ANIE Network | As by Fire – The end of the South African university
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As by Fire – The end of the South African university

By Jonathan Jansen

I wrote As by Fire: The end of the South African university primarily to search for the deep, underlying causes that explained the promising but also devastating student protests of 2015-16 on many of the leading university campuses in the country.

Student protests are normal in South Africa but this was different. The normal protests come in brief and seasonal cycles, are mostly limited to historically black campuses and the former polytechnics (technikons, now merged and renamed universities of technology), and are generally not violent.

Beginning with protests against cultural alienation among black students and staff on former white campuses (the so-called #RhodesMustFall protests starting at the University of Cape Town) and then financial exclusions of poor students (the so-called #FeesMustFall uprising starting at the University of the Witwatersrand), South African universities descended into an unprecedented crisis.

An unfolding crisis

At first, starting in March 2015, the protests were largely peaceful and non-violent, and also enjoyed significant support from the broader community.

In quick succession prominent symbols of alienation came down, from the Rhodes statue at Cape Town to the bust of apartheid leader HF Verwoerd at the University of Stellenbosch. Universities across the country engaged in seminars and symposia on pressing subjects such as the transformation of the professoriate and decolonisation.

Then the second wave of protests shifted towards free higher education from October 2015 onwards and again there was broad support for the student struggle as the action spread from campuses to the Union Buildings in Pretoria where President Jacob Zuma had gathered student leaders and university vice-chancellors to figure out how to stem the tide of protests.

The president’s announcement of a zero-percent fee increase for the next year (2016) seemed to ease tensions on campuses.

But then as the new academic year started the protests took a serious turn for the worse. A largely leaderless movement, modelled on youth protests in other parts of the world, created opportunities for all kinds of new formations.

Protests on and around campuses turned violent and buildings of several major universities went up in flames, university leaders were attacked and humiliated, classes were regularly disrupted, roads onto campuses blocked, shantytowns erected and on one campus a worker died as a consequence of the protests.

The violent disruptions went on and on. Some universities closed for weeks, others for longer. Several campuses shifted to online learning in a desperate attempt not to lose the academic year. International universities stopped sending their students to some of the leading South African campuses.

Middle-class students started to look at overseas options for study as did some professors for work. Students from other African universities started to express concern about coming to South Africa for studies – a cheaper and nearer option for quality higher education than Europe or the United States.

What was going on?

Proxy for deeper concerns

The conclusions drawn from As by Fire are important for understanding the future prospects of higher education in South Africa.

It was clear that in many ways the campus protests were a proxy war for deeper concerns about the South African transition. The promise of democracy in 1994 did not deliver and this generation of post-apartheid students were angry and anxious about what this meant for their futures.

On campus the costs of higher education was one place in which they experienced severe hardship. Unable to meet the immediate (tuition fees) and broader social costs of university studies (accommodation, food, travel, family support, deferred income), a campus was the right place for young men and women to express their outrage that life had not improved under the illusory rainbow nation.

What the students rightly protested was the systemic character of the crisis in higher education, and this was the single most important contribution of the protest movement.

Lost in the fire

But something else was lost in the fire, so to speak. As the protests turned violent over extended periods of time, something much more fundamental had shifted in campus cultures that speak to the future of South African universities.

For one, violence and disruption had threatened to become the new normal on campuses. A lull in protests was often short-lived until the next crisis. Losing precious teaching time was now normal but also more visible as regular reports revealed the constant disruptions happening especially on black and merged university of technology campuses on any number of issues, from insourcing workers to the provision of more student accommodation.

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