It is time for universities to show a bit of backbone
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