By Christopher Merrett

University protest 2Some weeks ago students on the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) spent a couple of evenings hurling Molotov cocktails on Alan Paton Avenue, closing the road. The five campuses of the university in Durban, Pinetown and Pietermaritzburg suffered damage estimated at R30 million. Recently, protestors at the University of the Witwatersrand invaded the Education building and ejected students revising for exams, calling them ‘campus rats’.

Most South African university campuses have either been closed or severely disrupted and protest spilled onto the streets to confront government, encouraging some commentators to make ill-judged comparisons with the Arab Spring. But student violence, intolerance and mindless name calling bring back to mind Jonathan Jansen’s famous question, posed in 2005: when does a university cease to exist? His answer then: when it fails to prioritise its academic purpose and follows another agenda. Today one might add: when the first bucket of excrement is thrown on university property by student protestors.

The crisis in higher education is far broader and deeper than the issue of student access and fees that ignited the latest unrest. I have been sorting through copies of correspondence representing my final ten years up to 2007 in the library and administration at University of Natal/UKZN. This revealed a consistent theme: a steady loss of civility, co-operation, collegiality and consultation, the direct result of a growing culture of bullying authoritarianism and lack of respect from university management. This was no figment of my imagination.

In the Durban press recently was a report about intense dissatisfaction with a certain deputy vice-chancellor (DVC) at UKZN, who makes a habit of shouting and screaming at staff and allegedly threatened someone with the attentions of a relative, an ex-Umkhonto we Sizwe operative who is apparently available to sort out people. Nor is this entirely new: a departed DVC was renowned for throwing the phone at subordinates. (Naturally she was promoted, thankfully elsewhere.)

Too many dangerous sociopaths have infiltrated higher education management with damaging consequences and this tendency can be found to varying degrees at most South African universities.

It is a paradox of academic enquiry, teaching and research, that it can produce radical, original and even revolutionary ways of seeing the world; yet it requires a stable context, basically a combination of conservatism and respect. Constant change and crisis, poor human relationships and authoritarianism are inimical to scholarship and intellectual effort. Individuals may overcome such obstacles, but in general knowledge advances through co-operation and a generosity of spirit reflected in sharing ideas and information and mutually respectful discourse. Intellectual production needs specific circumstances. The sum total of human knowledge and understanding is not advanced one iota by shouted slogans.

Up to a point, true universities are indeed ivory towers in the best sense of the term and generations of university administrators (not managers) dedicated their life’s work to create and guard their essential nature. This is what for many people in the past made universities such rewarding places in which to work. Collegiality and common purpose meant that staff were proud to say they worked for them and historically the products of South African universities − graduates and research – constitute a proud legacy. But much of this academic context has been destroyed by an invasion of cancerous corporate mindsets, pernicious managerialism masking incompetence, and the poisonous characters that accompany this toxic package. Barbarians are a worrying presence in the upper reaches of some universities. The consequences are various; but compare, for example, the work of the humanities at the open universities in the 1970s and 1980s – research, publications, praxis – with today. Very few public intellectuals and serious commentators are now to be found at universities, a telling measure of their decline.

At the same time, and not entirely unrelated, has been a surge of inappropriate student protest on campuses ignited by apparently diverse campaigns: removing unwanted statues, demanding more black lecturers and avoiding fee increases are some of them. In general, they are short of detail and tend to fall back on those hardy South African perennials, transformation, racism and colonialism – usefully vague concepts that generally amount to little more than slogans. There is absolutely no room for these at universities, places of rational discourse.

One Pietermaritzburg campus firebomber reportedly justified his actions as confrontation of a violent university system. This type of perverted reasoning is not unusual and it accompanies the intimidation of fellow students, invasion of lecture halls, laboratories and exam venues, trashing of campuses, blocking of public roads and university entrances, and overturning and damaging vehicles. Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib and the Council at Wits were absolutely correct to refuse to meet students who failed to respect the norms of university behaviour. Academic institutions cannot conduct discussions with yelling crowds wielding sticks. It was significant that when Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande did emerge from Parliament at the demand of protestors, they would not let him speak. So much for discourse.

With fee increases scrapped for 2016, the demand for free education and other changes now gathers momentum and respectability. This is fair enough. The ANC, a liberation movement turned into a corrupt business, runs a government that allows the misappropriation of R30 billion per annum and governs with incompetence and arrogance. When it could have been refashioning the higher education system it indulged in an arms deal that was little more than an exercise in rent-seeking. Its ministers behave as if they live in another country, even another planet. Perhaps the student protests have induced a sense of reality. But to see this, as some would like to do, as a re-run of the Soweto Uprising of 1976 is questionable. No one has died, yet; and probably most of the parents of the protesting students will have exercised their democratic right to vote for the ANC in spite of its appalling track record.

Universities are increasingly pawns in broader political and socio-economic issues (see, for example, Charles van Onselen’s astute analysis of South African higher education as a welfare system). Little attention is being paid to the plight of the many university staff trying to preserve the tattered credibility of their institutions. For years they have battled managerialism, the destruction of collegialism and an ideology of education commodification. The failures of an inept government over education will now mean that they have to face an increase in megaphone diplomacy and the threat of various types of violence if demands are not met. Line managers with corporate mindsets from one direction; streetfighters from another. Who would want to be an academic these days?

One of the reasons why universities have guarded their autonomy so fiercely is to resist the latest fashionable whim from government, business or populist movement. That autonomy goes to the very heart of intellectual and academic activity, but it is under increasing pressure from competing political interests. Its custodians must be looking afresh at Jansen’s famous and challenging question. And the fact that some university authorities apparently cannot guarantee media access to and safety on their campuses indicates that they are already under the control of thugs. Has the question been answered?

Christopher Merrett

2 November 2015

Christopher Merrett was University Librarian, University of Natal (Pietermaritzburg) 1996−2002 and Director of Administration, University of Natal/KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg) 2002−2007. From 2007 until 2014 he worked as a journalist for the Witness and he now freelances for book publishers, editing, proofreading and indexing. With Nithaya Chetty he wrote The Struggle for the Soul of a South African University: The University of KwaZulu-Natal: Academic Freedom, Corporatisation and Transformation (2014). His latest publication, with Mary Kleinenberg, is Standing on Street Corners: A History of the Natal Midlands Region of the Black Sash (Natal Society Foundation, 2015).