On 13 March 2019, my friends and I attended the launch of Wits Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib’s book Rebels and Rage at Hyde Park Exclusive Books. On that day I saw Habib even more triumphalist than in the book. He even went against his wife’s advice to be more “humble” in the articulation of his views. I and other students in attendance asked questions, and the general manner of his answers was very triumphalist.
In this review, I make the case for why the book Rebels and Rage is a self-aggrandising piece that seeks to show Habib as a kind of hero of Higher Education and everyone else as an inept and incompetent villain. I argue that Habib is not the hero he thinks he is, nor should he place that burden on himself because this would force him to tell half-truths and fibs. The narrative he is trying to build forces him into self-absorption and doesn’t allow any self-reflection.
‘Research-intensive’ university: a blunder
In the book, Habib implores us to craft solutions in the “existing world rather than a world we wished existed”.
Let us apply this principle to Wits University’s strategic objective to become a research-intensive university. On page 33 of the book, Habib outlines that the fees crisis has, in part, been caused by the fact that the per capita subsidy for higher education has been diminishing and that Treasury refuses to increase the budget, on the basis that 55% of students are not graduating. Therefore, Treasury does not think that funding the sector would be a good investment because not enough students are passing. The throughput rate undermines the postgraduate numbers necessary for research intensiveness.
An argument raised in the book is that if we are to have great universities rivalling the Harvards of this world, we need to have a “systemic intervention”. Meaning that for Wits to be successful in its ambition of becoming a research-intensive institution, we need to have universities that specifically cater to undergraduate studies. Wits would obviously retain undergraduate studies but a great focus would be placed on graduate programmes.
Here is the problem – Wits took a unilateral decision. The decision is ignorant of the fact that the majority of students across the system – and at Wits – are not getting through the system, a responsibility he shirks off to Basic Education for the quality of school-leaving learners. However, this excuse is misleading especially for an institution like Wits that due to its entry requirements would mostly, if not exclusively, accept students from the very top of the pile of school leavers. This highlights that there is a serious teaching and learning problem in universities themselves.
The problem is thus threefold. First, low throughput rates mean low graduate student/researcher numbers. Second, the VC’s own logic denies Wits, or any other university, the option to take this decision unilaterally. Thirdly and most importantly, for every year that a student fails, that is money wasted, regardless of its source. I argue, therefore, that teaching and learning ought to be improved, that throughput rates should be improved to guarantee efficient use of funds and guarantee more graduate students.
The VC in this instance must take his own advice and craft solutions for our context and not let his ambitions cloud his judgement.
A final word on this issue. In the attempt to make a Harvard in Africa or our own iteration of an Ivy League university in order to curb global knowledge inequality, a project to which Habib is committed, we may sleepwalk into worsening the inequality in our own country. We run the risk of not having universities that deal with issues in our society but are perpetually outward-looking to check for global competitiveness. This strategy is very likely to drive the majority of funding to historically white universities, as is the case at the moment.
This time there will be a refreshed mandate as to why people would spend their money there – innovation. This would leave the Historically Black Universities in a situation where they cannot compete for funding and will thus be perpetually underfunded due to lack of innovation. Lastly, given that failure rates are higher for undergraduate students and that Treasury, as stated in the book, sees investing in low throughput rates as a bad investment, the result of relegating Historically Black universities to undergraduate universities is to ensure their underfunding.
Throughout the book, Habib makes sure to take a dig at all his detractors. The first punch is thrown at academics who disagree with him, likening them to the Cambodian leader Pol Pot, who rejected modernity as dangerous, purging academics and destroying cities in favour of an agrarian society of his design. The implication here is that the “Pol Pot” academics lack vision and are interested in the destruction of the university. This is obviously absurd, their livelihoods depend on the university. Habib describes them in such a preposterous manner because the caricature of the academics who took a stance on the side of the students is central to his intention in writing the book – to control the narrative. He is simply ridiculing them in an attempt to paint himself and those who agree with him as being more concerned with the future of the university, even though it is obvious that academics who supported the protest also had a vested interest in the long-term stability of the system. He has to lampoon them in this regard because if he presents them seriously, he realises that they legitimise the protests due to their positionality.
With students, the VC is even more aggressive in his analysis – pulling no punches.
The claim that students are “intellectually bereft” and “incapable of imagining solutions and specific proposals” to improve the campus situation is laughable at best and a gross misrepresentation at worst. When Prof Habib arrived at Wits, the call for the insourcing of workers was made, which had heavy student involvement. This call was refreshed on 6 October 2015, leading to the Workers Charter that the VC lauds in the book. The Charter was heavily influenced by the students and the “Pol Pot Brigade”. I, as part of the October 6 Movement, handed the Charter to Prof Andrew Crouch on that day.
But alas, students are “bereft”.
Students proposed to have an endowment fund through the SRC that would ensure that some funds are available to assist students who needed funding. It is students who proposed and raise funds for the SRC Humanitarian Fund every year through 1Million1Month and other initiatives. These have helped many students pay off their tuition and accommodation costs.
But students are “bereft”.
It is students who proposed a waiver of the R9,340 registration fee because it acted as a barrier to students who, despite later getting bursaries, would be left out of the university system without settling the initial fee.
But students are “bereft and unimaginative”.
To indulge the Professor, let us assume, as he says, that students are bereft at the more technically- and administratively-sensitive demands made during the protest. Why is this damning on students? They are students, most of whom have had but a few years in the system. The VC has been in the system since the 1990s so, of course, he has a much more comprehensive understanding of the system. This attack on students is firstly misleading because students have throughout the years made very serious and credible interventions (as already shown) and, secondly, it is ridiculous and devoid of any sense to expect fledgelings in the system to have as comprehensive an understanding as a professor, let alone a Vice-Chancellor. However, for his narrative to carry, he needs to adopt such strange positions in order to discredit students.
Habib refers to students as either “deceitful”, “violent” or “drunk”. I won’t spend too much time on this mostly because I think that the VC will readily agree that the majority of the students and student leaders were sober. The question is why would he keep rehashing this point if the honest view is that most were sober throughout? Because the narrative he is driving doesn’t survive on sincerity so, naturally, the VC must paint them as degenerates to continue his narrative. Even words like “racist” are offhandedly levelled as critiques of the protests in furtherance of this narrative.
He is unable to accept responsibility for prioritising inappropriate strategies, for his contribution to the violence on the campus. Instead, he tries, throughout the book, to present all his detractors as irrational and himself as the embodiment of sense and reason. For someone who in principle believes in free education, I wonder why he would so uncharitably and dishonestly caricature those who made the call during the protests? Is it because he is not genuine in his in-principle belief in free education or is he merely a narcissist who was embarrassed and is now taking the time to get back at all those who embarrassed him?
Or perhaps Habib feels personally responsible for a lot of the good and bad, and is desperately shying away from a private and public reckoning for his role in the latter?
Nature of protests
The VC doesn’t have to shy away from any reckoning for his role in the violence because protests are messy. What is regrettable is that in trying to vindicate himself he doesn’t realise that he sleepwalks into being a self-aggrandising and unremorseful villain of the story.
The point of Mass Action is to disrupt vested interests when dialogue fails to do so, and unlike dialogue, mass action is seldom neat and tidy. The protest was meant to disrupt the interests of universities and those of academics seeking research intensiveness at the expense of the poor. However, FeesMustFall was so good at undermining vested interests that even those of the protesters themselves were also disrupted. No single group or organisation could turn FeesMustFall into a vessel for its own interests.
This was vital to the nature and success of FeesMustFall because even though there were attempts at disproportionate influence among protesters, these always failed. Whether it was academics, students or political formations – no one could control it.
Understanding the nature of protests makes it possible for students to accept their strategic and tactical blunders. The fact that students were not constrained by any organisations’ constitution or tactical approach meant that tactics differed among them.
Student leaders and students in general largely condemned the use of violence, there was an understanding that it was an undesirable tactic. However, it occurred. The manner in which violence occurred though is not accounted for in the book. Most of the violence from a large group of students was due to police and security provocation. The acts of violence like the burning of any property was not done by the mass of students who demonstrated across the country – these happened much to the surprise of the majority of protesting students. None of the arson attacks was committed by the mass of students in the protest, none knew about them until they had occurred.
The VC conveniently lumps together the acts of students against police with these isolated actions, actions that were actively condemned by students as they were not representative of the movement. It is obvious that the burning of the bus at Wits, for example, was not sanctioned by the protest, and was denounced and condemned by students and student leaders in an SRC statement on the very evening of the burning. But it is not beneficial to the narrative for the VC to acknowledge this fact.
It is important to note that while student leaders condemned the acts of violence, they would always negotiate in the interests of the students; the VC exploits to make the point that the movement encouraged violence: there was no encouragement of violence but rather an attempt to not have people’s futures destroyed by one moment of bad judgement.
The tightening of security and police escalated the otherwise relatively calm situation, save for the isolated acts. This escalation of the situation was largely caused by the VC and the police refusing to allow students to gather in groups of more than 15, which he admits to in a video in 2016. The problem here is that it was not groups of 15 or a thousand that committed acts such as arson. It was the one or two people who acted upon their own whims. This is a blunder that the VC doesn’t admit to in the book, but it very clearly is a mistake and is the cause of much of the confrontation between students and police – confrontations that led to much damage.
If the VC admits that escalation at Wits was due to his actions and that it was this escalation that led to much damage, he would be giving a fairer account of what happened. Except he cannot say that these incidents were not orchestrated and he continues to call students liars.
Unfortunately, the VC lacks the self-reflection to see how he escalated the situation and thus decides to go on the defensive and defend all his actions, wrong or right. He doesn’t need to do this because it is impossible to be involved in such intense mass action, whichever side you fall, without making some blunders. Admitting to these blunders would not be any more damning than having committed them – it may, in fact, have shone him in a better light. However, because of his triumphalist attitude, he seems very proud of his actions.
Towards the fire next time
The book comes on the heels of a short-lived wave of protests on campus targeting issues that before, during and post-FeesMustFall remain unresolved: fees and accommodation. These protests all but confirmed what was suspected by many after former president Jacob Zuma made the free education announcement back in 2017: fees have not fallen.
Admittedly, Habib is occasionally right when claiming that there are no quick fixes. The state has tried and failed to pretend otherwise. But if Habib is sincerely committed to realising free education, what help is it to so thoroughly disparage the very students who are on the same side? The trouble is, as anyone who was at the book launch at Hyde Park Exclusives Books would’ve seen, students have lost their fighting spirit. They are defeated and traumatised and, as many students expressed on that evening, to the point of finding fireworks as triggering memories of the police’s brutal crackdown.
Fees have not fallen, but the enthusiasm of students has. Make no mistake, the problems will continue, and the state may once again back-pedal on its commitments. Habib is desperate to become the hero of this story, failing to realise that it’s an unfinished one.
Where being a hero depends on alienating the academics and students who once stood as friends, Habib risks becoming a tragic one. DM