Transcending the Past and Reimagining the Future of the South African University

Eighth Annual Imam Haron Memorial Lecture

Title: Transcending the Past and Reimagining the Future of the South African University

Professor Adam Habib

30 September 2015

MC – Ebrahim Mohamed, Members of the board of the IAHET Trust, Members of the IAHET Board of Governors, Members of the Haron family – represented by Khalid Shamis (eldest grandson of the late Imam), Dr. Prins Nevhutalu, Vice-Chancellor of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Dr. Hugh Amoore, Registrar of the University of Cape Town, Academics and student representatives, Political Party representatives, members of the media, colleagues and friends.

Thank you for honouring me with the opportunity to deliver this Eighth Imam Haron Memorial Lecture. Imam Haron was a Muslim cleric and leader, but he was so much more. He was a human rights activist whose life was tragically cut short by the apartheid regime. He was a father and husband who continues to live through his loved ones. He was a leader whose memory continues to reside within the community he served. He was a Muslim, but he was also an African who served all sections of the South African community. He was a nationalist, but he was also a humanist who worked with people from all faiths and all countries to build the foundation of a common humanity.

Imam Haron was a martyr who should not be forgotten. He must be remembered for his service to the community. He must be remembered for having sacrificed his life so that all of us can be free. His memory must be honoured, as must those of the many other martyrs, by our fulfillment of their dream. But 21 years into our democratic transition, can we truly say that we have honoured their memory, especially in the sphere of higher education?

Would Imam Haron, had he been here, not have asked hard questions about whether our country’s institutions embody the values of our much acclaimed Constitution? He would have applauded the fact that our university system has more than doubled its student enrolment and significantly transformed its racial, cultural and class diversity. But would he not have bemoaned and struggled to understand the fact that almost 55% of students who enter university will not complete at all, and fewer than 25% will complete their degrees within the minimum allocated time? Would he not have asked why universities receive only R22 billion in subsidies when the Department of Higher Education and Training’s (DOHET) own task team argues that they should be funded at R37 billion if they are to be at the world average? Would he not have asked why is it that so many institutions remain racial enclaves twenty years after our democratic transition and whether this is an appropriate social setting for the training of professionals and citizens in the 21st century?

Reimagining or Transforming South Africa’s Universities

Two compatible sets of principles should govern the executive and strategic operations of South African universities. The first, found in the preamble of the South African Constitution, demands that its public institutions simultaneously address the historical disparities bequeathed by Apartheid and build a collective national identity. The second, written in the manifesto and architecture of any great university, is the imperative to be both nationally responsive and cosmopolitan at the same time. The responsibility of the executive in the university is not to undertake one or the other. Their real challenge is to advance all of these priorities simultaneously. Managing the balance between these competing imperatives is then the real challenge confronting executives in South Africa’s universities.

The practice of managing these competing imperatives has also spawned two distinct approaches to student enrolment and staff recruitment at universities: multiculturalism and non-racialism. The former is the practice of some institutions which see racial and cultural groups as homogenous, and directed by the imperatives of the South African transition, they plan the enrolment of these groups as distinct entities. At the most basic level this entails enforced implicit or explicit quotas, often with the intention that a university retains a historical racial or cultural character. At its most notorious level, this approach is reflected in the university adopting a principle of racial federalism in which distinct campuses come to represent distinct racial and cultural interests.

The racial integration approach, by contrast, rejects cultural homogeneity and believes in constructing an organisational space in which new national identities are built. Students and staff from a variety of racial, religious and cultural backgrounds are enrolled as individuals, and the university is organised to enable constant intermingling and reciprocal engagement of these individual students and staff. This approach holds that through these processes, students and staff come to interact with each other as individuals and not as representatives of racial or cultural entities. In the process their identities is intended to evolve into a non-racial one where one can simultaneously be Afrikaner and South African, African and human. This approach then speaks directly to the substantive intent of the South African Constitution.

The former approach is perhaps best reflected at the Universities of Stellenbosch (US) and North West. This approach has spawned universities in South Africa where today – 20 years after the first democratic and non-racial election – the University of Stellenbosch still has 68 percent of its student enrolment White. The North West University (NWU), by contrast, has a much better demographic profile at the macro level, but it has essentially established a federal university comprising what are effectively distinct campuses of racialised ethnic groups. Racialised campuses are not simply the burden of the US and NWU. Most of the Historically Black Universities (HBUs) have continued to remain completely Black. But in most cases the racialised enrolments in the HBUs exist by default, rather than by design. Where these racial enrolments are a consequence of design, they should be criticised. Where they are a consequence of systemic default, we need to think through mechanisms that would enable us to de-racialise these institutions.

The real concern about the segregated White campuses of NWU and US is that they have such student enrolments because of an explicit political agenda to keep them largely White or Afrikaner. It is important to underscore the fact that the problem is not that the language of instruction is Afrikaans in both of these institutions, as some of the public debate has tended to suggest. There may indeed be merit for Afrikaans to be one of the languages of instruction in some of the institutions. However, the real problem is when Afrikaans is used as a mechanism to promote an ethnic project and undermine the emergence of non-racial and cosmopolitan institutions.

This is defended by some on the grounds that the South African Constitution allows for multilingualism and a diversity of cultural expression. Perhaps the most explicit argument for this has been made by Dr Theuns Eloff, the previous Vice-Chancellor of NWU. In saying that the Constitution allows South Africans to receive educational instruction in the language of their choice, and noting that almost 11 million South Africans, including many Black and Coloured citizens, speak the language, he essentially argues for Afrikaans universities that house and represent minorities.  In an open letter to Blade Nzimande, Eloff argues that, ‘It is section 29(2) of our Constitution that we laboriously negotiated – and which we should be a champion of – that ensures a place for Afrikaans on the Potchefstroom campus. Eloff, however, is oblivious to the fact that, in his argument he has effectively morphed a legitimate debate for the protection of a language into the promotion of an ethnic project. This is because recruitment, both at staff and student level, was implicitly directed around racial communities, with Whites being directed to the Potchefstroom campus and Blacks to the Mafikeng and Vaal campuses. The net effect is that under Eloff’s tenure at NWU, its Potchefstroom campus was not only for Afrikaans-speaking students from a variety of racial backgrounds, but largely for White Afrikaners.

It is precisely this equation, in practice, of a linguistic with a racial identity that violates the South African Constitution. The South African Constitution requires its state and public institutions to address both the historical disparities of its past and to build a new national identity among all of its citizens. In its essence, the Constitution is a clarion call to build an integrative and cosmopolitan identity, where citizens are not only White or Black; English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Sotho or Xhosa; Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Jewish; but they are all these things and simultaneously so much more – South African, African and human. Those who defend the racialised or ethnic campuses and universities are essentially paying lip service to South Africa’s Constitution, while subverting its very essence.

But they do so much more; they tend to undermine the educational process and training of their own students. The pace of globalization has accelerated in the last few decades of the 20th century and in the first decades of the 21st century, transforming societies and forcing an interaction and integration of cultures and identities. The workplace of the 21st century, whether in South Africa or elsewhere in the world, is a highly cosmopolitan environment where people are expected to work across racial, cultural, religious and linguistic boundaries. Increasingly, research on graduate employment suggests that it is imperative that educational institutions provide their students with the soft skills necessary to operate in diverse cultural settings. Achieving an appropriate balance between diversity and cosmopolitanism is thus essential not only for realising the non-racial vision encapsulated at the heart of the South African institution, but also for creating the necessary social environment that prepares South African students to thrive in the non-racial work environment of the 21st century both in the country and across the globe.

What about the South African universities committed to a more non-racial integrative vision? There are of course two sets of institutions to be considered here. The first is the HBUs, almost all of whom are in theory committed to the non-racial agenda. But of all these universities are almost completely Black, especially in student enrolment. There is no cosmopolitan environment within these institutions, even though many of their leaders would desire it. Moreover, many of these universities are continuously in crisis both at the managerial and financial level. They are prone to continuous student and staff strikes and financial crises. They have also been most prone to political interference, further exacerbating their institutional challenges.

Elsewhere I have argued that the HBUs are caught in a structural underdevelopment trap, where they have essentially become the educational reservoirs for the children of the most marginalised communities in South Africa. Obviously adept management at some of these universities like the Universities of Fort Hare and more recently Venda – have enabled them to be stabilised, but at an equilibrium far below that which is desirable or acceptable for a succeeding university. Essentially these rural HBUs are unlikely to overcome their institutional predicament, unless their development comprises part of a broader socio-economic development of the region within which they are located. Until now, government has lacked the political will or imagination to do this, despite all of its developmental rhetoric.

Yet until it does so, many of these HBUs will continue to be mired in a sub-optimal educational trajectory.

The final group of universities – both the historically Afrikaans and English – is urban and committed to a non-racial agenda. Many of these have, to different degrees, begun to de-racialise and have established more diverse and cosmopolitan environments. Many of them have also enhanced their academic performance – especially in research, but also in teaching – even though this may have not yet reached an acceptable level appropriate to South Africa’s needs and requirements.

Yet these universities have also not risen to the transformation challenge. While many of these universities have achieved significant demographic diversity at the student enrolment level, their academic staffing complement is still largely White, especially at the most senior academic levels. In many of the nation’s leading universities, Black African professors constitute less than 10% of the professoriate. The lower levels of the academic hierarchy have better representation of Black African South Africans – 19% of all senior lecturers and 35% of all junior lecturers – yet the situation is far from what can be described as even adequate.

The essential question is what to do about transforming the demographics of South Africa’s academy? A number of scholars have recently blamed this situation on university executives and opposition from the senior professoriate. While there may be an element of truth in this, it seems that these scholars themselves are not sufficiently appreciative of the challenges in this regard. Much of what is suggested – increasing full-time doctoral students, expanding the number of postdoctoral students, establishing endowed chairs – are initiatives that are already under way in many of the universities in the country. Some universities like Wits have gone even further by reserving at least 50% of vacancies for equity appointments.

If South Africa’s scholars have not risen to the challenge of fashioning solutions for transforming South Africa’s academy, its government has not been much better. Government officials and those close to them have also too quickly laid the transformation failure at the door of university executives.  But some self-reflection may be warranted in their case. Has government created an enabling environment for the transformation of South Africa’s academy? Has it made the difficult fiscal and political decisions required for the creation of a new generation of scholars? Has it made the required infrastructural and human resource investments in a university sector that has essentially more than doubled from 421,000 students in 1994 to 1.1 million students in 2012?

The essential conundrum in the equity challenge of South Africa’s universities is how to avoid two extreme positions that have emerged in the public debate. The first of these, on the right of the political spectrum, suggests that post-apartheid South Africa is either now an equal playing field or cannot afford an affirmative action programme. It therefore argues against a programme for historical redress. Yet the consequences of apartheid self-evidently continue to live in the contemporary era. The counter view is that the Employment Equity Act, passed by the South African government to enable the transformation of the country’s human resources, can simply be implemented in universities without any deliberation and understanding of the institution’s contextual specificities. Too often politicians and others imagine the university as no different from any other institution in the public and private sectors. But a university is fundamentally different. It is a place where knowledge workers are produced. To train a professor at a university requires on average at least 10 years of continuous study followed by another 10 years of teaching and research productivity. There are exceptions to this process, as academic, Xolela Mangcu, so often reminds us. But those exceptions can never become the norm. Were this to be the case, it would undermine the academic quality of South Africa’s universities, and reproduce the academic failures of its secondary education system at its tertiary level.

This should not be an excuse for our failure to transform our universities and it is precisely this failure that has spawned an upsurge in student activism. This activism is inspired by two distinct discontents; first, the financing of the access of poor students to the universities, and second, the cultural alienation of black students at many of the historically white universities. These discontents, captured under the label of ‘Transformation’ or ‘Decolonization’ are undeniably legitimate. It is unacceptable that talented students from poor communities should be denied access to higher education. Neither is it acceptable for black students not to feel at home at South Africa’s public universities. Both challenges need to be urgently addressed by all stakeholders including among others, university managements, academics, students, and government.

However, as we pursue this Transformation or Decolonization, there needs to be a serious deliberation about the tactics and strategies used to pursue these goals, and the parameters of acceptable engagement. This is all the more urgent given what we witnessed at UKZN where there were violent altercations with police and security personnel, the administration block and vehicles were set alight leading to millions of rands worth of damage, and the university had to be closed.

There is no doubt that there is an activist layer within the Transformation or Decolonization movement that believes that violence is a legitimate means of engagement. It is held by some of these activists that, because poor people are subject to structural violence in highly unequal societies like South Africa, this somehow gives these activists the right to perpetrate violence in the course of their struggles.  Claiming to draw inspiration from Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko, both of whom wrote under the yoke of colonial subjugation, they misappropriate the words and intents of these activist intellectuals to justify violence in the post-colony. Profanity and threats on social media replace reasoned debate. Principled politics get replaced by theatrics. Civil liberties are seen as a ‘bourgeois’ distraction. Little is understood about the fact that lives were lost for the pursuit of these liberties and that they should not be so easily traded for short term political gain.

Moreover, these activists do not realise that the memory of Fanon and Biko cannot be honoured by becoming their ideological zealots. Their philosophy has to be critically engaged, debated, and understood and applied within the context of our time. The irony of course is that the victims of this violence are not the ‘colonialist’, but other poor students with whom they disagree, or who now no longer have access to the very infrastructure that has been destroyed.  The culture of violence is given impetus by the appeasement of some within the university who mistakenly confuse the right to protest with the right to violence and the violations of the rights of others. It is also given credence by the nonsensical application of the notion of the ‘just war’. But war can only be just when all other avenues are closed down. It can never be legitimate in a democratic society, however much the socio-economic outcomes of the democracy are compromised.

Accompanying this culture of violence is a vanguardist politics – a belief that the activist cohort represents an intellectual and political elite that has an advanced state of consciousness. All others are seen to have a false consciousness, a lack of understanding of the needs of the historical moment. This is a very dangerous politics for there is an assumption that the monopoly of truth is held by a minority of insiders. It is a politics that bred the Stalinism of old or the religious fundamentalism of the present. And if not intellectually challenged, it can become pervasive and create a culture within the insiders that justifies their violation of the rights of others. Where these insiders become dominant within the society, as occurred during the Cultural Revolution in China or under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, it leads to the murder of millions of outsiders.

This is why it is imperative to hold the line at the point of violence or the violation of the rights of others. To be sanguine about violence or the violation of the rights of others is to give up on what the university is meant to be. It is to give up on the university being a free space for ideas. Instead it entails capitulating to the might of force; to the university becoming a place where gangsters and tsotsis reign supreme. And if we give up on the university, sooner or later we will do the same for society.

A final lesson that needs to be borne in mind by activists of the Transformation or Decolonization movement, is the necessity of trade-offs. Too often Transformation activists glibly talk about the compromises of 1994, and some even have the temerity to accuse Mandela of having sold out. But these young activists have not thought through the ahistorical character of their critique. It is too easy to criticize the 1994 pact from the perspective of 2015. Have these critics thought through what the alternatives could have been had the political pact not been entered into? Have they thought through what the consequences would have been had they had to live through a civil war akin to that in Libya or Syria?

This is not to suggest that the pact cannot be criticised. Neither does it mean that the post-apartheid leadership did not make mistakes, even serious ones. The adoption of a neo-liberal program, the enrichment that accompanied black economic empowerment, the crude cadre deployment that led to the service delivery failures, the failure of university transformation, and many others should indeed be criticized. But the criticism must be grounded in the realities of what was possible, and not romanticism about a mythical revolution that was never feasible.

This realism must also inform current choices. Again too often our activists craft their strategies and agendas as if they lived in a world they wish existed, rather than the one that currently prevails. These activists have to recognise that we do live in a market economy, which constrains our current choices.  They have to recognise that we live in economically challenging times, and it is unlikely that significantly more resources are going to be directed to the university sector. They have to recognise that the apartheid burden continues to live with us in the present, significantly constraining our ambitions to transform both the university and the society. In the words of Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, ‘change happens within the “limits of the possible”’.

None of this need mean that we have to give up on our ambitions, but it does mean that we need to think strategically and imaginatively about what is possible, what structural reforms to effect, and the time lines we adopt for the achievement of our goals. Perhaps two examples would lend clarity to the argument. One of our most significant challenges in universities is the financing of student fees. The 2016 budget has allocated R11.5 billion to NSFAS which, as we all know, is not large enough to cover all of the students that require financial support. The total cost of the fees for every student in universities, rich and poor, black and white, is less than R20 billion. The commercial model adopted by banks often entails gearing of up to ten times on the collateral available. Given that a normal commercial model cannot be deployed to student financing, we would have to have a much more conservative gearing. But even if we geared on the basis of three times to NSFAS allocation, we could easily cover the fees of every student in the university sector. Granted they would all have a debt, but this is not very different from what exists now. And with this partnership between the state and banks, we would be able to resolve the single biggest cause of both uncertainty in student lives and instability in the university sector.

Similarly, many Transformation activists have demanded an end to labour brokering at Universities and the insourcing of all vulnerable workers. They have correctly argued that these employment arrangements lead to the gross exploitation of the most vulnerable workers in our midst. In this they are not wrong. But the insourcing of all vulnerable workers would come at the cost of millions of rands. It can only be done with increases in either financial subsidy from the state or student fees. Neither is feasible in this current economic environment. Some Transformation activists’ answer to this challenge: ‘resolve the exploitation and damn the consequences’. It is an answer of those who have the luxury not to worry about the consequences of their actions. But those who have this responsibility have to be concerned that such a course of action would essentially entail cutting back on expenditure elsewhere with dire consequences for the quality of the academic programmes at the university.

Again, this need not mean that nothing can be done for vulnerable workers. We could for instance explore models of worker cooperatives being established and given preference for university service contracts. But Transformation activists have not taken the lead in thinking through such solutions or working with vulnerable workers in this regard. This is because some have adopted an all or nothing attitude to this legitimate struggle. The net effect is that they have become embroiled in a stalemate on the employment question of vulnerable workers in the universities.

Clearly, there is an urgent need for a debate on political strategy within the Transformation and Decolonization movement at universities. It is a debate that needs to be grounded in the realities of the present, even if its goal is an egalitarian vision of the future. Moreover, this debate must be grounded in a democratic practice that commits to non-violence, and the respect of the rights of others. Only then would it translate into a meaningful structural reform at the universities and avoid the possibility of dissipating the enormous energies that have been mobilised. This can of course only be ultimately done not by vice-chancellors’ diktat or policy enunciation, but when democrats in the movement take leadership of the very struggle they have inspired.

The central motif running through these reflections, you would recognize, is the importance of ‘balance’. It is a value that I often did not recognize as a young man. I recall how my Dad, now passed on, often spoke of its importance. He had a fondness for Islamic quotations and would often quote Khalil Gibran. He would say:

Among the hills, when you … share/sharing the peace and serenity of distant fields and meadows, then let your heart say in silence, “God rests in reason”.

And when the storm comes, and the mighty wind shakes the forest, the thunder and lightning proclaim the majesty of the sky – then let your heart say in awe, “God moves in passion”.

And since you are a breath in God’s sphere and a leaf in God’s forest, you too should rest in reason and move in passion.

For Gibran, it was passion and reason. For Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist who battled Mussolini’s Fascism, it was reform and revolution. For Steve Biko and Imam Haron who stood against apartheid South Africa, it was freedom or death. The singular lesson to be learnt from all of these reflections and experiences is that striking the appropriate balance between competing priorities is a necessary prerequisite for human progress. And this lesson continues to apply to contemporary South Africa. Whether we are speaking of growth and redistribution in the economy, or service delivery and transformation in the state, or national responsiveness and global competitiveness in the universities, structuring an appropriate balance between competing priorities is the precondition for breaking out of the impasse and achieving progress outcomes.

It is a lesson that we as South Africans need to re-learn. It is a lesson born of this country’s fractious history. It is a lesson crafted in the very architecture of our country’s political institutions. It is a lesson that we need to teach our children. For without it, we cannot honour the memory of Imam Haron and the other martyrs who sacrificed their lives so that we could be free.

Professor Adam Habib is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Witwatersrand. He is the author of South Africa’s Suspended Revolution: Hopes and Prospects.

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