The fire next time? Generations, established/outsider groups and South African universities in crisis.

The fire next time? Generations, established/outsider groups and South African universities in crisis.

Part 2, Making sense of the crisis

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘The fire next time; Part 2, Making sense of the crisis′ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.


1. Trying to understand it

1.1 My account of the ‘universities in crisis’ situation is that of an informed outsider with long-term close associations with South Africa and its universities. I make no claim that it is the only way to think about the events concerned and their origins and longer-term outcomes, and it is offered tentatively and in full awareness that other strongly held viewpoints exist. It is a product of WWW historical investigation as well as endeavouring to think about such matters with Elias and it is as follows and in later Parts of this essay.

2. Some key aspects

2.1 The protests and ensuing violence and widespread infrastructural damage and the repetition of these events over two years, and only prevented from repeating repeat in 2017 because of a unilateral Presidential announcement ending fees, have taken place in the context of endemic structural issues, sparked off by the occurrence in a number of places in succession of tinderbox events. Universities in South Africa have in a short time-period rapidly expanded but in a context in which state funding has significantly decreased and student fees have become an increasingly important income stream, although in practice most students do not pay fees themselves, which are funded by a state agency.

2.2 Ostensibly, setting fees and fee increases is the prerogative of the individual universities within guidelines as to ceilings. In practice, on a number of occasions both the Minister of Education and the President have intervened, sometimes in contradictory and conflicting ways; and in 2016 in the wake of protests outside the Union building, the President unilaterally announced there would be a zero fees increase that year, and now has unilaterally announced the end of fees. Damage to buildings alone have cost many billions of Rand, adding to the funding problems which have provided the focal point for the protests, while there has been little political response.

2.3 Alongside this has been the ubiquitous use by #Hashtag student protesters of social media, enabling both rapid communication between protesters and also multi-node feeds to the mass media, with many self-consciously modelling their activities on influences from the Occupy movement and North African protests and uprisings in the so-called Arab Spring of 2011. Initially multi-composition protests that included a wide range of student interests and opinion, this initial unity has over time largely broken up around the surfacing of deep differences between the different elements involved.

2.4 Over time, core groups have become apparent. Some of these are the campus arms of national political groupings; others are directly oppositional to mainstream political structures. Some of those involved have become ‘professional activists’, cadres for whom activism and protest is what they do. In some places these ‘travelling activists’ have shunted between universities in close proximity to each other, and also there has been some busing in of local gangs. University closures have followed not only large and at times violent protests but also violence against persons and the burning of buildings and their often state-of-the-art equipment on a significant scale. However, probably a majority of registered students just want to get their degrees and move on, many of whom feel intimidated by these events, and some of whom have been subject to physical violence or threatened with violence as turncoats.

2.5 There have been a range of academic responses; and while marches in full support have occurred they have not been typical, although probably the majority of staff have sympathy with various of the issues involved. Perhaps of greater long-term significance have been the changes in course delivery that have occurred to ensure that the non-activist student majority can continue with their courses and assessments. These have included such measures as ensuring all students have access to laptops and other computers with full web accessibility, the development of teaching around podcasts, the provision of reading materials in electronic forms, and devising forms of assessment that can be web-completed and marked.

2.6 In a number of universities, considerable resourcing has gone into these and they are now part of, and will stay part of, the framework of university course and degree provision. There are obviously implications for the face-to-face and group contact aspects of education, but with the need for crisis management having led to these being bracketed.

2.7 While the protests have focused on university fees and associated issues including a return to insourcing university service work, the roots seem more complex and diverse. Failures in the school system and their knock-on effects, violence and corruption in national political culture, the routinisation of violence in local communities, are all involved, coming together around the massification of higher education and triggered by in themselves small events, like a leftover statue here (UCT) and a fees increase there (Wits). These are the focus for the discussion following and show the complex intersections between private troubles and public issues that are involved.

3. The school system

3.1 The existence of deep-seated problems in the school system and particularly regarding Grades 0/1 to 9 was discussed in Part 1 and the detail will not be repeated here. Suffice it to say that the extra funding and support targeted at Grades 10 to 12 cannot repair the earlier failures in earlier years in the school system. These include inadequate buildings, poorly trained and poorly performing teachers, outdated or otherwise inadequate books and other equipment, patchy attendance and hungry and tired learners who often have family responsibilities and have to travel long distances to a school. While there is a national system of curriculum development, assessment and matriculation, in practice this is operationalised at local level in a way that different standards apply in different locations. Learners can do extremely well within the local/regional school system, and they and their parents and perhaps also their teachers are unaware that different, sometimes very different, standards can prevail elsewhere. Education is not free but there is considerable social welfare provision around it, both financial and through the provision of daily meals and other practical help, including of an interpersonal kind.3.2 Such social welfarism has been described as a way of life, for it support not only those within the school system but also their parents and wider family and the local community. It gives rise not only to an extensive network of support but also close bonds between learners, service providers, families and wider communities. It may seem all the more puzzling, then, that local protests about failures in government provision can result in burning schools (eg. in the week of writing, a local protest demanding a tar road to replace a dirt one resulted in burning the local nursery school).

3.3 The key to understanding this is that the social welfarism has gone hand-in-hand with a community politics of corruption and what might be termed pragmatic corruption and violence, so that the state’s failure to create more jobs is repaired by destroying local infrastructure, resulting in the issuing of tenders and government contracts to build new schools, which in turn creates new jobs. There is a complicated and difficult context, then. It also interfaces with a wider political and social context.

4. Political culture 

4.1 As South African national political culture has developed over the last twenty years, there is widespread agreement that corruption and a level of violence have become almost definitional characteristics, including with the return of political assassinations. Scandals surrounding the Zuma presidency (calling in private police to eject troublesome parliamentarians, funding his private residence at Nkandla, fabricated witchhunts against perceived opponents,’Guptagate’ and state capture, are indicative) are just the tip of a much larger iceberg involving many more people at lower levels of the system. Corruption, gravy-trains, crooked tenders and contracts, threatening or violent responses to opposition, all exist and have been and encouraged, in large part because until recently there has been no strong and effective opposition to the ANC government and its control of the state apparatus at national, metro and regional, and local levels.

4.2 The universities have been important recruiting grounds for most of the national political parties, each of which has had strong representation on campuses, each of which has also imported its established ways of operating, including the less salubrious aspects just outlined. As many commentators have pointed out, witnessing such things in national politics has for many of the student protesters been, not a recent aberration, but their entire experience of political life in democratic South Africa. It has also gone hand-in-hand with some comparable features of local community life already referred to, together with in some places the routinisation of other forms of violence including rape, domestic violence and alcohol abuse. ‘Pragmatic corruption’ regarding tenders and contracts can seem mild and acceptable (and effective) by comparison.

5. The massification of higher education

5.1 Some of the details involved in the massification of higher education in South Africa were provided in the Part 1 and will not be repeated. In summary, growth in student numbers has been enormous and rapid and more is scheduled, now a high proportion of the student body comes from the poorest and most disenfranchised groups, there has been a significant and rapid decrease in state funding, which factors have fed the increasing reliance by the universities on fees along with the financial necessity of outsourcing, while at the same time there has been more political interference in university governance in particular through their Councils and also more external regulation.

5.2 What bears repetition is that dropout levels are high, and throughput in terms of degree completions is low; and while most students do not pay fees (which are covered by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme Association), many cannot afford living and travel costs, and a significant minority come from backgrounds that are not poor enough to be eligible for such assistance but not well-heeled enough to avoid financial problems. In addition, Black Economic Empowerment jobs have to an extent dried up, unemployment levels even among professionals are high, and while the strong educational preference has been for university over technical education, it is artisanal and technical skills that are in most economic need.

5.3 Less discussed but probably of considerable significance regarding the ‘tinderbox’ aspects of the student protests is the relationship between school and university cultures for many members of the student body. While universities are in many ways protected environments for the young, and in the South African case many financial and other supports exist, these are not on the scale or reach of the social welfarism that characterises the school system.

5.4 Put simply, the expectation of all universities is that there will be a change in kind, not just degree, as compared with the school system regarding the greater independence and self-sufficiency expected of young adults. This concerns education and changes in the learner/ teacher relationship, and a focus on education and not other aspects of people’s lives. It means that students have to take responsibility in a way that learners do not and that formerly extensive welfare support structures are do not exist in the new context.

5.5 The change from school to university in particular for those from schools at the lower end where social welfarism has been most extensive is sudden, sometimes hard to make sense of, and consequential. There are other aspects of university culture relevant here. There is a different style of teaching that can call on skills that people have not been satisfactorily introduced to at school. For many, the medium of instruction is in their second or third language, and where this has been Afrikaans, this may not only be a fourth language but has often been done in unsatisfactory ways, but is also in a language which many particularly black students find politically offensive. The wider university culture particularly in universities of English-language origins is one of liberalism, debate and freedom of expression. However, many students have received little normative guidance about boundaries and limits and that the rights of others should not be overridden. In addition, for those arriving from rural areas and communities, university campuses can be seen, as well as experienced as, alien environments, including with regard to racial mixing when their home experience has been of unmixed local communities and their community politics has been centred around a sense of Africaness rather than black as including all non-white groups.

6. Some tinderbox aspects

6.1 An increasing proportion of students come from poorer groups and schools at the bottom of the ratings hierarchy, something increasingly marked among each new annual intake. Many come from small homogenous rural communities where people not only share skin colour but where the young people who go to university are seen as representing a standard of excellence proven within the school system, something which becomes ingrained in the identities and self-expectations of the people concerned.

6.2 There is a wide range of demographics in different South African universities, but a significant number appear high in world rankings and provide a mix of national and international  students from many different cultures and all skin colours, many of whom have received comparable education within the school system, but more of whom have not. For (some of) those who have not, there can be a perturbing sense of outsiderness and vulnerability disguised by an attitude of black nationalism and entitlement and a hyper-masculinity of behaviour masked by the rhetoric of LGBT+ rights. For (some of) those who have, there can be a profound sense of guilt and a felt-need for reparation along with the perception of common cause.

6.3 Common cause did indeed give signs of workable existence in the early stages of the protests, around shared interests, political views and political allegiances. Either on their own behalves or on behalf of others, fees and the loans system, the outsourcing of campus service provision, perceived curriculum deficiencies and the symbolic import of the remaining trappings of the colonial past, provided a basis for what became action when this was triggered by particular incidents. These incidents were by nature local and in a sense specific to each university but they also raised wider issues, including concerning the national political system. Those that received most media coverage and became best-known, and which have subsequently accrued symbolic force, concern the statue of the 19th century imperialist Cecil Rhodes at UCT (University of Cape Town), and then the first announcement of a fees increase at Wits (University of Witwatersrand).

6.4 A broad rather liberal interpretation of African Renaissance ideas and making South Africa’s universities African in character and different in kind from their European origins was the shared starting point for many protesters together with a vaguer feeling that the universities were a ‘soft’ part of the state apparatus for making protests about wider issues surfacing in the universities although not of their making or control. Some of these have been alluded to, including the funding structure in which fees have come to figure large, the system of student fees support, severe issues in the school system, and corruption and veniality in the national political system. Over time, this ideas basis has changed and became more radical, in particular directions.

6.5 ‘White monopoly capital’ started making appearance as the source of South Africa’s economic and political ills as an ‘Evil Empire’ not just at a symbolic level but underpinning the material issues identified. ‘Decolonisation’ became seen as practical necessity, in the universities focused on staffing, curriculum, and controlling the processes by which decision-making takes place on campuses. It has been accompanied for some by a cod reading of selective parts of Franz Fanon’s writings, where violence is not so much justified as transformed into a just and legitimate response to systemic violence (meaning the impact of the system rather than physical violence). The widespread burnings of buildings and associated infrastructure is one aspect of this (and justified by the expectation that government tenders would pick up the bills), and the forcible prevention of other students from continuing in the lectures and assessments is another, while more extreme forms of violence (with one death, and more attempted but foiled) including petrol bombings and the stoning and burning of student buses seem to have been initiated by particular but influential groupings within the wider movement.

6.6 The organisational basis, working practices and much of the political grounding of the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring uprisings have become a considerable influence for some, including with the use of social media to provide a near-instant and largely uncontrollable means of communication and organisation. Demanding the insourcing of campus service provision may at first sight seem an outlier issue, perhaps even one added for cynical reasons to garner support; but this is actually indicative of allegiances in many of the students’ home communities, including that they come from such economic backgrounds themselves.

6.7 It is helpful to remember that different aspects of these political views are held by different groupings within the student body, adding up to some participants holding complicated interweavings of such ideas, others having stripped-down versions. It is also interesting to observe that while the protests are declared to be leaderless, and certainly the rapidly changing composition of negotiating groups has been a major problem that university administrators have had to deal with, a small number of names have emerged as valorised ones. These are mainly young men, mainly African/black, mainly associated with elite institutions in South Africa and the UK and USA, mainly from privileged backgrounds, all of which provide food for thought.

7. Whiteness? Blackness? Towards the truly African University?

7.1 Race matters are obviously an important component in the configuration of crisis in South African universities, although they are present in a way that can make them appear as secondary or not really relevant apart from with regard to specific issues such as the residues of the colonial past and the rather vague but appealing mantra concerning ‘white monopoly capital’. The supposed 1994 sell-out is another convenient mantra, putting present national political problems at the feet of what is depicted as the appeasement of white interests. There are other aspects than do reflect race matters more clearly.

7.2 Certainly the large inequalities in the school system are in large part a historical legacy of the apartheid era, although they are also in part due to mis-directed policies over the last 20 years and the failure to deal with teacher education and educational delivery. Language issues continue to resound, not only with regards to Afrikaans, but also the even-handed approach to all official national languages rather than promoting an African language as prime. At the same time, promoting one of the majority African languages in this way would find disfavour with many because seen to represent nationalist values and aspirations (particularly Zulu and Xhosa), and English is favoured by many for its lingua franca aspects on a world-scale. Also campus cultures do represent particular kinds of values and forms of conduct which have been depicted as ‘European’, and ideas about black consciousness and empowerment can conflict with this especially around notions of masculinity and privilege.

7.3 However, it is with regard to calls for decolonisation of the curriculum and related that there should be ‘truly African universities’ not only regarding the curriculum but also different standards, different knowledges, and different staff. Some of what is involved here has been shared across differences of ethnicity, race and skin colour. For instance, in his 2015 inauguration speech as vice-chancellor of the University of KwaZulu Natal, Albert van Jaarsveld (who is white) said “The university will not just be a great university in Africa, but will strive to become a great African institution. South African universities have little or nothing African about them. They are universities in Africa. But we want to make this place a truly African university, reflecting Africa’s knowledge systems, culture, identity and languages.”

7.4 Perhaps paradoxically, this university experienced some of the most extreme of the crisis events. But of course this does not invalidate the vision, and most of the on-paper indications of different approaches to a ‘decolonised’ curriculum seem helpful and sensible. Clearly there is a spectrum here, and other approaches are more extreme and at points rather bizarre. Also there are more troublesome issues concerning alternative knowledges and facts, and standards and competencies in making academic appointments, both of which have been prominent in crisis-speak. The former has surfaced in relation to scientific and medical knowledge, in a country in which many people died because of the then-President Thabo Mbecki’s ideas about the curative properties of African medicines in treating HIV/AIDS. The latter has surfaced in the government drive to reach performance figures in making appointments that reflect national demographics, with the widespread view being that many appointments are of insufficiently qualified people.

7.5 However, these ideas appear to be in the ascendancy and have been articulated by a number of  prominent and well-respected black academics. The ‘truly African university’ in an intellectual sense may well come about. However, even more on the cards is that South African universities will become ‘truly African’ in another sense, with the massification and underfunding aspects that have already impacted seriously on the formerly black universities increasing across the board, further attempts to appease student protest in the direction of unsatisfactory appointments, problematic curriculum changes imposed. As a result the South African university ‘end’ in the sense that Jonathan Jansen uses the word, in the sense of losing their reputation for excellence and becoming lower-grade teaching factories whose degrees are not accepted as of good standard on a wider stage, including in the South African economy.


Last updated: 21 December 2017