What Academics Don’t Understand About the #FeesMustFall Movement

Article by:  Camaren Peter

Recent exchanges, statements and debates on the crisis in the higher education system and the #FeesMustFall protests in South Africa have exposed some inconvenient truths about academia and the academic project they oversee.

An unavoidable and critical truth is that there is a tiny academic elite in South Africa on which the academic project is intimately dependent. An academic elite of professors – black and white, men and women – although not nearly transformed or diverse enough, who are essentially gatekeepers of the academic project, while simultaneously acting as its proponents, engineers, shapers, and ‘entrepreneurs’ in the donor-driven global academic funding system.

And they are a tiny elite indeed, not because of their exceptional talents (apart from a few), but because they have acquired a rare privilege in this society. They occupy the tip of the spear with which we ‘hunt’ for the truth of our condition as a nation, and fashion potential remedies to it. They have acquired disproportionate power (in relation to their size) over the way we think about ourselves and our society, how we understand our condition and the various dimensions of it, and how we diagnose and generate prognoses for this condition.

They are undeniably the products of a vastly unequal and biased system. Some have become part of it through the privilege of wealth and greater opportunity, as well as access to exclusive networks and philanthropic funding. Others have fought their way into the system, and gained their positions through struggle, sacrifice, hard work and persistence, or sheer luck.

Either way, they have, by virtue of their membership to this unequal system, become resident within a network of particular privilege and power in South African society. This is not to question the integrity or ethical merits of the academic elite, but merely to state the facts of their existence, and the kind of power they possess. Indeed, the very best of them have the world at their feet, and could relocate with ease should the national project go sour or collapse.

It is an undeniably unequal system that has produced them, however, and herein lies the most critical question that should frame the debate, the awareness of which, appears to be missing from the public debates over the #FeesMustFall student movement. For it is this very academic system that has – in large part – failed to adequately lobby for and bring about the kind of transformation and diversity in its institutions that, 21 years later, have led to a national explosion of protests in academic institutions across the country. The question of why, after 21 years, the academic project and its institutions have failed to adequately transform and diversify, and a tiny academic elite has been maintained, has largely gone unmentioned and ignored in the current debates.

To be fair, there are a few amongst this elite who have agitated strongly for more substantive transformation and change within the higher education system. However, until recently they have been largely side-lined and irrelevant within the greater network of power that reproduces the academic project and its institutions in South Africa. For example, a report on how free education could be realised at tertiary level that was submitted to the Minister for Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, was not taken seriously enough to generate a genuine process of planning towards free education as an ideal in South Africa, even over the long term.

This begs a serious question of both the academic elite, as well as government, who have misrepresented the student demands for free education as a demand for free education to be granted immediately. The reality is that this was not what the student leaders demanded. They made the demand for a plan that would realise “free education in our lifetime”. They did not demand free education overnight. Yet this is the impression that the public have been left with.

The student movement was reasonable in dealing with the question of free education; they were not adopting a position that demanded that radical change occur immediately. They demanded acknowledgement that the vision (actualising free education as a right for South Africans) should awarded high priority in government planning, as well as that of the higher education institutions, in keeping with the promises that were made to South Africans in the new democratic dispensation, as well as the freedom charter, and the constitutional and developmental emphasis on addressing historic exploitation and inequalities in South Africa.

Surely we should expect that, given the willingness and enthusiasm that both government and the academic elite have expressed – publicly – in support of the student demands, that they should all be applying their minds to how to realise this objective, instead of lapsing into a staid critique of the radical turns that the student movement may embark upon or adopt from time to time.

After all, is it not true that both worker strikes, as well as community-based service delivery strikes – in which the majority of poor and marginal post-Apartheid youth have cut their teeth in respect of learning political protest in the 21st Century – have taught working class students in particular that disruption is indeed necessary to force meaningful intervention from the authorities? Is this so difficult to contextualise and understand?

Indeed, what is most surprising, is that the very academics who study these protests (or should be studying them) seem surprised by the fact that these forms of protest have made their way onto campuses countrywide. No surprises there, but perhaps a profound and telling overreaction; and an indication that the academic elite do indeed occupy an ivory tower that they thought – erroneously – was untouchable by the everyday realities of protest in the public realm in South Africa. In this way, they resemble the political elite of South Africa, who have a deluded sense of their own inviolability.

It is worth, at this point, diagnosing the condition of higher education institutions in South Africa.

The slow pace of transformation of these institutions – not only in terms of the diversity of their staff, but also the way in which students are received and supported by the institutions – effectively translates into an higher education system that is ambivalent to its socio-political context, and in a sense caught in a slow decline in relation to meeting the needs of the society that it exists in. Instead of a complete re-think of the system, the way forward proposed by both government and the institutions amounts to tinkering with it, making small adjustments. The presidencies response has essentially been to establish yet another ‘committee’; this is essentially a bureaucratic response and not a decisive act of political leadership. It is like bailing water out of a sinking ship, one that can no longer bear the weight of its growing cargo.

It is precisely this slow pace of transformation that has led to the conditions for broad-based confrontation with the public system of higher education and its institutions. Now is the time for confrontation, not more tinkering. Now is the time for meaningful and strategic disruption (that is creative, consultative and cooperative) that can lead to meaningful intervention. We need to envisage the system as we want it to be, not as we have inherited and reproduced it. That is, we do not need more cosmetic change (i.e. based on numbers and token appointments) instead of substantive transformation (i.e. of the culture and behaviour of institutions and their bureaucracies). More of the same is hardly likely to make the difference that is required by our society.

A lot has been made of the potential loss of competitiveness in the global academic system. Yet, why should we, as a society, accept what has been inherited as is? And even when it comes to our participation in the international academic system, are we not capable of interrogating how we interact with it, and on what terms we engage with it? Is it the ultimate system of knowledge production? Is it the “end of history” of academic systems? Has there never been a better system?

Indeed, is the bean-counter approach of producing useless, under-read papers produced only for padding academic CVs, or producing topical jargon laden guff for consumption by like-thinking peers the kind of academic system that will produce a new society i.e. whether locally or globally? Or can we critique it as well, and assess its relevance on the basis of its purpose in our society, and others like it? No sacred cows; should this not be the enlightened perspective academics and intellectuals strive to uphold?

Is an anti-institutional position not worthy of some merit in this regard? The academic elite have indeed become complicit in how the system functions to reproduce the same conditions that prevent its transformation, and so it is left to the youth – though idealistic, naïve and at times radical – to challenge the project, its institutions, and to seek out ways of realising the vision of the struggles of yesterday, and shaping the institutions of today.

To reiterate, I am not questioning the integrity of the academic elite. They are mostly thoughtful, well-intentioned people. However, I do question their ability to think outside of the system that they have inherited, and outside of the global system of academic production that they are trying to construct their academic project within. And it is “theirs”; as it is far from inclusive, and it will never be until a real, robust intellectual and academic culture exists within South African society as a powerful force for introspection, analysis and generating change in the lives of ordinary people.

Their response to demands for change appear to run contrary to the discourse they themselves generate on development and transformation. Indeed, there is a sense that the academic remedies that are proposed for government, business and the rest of society are discarded when it comes to addressing the systemic problems that plague the higher education system and its institutions.
There is a complacency that I have experienced, even amongst people that I greatly admire and respect. There is a pervasive feign left, pro-Global South, anti-global hegemony, anti-neoliberal sentiment, that when pushed to action – in reality – amounts to a walk centre, pro-neoliberal “it is what it is” tautological defeatism. Surely, we have a right to expect more of the elite than simply feigning allegiance to new imaginaries, alternative ideologies, theoretical frameworks, strategies, and so forth?

Indeed, where is the bravery that they recommend and propose that governments in Africa (and the Global South) and the private sector should embrace? For example, the academic driven discourse to recognise and incorporate ‘informal’ systems (i.e. economic activities, land ownership, employment, service provision, etc.) as part and parcel of the economies of the Global South, which is often met with consternation by post-colonial governments, who despite their radical liberation-led origins, lapse into colonial taxonomies and govern on those terms instead of the terms on which liberation was fought for and won? A truly bold discursive position that could ultimately end up benefiting even the developed world.

It is not enough to make radical noises only to retreat into a shell when radical change beckons on your own doorstep. Now is the time to participate in the space of action. It is not a time for ‘getting ones hands dirty’. Rather, it is a time for washing ones hands of a system that does not work or serve its purpose in an inclusive and empowering manner. It is about giving birth to something new – realising the potential for natality within our society – and setting new initial conditions so that new imaginaries can emerge.

With respect to the student movement, there is also a need for a reality check at this moment. It has clearly not yet built the broad-based student support that it needs to confidently embark upon broad-based disruption, both at universities, and in the broader public realm. It needs to devote attention to building unity within, and extending itself to broader society, so it can take action in the public realm. It cannot allow itself to lapse into a divisive internal politics of intimidation, exclusion and recrimination. Rather, more strategic disruption can be embarked upon currently, so as to draw attention to the cause and serve as attractors for it, as well as to facilitate dialogue and learning about it.

There are plenty substantive problems with the institutions to garner support and unity around. University systems, in particular, presuppose that the student body is constituted of a privileged Apartheid middle class that can sustain high tuition fees and endure its strangling bureaucratic processes. This has remained the case since I became a university student in 1993.

These systems de-facto exclude those who do not have the means to sustain themselves through family and/or community. There is an important question here, one of work and labour; it is the 21st Century family (and increasingly less so the extended family and community) that is bearing the cost and uncertainty of producing the labour force and skills base of the country, and not government and the private sector, who benefits the most from it.

In a country with drastic inequality, slowing economic growth, and increasing levels of economic and resource uncertainty; how sustainable is such a system? Is donor and philanthropic support supposed to fill these gaps? If we are talking about hard cold realities, of how systems function in reality, should these considerations not be our first? Indeed, is the reality of first-world countries immediately transferable to our own?

I believe that most of the academic elite would – in their lectures on governments and economies of the Global South – make a completely different argument to the one they make in respect of their institutions and their sustainability that they are currently presenting to the public now. The pressure has taken its toll, and they have played a weak hand in response by becoming caught up in the moment, by succumbing to the (very real) pressures that have mounted upon them. Their defensiveness, while understandable, is far from the response that is required at this moment in time. It is a moment to be seized, not resisted. It has great potential to benefit the academic project itself.

We are assured, by many, that we have the right people in charge. That they have our best interests at heart. It’s time for them to demonstrate just how truthful this is. It is time to break with the logic of boardrooms, bureaucracies and administrations of old, and their prevailing systems and logics. Indeed, the ability to be critical is what we expect of intellectuals, academics and educators.

Yet many university administrations have embarked upon intimidation and fear campaigns of their own. Staff who support the students have been put under the spotlight, and responses appear directed at them, rather than the student movement in particular. Some staff have been turned into objects of derision by their colleagues, for aligning with the student movement.

In response to student protest pressures, university administrations have also called in a police force who have been known to act unprofessionally, often with vicious impunity, and sometimes with direct criminality. Despite their own experiences of being bludgeoned, sexually assaulted, shot at and treated with contempt under the Apartheid police, many “struggle” academics now find themselves justifying calling in a police force that committed the Marikana atrocities without regret.

We don’t need any more Marikanas in South Africa, and we certainly don’t need a repeat of the 70’s and 80’s, and in this respect, the onus lies squarely on the administrations and bureaucracies not to resort to the very tactics that they themselves once faced under the Apartheid system. There are other ways of mitigating violent and disruptive protests, and they should have the courage to try them. It just requires more work, and humility in the face of the complexities of uncertainty and change.

There are also Vice Chancellors and academic bigwigs who are plainly not open to envisaging new ways of building the academic project, despite the many books and papers they write about how to re-imagine our society. Simply put; they need to have the courage to remove themselves from the process of change if they cannot generate the thinking, strategies and plans that are necessary to overhaul the higher education system.

If now is the time for constructive change, then surely this is what is required to make actual progress towards overhauling and re-orienting the national higher education system and its various institutions. Any less would amount to ‘more of the same solutions’, and ‘more of the same’ has already proved wanting and incapable of actualising a higher education system that our society needs, and desperately desires.

It may be clichéd to state it, but we are at a national crossroads, and it will only substantively prove a turning point if we ensure that the momentum of this moment is maintained in 2016 and beyond. An abdication now, and a lapsing into familiar terrain, a refusal to be uncomfortable, is perhaps the greatest obstacle to harbouring in the new. With all due respect to the academics of South Africa; this is also your moment, and you will be judged by how you act upon it, and how you choose not to act upon it.

The consequences of not acting with clarity, vigour and enthusiasm in this moment, will defer change for another generation or two, and then perhaps, our revolution will finally be un-suspended by a generation who have no tolerance for bureaucracies, theoretical retreats and anything that vaguely resembles the old world that we have fought so hard to leave behind. Stand up and be counted, for the sake of the academic project, the future of the youth, and the world they want to live in. It’s never too late or too difficult to embrace and actualise change. That much, the history of our country has taught us; and that is the project we should remain devoted to, lest we become mirrors of that which we fought against.

This article was first published on Thought Factory

Follow Camaren Peter on Twitter – @camaripop

Media For Justice – @mediaforjustice