It is time for uni­ver­si­ties to show a bit of back­bone

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE -

THE UN­REST at our uni­ver­si­ties is no longer about #FeesMust­Fall. It is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to ob­serve that South Africa is in the throes of an in­cip­i­ent youth rev­o­lu­tion tar­get­ing the higher ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor. At this stage it is weak and spo­radic. But ev­ery day it re­mains un­chal­lenged – whether be­cause of in­com­pe­tence, cow­ardice or mis­guided tol­er­ance – it gains mo­men­tum, con­fi­dence and strength.

Like ev­ery in­cip­i­ent in­sur­rec­tion in his­tory, it lures and dupes with prom­ises of democ­racy, with slo­gans of lib­erty, equal­ity and fra­ter­nity. In re­al­ity, like ev­ery revo­lu­tion­ary guard that has pre­ceded it, its murky ring­leaders are in­dif­fer­ent to those ideals.

They are driven by a de­ter­mi­na­tion not to change the ex­ist­ing or­der, but to usurp it. They want power and they want it now, and uni­ver­si­ties are just the first site of strug­gle. Con­ven­tional demo­cratic mech­a­nisms for gain­ing power can be te­diously chal­leng­ing, es­pe­cially for what is an ide­o­log­i­cally self-righ­teous mi­nor­ity. So the process has to be short-cir­cuited us­ing in­tim­i­da­tion or, if that fails, vi­o­lence.

That seizure of con­trol of ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion may suc­ceed is an in­dict­ment of the sec­tor’s lead­er­ship. At best it has been vac­il­lat­ing, at worst, timid.

One shouldn’t blame the vicechan­cel­lors en­tirely. Be­cause of the ero­sion of univer­sity au­ton­omy in the face of ANC brow­beat­ing and more than a year of stu­dent protests and threats, most univer­sity man­agers are now phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally spent. Un­for­tu­nately, their po­lit­i­cal masters haven’t a clue of what to do ei­ther, al­ter­nat­ing be­tween blus­ter and sup­pli­ca­tion. Nei­ther has had any dis­cernible in­flu­ence on a rad­i­cal, ram­pant stu­dent lead­er­ship clique.

This as­pi­rant revo­lu­tion­ary clique is close to the EFF, likely over­lap­ping in mem­ber­ship, and clearly shar­ing its strat­egy to out­flank and hum­ble the ANC.

The tac­tics are the ones that the EFF has de­ployed re­peat­edly: abuse, threats, the scape­goat­ing of mi­nori­ties, and “spon­ta­neous” erup­tions of vi­o­lence.

The EFF has a lead­ing role in fo­ment­ing the chaos, often stray­ing close to in­cite­ment to vi­o­lence.

Mpho More­lane, pres­i­dent of its “Stu­dent Com­mand” – the EFF, from berets to ranks, is in thrall to mil­i­tary ter­mi­nol­ogy – stated this week that uni­ver­si­ties would not be al­lowed to op­er­ate, de­spite the ma­jor­ity of stu­dents hav­ing in­di­cated that they want to com­plete the year in peace.

“You must know, we are com­ing for you… There isn’t a univer­sity that is go­ing to open on Monday (un­less) the govern­ment comes with the in­tro­duc­tion of free qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion as a mat­ter of ur­gency.”

Busi­nesses, too, would be af­fected, and “we are go­ing to oc­cupy strate­gic sec­tors”. It was time, also, for the po­lice to join the side of the protesters.

The re­sponse to such war talk has been a se­ries of ab­ject ca­pit­u­la­tions. Ex­plain­ing this week’s clo­sure of UCT, its man­age­ment (a flat­ter­ing word for ap­peasers), said there was “a risk of se­ri­ous con­flict and es­ca­lat­ing vi­o­lence”.

“We will not be able to con­tain the sit­u­a­tion with­out a very large in­crease in se­cu­rity and in­ter­ven­tion by the SA Po­lice Ser­vice. This would only serve to make mat­ters worse.”

It is dif­fi­cult to know what to make of such sophistry. It is the kind of in­fan­tile logic that de­serves a first-year fail mark, but per­haps no longer at UCT. Af­ter all, this is in re­sponse to petrol bombings and phys­i­cal at­tacks. It is, above all, in re­sponse to a mi­nor­ity void­ing the con­sti­tu­tional rights of the ma­jor­ity.

In ef­fect, the UCT mes­sage to ri­ot­ers is: if you are suf­fi­ciently vi­o­lent we will ca­pit­u­late be­cause we are scared that in or­der to stop your vi­o­lence, the forces of the law will be, um, force­ful.

In an ar­ti­cle in Univer­sity World News, Pro­fes­sor Nico Cloete, an ex­pert on higher ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, presents a co­gent ex­pla­na­tion of why “free” higher ed­u­ca­tion is im­pos­si­ble. More, it ac­tu­ally harms the in­ter­ests of the poor, since a “vo­cal, ac­tive com­po­nent of the rel­a­tively small pe­tite bour­geoisie” uses the is­sue to “con­sol­i­date their class po­si­tion”.

“As was the case in fas­cist Ger­many and pop­ulist Cam­bo­dia, the petty bour­geoisie was en­cour­aged and mis­in­formed by cer­tain in­tel­lec­tu­als. Dur­ing… this South African con­flict, tra­di­tional aca­demics have been al­most com­pletely silent and pas­sive.”

In­deed. Most aca­demics have been shame­fully com­plicit in the campus chaos, cowed as they are by the ca­coph­ony of rad­i­cal cant.

It has been left to the gatvol silent ma­jor­ity of stu­dents to start re­claim­ing the demo­cratic space that the con­sti­tu­tion guar­an­tees them. Sim­i­larly, it is up to or­di­nary cit­i­zens to make clear that they find the sit­u­a­tion in­tol­er­a­ble.

Oth­er­wise the wannabe rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies will ul­ti­mately tri­umph. @TheJaun­dicedEye

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