Many media houses concluded 2015 by declaring it the year of the student. In many ways it was deserved. The students, through their protests in October and November, put affordable, quality higher education and the insourcing of vulnerable workers on the national agenda in a way that has not happened before. Many of us, vice-chancellors included, have been lamenting the underfunding of higher education for over a decade with little effect. But it was the students with their marches on Parliament and the Union Buildings that shook up the state, changed the systemic parameters and began the process of fundamentally transforming higher education. As I suggested elsewhere, “they achieved in seven days what we had been talking about for over a decade”.
Yet, as we all know, we are only at the beginning of this social movement of transformation in higher education. We all expected the current round of student protests in 2016, and their trajectory will fundamentally influence the transformation dynamics of higher education itself. For this reason, if not any other, there is an urgent need to critically review the 2015 protests, understand their strengths and weaknesses, and learn lessons for the social struggles that lie ahead.
Of course, I am not the best person to undertake this critical review. After all, it was the announcement of the fee increases at my institution – Wits University – which sparked the nation-wide protests. I was also part of a team that had to manage the protests and think through how to enable the evolution of a social movement for the legitimate struggle for affordable higher education, without allowing it to undermine and weaken our institutional commitment to being a free and safe space for ideas. In this process, we also had to balance the competing interests and rights of a variety of stakeholders, including those within the student community who were intent on completing their academic year.
For this reason, I have waited some time before penning my own thoughts on the student protests. It was important, I believe, to allow raw emotions to recede and not contaminate critical thought. There may also be merit in my thinking through the protests simply because I bring a particular perspective. After all, I was an in-system actor who was not only part of a team managing an institutional protest, but also a member of various institutional and national initiatives trying to negotiate and fashion solutions to the challenges generated by the students’ collective demands. However, I am also mindful that despite bringing a particular critical lens to the analysis of the protest, as a conflicted party, I can only be one small voice, among a plurality of louder voices, undertaking the critical review of the student protests of 2015.
One striking feature of the protests is that they were organised beyond party and ideological divides. It was this fact, more than any other, that brought thousands of students and their supporters onto the streets at Parliament and the Union Buildings. It was also this multi-class and multi-racial alliance that shook up the state and prompted it to be partially responsive to the students’ demands. Yet this united student movement fractured soon after President Jacob Zuma announced the zero percent fee increase for 2016. This was partially due to the natural process of the mainstream of the student body withdrawing and concentrating on completing the academic year after their immediate collective demand had been achieved. But as important a causal factor in the fracturing of the student movement was that political parties and ideological groups reasserted themselves to project their own agendas onto this social struggle. The result was that the movement fractured into a cacophony of ideological and protest voices, each with their own distinctive blend of educational and political demands.
If the student movement is to again be brought together across class and racial boundaries, and have the political potency that it demonstrated in the week when it marched to Parliament and the Union Buildings, then it will be necessary for it to address a number of strategic issues. Perhaps the most immediate is the racial essentialism that afflicts certain strands of this movement. This racial essentialism is particularly pronounced in certain sections of the “Student Transformation” movement and in some of the political parties. It is of course driven in part by the cultural alienation that black students have experienced, particularly in the historically white universities. It is also intellectually justified by selective readings of Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko. But rejecting an assimilation into western mores and historically white norms, or asserting the importance of black leadership, does not need to lead to an automatic degeneration into the crude racism that is sometimes displayed by certain factions of the student movement. Neither is it intellectually legitimate to read racial essentialism into the ideas of Biko and Fanon. It is especially an injustice to Biko given that he wrote in the crucible of apartheid. To now interpret Biko literally in 2015, without understanding the distinction between apartheid and democratic South Africa, is to do a disservice to the intellectual legacy of one of South Africa’s fallen heroes.
The problem is in part with the broader narrative that has come to accompany some parts of the students’ political resurgence. Too many students glibly dismiss both the contributions of earlier generations of activists and the 1994 political settlement itself. Particularly obnoxious is the dismissal of the contribution of Nelson Mandela by some young activists who have accused our collective icon of having sold out. Even if we ignore the temerity of a group of born free activists to pronounce on the contribution of a leader who gave 27 years of his adult life to imprisonment for the anti-apartheid cause, one still has to question the intellectual wisdom of reading the 1994 political settlement from the perspective of 2015.
This is not to suggest that the 1994 settlement cannot be criticised. I myself have been very critical of its compromises, neo-liberal character, and propensity to corruption. I have also been particularly scathing of its enabling of increased economic inequality. However, this must not result in the misleading conclusion that no successes were recorded in the struggle for emancipation by the 1994 settlement. It is worth underscoring the fact that the generation that preceded the current students, whatever their mistakes, left the world a far better place than the one that they inherited. And while the current students may be correct to demand a measure of humility from our political elite and institutional leadership who have become complacent by the entrapments of power, the leadership and activist base of the student movement itself could do with a dose of the humility that it demands of others.
Equally worrying is the propensity to violence by some strands of the student movement. Again, it is important to state that the vast majority of student protestors respected the boundaries of peaceful protest. I recall a moment at the height of the protest in the Wits concourse when private security entered the premises unauthorised, leading to a serious momentary altercation with the students. The student leaders who I was with at that moment – including two of the most militant – immediately surrounded and protected me. At no point during my engagement with the students did I feel threatened. Yet, despite my personal experience, it would be hard to deny that there has been a greater propensity to violence by certain strands within the movement.
At the most basic level, this was reflected in the attempt across campuses to close off the entrances and exits of universities by lying in front of the gates. No attention was given to the fact that this violated the rights of others. It prevented parents from picking up their children, staff and students from leaving the campus, and even in one or two cases, individuals from visiting their doctors. Protestors were so focussed on their rights that they had forgotten their obligation to respect the rights of others. Moreover, while it is the goal of peaceful protest to create inconvenience and disruption, it is definitely illegitimate to violate the rights of others on such a wide scale.
The propensity to commit violence manifested itself at it most extreme level as the protests wore on. It was most volatile at the University of the Western Cape, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, and Tswane University of Technology where there was widespread violence, residences were set alight, and the universities had to be closed. But it also manifested itself at other institutions including the Universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch and the Witwatersrand. At the latter, when some protestors partially set alight a bookshop and a university vehicle, police were called in. At Cape Town, a university bus was set light, as were a few vehicles at Stellenbosch. Protestors suggest that the resort to violence was prompted by university authorities who called in the police. While this was definitely the case at some institutions, in many others including Wits, police were only called in once protestors had already resorted to arson and violence. In Wits’ case, prior to the police being brought in, some students in the men’s residence had to protect their own residence from arson.
There is no doubt that the resort to violence was in part facilitated by strands of the movement that deliberately adopted a strategy of violence. In part this was prompted by particular interpretations of the writings of Frantz Fanon who was seen as an advocate of revolutionary violence. It was suggested that poor black people are daily confronted with structural violence as they have to experience the consequences of inequality, poverty and corruption. In this view, it is therefore legitimate to respond with black violence to protest this structural violence. But the rationality of this argument breaks down when it is subjected to even a little scrutiny. First, Fanon wrote about revolutionary violence in the crucible of the colonial struggle. It is not legitimate to transpose those ideas to a democratic era which, however flawed, provides the space not only for protest, but also the right to vote out the political elite. Second, how is the struggle against structural violence advanced by attacking other students and destroying university property that is intended for the housing and teaching of the students themselves? If anything, such actions are likely to consolidate the very effects of the structural violence against the poor and marginalized. Finally, such actions compel the state to respond with force in order to protect public property thereby creating a militarised atmosphere that works against the immediate interests of the protestors and the legitimacy of the protests itself.
Finally, equally damaging to the realisation of the goals of the movement is the failure of some strands within it to recognise that success will result not from a single event, but rather from a process of continuous struggle, engagement and negotiation. The achievement of quality, affordable higher education is going to require trade-offs, both within the institution and the society as a whole. The Department of Higher Education and Training estimates that the total cost will be in the region of an additional R56 billion per annum, R19 billion for increased subsidy and a further R37 billion in increased funding to the National Students’ Financial Aid Scheme. Some strands within the movement are not prepared to think through trade-offs. Some are sometimes not even interested in negotiations, whether at the institutional or national level. But such an approach is damaging to the movement for it allows the decisions around trade-offs, and therefore the substantive outcomes, to be determined by a narrow group of political and institutional leaders.
To be fair to the student leadership, not all of them are averse to engagement and negotiation. In the presidential task team and even in the national negotiations on the zero percent fee increase for 2016, student leaders were at the heart of striking the compromises that were required. Similarly, at the institutional level at Wits, not only were student leaders important to negotiating solutions to the financial challenges confronting the student body, but they were also instrumental in fashioning compromises in the task team on the insourcing of vulnerable workers. But the problem is that the broader narrative of the movement has been opposed to trade-offs and compromise, with the result that negotiations have been continuously bedevilled by issues of legitimacy.
But students cannot be the only stakeholders within the movement that must be subjected to critical scrutiny. Perhaps it is even more necessary to subject the conduct of some of the academics who supported the movement to a critical reflection. Again it is important to note that the broader academic support base of the movement behaved impeccably within the boundaries of legitimate solidarity action. But again, there were strands within this support base that acted in ways that must be questioned. First, there was a shocking level of casualness about violence among some members of staff. Not only were many silent about the abuse of the rights of other non-protesting students, but some even had the temerity to articulate views that suggested that violence may be a necessary protest strategy in certain institutional contexts.
To be fair, some within this cohort of self-defined progressive academics have criticised violence, but they have tended to do so within the closed leadership circles of the protesting community. All within this cohort reflexively criticised universities for the security arrangements established to prevent this violence. They clearly did not “comprehend the security-freedom conundrum” identified by Achille Mbembe in his reflection on Herbert Marcuse and Theodore Adorno’s debate on the prospects and tactics of Germany’s student struggles in the late 1960s. Mbembe insisted in this contribution that “not all security arrangements … are inimical to freedom. Freedom in and of itself does not automatically generate security. Each has to be supplemented, (for which) neither angelism nor callousness will suffice”. Mbembe called for an approach of “ethical pragmatism – a pragmatism that is open at its ethical core to being constantly contested”. Implied in this call is a critique of reflex responses, and a demand for contextual analysis and conclusions to be drawn from deliberation on a case-by-case basis.
Second, a number of academics actively participated in the de-legitimisation of institutional structures of governance. Under the pretext of democratising the Senate and Council – a legitimate demand – they proposed a series of solutions that demonstrated a worrying lack of understanding of both context and the post-apartheid history of reorganising governance arrangements in the higher education system. Indeed, many were oblivious of the fact that a number of the recommendations that they advanced had been attempted some 15 years earlier in some institutions with disastrous consequences. These academics had forgotten the cardinal rule of progressive transformation; namely, that thoughtful activism and appreciation of context is necessary if unintended consequences are to be avoided.
But perhaps the most damaging feature of the engagement of this strand of academics was their failure to understand the importance of trade-offs in enabling progressive outcomes. Many of these academics were at the forefront of struggles to increase salaries, enable insourcing of vulnerable workers, and reduce fees without any recognition that there may be a tension between these demands. Some have opposed all of the trade-off recommendations that have emerged – including increasing student numbers or introducing more measured salary increases for academics – around how to sustainably finance the costs of simultaneously addressing all of these demands.
In the same vein, a colleague on the Wits Council suggested that other councillors were too focussed on their fiduciary financial responsibility. Implicit in his argument was a suggestion that councillors should be willing to sacrifice their financial fiduciary responsibility in favour of their academic and social responsibilities. It is necessary to think through the wisdom of this strategy, in particular because it is premised on a widespread assumption among the left that the state would be compelled to bail out the university were it to get into a financial crisis. But this strategy has been tried before with devastating consequences. In the late 1990s what was then the University of Transkei effectively embarked on a strategy to address its historical infrastructural disparities by deliberately pursuing a deficit financial strategy. Within years the institution was on the brink of insolvency and while it was eventually bailed out by the state, it was never at the levels required or within the time frames necessary. The net effect was that what was then one of the strongest historically black universities was academically destroyed as the financial crisis prompted the departure of both top academics and students. It is an academic crisis from which the university has never truly recovered.
The tragedy of this proposed strategy is not that it is likely to fail, but rather that it repeats past failures simply because it is dislocated from any understanding of the history of transformation of the higher education system in this country. It reminds me of a lesson once taught to me and other colleagues by noted educationist and political activist Neville Alexander. Alexander often remarked that while he may have been a noted Marxist theoretician and scholar, his socialism only developed a political relevance when ANC notable Walter Sisulu taught him African history while on Robben Island. It is this nationally responsive and contextually relevant Marxism that lies at the core of his magnum opus, One Azania, One Nation, written soon after his release from Robben Island. This is the lesson that this group of academics need to learn. If we do not understand our history, and if we do not understand the relevance of our context, we risk repeating the failures of our past.
So what are the achievements of this student social movement thus far? First, they have not only achieved a zero percent fee increase for 2016, but they have also compelled the state to cover the fiscal burden of the decision through an additional grant of R1.9 billion to the universities. Second, the Presidency has accepted the recommendations of its task team on short-term financial challenges for the university system, which include among others, a further additional grant to universities in 2016 of R4.6 billion to cover the costs of underfunded and unfunded NSFAS students. Third, there is now an explicit commitment at the highest levels of government, NSFAS and the private banking system to establish a new funding vehicle in 2017 to assist middle and lower middle class students with financing the costs of their higher education. Finally, a presidential commission to investigate free education for the poor and a sustainable fee regime for universities has been recently established. The 2015 student protests then not only won short-terms gains for immediate fee concessions, but also opened up the systemic parameters to enable an investigation into the restructuring of the fiscal foundation of post-apartheid higher education.
But the establishment of a new sustainable fiscal foundation that is progressively grounded on the principle that higher education should be available to all qualifying students without any financial hindrance will not magically appear. It will still require ongoing public action and institutional engagement. For this reason, if no other, the lessons of the 2015 student protest need to be learnt. These are:
- Avoid racial essentialism and racism, and challenge it whenever it rears its head. It de-legitimises the cause and undermines the unity in action required for success.
- Avoid public violence and the violation of the rights of others on principle because it undermines public support for the cause and provokes a securocratic response from the state.
- Recognise that successful social action requires both public action and institutional engagement. Each is necessary if progressive outcomes are to be realised and the fear of leadership co-option must not lead one to avoid the latter.
- Recognise that progressive outcomes will entail trade-offs. Ensure that such trade-offs are part of a public deliberation and not the preserve of a narrow political and institutional elite.
The student movement has through the 2015 fees protests opened the door for the possibility of a fundamental progressive overhaul of the post-apartheid higher education system. They have succeeded where other stakeholders, including vice-chancellors and other higher education executives, have failed. For this, the student movement must be commended. But we are still at the beginning of this transformation. And if it is to culminate into a successful sustainable progressive outcome, then it is incumbent on us to not only collectively support this movement, but to also learn the lessons of our past actions. This reflection is written to assist that outcome. DM
Professor Adam Habib is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Witwatersrand.