by news reports towards a one-dimensional, condemnatory and essentially racist perspective that regards the protesters as anti-intellectual barbarians could hear him.

In fact, the leaders of the student movement are some of the most intellectually engaged members of the UCT community.

It is also why I am writing this article – to try to persuade people to think carefully before condemning the protesters without thinking harder about why they have resorted to such action, and also because I want to respond to the student leaders who have complained that progressive academics have been too coy, too timid, in their public commentary.

It is also a call to support the proposal that emanates from Wits for the establishment of an “Education sector CODESA”, as well as a “National Education Crisis Committee”, recognising that we need a response that addresses the systemic causes of the education crisis which is essential if South Africa is to escape the impasse and to somehow avoid a repetition in future years.

Today’s meeting at Wits that seeks to launch a Peace Accord process is a very important step that needs to be widely supported.

Of course, the government should be leading these efforts, but they resemble the proverbial rabbit in the headlights, with a President who clearly fails to see the crisis as anything other than a “security problem” (judging by the composition of the ministerial task team he finally established last week).

It would be remiss at this point not to mention just how disillusioned with government and the ruling party the student movement is. The political establishment is seen as completely out of touch, with no real concern for the needs and interests of the black working class. Thus, despite some evidence of EFF involvement on other campuses, party politics has found no place in UCT’s movement for this reason.

The failure of the government to act on its responsibilities has, in turn, put the leadership of the various tertiary institutions in an almost impossible position when few if any have the skills or experience to handle such an intense and volatile situation. Institutions under such pressures rarely handle it perfectly; mistakes are inevitable.

We should also recognise that the student movement is far from being a “comfortable” negotiating party: its anger and frustration means that at times it lacks the discipline of, for example, the trade union movement: its demands frequently shift, there is a level of disunity and division within its leadership, and – a fundamental problem – simply demanding that all of its demands be met is not a “negotiating position” because the very notion of negotiation implies that the principle protagonists are willing to make concessions and reach a compromise agreement.

So, we will have to tackle this ourselves and take the steps necessary to create a dialogue that draws on, rather rejects, South Africa’s past: learning, for example, from the Peace Accord that was a prelude to the constitutional negotiations in the early 1990s.

Of course, some elements within the student protest movement reject such an approach, rejecting the legitimacy of the Constitution and the political compromises that it entailed. Where this means that they have only demands, and are not willing to negotiate, then they should be isolated.

Taking responsibility for organising, mobilising and supporting a national dialogue and the structures that this implies, means being willing to engage with all the students, whether we approve of their tactics or not.

At the law school’s assembly last Friday a group of protesting law students entered the meeting wearing black and with black tape crossing their mouths. I admired the power with which they took over the meeting and expressed their complaints. At least one of my colleagues decided to leave at this point, but most stayed and, like me, no doubt learnt a lot.

Regrettably, not all of us who happen to be white and/or privileged are willing to accept the power that comes with it, and the responsibility it imposes to listen even more carefully and to treat with absolutely seriousness the complaints that are presented to us.

One of the laments of the student leaders was that the progressive members of the law faculty had remained virtually silent; they did not feel any sense of solidarity or empathy from us.

They were right. Not for the first time in history, when the going gets rough, progressive principles relating to social justice, economic inclusion and equity, and transparent and accountable dialogue processes, are silenced by the Stans of Stellenbosch of this world and trampled on by an increasingly authoritarian state response to public order in which we all lose out.

Those of us who consider ourselves to be politically progressive must recognise the politics of this crisis and to recognise the progressive politics that is embedded within much of the student movement’s approach and underlying rationale. Within at least some of the student movement’s ideological stance is a distinctive socialist, as well as a distinctive Africanist, strain. That is why, perhaps, it is challenging, as well as uncomfortable for much of the UCT establishment.

Yet having said this, I would add that you don’t have to support the protests outright or unquestioningly to be able to listen to the reasoned arguments that are being made and to empathise with its underlying sense of grievance.

Apathy, silence, indifference or avoidance are not options for us. A solution has to be found. More than anything, we need to insist that it is possible to be both empathetic to the needs and interests of both the protesting students and those that are not part of the activist student movement. Otherwise we, too, will succumb to a binary, one-dimensional analysis that is self-defeating and intellectually sterile. DM

Photo: Students march and sing during a protest in support of the #FeesMustFall movement at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, 19 October 2016. Students continue protesting after five weeks of demanding free tertiary education across most university and tertiary education campuses in the country. EPA/NIC BOTHMA


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