Opinionista Saul Musker 10 October 2016

University Shutdowns: Where to from here?

The current wave of student protests on university campuses across South Africa should not have come as a surprise to anyone. While previous months had created an illusion of calm and relative order, this was merely a break in the storm – and the clouds were always due to return. As South Africans contemplate the potential calamity of a prolonged shutdown, the key question remains: what should universities do about it?

The postponement by Wits University of Friday’s planned General Assembly – a rare gathering of students, staff and alumni reserved for moments of profound crisis – seemed to extinguish the last faint hope of a negotiated outcome to the current impasse. We have now reached an apparent deadlock, with protesting students insisting on an indefinite shutdown until government makes an unconditional commitment to free tertiary education, while the Department of Higher Education and Training refuses to budge from its original position.

University officials are caught in the middle of this stalemate, unable to give the students what they demand but desperate to resume the academic year regardless. As a televised press conference with the Wits executive team illustrated, nobody quite knows what to do. Frustration and helplessness have settled in the air.

Most contributions on this subject have taken one of two (unhelpful) forms: either a righteous, vociferous endorsement of the new student movement and its aims, or a prediction of apocalypse and lament of the chaotic state of things. At this point, though, it is necessary to step back, take a deep breath, and examine the situation from some distance.

Protest action is nothing unusual in South Africa, and it is certainly not a unique phenomenon in the world. It is, in fact, a normal and regular feature of any imperfect society, in which certain groups have serious grievances and lack the means to address them otherwise. And yet despite our rich contemporary and historical experience of protests and of varying institutional responses to them, we seem to treat each new episode as a case on its own, making up our approach as we go along. Erratic and disorganised responses to the current unrest, both from universities and from government, demonstrate an absence of preparedness (remarkably, given how long in advance everyone saw this coming) and a failure of strategic insight.

Any reasonable onlooker knows that there are two “worst case scenario” outcomes which any university must aim to avoid: first, a direct confrontation between protesting students and the police or private security forces, resulting in violence; and second, a prolonged suspension of the academic programme.

The best outcome, of course, would be a peaceful resumption of classes (so as to finish the semester and guarantee a normal term schedule in 2017) together with some firm additional measures taken by the Department of Higher Education and Training to fund the country’s public institutions adequately.

Many onlookers and, indeed, university officials seem to believe that this ideal case is no longer feasible at all, and have apparently resigned themselves to the occurrence of one of the two worst cases. The approach being taken at Wits and UCT is one of (a) insisting repeatedly on the necessity of returning to classes, (b) mobilising sympathetic groups of students and parents to illustrate majority support for this position and legitimise future action to enforce it, and (c) attempting to sideline protesters by refusing to engage meaningfully in negotiations and by portraying them as a “radical minority” with which no compromise could be reached.

This strategy, however, reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the dynamics of the protest, and an ignorance of the options available to university management teams in the midst of this crisis. If the current course is not changed – if, for instance, Max Price and Adam Habib decide once again to force the re-opening of their campuses with police action – the stage will be set for a messy escalation. Not only will protesters refuse to stand down voluntarily, but the universities will have situated themselves irrevocably in opposition to the student movement, and established an antagonistic relationship that would be difficult to salvage in the months and years to come.

Even if classes were resumed after a day or two of violence, the subsequent calm would certainly be temporary – next year, and the year after, and perhaps the year after that, instability and unrest would be sure to resume. Students who are not yet in their final year of study could not then proceed with confidence that they will graduate on time.

What, then, is to be done? If escalation is to be prevented, and some resolution reached soon, university and government officials will first need to recognise three truths about protest action:

One: Nobody actually wants to protest.

Protesting is hard, and dangerous, and implies a significant cost to any participant. The truth is that the overwhelming majority of students at Wits, UCT and elsewhere would indeed like to return to class soon – including a preponderance of those who are actively protesting. These are all students whose primary focus is getting a degree which they can use to advance themselves and their families, and often to lift themselves out of poverty. At the same time, they are weighing up this need against the importance of their legitimate grievances – the slow pace of transformation, continued feelings of alienation and marginalisation, and anxieties about the financial burden of attending university. Recognising this fact, and viewing protest participants as rational actors pursuing their own interests, allows us to accept a second truth.

Two: Every protest has a “baseline outcome” which, if achieved, will allow a return to normal.

While a very small minority of protesters would conceivably be willing to force a total and indefinite shutdown of their institutions, many more would stand down and go back to class if they were offered some concession that, in their minds, justified that decision.

The “baseline outcome” of a protest movement is almost never the same as its stated “ideal outcome” – there is typically some lesser victory that would be sufficient to convince a majority of protesters to stand down.

This was evident in the original #FeesMustFall protests last year; protesters insisted then, as they do now, that their singular demand was free education with immediate effect. There was talk then, as there is now, of an indefinite shutdown to achieve this. And of course, a few dozen radical activists wanted to pursue such a strategy. In the end, however, a range of concessions on fee increases, student funding, upfront fee payments and outsourcing proved enough to dampen the motivation of most protesters. Over time, people get tired, and are willing to accept a “good enough” offer and move on with their lives.

Three: You can’t end a protest by asking protestors to stop.

Merely insisting on the importance of completing the academic year, and expecting protesters to end their action voluntarily, will never be an effective strategy. There are two reasons for this: first, their legitimate grievances don’t disappear, and second, protest leaders need to be able to boast a clear victory in order to avoid losing face.

Castigating the student movement, or speaking past it to appeal to those not protesting, will not budge the protesters themselves. Historical experience has taught us that, when faced with sustained protest action by a determined minority, strategies which involve antagonising that minority or addressing the majority not protesting are sure to lead to further escalation and fragmentation. In short, you can insist that the protest should end until you are blue in the face, and it won’t go away – unless, of course, there are bullets involved. And nobody wants that.

Where does accepting these three truths lead us? Clearly, the only viable option is to engage the protesters – trying to identify the most reasonable leaders among them – and to offer them something that is enough to give most of them a reasonable excuse to argue for returning to class.

Students are making a rational weigh-up about what their best course of action is: universities need to ensure that their calculus favours a return to normal, and this cannot be done with threats of removal. It simply is not true that protesters don’t themselves favour the completion of the academic year, or that they will settle for nothing short of their most absolute demand.

Indeed, every student I have spoken to admits that they would accept some lesser concession from government and the universities.

The crucial task is to identify what this concession would be – what would be enough. This is the responsibility of government, and universities should be putting more pressure on political leaders to rise to the challenge.

Indeed, university officials should be embracing the student movement, situating themselves in solidarity with the students’ claims rather than in opposition to them. In reality, the students’ demands align rather neatly with the interests of the universities: our public institutions are seriously, even dangerously underfunded, and recent commitments of further funding barely scratch the surface of what would be necessary to maintain the quality of higher education in the long term. Actively pledging support for the students, and outlining specific steps to offer them institutional backing, would be an important concession in and of itself.

Unfortunately, though, protesting students have been characterised in the media and in popular discourse as a radical fringe group which is incapable of accepting any compromise. And indeed, that portrayal is a self-fulfilling prophecy – if students aren’t engaged as rational actors, no rational resolution will ever be possible. Luckily, there is still time for us to change course. DM

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