As the end of the year approaches, and the deadlock that #FeesMustFall student protesters have brought about at universities and other tertiary institutions across the country has entrenched, we have witnessed a mounting number Facebook rants, public proclamations, and newspaper articles pregnant with denunciations and calls for firmer leadership. Senior lecturers, professors and other commentators who are associated with academia in South Africa have stormed into the fray spouting apocalyptic visions, convinced that the nihilism of an unhinged youth is set to destroy all they know and are familiar with.
A fair amount of bluster and recriminations have been leveled against Vice Chancellors who have shut down campuses. Critics among the staff deem the VC’s to be acting with weak resolve, acquiescing in too great a degree to the protesting students. Their most often repeated concern is that non-protesting students are being unfairly denied their opportunity to learn, but there are other dimensions to the crisis that has motivated them into action; universities will likely be bankrupt for the year, there are insecurities around how salary payments will be made to staff, and staff layoffs may occur as a result. Junior academics will likely be the greatest losers, and the threat of academic emigration has come to the forefront.
Yet, these rather late grumblings from the establishment is perhaps the surest sign that the balance of power has changed significantly. Universities – and their staff – are beginning to hurt. With their careers and pay-checks balancing precariously, and with a level of uncertainty not previously experienced in post-Apartheid academia, their responses have been charged with recrimination and angry calls for stronger action to be taken against protesting students have ensued.
They have charged the students with radicalism, militancy, insurrectionism, fascism and a variety of other hyperboles that don’t stand up when compared with other, similar protests around the world. Many of the rants have been unreflective and constitute what I have come to term, “meltdowns by micro-aggression”. In some cases, the aggression is absolute and the calls for action are outraged and misguided.
It begs the question; what stronger action can be taken? Are rubber bullets, water cannons, tear gas and stun grenades not strong enough? Are curfews, restrictions on groupings, searches, guarded access to lecture theatres, widespread arrests and targeting of student leaders, denial of bail, and beatings and harassment at the hands of ill-trained private security not harsh enough? Has the failure of securitising campuses not proven evident enough? Is the involvement of state security agencies that view the student protesters as “regime change elements” not enough?
What’s the next step; live ammunition, call in the army? Is a return to Apartheid era strong arm tactics the solution to this crisis? Or is it now clear that the only way that this crisis will be resolved is through obtaining a firm commitment from government to ensuring universal access to higher education, and clear institutional transformation plans that focus on diversifying staff and syllabuses? It is fair to say that the latter route is the most desirable, and holds the most promise for a much needed transformation of the higher education sector. Things change, that is the nature of everything; it has become untenable to proceed in the same vein as academia did one or two decades ago. The 21st Century has seeded a desire for a new, more inclusive and reflective system of learning and researching. It is not just a local struggle, but a global one; as evidenced by similar protests across the world.
While the traditional establishment figures seem to have wandered into the fray rather late in the crisis, there has been a firm and steady commitment from a small group of academic staff who have repeatedly called for the de-escalation of violent confrontation by taking private security off campus and limiting the involvement of police on campus – rather, choosing prolonged negotiation, dialogue and consensus building instead. These appeals went largely ignored, as the priorities of ensuring business-as-usual took precedence. The result has been disastrous; many university administrations that chose to continue classes with heightened security and police presence are now no closer to resolving a way forward with protesters.
The chorus of establishment voices that have arisen, seemingly out of nowhere, are making their views heard extraordinarily late in this crisis. It does not help that many of them took a dim view of student protesters early on in the crisis, and made ill-advised disparaging and condescending remarks, not only in private, but publicly – on social media – which has the effect of discrediting their current views, no matter how well formulated or sensible they may appear to be on the surface. They did not avail themselves early on in the crisis, did not take the student protesters and their demands seriously, and have dithered along hoping that it would all just go away. Their absence and condescension at a distance has played a strong role in determining where this crisis has ended up.
The VC’s, who have been struggling with the rather complex dynamics of the protest actions have been at it for a lot longer, and in all fairness, the recent calls from the traditional establishment seem rather opportunistic. While it often goes unacknowledged, academics are extremely competitive, and cut-throat manoeuvres are commonplace, precisely – as some joke – because “the stakes are so low”. In a micro-verse where reputations and authority are paramount, careerist opportunism is rife. Money, is not the only driver of competitive behaviour, and it is common for ambitious academics to go for the jugular when the opportunity presents itself. No doubt, some are eyeing the crisis as an opportunity to advance themselves within the establishment.
If they had been deeply concerned from the outset, surely they would have been far more active in resolving the crisis. Surely they would have bothered to engage with student protesters more openly, and with less derision. If they were honestly concerned with the whole student body then does it not make sense to pursue lengthy – even if frustrating – engagements with the protesters. Instead, derogatory remarks and curt dismissals were order of the day earlier in the crisis, and many academics still show a startling lack of understanding of the student crisis.
Their responses, early on, led the universities down the path of polarisation, as they attempted to cast the student protesters as a radical minority whose sense of “entitlement” (notwithstanding that the use of the term in the pejorative ironically refers to privilege i.e. the opposite of entitlement) and radical positions on transformation were sufficient cause to dismiss them. They have proceeded to treat this ‘minority’ (who in reality represent the greater majority of black South Africans) as an outsider phenomenon that have no place in their hallowed halls of privilege.
Now that the “do nothing and see what happens” approach has failed, and universities across the country are in deadlock with protesters, a stream of critics have burst onto the scene, lambasting both students and administrations, the government and all those who support the protest actions. They seem to have forgotten their role in exacerbating and extending the crisis, and their knee-jerk reactions early on in the crisis that catalysed the polarisation of universities. If universities had spent this year in serious engagement with protesters, and had managed to find common ground, they could have by now established a programme of joint action to put before government. This would have been a constructive outcome.
This is not to entirely exonerate the student protesters; there have been incidents of intimidation, death-threats, and acts of violence and arson, and a lack of coherent messaging, but this should not detract from who holds the institutional power in this crisis, and who should have been level-headed and calm, and sincerely devoted themselves to seeking solutions earlier on in the crisis. It is rather disingenuous only to act on a crisis when it has reached a head, having been dismissive and condescending about it all along, and having shown the poor judgement to make those positions known early on in the crisis.
It is entirely likely that the derogatory and dismissive attitude displayed by establishment figures towards the protesters early on this year actually led to the intimidations and threats that were directed at some of them. If they had sought to leave matters in the hands of the VC’s and management alone, their ill-advised public forays early on only stood to make negotiations more difficult for the VC’s and their management teams. That is, if they were going to stay out of it, they should have been circumspect about their public pronouncements.
I think it’s fair to say that they have played a role – from the side-lines – in exacerbating the climate of confrontation and repudiation, and are part of the problem in that sense. To jump into the fray now, with prescriptions and demands of their own – so late in the day – appears to be little more than a panicked attempt to assert an authority that they have already squandered by the lack of engagement and sarcastic disdain they demonstrated early on in the crisis.
These recent “meltdowns by micro-aggression” are merely more of the same, and do little to build a bridge out of this crisis. All it shows is that those who thought themselves comfortable within the establishment are now being dislodged. They face financial uncertainty and job insecurity, and that has led them to lash out. Ironically, they are now in a position to begin to understand the difficulties that student protesters have campaigned so fiercely over; where financial stress and the constant threat of being shut out of opportunities that shape their lives and future have become untenable. A condition characterised by stalemates and deadlocks with institutions that are insensitive to their difficulties.
Finding a way out of this crisis does not require more of the same ridiculous posturing that has led to the polarisation and dysfunction of the higher education system (i.e. on both sides of the conflict, notwithstanding the obvious power imbalance between them). It requires a break from it, and a willingness to begin afresh, make apologies and find common ground that both sides can act from. Internal power struggles and grandstanding are hardly likely to prove useful in this respect. What is needed are conciliatory and sensible modes of engagement that seek to build unity and greater shared understanding. It is only from that basis that the crisis can be resolved in the long term.