Opinion Piece

Saul Musker: A way out of the university crisis

The crisis rocking South Africa’s universities took a turn for the worse this week, with violent clashes between police and protesting students in front of the Great Hall at Wits. University officials took a wild gamble in deciding to resume classes despite ongoing efforts to prevent them, and the result was just as expected – more chaos, and no clear end in sight. As despair sets in, what options remain?

Surely, nobody can at this point still believe that a return to normal is possible by forcing – through police action and the deployment of legions of private security – a reopening of campus. This week’s events have demonstrated the resilience of student protesters, who have refused to back down in response to the use of force, and the inevitable escalation that occurs with direct confrontation. Protesters whose aim is to shut down their institutions will not merely give up when asked to, and their numbers are too great to disperse without resort to extreme violence. It is yet more obvious that there is only one way to prevent the potentially disastrous closure of universities across the country, and that is through a negotiated compromise.

Therein, of course, lies the problem. Many argue that no such compromise is possible, either because the protesters are “irrational”, or because their demands are absolute and impossible, or because there are broader issues at stake which transcend the question of fees altogether.

In a previous article it was argued that the majority of protesters are indeed behaving rationally, contrary to disingenuous popular portrayals, and that they should be engaged with as such. Furthermore, while it is beyond any doubt that the current wave of protests reflects a wider sense of disillusionment and rage at structural inequality and the absence of meaningful transformation, it is equally true that the main rallying cry and immediate concern of protesters is access to higher education. The protests will not simply continue until society undergoes a total metamorphosis, but rather will end when their central goal is met. While this would only postpone inevitable future unrest, it would be sufficient to solve the immediate problem and facilitate the completion of the academic year.

What, then, of the protesters’ demands? The student movement is built around a simple claim: free higher education for all, with immediate effect. While universities themselves have been the site of most protest action, they do not in fact have the power to grant the protesters what they want – that lies only with the national government, which thus far has been conspicuously absent from proceedings (President Jacob Zuma, with a brazen arrogance, left the country on Monday for a trip to Kenya).

The government, and not the universities or their vice-chancellors, is therefore the only actor capable of intervening effectively to break the impasse; not just because it has the unique ability to determine policy, but because this is a national issue affecting all universities and not just those where media attention has focused. The problem is that the government both cannot and will not acquiesce to the absolute demand of “free education with immediate effect”. Lacking either the resources or the political will to grant students their one wish, what options remain for Zuma and his Cabinet?

The answer may lie in the much-maligned Heher Commission of Inquiry: the “Fees Commission”. The Commission has been the target of students’ anger both because of procedural delays – it was supposed to have completed its work in August but is still holding public hearings – and because of opposition to its terms of reference. The commission is tasked with making a recommendation to the President on “the feasibility of making higher education and training fee-free in South Africa”. Students rightly point out that this is very open-ended, and is far from an actual commitment to change the status quo in funding higher education. This framing leaves open the possibility of the commission finding that, due to any number of constraints, fee-free education is not in fact feasible. Given the events of the last few weeks, one can only imagine the response such a finding would be met with on campuses across the country. For this reason, among others, that result is highly unlikely – so why keep up the pretence that it could occur, further inflaming tensions?

Were government instead to change the task of the commission to “enquire into, make findings, report on and make recommendations on how to feasibly implement fee-free higher education and training in South Africa beginning in 2018”, it could offer both a solution to the current crisis and a road map for ensuring that the current scenes at universities do not become an annual spring ritual. It would offer a substantial victory for the student movement, which would have extracted a firm commitment from the national government that free higher education – in some form – would occur and that it would occur within a specific time frame. With the prospect of the academic year not being completed at a number of institutions, such a major victory for the protesters is necessary to convince students at all universities to return to class – rather than the university-specific solutions that are currently (and not at all successfully) being pursued.

This approach would kick-start a process in which multiple stakeholders come together to discuss how to achieve the goal of free education in a sustainable way, rather than simply committing to a large new item of expenditure without consensus on whom it should benefit, how it should work and how it might be funded.

Students continue to protest largely because they have so far not received the support of government for their core ideal, and have instead been treated to delaying tactics and placatory measures. The government may not be able to implement free education with immediate effect – indeed, that would be irresponsible and potentially disastrous in the absence of an effective mechanism – but it can commit to doing so in 2018, and to spending the intervening time figuring out exactly how. That would change the terms of the debate, and drop the absurd pretence that free higher education might not eventually occur. This will require a genuine national dialogue, hearing the voices of all concerned. That isn’t possible while campuses are burning – but it may be if there is a genuine commitment on the direction in which we are going.

Many commentators and even university officials have made the mistake of assuming, erroneously, that no compromise is possible given the apparently absolute nature of the protesters’ single demand. Without giving careful thought to what offer the government could actually make (short of a total capitulation), they have chosen to despair. Clearly, however, there is something to be done. The real question is, will anyone think to do it? DM