STU­DENT POWER IS ON THE RISE

No amount of bu­reau­cratic ma­noeu­vring is go­ing to end the anger of stu­dents be­ing failed by the coun­try’s univer­sity sys­tem

CityPress - - Front Page - Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh voices@ city­press. co. za

The con­sti­tu­tional set­tle­ment of 1994 was nei­ther a panacea for South Africa’s prob­lems nor an in­sur­mount­able ob­sta­cle. Rather, it was an act of post­pone­ment; an in­vi­ta­tion for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to un­tan­gle the beau­ti­fully grotesque mess that is South Africa. Two decades on, the time we bor­rowed from that post­pone­ment is van­ish­ing. A bat­tle for the soul of South Africa is brew­ing, and nowhere is it rag­ing more fiercely than on the cam­puses of South African univer­si­ties.

But the peo­ple lead­ing our univer­si­ties are fail­ing to rise to the oc­ca­sion. In­stead of en­cour­ag­ing im­por­tant de­bates about race, de­coloni­sa­tion and eco­nomic jus­tice, they seem in­tent on sup­press­ing and si­lenc­ing the ex­act con­ver­sa­tions they should be lead­ing. Worse still, their de­fault re­sponse to stu­dent crit­i­cism seems to be “sus­pend, ban, in­tim­i­date”.

By “de­bate”, I don’t mean a “gen­tle­manly” ex­change of views fol­lowed by tea and scones. The de­bate we need to have in South Africa is loud, mul­ti­lin­gual, frac­tious and un­pre­dictable. It in­volves protest, song, dance and speech.

This is why the lan­guage ques­tion is such an im­por­tant one. Not only does it af­fect teach­ing and learn­ing, it also in­flu­ences how griev­ances can be tabled.

What is needed is a com­mit­ment to fo­cus­ing the lived ex­pe­ri­ence of poor black stu­dents and ad­dress­ing their plight as a mat­ter of ur­gency. This starts with an end to re­pres­sive re­sponses to their le­git­i­mate con­cerns.

“For­merly white” univer­si­ties must have the hu­mil­ity to re­alise that poor black stu­dents have some­thing to teach them and that they should en­ter a con­ver­sa­tion with these stu­dents ready to lis­ten to – and act de­ci­sively on – their de­mands.

In this re­gard, the hypocrisy of some vice-chan­cel­lors is dis­turb­ing. It as­ton­ishes me that many of these mock-mes­sianic fig­ures have enough time to pub­lish odes on “fix­ing” South Africa, while fail­ing to con­front the very se­ri­ous prob­lems right un­der their noses.

Univer­sity of Free State rec­tor Jonathan Jansen’s mis­guided ver­sion of “mercy” seems only to ap­ply to white stu­dents who feed urine to black clean­ers. Black stu­dents who dare to chal­lenge his sta­tus as the poor man’s Desmond Tutu are hounded off his cam­pus and branded as “thugs”.

Wits Univer­sity vice-chan­cel­lor Adam Habib seems to be singing from the same hymn book. His re­cent failed at­tempt to ban the Eco­nomic Free­dom Fight­ers from Wits is a text­book ex­am­ple of the kind of lead­er­ship he spends much of his life be­moan­ing on nightly news bul­letins. Mass sus­pen­sions and the ban­ning of po­lit­i­cal or­gan­i­sa­tions are tac­tics eerily rem­i­nis­cent of a by­gone era. Ear­lier this year, Wits pleaded poverty in the stu­dent fund­ing cri­sis. How then can it find the nec­es­sary funds to wrong­fully re­press stu­dent ac­tiv­ity and un­suc­cess­fully de­fend it­self in court? How can these in­sti­tu­tions jus­tify ex­ces­sive fee in­creases and un­duly con­ser­va­tive fis­cal plan­ning in an era of such dire des­per­a­tion while call­ing on gov­ern­ment to “ad­dress in­equal­ity”?

Here’s the prob­lem: no amount of bu­reau­cratic ma­noeu­vring is go­ing to end the anger of stu­dents be­ing failed by the univer­sity sys­tem.

In­stead of shift­ing the de­bate to the meth­ods of protest of an of­ten-des­per­ate mi­nor­ity of stu­dents, univer­si­ties should be en­gag­ing with the sources of their des­per­a­tion. Can any of us re­ally dic­tate to a stu­dent liv­ing in a ceme­tery how they should “air their con­cerns”? The blame should not lie solely at the door of univer­si­ties. For all its talk, the ANC gov­ern­ment has done very lit­tle to im­prove the ex­pe­ri­ence of black stu­dents at “for­merly white” in­sti­tu­tions. Twenty years on, no real so­lu­tions have been found for the dou­ble crises of in­suf­fi­cient fund­ing and an in­suf­fi­cient sup­ply in higher ed­u­ca­tion.

This is an area where stu­dent move­ments need to be­come more con­sis­tent. While I whole­heart­edly sup­port move­ments like Rhodes Must Fall and Open Stel­len­bosch, I feel they are com­par­a­tively timid in their cri­tique of state power. The point is sim­ple: if we are un­equiv­o­cal about the evils of white supremacy, we must be equally firm about the need for cor­rupt po­lit­i­cal lead­ers who en­trench it to fall. My hope is that stu­dent move­ments evolve to hold the state as ac­count­able as they do their own in­sti­tu­tions.

In this re­gard, it is in­ter­est­ing that the re­cent surge in youth ac­tivism has come in the vac­uum left by the ANC Youth League.

While the league wran­gles over po­si­tions of power and con­cerns it­self with con­fer­ences and “struc­tures”, or­di­nary stu­dents are get­ting on with the work the league should have done long ago.

No mat­ter how much media at­ten­tion it gets, the youth league will con­tinue to be ir­rel­e­vant for as long as it re­fuses to tackle head-on the ques­tions of de­coloni­sa­tion and cor­rup­tion among se­nior ANC lead­ers.

These times de­mand cool heads as we wade through painful con­ver­sa­tions. But the bur­den of non­vi­o­lence should not fall on stu­dents alone.

For ex­am­ple, why are se­cu­rity guards and po­lice not be­ing sent to univer­si­ties to pre­vent racism from hap­pen­ing? Why aren’t univer­si­ties in­vest­ing re­sources in pro­tect­ing black stu­dents from the kind of abuse we saw in the Luis­ter doc­u­men­tary? Why are univer­si­ties sur­round­ing se­nate meet­ings with po­lice dog units and armed guards? We can’t turn a blind eye to the vi­o­lent racism that ex­ists in our univer­si­ties in one mo­ment, then de­cry “vi­o­lence” when it suits us the next.

Try as we might, we can’t post­pone the con­ver­sa­tion about the role of the post-apartheid univer­sity any longer.

Since the ten­sions at our univer­si­ties are symp­to­matic of deeper so­cial in­equal­i­ties, we must en­sure that cam­puses role-model the con­ver­sa­tions that need to hap­pen across South Africa in an ex­em­plary man­ner. The bat­tles rag­ing in our univer­si­ties are a sign of the end of an in­ter­reg­nal era. How we deal with them may pre­fig­ure our abil­ity to cope with big­ger chal­lenges on the hori­zon.

Mpofu-Walsh has com­pleted his MPhil in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at Ox­ford Univer­sity

PHOTO: LEANNE STANDER

STAND­ING TO­GETHER Mem­bers of ac­tivist stu­dent groups Open Stel­len­bosch and Rhodes Must Fall join forces in a protest march at the Univer­sity of Stel­len­bosch

PHOTO: DENVOR DE WEE

DE­COLONISED The statue of Ce­cil John Rhodes that was re­moved from UCT

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