Opinionista Sonwabile Ngxiza 27 May 2020

Adam Habib is wrong: Cultivate a culture of student activism rather than closing democratic spaces

It is clear Prof Adam Habib would be comfortable with less or limited contestation from recalcitrant student leaders. This is a dangerous idea. It lays the foundations for tyrants and sycophants to reign, resulting in the death of the very idea of democracy under the weight of authoritarian institutional order.

Sonwabile Ngxiza

Sonwabile Ngxiza is a PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town and is SACP deputy provincial secretary in the Western Cape. He writes in his personal capacity.

Vice-Chancellor of Wits University, Prof Adam Habib, penned a provocative article published in Daily Maverick on 24 May: “The presence of political parties at universities is a hugely destructive force”.

The context for this startling conclusion is the current discourse about remote or online learning in the era of Covid-19. Some educational authorities embrace online learning as a panacea under the conditions of Covid-19 and as an advance towards the 4th Industrial or Digital Revolution, while certain student formations seem diametrically opposed to the idea based on socioeconomic disparities.

In a reaction to a Student Representative Council campaign against online learning under the slogan “No student left behind” at Wits, Habib contends that the social justice struggle “does not require a reversion to the lowest common denominator”. It is puzzling why the learned professor chose to use “lowest common denominator”, but there is no moral justification for excluding any student, particularly when fees have been paid to obtain an education.

In this broadside against student leadership, Habib challenges their legitimacy given existing apathy, and further charges that they are divorced from their constituency due to intolerance and political bullying which produces polarisation and alienation. This, according to Habib, is a manifestation of the culture and politics of extremes, in particular proto-fascists and Stalinists.

In South African society there is a history of politics of protest often imbued with anti-establishment fervour based on the inherent contradictions in our socioeconomic landscape. This is by no means a justification for, or promotion of, violence that often accompanies protests as much as it is inexcusable to allow the perpetuation of non-responsiveness, indifference and injustice.

There is no denying that these two extremes are undesirable and abominable; however, the question arises: is the current student political culture a reflection of these extremes in totality? Is this not an exaggeration aimed at deflecting and concealing leadership failures and inertia in the sector around structural challenges, social justice concerns and genuine student grievances more generally? It would seem that Habib’s perspective ignores the reality that in many ways institutions of higher learning are a microcosm of South African society today.

In South African society there is a history of politics of protest often imbued with anti-establishment fervour based on the inherent contradictions in our socioeconomic landscape. This is by no means a justification for, or promotion of, violence that often accompanies protests as much as it is inexcusable to allow the perpetuation of non-responsiveness, indifference and injustice. The fundamental point here is that there is no substitute for honest, critical and constructive engagement. The truth is that there are various interests that contaminate democratic spaces of engagement on all sides of the equation.

For all the underlying challenges that Habib identified, his solutions are astonishing, particularly in relation to concocting devices to limit democratic space. The first solution is that the appeasement strategy, wherein senior politicians and the media indulge errant student leaders, must be rejected and fascism and Stalinism must be combated. Is this not a case of creating a strawman and then heroically destroying it? In other words, do we really have this problem? Institutional autonomy and academic freedom have become the edifice of higher education and politicians have generally been cautious in this regard. Any evidence to the contrary must be exposed.

Second, student leaders must be “held accountable for their actions”, and here no reasonable person can disagree with the centrality of this demand. However, accountability will not fall from the sky, systems of accountability must be established and laws of natural justice must be applicable.

Finally, party-political student formations stand accused of cultivating “institutional mayhem” and using violence to build credentials to benefit from an “incentive structure” created by deployment as members of Parliament or provincial legislatures. As a solution to this political conundrum, Habib proposes declaring higher education an essential service and thus forestalling political party affiliation, canvassing and unionisation. Here the professor was uncharacteristically not bold enough to state his conviction categorically, but instead framed his proposed solution in the form of a question.

Nonetheless, the sentiment is clear – he would be comfortable with less or limited contestation from recalcitrant student leaders. This is a very dangerous idea. It lays the foundations for tyrants and sycophants to reign, thus resulting in the death of the very idea of democracy under the weight of authoritarian institutional order. This is why he cannot hide his preference for independent candidates. There are several problems here too.

In the first instance, it is not entirely clear how accountable independent candidates really are. And secondly, the preference for independent candidates is really a promotion of parochial orientation as distinct from the broader political orientation concerned with transformation, social justice, gender struggles etc. Some of the major gains have occurred from engaging in popular mass struggles under the mass democratic movement as well as under the banner of student/worker alliance. Attempts should be made to build on these victories rather than dismantle that student political heritage. Student formations serve as an organised force nurturing schools of identity and ideological formation that also catalyse collective action.

Viewing student activism only as obstructive is narrow, and thus closing political space as an antidote is regressive. Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” DM

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