Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Reflections on events at UWC: a reply to Andries du Toit

Reflections on events at UWC: a reply to Andries du Toit

Sunday 8th November 2015
Ben Cousins

My colleague Andries du Toit wrote a memo on 1st November 2015 in which he analysed the events of the previous week at UWC. He also called on staff members to unequivocally support the university executive in its attempts to manage the “Fees Must Fall” crisis. I disagreed strongly with his analysis and recommendations, but had to go away for most of the week of 2nd November, and events since then have largely overtaken us. However, there may be some value in outlining the nature our differences, given that debate amongst staff members on how to respond to the student movement continues.

  1. The character of the “Fees Must Fall” (FMF) campaign at UWC

Rather than: seeing the FMF movement at UWC as:

  • a “tiny political movement”
  • aligned to PASMA, the EFF and Luta Continua
  • which was disgruntled at losing the SRC elections
  • and which attempted to “hijack the FMF banner for themselves”, as the SRC has portrayed the group;

In my view: the FMF campaign at UWC is best understood as a loosely-organized grouping which locates itself within the emerging national student movement seeking the transformation of higher education. It is probable that the great majority of students at UWC support this larger movement. The support base of the FMF group at UWC is certainly very large, as was clear at the student mass meeting on Tuesday 4th November. The movement is spearheaded by a smaller, activist core, numbering several hundred or so students, which has occupied buildings, marched on and off campus, and called on staff to stop work in support of their struggle.

  1. Local or national politics?

Rather than: seeing the events at UWC as being explained only by political divisions amongst the student body, as some staff, as well as the executive (certainly in the first week of the crisis) have done;

In my view: the broader political context is key. The FMF movement at national level has emerged in response to widespread discontent over how the higher education sector is funded and managed, and has united students across divisions of race and class. Events at UWC must be understood in the context of continuing struggles at other campuses subsequent to President Zuma’s announcement on 23rd November of a 0% fees increase, and focused on a range of other key issues (e.g. registration fees, student debt), with some focused on workers’ problems (e.g. outsourcing). The FMF movement at UWC, as elsewhere, was determined to take forward their struggle, against the wishes of SASCO, the ANC Youth League and the ANC-aligned Progressive Youth Alliance.

  1. Was it difficult for the Rector to meet with the FMF, given tensions between the elected SRC and the FMF movement?

Rather than: endorsing the executive’s and SRC’s view, as expressed by the Rector at the staff meeting of 3rd November, that:
  • the SRC is the only legitimate representative of UWC students
  • and thus that meeting and negotiating with the FMF grouping would undermine the integrity of student governance;

In my view: student politics is not restricted to voting in SRC elections, and any student grouping that wishes to meet with the university executive, or any other university body (e.g. Senate or Council), should be able to do so in order to make its views known. Given that:
  • the turnout in recent SRC elections was very low
  • questions had been raised about the fairness of that election
  • the SRC’s view that the President’s 0% fees increase announcement meant that students should go back to their studies was rejected by the FMF at many other universities, where struggles around other demands were continuing
  • it was quite possible that there was large-scale support amongst UWC students for continuing the struggle

… the decision not to meet or engage directly with FMF was a major miscalculation. Events last week would seem to confirm this; engagement led rapidly to negotiations and resolution.

  1. Was the Rector justified in ‘securitising’ the campus?

Rather than: characterizing the situation on campus as one in which many FMF supporters engaged in threatening behaviour and violent acts, terrifying staff and other students, thus necessitating the use of security companies to protect the safety and security of the majority of students and staff;

In my view: intimidation, threats and actual violence and damage to property are unacceptable. But this does not necessarily mean that securitization was justified. The leadership of the FMF group has made it clear that that they themselves do not condone such actions. They have attempted to instill an ethic of disciplined non-violence amongst their members (e.g. by cleaning up buildings they had occupied). It may be the case that only a small number of FMF supporters engaged in any such actions, which tend to undermine the moral authority and credibility of the movement. Thus a viable alternative course of action might have been for the executive to engage with the FMF leadership on this issue.

The exact extent of intimidation, threatening behavior and violence by FMF supporters is in fact unclear as yet, but it may be the case that they were not as widespread as we have been led to believe. There appear to have been several instances where some staff members panicked at the sound of students singing and toyi-toying, and were not actually subject to any intimidation.

Leaders of the FMF campaign that I have spoken to all have maintained that the presence of armed security personnel was highly intimidating and a source of fear and anxiety amongst students. It may well be that some of the violence that occurred was a result of the increased security presence. A “hard” response to political protest often escalates conflict, rather than ends it. It is usually preferable to seek to talk to the other side, rather than to surround them with armed men. It is notable that it was talks that brought the immediate crisis to an end, not securitization or repression.

  1. Was there a dramatic failure of leadership at UWC?

Since last week’s large student meeting, negotiations to address the demands of the FMF movement at UWC have involved both the SRC and the FMF grouping. Key agreements have now been struck, and students are committed to writing their exams. This suggests that both the executive and leaders of the movement have played key roles in resolving the immediate crisis, although many uncertainties remain, not least in relation to affordability. From the vantage point of the present, leadership on campus has in fact succeeded, not failed.

In relation to events of the week beginning 26th October, however:

Rather than: characterizing the executive in this week as decisive, skilled, flexible and level-headed, “keeping alive the vital space for mediation”;

In my view: serious mistakes were made by the executive, which may well have exacerbated the tensions on campus, amongst students and staff members, and between the FMF and the executive. These included:

  • mis-reading the politics of the FMF movement
  • refusing to engage directly with FMF
  • making inadequate provisions for feeding students in residences
  • failing to provide adequate information to the campus community (see below).

I also doubt that repeated closures of the campus were justified, or that it was necessary to bring in armed security forces – but in the absence of information it is difficult to be sure. To assert on 1st November that staff members should “unequivocally and publicly back our University Executive in their attempts to manage the crisis”, after a week of growing confusion and heightened confrontation, seemed to me to be plain wrong-headed.

Thankfully the executive chose a different path after the student mass meeting of 4th November, and we now appear to have the basis for a constructive way forward (although many key issues remains unresolved, notably that of whether or not increased government funding will now be made available to the higher education sector).

  1. Communication and information

Rather than: seeing the Rector’s many messages to the UWC campus community during the crisis as examples of effective communication;

In my view: until last Wednesday, most of the Rector’s emailed messages were inadequate:
  • they lacked hard information on what was taking place on campus
  • they did not state what the executive understood the key issues to be for both the FMF movement and for themselves
  • they were vague in the extreme on the status of engagement and negotiations with key role players
  • they said nothing about the nature of the arrangements with security forces brought onto campus.

The most striking gaps are in relation to the events that unfolded between Wednesday 21st and Friday 23rd October, including the students’ march to the airport and the police attacks that followed, as well as the withdrawal of catering services in residences and on campus. The lack of adequate information on what was taking place probably fuelled alarm amongst staff, and led to a situation in which rumours, anecdotes and partial own experience often substituted for known and confirmed facts.

In my view it is urgent that we attempt to establish what occurred at UWC between 21st October and 7th November, as a basis for a rigorous self-assessment of how UWC managed the “Fees Must Fall” crisis of 2015.

  1. Divisions amongst university staff members

Rather than: seeing staff members who met on Monday 26th October, some of whom also signed a statement and identified themselves as “concerned staff members”, as being out of touch and liable to self-deceiving analyses (which could have negative consequences);

In my view: divisions amongst staff members have been fuelled by the fact that everyone on campus had to rely heavily on “hearsay, assumptions and second-hand accounts” of events, because of the absence of reliable information (see above). “Concerned staff members” included those who responded to cries for help from students attacked by police on Friday 23rd October, bringing in food and medical supplies at a time when no-one from the university administration was present. Staff support of this kind has played a key role in buoying up the FMF movement, both at other universities and here at UWC.

Sympathy for the FMF movement has constituted one key response from staff; another has been outrage and a call for law and order, underpinned by (understandable) fear and alarm at what was perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be intimidatory behavior. A third response involves a mix of general sympathy and support for the aims of the movement, with a strong rejection of violence and a desire to avoid any delay in examinations.

As noted by the Rector, differences in viewpoint and in interpretation are inevitable in a community as diverse as ours - what is important is how we deliberate on these differences in charting a course of action. It is essential that debates on events be informed by a reliable factual account of events over the past two and a half weeks.

  1. What about the future?

This is a key moment in post-apartheid South Africa. The political space is opening up, and in this students have played a key role in recent weeks, as most observers agree. The higher education sector is in dire straits, and its future is uncertain. Here at UWC, it is unclear how we can afford to implement most of the measures agreed with the FMF movement. The risks are high - but an opportunity has also opened up, as our colleague Premesh Lalu observes, to debate the very idea of what a university is.

In my view academics, administrative staff and workers should embrace the student movement and actively engage with it. We should try to forge a progressive alliance in support of democratically governed institutions that enable high quality teaching, learning and research. We might begin to work together in undertaking critical analyses of the national budget, moving on to the development of credible alternative budgets to place before government. On other fronts too, such as curriculum reform, staff and students need to join forces to create the kind of institutions we need. Let us see the fees crisis of 2015 as an opportunity for change, real change.


  1. one wonders how, and to what effect, the internal IOP process has allowed for significant input towards reaching the above stated effects, "staff and students need to join forces to create the kind of institutions we need"; even if it requires radical shifts...specifically in relation to key areas highlighted in the recent student-staff/worker movements, and those implicit in a need for a radically transformed education system.

    have existing structures and processes been used for this purpose? can it be used?

  2. Lest we forget....
    How often I have heard colleagues and friends in the past few days and weeks talk about the 1970s and 80s. About how there was more structure, less confusion, less destruction and violence, more discipline. Deeply worried and disturbed about developments these conversations have led me to reflect. Was there really less violence? More discipline? More heroism? For sure there was more certainty about the role and illegitimacy of the state at that time. But I would suggest that if we move out of the immediate trauma of the past weeks and wipe the benevolent haze of history from our glasses, we will remember that those years were no less traumatic, messy, sometimes incomprehensible. Who can forget the townships burning, schools set alight, those of us who were teachers worrying about the safety of our students, hiding them, having to figure out how to stand by them and support them. Or, for those of us a bit younger than I am, being the student activists who were in the midst of it all.

    A colleague reminded me the other day that in 1985 the rallying call was “liberation before education”, fully supported if not instructed by the organization that now presides over a police force that brutalizes students and workers. The goal was quite explicitly to destabilize the country. Those were difficult times, full of tensions and contradictions; not for weeks, but for many years. And the structures and discipline, the (oh so imperfect) transformation we remember now emerged out of chaos and over time.

    I in no way condone violence and intimidation, particularly not if directed at fellow students and other persons. But let us be very clear: in the many, often contradictory narratives there is plenty of evidence that police and particularly private security have played a substantial role to accelerate tension, to goad students, to act unnecessarily brutally. Culpability is certainly shared.

    Let us also be clear that violence comes in many forms and guises: the obvious physical violence so visible on our campuses now; but also many much more insidious forms of structural violence that play out in so many ways in our students’ (and workers’) lives. We have stood by and watched cleaning staff in our institutions receiving abysmal wages over many years; have not been able to address the scandal of having students sit in our lectures hungry or not being able to complete their studies because they lacked money. Not because we did not try, but because our efforts, our arguments have been ineffectual. And now small but substantial groups of students, often the most marginalized in more ways than one, are running out of patience, much like residents in townships in so-called service delivery protests, or school students in the 1980s. They are learning right now (or think they are learning) that any demand, any request short of burning barricades and all-out destruction will fall on deaf years. Physical violence to counter structural violence!

    The heavy hand (and often outright brutality) of police and particularly private security, paired with leadership that responds far too late and is not trusted, at best deepen mistrust and resentment, and at worst fan the flames of discontent and anger.

    I think many of us were caught off-guard by the speed with which things unfolded in the past few weeks (students probably no less so than staff). A lot of damage has been done, both physically and emotionally. We, as parents, and as lecturers and management acting in loco parentis, who remember and were active participants in the past 50 years of our history, have a key role to think back, rise above trauma, fear and anger, and think about how construct engagement and support that will transform our institutions fundamentally. Our children’s movement for free and transformed education is legitimate and important for the future of this country, there is no doubt in my mind. It is up to us to stand by them, to lead and engage. There is no other option.
    Mother and UWC staff member.