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 1,  South African universities in crisis

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘The fire next time; Part 1, The universities and crisis′ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. The Coming Crisis

1.1 The title of this multi-part ‘thinking with Elias’ essay is a quotation (with an added question-mark) from James Baldwin’s Another Country, with the same quotation ending a recently published book about the 2015-2016 events of protest, crisis and violence in South Africa’s universities, written by the well-respected former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, Jonathan Jansen. Its title is As By Fire: The End of the South African University and it provides a straight-talking overview and interpretation of events in 2015 and 2016 (events that seemed like they would recommence in September 2017, but which were headed off by a unilateral policy decision by Jacob Zuma about university student fees). It is based on detailed interviews with eleven other vice-chancellors and his own experiences, twelve in total.

1.2 Some of the self-appointed spokes-people (it is difficult to find an appropriate term, given their ostensibly leaderless character) of the #Hashtag student groupings involved have not surprisingly weighed in about this book, not so much to debate as to dispute it at book launches, including the one publicised in the photograph above. There are also positive reviews of Jansen’s book, including from some journalists who were formerly hostile to the universities and their administrative leaders.

1.3 In addition, another book published just a few weeks earlier – Susan Booysen’s edited collection, Fees Must Fall: Decolonisation, Higher Education and Governance in South Africa – is mentioned across a number of these reviews. This represents the protesters’ viewpoint and treats what ‘primary voices’, to use its term for this, say or write with few reservations.

1.4 Obviously it is not surprising, given the longevity and seriousness of the events concerned, that many commentators have taken up a pro- or anti- position, with discussion often largely divided and binary. However, the differences are more subtle concerning these two books, which represent interesting and useful and in that sense good examples of their kind. This is because Jansen is clear and upfront that he is writing from a particular viewpoint, and indeed in a sense the purpose of his book is to point out that the vice-chancellors do have a viewpoint. His argument is that it should be listened to as respectfully as any other, rather than threatened, trashed or shouted down and the way it was; and he also recognises that this is a partial viewpoint and that other perspectives exist.

1.5 The purpose of Booysen’s collection is rather different, and is to represent the core protesters approach (not those who eventually ‘reverted into the fold’ (5), nor those who did unthinking violence and destruction) as the true or valid one. These differences are indicative of something interesting: not that these are opposing positions, but that they are actually not binary in character. That is, Jansen and the other vice-chancellors clearly agree with many of the criticisms and protests made and they instituted many changes in response – but these were not seen as sufficient or even dismissed out of hand by the protesters for complicated reasons addressed in both books, but which do so in rather different ways.

1.6 My perspective on these complex matters is as an outsider, but hopefully a fairly knowledgeable one as a now 20-year long visitor to a range of South African universities, having held visiting professorships and been involved in capacity-building activities in three of them (Free State, Johannesburg, Pretoria). Also and quite by chance, I happened to be present on WWW business at UCT when the first protests happened, then Pretoria, then Pietermaritzburg and Rhodes in Grahamstown. And as a consequence of these events, the last year of WWW research had to be changed and switched to non-university based archives and collections, due to campus dangers and closures. Witnessing a small number of the events, and more of the after-effects and talking to a wide range of the people – students, academics, administrators, support staff, parents, by-standers – involved in picking up the pieces, has underpinned the way the events concerned have been thought about as well as how these two books have been read.

1.7 The WWW project is concerned with change over time with regard to the racial order of South Africa, and those processes of change have involved earlier periods of student protest and riots, in particular in 1920 and 1947. Not surprisingly, the publication of Jansen’s As By Fire preceded by Booysen’s edited Fees Must Fall has encouraged re-thinking the events of 2015 and 2016 in a comparative way regarding these earlier student protests, and relatedly to think in a structured way about what has been happening now, regarding the micro-politics involved and whether and to what extent it intermeshes with the macro-politics and more structural matters.

2. As By Fire

2.1 Jansen’s As By Fire is well-written, accessible and uses in very telling ways many detailed extracts from interviews he carried out with the vice-chancellors concerned. It is explicitly written from the viewpoint of the vice-chancellors. Because the campuses of the formally black universities continually grapple with routinised chronic underfunding, crisis and conflict, but did not experience the extraordinary upsurge that this book is concerned with, these vice-chancellors were not interviewed. The focus is therefore on the formerly predominantly white and coloured universities, of both English-language and Afrikaans-language medium of instruction kinds. Jansen’s reason is that he wanted to look at how things changed in the leading universities when faced with a number of interconnecting sources of crisis. His analysis, shared with his vice-chancellor colleagues, is that all South African universities will become teaching-factory products of the massification of student numbers, decline in state funding and the further routinisation of violence in South African politics and society, unless something radical happens.

2.2 The ‘end of the university’ in Jansen’s sub-title refers to this, rather than having a more literal meaning, and it puts across the view that the universities as we presently know them will be replaced by low-quality teaching factories. So not interviewing the vice-chancellors of the institutions that have already gone a considerable way down this path seems a great pity, not least because it would have helped reinforce his argument. At one point, for instance, 25 of the 26 universities were experiencing closures, which suggests less of a separation than he implies.

2.3 Jansen’s book, then, is written from the viewpoint of those in the formerly coloured and the formally white universities who had to deal with the major crisis events concerned, because these vice-chancellors were the administrative heads of the academic arm of the universities and accountable to their appointed council members for both academic and also financial and other matters as well. For reasons which he discusses, they also became targets in a frequently personal and extreme way of the #Hashtag students groupings’ anger and violence. This gives an edge to many of the extracts provided and conveys why so many of them have now left their posts, including Jansen himself. It adds up to a powerful indictment of the system and particularly the political system, as well as giving a measured assessment of the defensible and indefensible aspects of the protests themselves and what the says about civil society in South Africa.

3. Fees Must Fall

3.1 Booysen’s book, a 350-page collection, is concerned with the events of October 2015 and what happened from then up to June 2016. As a result – and as several reviewers have noted – it is missing some of the more violent occurrences and the resulting large loss of public support that occurred after this date. Debating what terms to describe these events, the editorial introduction settles on revolt, a term which begs questions, as with any term pinning down something that changed significantly over time. It is written from the viewpoint of the student activists it calls ‘primary voices’ and the collaborations that occurred between them and ‘theory-driven scholars’, with the result that “This book represents a tentative step towards recognising that knowledge is generated in multiple forms, and we willingly take the steps to expose our knowledge to scrutiny and critique by emerging scholars who are graduating at the “University of Resistance and Revolt’”.

3.2 While noting the academic role in structuring and writing up, and that the students needed to engage with this process of analysis and writing, “the chapters in the primary voices section…  testify to students interfacing the spaces of activism scholarship… the student voices shaped this book…” (5), a somewhat contradictory claim. In fact, only one of the chapters is not fronted by an academic.

3.3 The root issue here for Booysen is that “coloniality, race, patriarchy, structural and physical violence alienate, colour and continue to taint life in South Africa in society and its universities” (6). Later sections include contributions from insiders to university administration, although points raised about the problems of insourcing support work (by FitzGerald and Seale) and regarding free higher education (by Pillay) are put down to squeezes on the University system rather than that there are absolute financial limitations involved, while the contribution (by Metz) that is critical of arson and petrol bombing as tactics is not discussed but contrasted “with the points of view in the primary-voice chapters, where the emphasis is on physical violence (largely in the form of burning material campus symbols and infrastructure) in response to the brutalisation wrought by structural violence” (10).

3.4 The many contributions contained in Fees Must Fall provide important insight into some of the thinking that underlay various of the events of 2015 and early 2016. Not surprisingly given the large number of authors, readability and accessibility vary. However, coverage of topics and issues, while acknowledging the absence of material relating to the subsequent period after June 2016, is generally excellent, with the exception that language issues and how these fed into a sense of grievance and exclusion are oddly not considered. Clearly these were important in propelling events in a number of institutions where Afrikaans had been the medium of instruction, and perhaps even more important in inculcating a sense of alienation and exclusion because of its dominating role in the apartheid era and because many black/African students might have some English as well as their native tongue but no Afrikaans. Some reviewers have emphasised the importance of this, and Jansen’s discussion indicates that it was a grievance issue that a number of vice-chancellors (not just at Stellenbosch) had to deal with.

3.5 Rather than continuing to discuss Booysen’s and Jansen’s books in the manner of book reviews, their ideas and claims combined with my own more fleeting experience of these events in discussions I had with other people about them will be put to use in considering macro and micro interconnections. This will then be followed by a discussion of in whether and to what extent Elias’s analytical framework might help in understanding these matters. The discussion starts however, with background information that may be helpful for some readers, as follows.

4. Background on the education system

4.1 In South Africa, education within the school system is not free. People pay a variety of fees and costs, from Grades 0 and 1 to Grade 9 (the basic structure of ‘General Education and Training’ or GET), and Grade 10 to Grade 12 (‘Further Education and Training’ or FET). Stark inequalities remain in the school system, not removed but masked by a common matriculation and examination system. More resources have been targeted at Grades 10 to 12, but most commentators agree that this has not and cannot repair problems resulting from earlier deficiencies in provision further down the school system. These include poor quality infrastructure, lack of books and other necessary teaching aids, hard pressed and under qualified teachers, often hungry and exhausted learners, family financial hardship, and to general lack of awareness by those administering the system of prevailing standards elsewhere.

4.2 In this context, it is not surprising that for many the demand that higher education should be free is not only unacceptable but is a ‘me-ism’ on the part of an elite that ignores the need for funding to be focused on the early school years and to make delivery more equal across the board in the school system.  This is a more than plausible view.

4.3 Generally speaking, the TVET (‘Technical Vocational and Educational Training’) Colleges providing technical and applied courses and qualifications) are seen as poor relations, the heirs of discriminatory Bantu education, and are avoided by those wanting professional level qualifications seen (to an extent mistakenly, given levels of unemployment among those with degrees) as more bank-able. The university system has seen both massification and also significant decline in its financial base. Numbers in the university system have doubled, while state funding has decreased markedly, in a fairly short period of time, and numbers are expected to increase by around another 60% by 2030, with the universities necessarily relying on the fee system financially in order to tick-over.

4.4 The student demographic has as a consequence shifted significantly: in just over a decade there has been an increase from 8% to 28% of people coming from the poorest schools. The majority of students in financial need do not pay fees, which are covered by applications to the government’s National Student Financial Aid Scheme; increases in fees are covered in the same arrangement; and generally speaking, loans have not been paid back, an added complication in university financing. Another complication is that when the NSFAS money runs out in an institution then applications close, meaning that many eligible people never even get to apply.

4.5 There is also a significant minority of students that the NSFAS scheme does not cover. There is the so-called ‘missing middle’, whose parents earn just enough for them not to be eligible to apply, and who struggle through or drop out of university careers. There are also the many more students whose funding is also used to support other family members and related calls on their assistance. Relatedly, the funding covers basic costs of tuition and accommodation, and in some cases books and other teaching items, but not ‘incidentals’ that are actually necessary expenditures, such as placement costs and daily travel costs. Student drop-out is very high, and through-put is generally low (eg. less than half the people on a three year BA course complete after six years).

4.6 In addition, it is worth noting that the vice-chancellors are a range of skin colours (just two of the twelve interviewed are white), and one is female, with most having backgrounds in political and student activism in the pre-1994 struggle. If all twenty-six universities are considered, the same kind of demographic prevails, including the scarcity of women at this level of the system. It is also relevant that such activist pasts and the 1994 political settlement reached by Mandela and others is now denigrated by many in the #Hashtag students groupings as a sell-out to ‘white monopoly capitalism’ by preventing this from being dismantled as part of the political transition.

5. And Now…

5.1 Rather than debating the rights and wrongs, pros and cons, of the interpretation that Jansen provides or of one of the contrary positions that #Hashtag spokes-people have advanced and which Booysen’s collection usefully represents, in Part 2 the private troubles/public issues aspect of the universities in crisis will be investigated and the intermeshing macro and micro aspects considered.



Jonathan Jansen. 2017. As By Fire: The End of the South African University. Cape Town: Tafelburg [and as a Kindle book].

Susan Booysen. Ed, 2017. Fees Must Fall: Decolonisation, Higher Education and Governance in South Africa. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.



Last updated: 21 December 2017