Opinionista Brian Kamanzi 23 March 2016

The Empire Strikes Back: UCT, the High Court and austerity

In recent court proceedings, the University of Cape Town attempted to criminalise perceived student leadership through the principles of “common purpose”. If UCT is truly interested in creating a space that is open to dialogue and responsive to change, it will need leaders who are less defensive about public opinion and more rigorous in addressing the issues raised by the marginalised within its community.

You know, I was there in the 80s and…” urged advocate Anton Katz, the University of Cape Town (UCT) senior counsel, in the middle of a spirited if self-evidently pointless introductory tirade at the Cape Town High Court during the hearing for the interdict surrounding the events of Shackville on 16 February 2016.

As laughter from the students filled the courtroom, just loud enough to interrupt the noble freedom fighter-come-UCT representative, the judge presiding quickly quipped, “No one is in the mood for nostalgia, I’m afraid,” pressing him to continue.

This was among the few moments that coloured a long, otherwise dull and obvious effort to intentionally frustrate the court processes applied by the university at the expense of public funds.

The university in fact withdrew the interdict against the vast majority of the respondents while tendering costs for legal support. This was after seeking and enforcing an interim court order against students chosen either at random or through politically motivated selection criteria to essentially ban students from campus, thus interfering with their basic rights sans reasonable justification.

Such disgusting and unapologetically wasteful behaviour displayed by a public institution in the present trying economic climate is spitting in the face of the many students they relentlessly attempt to target who struggle in debt-slavery or battle through blatant and dispassionate financial exclusion from Rhodes’s beloved ivory tower, UCT.

The proceedings of 15 March were a clear warning shot to campuses across the country as the university defence set up the basis of their argument around the national crisis of higher education – purportedly caused by students and not by the lack of institutional leadership.

In a bid to criminalise perceived student “leadership” through the principles of “common purpose”, the university has continuously tried to evade laying specific charges and has instead sought to seek broad and vague interdicts against students, described in the public by the administration as existential threats to campus “order”, therein justifying any use of force and anti-democratic behaviour thereafter – sound familiar?

That is to say that the legal strategy, unashamedly described in court as a national precedent, is to attempt to bind active members of collectives and organisations to arbitrary criminal activity arising in the context of protest and/or riot.

Implied is that all acts committed in the midst of clear chaos are the result of some chain of decision-making made by a kind of “central committee”. This needs to be challenged, as it opens up the pathway through which agent-provocateur tactics of wanton “violence” can be staged by university managements, or the state, who wish to crush and delegitimise groups or individuals who threaten their paradigm of development or their personal legacy.

Make no mistake, this is malicious and anti-democratic behaviour that, if ignored and unchallenged, will evolve beyond the handling of certain students and groupings to the broader curtailing and policing of freedom of expression that will only result in more unnecessary outbursts of “violence” as a reaction to repression.

Central to the approach of restoring “order” to the campus is the attempt by the administration to hold a monopoly on the definition of a “peaceful” and “legitimate” protest. As a society it is incumbent upon us to remind our institutions that “definitions belong to definers and not to the defined” as once expressed by the contextually relevant author Toni Morrison.

The unresponsiveness of our university to forms of creative protest – such as the erection of the shack, various performance art pieces, and most recently a clothes-line installation to protest against rape culture – is worrying as it undermines their claims to support the right to protest. Indeed, the implied suggestion is that they are somehow benevolent leaders for not simply shooting and assaulting students who do not heed prescribed procedures for voicing their frustration in a way that avoids even the slightest inconvenience to elite spaces.

If the university is truly interested in creating a space that is open to dialogue and responsive to change, it will need leaders who are less defensive about public opinion and more rigorous in addressing the issues raised by the marginalised within its community. That is, if the capacity exists within the leadership to understand the intellectual questions arising from the various creative forms of protest beyond surface level critiques. I would further contend that the frequency of larger mass protests can be reduced by more responsive engagement with creative demonstrations.

In what has turned out to be an eventful week, the UCT Vice-Chancellor Max Price went on to announce that the institution will be employing austerity measures to recover more than R120-million by 2018. The primary target of these measures will be the staffing budget which is a major contributor to the R2.6-billion budget. The proposed remedies are a clear indication of what is to come – a long road of fighting against retrenchments and deteriorating staff benefits. Inevitably the most affected by these processes will be the most financially vulnerable and “expendable” within the institution, making this coming period among the toughest tests for the bourgeoning student, worker and staff coalitions from recent years.

The implications of the austerity measures, I would argue, run the risk of being weaponised by conservative elements within the institution to discontinue radical and experimental programmes or even staffing positions that could strategically be framed as “periphery work”.

The consequences of these measures on curriculum reform, and therefore on academic freedom in a climate of “change”, are potentially severe as the institution debates its role and responsibility as a public university in Africa.

Standing in stark contrast with the numerous developments and various state-of-the-art high performance centres on the campus, the duality of the necessity of austerity and simultaneous opulent excess speaks to the heart of the corruption of values in South African leadership.

One cannot shake the feeling that the announcement of the austerity measures is the last layer of defence of the “empire” or rather the old guard within the institution, who have expertly dodged and evaded the intellectual questions arising out of the “decolonisation” conversations of 2015, and now will not have to fear coming under scrutiny because there will be simply no money for “change”.

The urgency of the problem of austerity is likely to grip faculties across the campus as they ponder a response to these measures, and as an ordinary student I would advise them to clearly articulate and speak publicly to the fears and processes that demonstrate any form of targeting or punishment for participation in protest.

We are witnessing late stages of the development of the neoliberal university, and perhaps the early stages of what if we are not careful will become the partial (or further) privatisation of our public institutions. This will herald an era that is a far cry from the national conversations around free education and anti-privatisation of labour in 2015 as our basic rights steadily descend further into a state of commodification.

In the coming years it is going to be increasingly important for us to facilitate the kind of environment that makes it possible for multipronged and healthy social movements to exist so that they can build towards demanding that the state re-invest in higher education and in education more broadly. The repression and constant vilification of protest action at the university is creating a reactionary climate that is undoubtedly discouraging many students from participating in issues that demand their attention. Across the country it is evident that the politician-come-Vice-Chancellors and state leadership are not capable of pushing for dramatically higher budgets, and therefore ordinary community members within these public institutions and in society more broadly will have to take this mandate upon themselves to protect the future before we sell what little we have left collectively to private interests at home and abroad.

As a matter of urgency a multilayer conversation around the state of higher education needs to take place, driven from the proverbial bottom up and not from Vice-Chancellors who evade and direct conversation towards passivity to preserve their jobs. An appeal must be made to the Vice-Chancellors and the professoriate class to accept a blanket and firm cut in their annual salaries – along with a radical commitment to end their extravagant catering budgets – as a demonstration of leadership and as a declaration of commitment to South Africa that if any austerity is going to happen it should start at the top, where responsibility must be taken for the state of the institution and society more broadly.

The social movements need to be pried away from the narratives of vilification and brought into the conversation as the solving of the difficulties facing our public institutions will require the health and relative strength of those communities. If our “leaders” cannot provide us with principled and creative leadership it is high time they step aside, resign and admit that the pursuit of creating Harvards in Africa is self-indulgent and morally reprehensible in a country of people who are struggling to breathe. DM

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