A Chokehold on South African Universities

A student near a burning bus during clashes with the police after a protest over tuition fees in Johannesburg in 2016. Mujahid Safodien/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
A student near a burning bus during clashes with the police after a protest over tuition fees in Johannesburg in 2016. Mujahid Safodien/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Summer break in December and January brought a much needed pause in the unrest at South Africa’s universities. Protests have been continuous here since March 9, 2015, when students demanded the removal of the statue of the British colonizer Cecil John Rhodes from the campus of the University of Cape Town, where I work.

Seen as the symbol of a colonial past, the Rhodes statue found few defenders and was soon removed. The Rhodes Must Fall movement turned into Fees Must Fall, which besieged Parliament and brought a welcome reduction in tuition.

Black college students outnumber white students four to one and now are a majority on the best-funded campuses. The changes in demography have created new opportunities, but also an opening for radicalization.

And now, a movement founded on a repudiation of colonial monuments is pushing for an unsustainable policy of free higher education and a wholesale cultural transformation. The government doesn’t have the 60 billion rand ($4.5 billion) a year necessary to abolish tuition. Economic growth has fallen to 0.5 percent, unemployment is the highest in more than a decade, and businesses are trying to leave the country. In December, the ratings agency Standard & Poor’s came close to downgrading it to junk status.

The universities have gone to considerable lengths to make education affordable for the poor, but the groups that have become known as Fallists insist that even the families of high-income students shouldn’t have to pay anything. Until their demands are satisfied the groups are seeking to shut down campuses. That’s what happened at the University of the Witwatersrand in September, even though 80 percent of students and 90 percent of faculty member said in a survey that they wanted the university to remain open. The Fallists have captured the force of disaffection but seem to command the support of a fifth or less of the student body.

South Africa’s great 20th-century leaders, Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, built movements centered on self-control and participation. They demanded restraint from themselves and their collaborators and went to unusual lengths to convert rather than alienate their adversaries.

Today’s protesters have inverted these lessons, choosing extremism and force in the context of a democracy. Buses, buildings, libraries and laboratories have been burned to the ground. Critics and holdouts have been threatened. University meetings and examinations have been mercilessly disrupted.

The Fallists argue that they obey no hierarchy and bear no responsibility for actions taken in their name. Yet they have chosen deliberately provocative public discourse. The most prominent Fallist is probably Mcebo Dlamini, a fabulist in his 30s who claims to have studied nuclear physics, statistics and politics. Mr. Dlamini was ousted as chairman of the student council at the University of the Witwatersrand when he made a surprising assertion for a would-be revolutionary: Marx “never spoke about us as black people,” whereas “Hitler took white people” and “starved them to death.” “I love Adolf Hitler for that,” he added. In Mr. Dlamini’s language, as in many cases where race and revenge enter the thought of revolution, the extremes of right and left touch.

The restoration of human dignity, in particular the dignity and value of black lives, is rightly at the center of South Africa’s political culture. But any such powerful value creates the possibility of distortions. In the name of black consciousness and self-assertion ordinary men and women working as guards, cleaners and secretaries, not to mention students who come from poor families and wish to complete their studies, have been threatened, beaten and even locked into a burning building by radical students.

In October, I watched two dozen young men, the vanguard of the protesters, patrol the University of Cape Town grounds wielding sticks and clubs and enter offices to intimidate their occupants. The vice chancellor was assaulted on the steps of his office building by a mob. Fires were set and gas bombs assembled.

Many academics responded by arguing that inequality, disease and discrimination were forms of systemic or structural violence and that it was unjust to single out student violence for condemnation. They blamed the presence of the police on campus for the violence. University administration had the police retreat. This exposed two unlucky guards, who happened to be black men, to the fury of a student mob, which broke the ribs of one man and dropped a rock onto the head of the other from the top of a building.

Since the removal of the Rhodes statue the radicals have settled on an overarching demand for national decolonization. The call is powerful, suggestive and vague. South Africa has been a democracy for two decades. Figurative decolonization is as perilous a concept as figurative violence. In early 2000s, President Thabo Mbeki cast his resistance to the scientific data on the sexual transmission of AIDS as a model of intellectual decolonization. The costs likely run to a million or more premature deaths and a vast number of orphans.

The energies of the student uprising are undeniable and, many believe, necessary, but the call for decolonization suggests a final reckoning with the white minority, a settlement that cannot be reached without upending the Constitution and society as a whole. Equitable access to higher education is an issue that requires careful assessment of costs and benefits.

The students who saw the careless idealization of Rhodes as an affront might find guidance in greater figures of our history. Gandhi and Mandela taught us that even when you are confronting an indisputably evil system of government, the fate of your cause is determined more by the means you choose than by the ends you propose.

Imraan Coovadia, the author, most recently, of The Tales of the Metric System, is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Cape Town.

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