This year proved tumultuous at many South African universities, and as 2016 draws to a close, it is fitting to reflect on how different vice-chancellors responded to disruptive and often violent protest.
Wits Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib has penned (Daily Maverick, December 5) a combative defence of his decisions to keep his university open, amid heavy security. The University of Cape Town’s Vice-Chancellor Max Price pursued a very different approach: Teaching was suspended at UCT for the latter part of the second semester while Dr Max Price led a team that engaged in protracted negotiations with the apparent leaders of the protests. With the help of mediators, Dr Price and his team eventually reached an agreement with the protest leaders. The November 6 agreement provided for the end-of-year examinations to be held across most of the university, without disruption and with little need for security, to the relief of most staff and students. A large majority of UCT students wrote their end-of-year exams in November, without disruption, and many more will write them in early 2017.
Max Price’s few statements have tended to celebrate the strategy of negotiations and the agreement that allowed the academic year to be “completed”. Dr Price himself has an endearing faith in negotiations and a remarkable capacity for patience and perseverance in the face of often unreasonable demands – as was clear in the long negotiations that were live-streamed by students on social media. But an assessment of his strategy requires careful attention to its costs.
Claims that the academic year was “completed” overlook the massive disruption to teaching and learning, with many courses not concluded and a few not taught at all. Such claims ignore the distress experienced by staff and students who were subjected to intimidation and disruption, the financial costs of the disruptions to the university and to students, and the difficulties that will be caused by the delayed academic calendar for 2017. They also ignore the consequences of the November 6 agreement.
Adam Habib writes of Wits that student politics in 2016 “became more factionalised”, with at least eight distinct groups, some of which resorted more and more readily to racism and violence. The numbers of students engaged in protests dropped rapidly. In this context, it is clearly crucial to understand who is participating in any negotiation, and who is not. At UCT, Max Price seemed to pay no attention to the particular identity and allegiances of the particular protesters with whom he negotiated. At no point did he share this information with the broader university community. The student negotiators were variously described as “progressive SRC candidates” (referring to candidates in the SRC elections scheduled but not held in September) who were linked to the Shackville TRC (referring to their demand for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission over the events in February 2016 when protesters erected a shack, blocking a road, and engaged in other acts of violence), with the suggestion that they represented or involved “other student formations”. Dr Price seems to have viewed his negotiating partners as the leaders of a broad and diverse movement. It turns out that this was not the case.
Nine protest leaders signed the November 6 agreement. All nine had been candidates in the aborted 2016 SRC elections. But it turns out that they are all linked to a very specific political faction – the Pan Africanist Students Movement of Azania (PASMA) – and advocate a distinctly Africanist philosophy. There is little evidence that PASMA has much support among the almost 30,000 students at UCT. As SRC elections in recent years have made clear, students are organised into diverse political groups, including especially Sasco and DASO. Many students are not aligned with any political group, although of course many have opinions about both national politics and the university.
Nor is there evidence that the PASMA’s tactics of disruption and intimidation enjoyed much support. The Vice-Chancellor declined to follow the example of the University of Witwatersrand and hold a university-wide poll that would allow for many more students to have a voice. Two faculties at UCT – Science and Law – did hold polls on whether lectures should be resumed with appropriate security. UCT did not publicise the results, but it seems that they were similar to those from Wits: There was overwhelming support for classes to continue. There might well be broader support for a re-examination of what is taught at UCT and how, but there is little reason to believe that the PASMA activists were leaders of a mass student movement at UCT in terms of either their political affiliation or their preferred tactics.
PASMA activists themselves do not seem to share the Vice-Chancellor’s generous assessment of the extent of their support. After PASMA students were criticised on social media for signing the November 6 agreement, their “compromise” was energetically defended by prominent PASMA activist Ntokozo Sbo Qwabe (a graduate of UCT and Oxford, who became notorious for his treatment of a waitress in May and his use of a sjambok in disruptions at UCT in September) on his Facebook page: “Those of us who have been at it from the first day of the UCT shutdown would also be lying if we insisted that we ever had a mass of students to shutdown exams. We didn’t and actually never did. There is NO student mass at UCT! … [T]here have never been enough protesting students to sustain a UCT shutdown. Who would have shut down the exams if we had persisted with this (no doubt noble) option? The few tired and fatigued students who have been putting their bodies on the line for over two months – dodging stun grenades, inhaling tear gas and being targets of sustained arrest? People are justifiably exhausted, dejected & demoralised from being a small contingent bearing the sole responsibility for the black chimurenga at UCT. … The problem is NOT the few student protesters who refused to disrupt exams! The problem is that most UCT students have little interest in protesting for black liberation! Hands off!”
Does it matter that the Vice-Chancellor chose to negotiate with a specific and marginal political faction? Yes, because the PASMA students extracted important concessions from the Vice-Chancellor, achieving extraordinary success in their use of disruptive tactics and negotiations. First, they secured the prospect of indemnity for their own actions, reinforcing a culture of impunity and perhaps encouraging similar disruptions in 2017. Second, PASMA secured the Vice-Chancellor’s commitment to establish an Institutional Reconciliation and Truth Commission (IRTC, or Shackville TRC) to conduct what is in effect a review of much of UCT’s work (including curricula, institutional culture and any other aspect of “transformation” and “decolonisation”). Third, and most important, they and the Vice-Chancellor agreed a list of commissioners – a list that the Vice-Chancellor discussed only with PASMA, apparently giving PASMA an effective veto over who would conduct this review of UCT.
The proposed IRTC would be concerned with precisely those issues of race on which PASMA activists have extreme views. The PASMA students themselves made clear their views on key issues facing universities. They are fiercely critical of what they call the ANC’s “nyaope politics” (referring to the poisonous concoction served in some shebeens), and in place of the vision of the Freedom Charter they articulate an uncompromising Africanist vision filled with racialised invective.
As Qwabe has posted on his Facebook page: “The land does not belong to ‘all those who live in it’. The land belongs to black people.” Qwabe seems to believe that universities are like the land: they belong to “black people”, and only to them.
On his Facebook page, Masixole Mlandu has explained PASMA’s broader mission: “We will usher into this country an attitude of black rage, black liberation, an attitude that threatened the foundation of whiteness” (September 28). “Revolution is the answer to our problem. … We must live up to our historical task … to change society from bottom up with no compromise. Viva the spirit of revolution that is yearning on our hearts” (October 1).
Did UCT’s Vice-Chancellor give the holders of these views a veto on who would serve as commissioners charged with reviewing the university? Did the Vice-Chancellor agree to the capture of the institutional review by a political faction with its own ideological agenda? Neither the Vice-Chancellor nor the PASMA students have disclosed whose names were on the agreed list. It seems unlikely that the PASMA students would have agreed to commissioners with the kinds of views that they had denounced as poisonous nyaope. Was the list tilted heavily towards adherents of strongly Africanist political beliefs? Did the list exclude the other rich political and intellectual traditions that have been and are deeply rooted within UCT (and other South African universities)?
The Pan Africanist movement is has attracted very little support in South Africa as a whole in recent years. Some strands of Africanist thought have remained more popular than the movement itself, but even as a body of thought, Africanism has been overshadowed by the varieties of non-racialism associated with the Freedom Charter and the Constitution. Intellectually, Africanism competes with varieties of socialist or left thought, a variety of liberal positions, and by anti-racist scholars such as the late Neville Alexander. All of these other political approaches have strong support among students as well as staff at UCT. Did UCT’s Vice-Chancellor agree to a list of commissioners that excluded all of these traditions and perspectives?
It is not clear whether Dr Price himself understood the political affiliation of the activists with whom he was negotiating. It seems as if his personal preference for negotiation and sympathies with the project of “decolonising” the university blinded him to the specific identity and agenda of his negotiating partners. There is little evidence that he engaged adequately with other student organisations such as the outgoing SRC (whose offices had been occupied by the PASMA-led protesters), Sasco (who have repeatedly accused PASMA of trying to appropriate student mobilisation for their own partisan benefit) or DASO (who, on their Facebook page, condemned “the lack of inclusivity” in the negotiations). He failed to consult adequately with Senate (which was forced to stage a series of revolts through special meetings) or the Academic Union (which has apparently declared a grievance with UCT management).
When questioned in UCT’s Senate in late November, Max Price retreated from his commitments in the November 6 agreement, explaining that the composition and scope of the proposed IRTC was still to be decided, and that the process would include all sectors of the university community. But he has not yet spelt out clearly in writing what it is that he is now proposing. At the same meeting, UCT’s Senate approved a revised “Strategic Plan” for the university for the next five years. The first pillar of the plan is to forge a new and inclusive identity. If UCT is to achieve this goal, then the Africanists active in PASMA must be part of the conversation. But the route to inclusion cannot lie in deals cut between the Vice-Chancellor and PASMA – or any other political faction – to the exclusion of everyone else. To paraphrase the Freedom Charter, our universities must belong to all who work and study in them. DM
Watermelons were originally cultivated in Africa.