The Politics of Transforming and Decolonizing the University

South Africa’s universities are confronting an upsurge in student activism. This activism is inspired by two distinct discontents; first, insufficient funding for poor students, 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 to not feel at home at universities. Both challenges need to be urgently addressed by all stakeholders, including university management, academics, students, and government.

But as we pursue Transformation or Decolonization, there needs to be a serious deliberation about the tactics and strategies used, 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, buildings and vehicles were set alight causing millions of rands 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, who 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. Theatrics replace principled politics. Civil liberties are seen as a ‘bourgeois’ distraction. There is little recognition that lives were lost in the pursuit of these liberties and that they should not be so easily traded for short term political gain.

If structural violence is the target, then the irony is that the victims of this violence are not the ‘colonialist’, but other poor students. 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 who have 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.

A final lesson that needs to be borne in mind 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 the alternatives, had the political pact not been entered into? Have they thought through the consequences, had they had to live through a civil war like 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. The adoption of a neo-liberal program, the enrichment that accompanied black economic empowerment, the crude cadre deployment that led to service delivery failures, the slow pace of university transformation, and many other failures 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. Activists have to recognise that we live in a market economy, which constrains our current choices. They also have to recognise that we live in economically challenging times, and that it is unlikely that significantly more resources are going to be directed to the university sector. In the words of Italian communist, Antonio Gramsci, ‘change happens within the limits of the possible’.

This does not mean that we should give up on our ambitions, but we have to think strategically and imaginatively about what is possible. For example, one of the most significant challenges facing universities is student financing. The 2016 budget has allocated R11.5 billion to NSFAS which, as we know, is not enough to cover all who require it. But the total cost of the fees for every student in the system, rich and poor, black and white, is less than R20 billion. If the NSFAS allocation was used as collateral, banks could grant loans and easily cover the fees of all students. Granted these students would then graduate with debt, but this is not very different from what exists now. Such a partnership between the state and banks could 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 workers. They correctly argue that these employment arrangements lead to the gross exploitation of the most vulnerable. But insourcing would 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 the current economic climate. But again, this need not mean that nothing be done. We could, for instance, explore worker cooperatives and giving them 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 debate on political strategy within the Transformation and Decolonization movement at universities. This debate needs to be grounded in the realities of the present, even if the goal is an egalitarian vision of the future. Moreover, it must be grounded in a democratic practice that commits to non-violence and respect for the rights of others. Only then will it translate into meaningful structural reform and avoid dissipating the enormous energies that have been mobilised. Ultimately, this will not happen through the diktat of vice-chancellors or policy enunciation, but when democrats in the movement take leadership of the very struggle that they have inspired.

An edited version appears in the Sunday Times on 4 October 2015.