Interim reflections on events at UWC and interventions by staff
Sunday 1 November 2015
Andries du Toit
I am writing down thoughts in medias res on recent events at the University of the Western Cape, and particularly on attempts by ‘concerned staff’ to intervene in the evolving situation.
I am doing this with some hesitation: there is clearly a risk in trying prematurely to come to a conclusion about the nature and course of events while they are still in motion. I am also aware that the impressions and interpretations recorded here are very much those of one person with a very partial perspective on events. Developing an authorative version of the facts and a solid analysis is clearly something that will need to be done when the dust has settled and a measure of calm has returned.
At the same time, I am concerned that there are a number of overly simplistic narratives going around about the nature of what is happening on our campus. These seem to me to offer little reliable grip on of the complexities of the situation, and they undermine the ability of ‘concerned’ UWC staff members to intervene effectively in the crisis now engulfing our university. Even more worryingly, I fear that there is a danger that the rapidly solidifying readings that are developing on different sides may lead to a situation where UWC staff concerned about academic freedom and the future of a liberatory academic project at our University will in the longer term be very poorly positioned to participate in the debates on the future of an institution that is dear to our hearts.
Hence it makes sense to try to offer a slightly more nuanced analysis, in the hope firstly that it may offer some useful perspective; and in the further hope that others may correct or improve on parts of the picture that I misrepresent.
In essence, I am concerned about the widely shared interpretation among many staff and students that the sticking point in the situation has been the Rector’s refusal to recognize or engage with “Fees must Fall.” The assumption seems to be (1) that it would be very easy for the Rector simply to meet with the students and (2) if he were to meet with them, this would essentially satisfy them and resolve the situation. While this is a very appealing story, it seems to me to involve a basic misunderstanding of what has been at stake in the standoff of the last few days, on how it can be effectively resolved, and about what the Rector can or cannot do.
Who is “Fees Must Fall” anyway?
Firstly, and at the risk of going off on a tangent, I think it is useful to point out that even describing the striking students as “Fees Must Fall”, as nearly all my colleagues have been doing, is already to be appearing to buy into a specific and contested interpretation of events.
As students not linked to the striking group will be quick to argue, seeing these students as the only or the most legitimate representatives of the Fees Must Fall movement on campus is wrong. In fact, they argue (correctly, as far as I can make out) that until last week, “Fees must Fall” was the name for a broad coalition of students that included the SRC and had the express support of the University. (This is plentifully evident, for example, in the UWC twitter stream which was full of enthusastic and supportive coverage of the campaign). That alliance appears to have splintered in the days immediately after the announcement in 23 October that Pres. Zuma had scrapped fee increases: while some students accepted the concession, others wanted to continue with an oppositional campaign. Rightly or wrongly, the striking group of students seem to be seen by the SRC as splitters who are trying to hijack the FMF banner for themselves. (The striking students, of course, in turn seem to feel that the SRC stole the campaign from them first, and that they are merely hijacking it back. ) Be that as it may, it is important to note that, as with so much in this unfolding crisis, names are contentious, and that academics who portray themselves as engaging with ‘the Fees must Fall’ movement are already seen by others as buying into the striking students’ narrative. More about this later.
Would meeting with the striking students have defused the crisis?
I have to say that I am skeptical about this. For one thing, as the University Executive has pointed out, they have met with the students. Quite aside from the process in which the Rector met with the students on Friday 23 October, the University executive claims that there was a process ( as far as I can ascertain, onWednesday 28 October) whereby the University executive met with the SRC and with representatives of the striking students, and that their “Memorandum” was handed over at that meeting. It is not clear whether the Rector was physically present. This meeting is said to have resulted in the SRC agreeing to formally take up the striking students’ additional demands, and the striking students reaching an agreement to cease trying to shut down the campus. We know that this meeting was in fact followed by a communique from the SRC in which they announced in rather indirect fashion (and without conceding the legitimacy of the striking group) that they would take up the students’ demands. I understand there was also a response on the FMF facebook page from a student speaking for ‘Fees must Fall’ arguing that they had achieved an important victory. If this reading of that meeting had held, the crisis would already have been resolved. But according to the University leadership these agreements were afterwards almost immediately reneged upon.
This should not be surprising. While some students may have been sincere in their claim that they ‘only wish to meet the Rector’, it seems that the broader dynamics of the students’ action is far more complex. Caveat: what follows is my own interpretation, and I recognize that I am not in a position to have a clear or deep analysis of the politics and dynamics of the students’ action. But crucially, the strike seems to me to be not only about ‘demands’ that need to be ‘heard’; but also and centrally a piece of political theatre whereby voice, authority and legitimacy is being contested on campus. In such a situation, it is all too easy for agreement to one set of demands merely to lead to a moving of the goal posts.
This is to some extent borne out by the events on Friday –e.g. when a group of colleagues and I went to bring the news that there would shortly be a meeting in which they would be given a full and legitimate place to present their demands. This was met with the immediate response that it was now too late – they no longer wanted to meet with the Rector to present the memorandum; now all that mattered was immediate capitulation to their demands. Similar dynamics seem to be at play as I write, with attempts to re-initiate mediation being portrayed on twitter by some voices claiming to represent the striking students as a strategy of ‘divide and conquer’.
Was meeting with the striking students something the Rector could easily do?
I am fairly certain that it was not. It is important to remember that a great deal of the politics of the shutdown do not only relate to the content of the FMF campaign. They also relate to the contested election of the SRC some weeks ago, and the subsequent contention of rival movements on campus that the election was stolen, and that they therefore do not recognize the SRC.
This appears to have created a situation in which (1) many among the striking students include those who vocally state that they do not recognize the legitimacy of the SRC (indeed, the Memorandum included a demand that the SRC disband) (2) the SRC quite understandably see the shutdown as being partly an attempt to undermine and upstage them (3) the SRC have a strong expectation that their authority and legitimacy should be confirmed by the University management. The fact that the IEC appears to have dismissed claims of election rigging means that whatever else may be the case, the management absolutely has to see this as a legitimate expectation.
It is also worth remembering that the SRC has only recently been elected. They appear to be at a stage where support from the University management is very important to them – and the University management, in turn, is doubtless thoroughly aware of the fact that they need to have a working relationship with the SRC for the duration of the year.
Was the Rector therefore ‘captured’ by the SRC?
I don’t think so. It is clear that the University executive saw it as very important that they are seen to publicly back the SRC; and they did this. At the same time, their public support for the SRC does not mean that they simply capitulated to the SRC’s politics. It may be risky to speculate, but my sense of the situation is that the University exec has been working hard behind the scenes to broker some kind of rapprochement and prevent a total impasse between the SRC and the striking students.
This seems to be indicated, for instance, by the events of Friday morning 30 October, when news of an arson attack at the Financial Aid Office (news that would have completely undermined the moral authority of the striking students’ leadership) was effectively contained by the University authorities, keeping alive the vital space for mediation. Far from being the actions of a rigid Executive, captured by the SRC, it seemed to me to be decisive and flexible action, propping up the authority of those on the striking students’ side who were claiming to be wanting mediation.
Was the Rector justified in ‘securitising’ the campus?
In my view he was. Many of us have reacted quite strongly against the presence of ‘black shirts’ on campus, arguing that it creates an atmosphere of fear. Clearly it is true that the mere presence of people authorised to use violence and force does change the political climate. But it is important to note that this presence has been read by different people in different ways. For many members of staff and students who have been quite understandably and legitimately terrified by the threatening behaviour and violent acts of some of the subgroups involved in the strike, the ‘black shirts’ seem to be seen as a welcome and containing presence.
I have to say that I strongly believe that not deploying visible security on campus would have been deeply irresponsible of the Rector. Despite the fact that many of the striking students are non-violent and not likely to do anyone much harm, it is also plentifully clear that there is a significant and visible group (not all of them outsiders) who have in fact been quite willing to inflict and incite violence. On Thursday morning, after the staff meeting, and again during the rather kinetic moments when I was present at the violent student actions around Ruth First residents, student leaders among the striking students were clearly and calmly threatening to ‘destroy this campus’ and were also clearly intent on calling on groups from outside UWC (e.g. at CPUT) to assist them in this task. To call in security in such a situation is not, as some of my colleagues have suggested, a ‘conservative’ and ‘repressive’ response, it is part of our duty to protect the safety and security of the majority of students and staff.
Has there been a ‘dramatic failure of leadership’ at UWC?
I don’t think so. This has been a turn of phrase I have heard again and again in the last few days. More than one of my colleagues have apparently seen the University executive as beleaguered, technocratic, rigid and inflexible. I don’t think this is borne out by events. Doubtless mistakes were made, but on the whole it appears to me that the Rector and his team have displayed a remarkable amount of level-headedness and flexibility in negotiating a complex terrain. In this regard it is important to be aware of the immense pressure the University executive has been under from many other groups on and around campus to crack down on the striking students immediately. They have resisted these calls, and I think they have been right to do so. I believe they need and deserve our public and vocal support.
What about the concerned academics?
What about us, indeed? I think many mistakes were made. I think we were wrongfooted by events almost every single step of the way.
Most importantly, although were aware from the beginning of the deep divisions among the students, some of us (myself included), were unaware of the extent to which these divisions had deepened in the crucial days after 23 October. I think that many of us thought on Monday morning that we were still supporting ‘the’ Fees Must Fall students, instead of one particular splinter group. This was exacerbated by our poor preparation for the meeting of concerned staff members on Monday 26 October. In my view, it was a huge mistake to let that meeting begin with an address from a student – it should have been a staff meeting, and students should only have been invited to address us when and if everyone there had agreed that this would be useful. This was exacerbated by the fact that the meeting then began with what appeared to be the uncritical reception of a student wearing an EFF t-shirt.
This meant that the whole initiative was immediately ‘positioned’ by a wide range of other groups on campus as an initative of left-wing staff in solidarity with the striking splinter group. The fact that some of us were sympathetic with many of those students (or at least with what appeared to be its rather idealistic and vulnerable leadership) strengthened this reading of our agenda. Finally, the fact that some of us stood up at the staff meeting on Thursday and seemed to be pooh-poohing the notion that students and staff had indeed been traumatised and intimidated seemed to offer even more corroboration to the perception that the ‘concerned staff’ were either deluded or actively in cahoots with the striking students.
The fact that we were not ‘in cahoots’, and that some of us (myself included) in fact deeply disagree with both the content of the students’ demands (read that memo!) and their tactics (closing down the down the entire campus to draw attention to the demands of a tiny political group! ) is neither here nor there: whatever our own agendas, the staff who tried to intervene in events to help contain the conflict ended up being identified with the strikers, which somewhat undermined our ability to be honest brokers.
So are you saying that we made no positive contribution?
Absolutely not. Clearly the attempts by staff to reach out to the striking students played an important role in helping to contain the conflict. Even the prospect of mediation was only possible because of the tireless energy of dedicated staff who stayed in communication with the students, challenged their view of events, and to some extent gave them the sense that they were not entirely marginalized and excluded. I think the University community owes a huge debt to these individuals.
It also seems to me that the University Executive valued and appreciated those attempts. The Rector’s statements from 23 October onwards contain repeated and appreciative references to useful and important aspects of ‘concerned academics’ statements. From 27 October onwards, Larry Pokpas and Prof Vivienne Lawack, who in the beginning had expressed some concerns about our role, repeatedly reached out with communication and invitations to participate. When Uma Mesthrie and I met with them on Friday, 30 October, they again expressed appreciation of the role the ‘concerned staff’ had played.
Why then did the Rector blame concerned staff for the breakdown of mediation attempts on Friday?
Did he really? I know some of my colleagues interpret his statements in his Friday 30 October memo as being caustic about academics, and blaming us for the failure of mediation. But that is a very specific reading of the wording of that statement, and I don’t read it in that way.
Also, I don’t think that this is a high priority issue just at this moment. I think we should legitimately be proud of the role we played in trying to bring peace to campus, and I share the desire for that role to be more publicly recognized, but right now the stakes are somewhat higher and splitting hairs with the Rector about the semantics of his statement is not what I think our campus community needs.
What about the future?
What, indeed? The issues raised by the FMF movement - and the Government’s response to it - go well beyond the demands mae by either that movement or the smaller group of striking students. Clearly events have created the prospect of a serious fiscal crisis for the University – with dire consequences for many ‘progressive’ intellectual and research initiatives. In the coming months there will be hugely important debates and contests about the mission of UWC, about the function of a university, about the nature of decolonisation, about our curriculum, about our staff and student intake – and about money. It is absolutely vital that progressive academics don’t act in ways that marginalize them even before these debates have properly begun.
I hope it is not too late for ‘concerned staff’ to start repairing the damage what has been caused, to bridge the divides that have opened between us and other groupings on campus, and to develop a more careful and more thoughtful analysis of events on campus.