Intransigence and Intolerance: student protest and transformation at South African universities

The Inaugural Stephen Ellis Memorial Lecture was recently delivered by Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the University of the Free State. In it he makes some very valid comments about the current wave of student protests at South African universities and the role that white academic and cultural intransigence, an apathetic government and a new generation of black intolerance have played in its emergence.

Here follows the full text of Professor Jansen’s lecture.

A quiet contemplation on the new anger:
The state of transformation in South African universities

Introduction
From the time of our first meeting Stephen Ellis struck me as a fine English gentleman, a
generous human being and a meticulous scholar. I was not surprised that he would be
invited to share the honour of Desmond Tutu Professor, an association he always carried
with great pride. It was only later, however, that I would come to appreciate the stature
of this Oxford-trained historian in the academic world not only as Editor of two
prestigious publications, Africa Confidential and African Affairs, but also as author or coauthor of a collection of truly outstanding books on the African condition alongside his
towering presence in leading world journals concerned with African Studies.

It was however his book External Mission which would behoorlik set the political cat
among the self-adulatory pigeons of the ruling party by demonstrating the continuity of
behaviours—corruption, racial and ethnic strife, paranoia and excess—before and after
1994. The seamless, unreflective, one-dimensional and heroic accounts of struggle and
conquest were shaken by this remarkable work of scholarship which, I am proud to say,
had some of its origins in the archives of the University of the Free State. Yet while I do
not share Stephen’s preoccupation with the influence of the Communist Party within the
ANC—there were hard realities shaping this co-dependency over a century—I know of
no other historical work that better explains the state we are in by taking 1994 as a
marker of not only change but continuity with the fractured past of the liberation
movements, principally the ANC.

I therefore take my courage this evening from the work of Stephen Ellis as I reflect on
the present moment, the turmoil on some prominent university campuses, and what it
says about our past and future as a young democracy.

In doing so I thank Professor Gerrie ter Haar Stephen’s wife and partner, for considering
me to do this Lecture, and your unusually charismatic Ambassador, Marisa Gerards, for
the invitation and the platform for honouring Stephen in this way.

The new anger
There is a disturbing vignette somewhere in the middle pages of Memoirs of a Born Free,
a book by the young black activist Malaika Mahlatsi who renamed herself Malaika wa
Azania. As a learner in a middle class white school, she stumbles on the fact that her
teacher’s precious dog died. Looking around at the teary group of fellow learners and
the heartbroken teacher, Malaika bursts out laughing. “In Soweto, dogs die all the time,”
she writes. The school calls the young Malaika on her heartlessness but for the Earth
Sciences student at Rhodes University—also a pristine white institution of her choice—
the first-time book author would carry that memory of the dismissal of the pain of
others as a badge of pride.

I have studied the somewhat unexpected emergence of this new black anger with a
mixture of intrigue and concern. Intrigue, because of who the voices are raising this
strident critique of post-apartheid society. The critics are mainly middle class black
students (or those aspiring to such status) who attended white schools and white
universities in South Africa. In other words, they are for the most part children of
privilege as far as their educational aspirations are concerned, and unlike the vast
majority of young people who enjoyed access to premium institutions and made that
experience work for them, their families and communities—this group of disaffected
graduates are angry, and appear very angry. The argument of the newly angry is very
simple:

Thank you ANC for what you may have done in the struggle, but no thank you. We reject
your closed and circular narrative of freedom—that you came, saw, and conquered. That
is your narrative, not ours. We are still not free.

Hence Malaika’s sarcastic title, Memoirs of a Born Free. There is an attempt here at a
generational break—the old timers with their warm, fuzzy accounts of struggle and
victory, and the new generation which does not feel free in the daily grind of forging a
living in a white-dominated economy and grasping for learning in untransformed
universities. The older generation should stand back and shut up, and allow the next
generation to speak unimpeded and express anger unapologetically. In a refrain often
heard on the anger platforms: there is an unyielding assault by whiteness on the black
body whether in white university classrooms or at white literary festivals or in
everyday life.

But I am drawn to the new anger not only by intrigue but also by a deep concern that
once again, as Stephen might have put it, the continuity of destructive behaviours from
the past show up in the character of student protests now. There was without any doubt
a glorious element to student and indeed community protests which helped set us free.
But it is time to acknowledge that there was also the dark side which made us like the
perpetrators of that crime against humanity. I speak of unbridled anger, intolerance of
dissent and violent confrontation which while understandable, to some extent, in the
heat of apartheid, cannot possibly define the content and contours of protests after
apartheid. That dark side sometimes included complete disregard for the humanity of
others such as in the horrific “necklacing” episodes and the torture, even death, of
suspects in camps. It included the emphatic dismissal of education—liberation now—
and the loss of status for teachers and teaching from which the post-apartheid school
system has never recovered. There is that anger and intolerance that still runs in our
veins and shows up all too frequently in the way we protest on the streets, on campuses
and, dare I say, in Parliament. That behaviour comes from our violent past and
continues into the present.

We have not learnt, in other words, how to conduct ourselves in the context of a
democratic state. We have lost the dignity of protest exemplified in the behaviours of
people like Walter Sisulu and Beyers Naude and Neville Alexander. In other words,
there are left unexplored radical forms of protests that are not reducible to violence and
insult and the degradation of things we do not like. Too many influential persons who
should know better applaud this dehumanising behaviour that comes with the new
anger and it is already clear that the long-term costs will be devastating to school and
society.

“Fuck-off whites”—the repeated, shocking words of a young man following the
presentation of one especially angry black Ruth First Fellow at Wits—might have
unsettled the chairman (and the handful of whites and blacks in the audience) but it
carried much support among young blacks in the crowded Great Hall of this chronically
unsettled campus. The chairman was at pains to condemn this vile behaviour through a
conceptual distinction long lost among this class of youth, between anger and hatred. I
have sat in enough of these kinds of outbursts to have felt the heat of this native hatred
among young people who had not spent a day living under apartheid or a night in the
cells of the white regime; but the anti-white sentiment is undisguised.

By the time the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) moment came along there was at hand a
massive, monumental symbol against which this rage could be levelled—the Rhodes
statue on the UCT campus. First the image was doused in human excrement and made
the subject of daily mockery until finally the statue was pulled down, Saddam Husseinlike,
to the cheers of middle class students, some whites in their number, and consigned
to a covered destination off the campus. Rhodes just happened to be in the way, a handy
target for a collective anger against the institution. A few weeks later, and things had
largely died down. The RMF moment was never going to become a movement; anger
alone never sustains anything despite sporadic attempts at revival.

But what exactly is the grievance? At first glance, it is hard to tell. As one astute black
scholar observes, “there’s a lot of finger pointing in no particular direction.” Looking
closer, the institutional critique is much clearer—the anger seems to be levelled against
the lack of transformation: too few black professors, a neo-colonial curriculum, an
unwelcoming institutional culture, everyday racism on campus. On that score, there can
be little disagreement, and most university leaders will show scorecards of progress
while acknowledging complexity in overcoming these problems as quickly as we all
wish it could be done.

The grievance becomes a little more complex, however, when it moves away from the
straightforward target of university transformation (more black professors) to anger in
the realm of black/white relationships. This was what the Ruth First lecture promised
to bring to light—the complexity of interracial friendships. At this point the anger
becomes intense, even threatening for what then happens is a public baring of the soul
of something long suppressed—an unrequited love from white friends. We must pause
here.

Not all young people struggle with interracial friendships. In fact, it is my observation
across schools and universities that most young black and white South Africans
eventually “find each other” through the constant negotiation of social and cultural
relations that accommodate difference and accentuate sameness. The earlier such
friendships start, the better and many such black/white relations blossom into intimate
relations and even marriage. How that happens is the subject of my latest book Leading
for Change: race, intimacy and leadership on divided university campuses (Routledge
2015) and my forthcoming book Race, Romance and Reprisal (2016). In other words, the
angry voices of a minority do not represent the totality of experiences of interracial
friendships among youth in post-apartheid society. The volume of angry noise, however,
is out of proportion to the breadth of intimate experiences binding black and white
youth.

Still, among the disaffected there are nuances in these bouts of anger. Some believe
these interracial friendships carry no value and should be stopped. Others castigate
whites for entering these friendships on social and cultural terms which favour them,
the privileged: to hell with these kinds of friendships. The complaint goes something
like this:

“We have to speak their language and suppress our own; they make no effort to learn
our languages. We are tired of smiling in friendships which actually demean us, make us
feel less. We become like them, except white on the outside even though our essence,
the inside, remains black. We are tired of living these two lives, the one representing our
poor mothers and families, the other cavorting with whites in the realm of privilege. We
are coconuts no more.”

What does this mean? It is important, first of all, to pay attention to this strain of
disaffection among black youth. In one sense, it is nothing new. Some time ago Ellis
Close made similar points in The Rage of the Privileged Class wherein he described the
experiences of African Americans inside the hostile world of corporate America. Notes
Close:

“[S]enior corporate executives and senior partners in law firms are … expected to conform
to a certain image. And though their positions may not require golden hair and blue eyes,
they do require the ability to look like–and be accepted as–the ultimate authority

In other words, even though black students (or executives) more and more enjoy access
to white organisations, their presence and progress requires conforming with white
standards of achievement. Being physically present, for those who rage, is not enough;
being recognised and accepted on their own terms, matters. Close’s problem in
capitalist America is much more difficult to resolve than those of the newly angry in
South Africa—he lives in a country where black people are a minority and no longer the
most important minority in a nation where the growth in the Latino population has
recast politics and economics on that side of the Atlantic. And for Close it is about being
successful within the capital accumulation model of neoliberal America; for many black
South Africans it is about equity, opportunity and recognition.

The problem of social, cultural and intellectual recognition and not only physical access
is a common lament expressed very powerfully in segments of student life on the
former white campuses in South Africa. Put bluntly, the lament could be described as
“we are physically present but in every other way invisible—socially, culturally, intellectually, materially and even symbolically.” In other words, simply adding more black professors to the Senate or broadening the curriculum to include African Studies (or perspectives) or commissioning more studies on institutional culture, will not onlydo little to pacify this rage; it could make matters worse.

In this respect it is important to distinguish patterns of institutional recalcitrance
among different South African universities. Some of the former white Afrikaans
universities still have a major problem with the first order of business, and that is
physical access. In this respect Stellenbosch University and the Potchefstroom Campus
of North West University find themselves in the eye of the transformation storm.

The Open Stellies Movement was long overdue and the Luister video-documentary is
merely the start of what will become an extended campaign to open-up undergraduate
studies to many more African students. In this respect it is worth noting that OSM is a
much better organised and more mature student organisation than RMF at UCT and its
spin-off moment at Rhodes University; it is therefore likely to sustain itself through
constructive engagements with the university leadership for some time to come.

It is nevertheless sad that the transformation of this otherwise top academic university
was held back by decades-old, refractory language crusades to “protect Afrikaans”
which, whether intentionally or not, had the happy consequence (for many) of keeping
the institution predominantly white and especially non-African in its main protectorate,
the undergraduate class.

In the same way the ugly and repeated assaults on the first black Vice-Chancellor of the
North West University by the white defenders of the Potchefstroom campus is—once all
the flimsy excuses are exhausted—nothing more than protecting white dominance in
language, culture and demographics on what used to be called by the explosive code-name of the Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education.

The white English universities such as Rhodes, UCT and Wits have a different
problem—black student numbers have grown steadily in the past two decades of
democracy to a comfortable majority in some instances. The usual complaints apply—
more black professors, and so on—but the problem in these institutions is more elusive
and complex, as any student of transformation among the English would attest. In fact
for many researchers, the difficulty is “putting your finger on the problem.” The Vice-Chancellors boldly speak the language of transformation; they have senior colleagues
driving these change programmes; their curricula are in many cases open, progressive
and critical of their own foundations; there are any number of funded initiatives to
recruit older and promote young black scholars. So what’s the problem?

In the first instance, these institutions still convey an overwhelming sense of whiteness
from the complexion of the professoriate to the cultural rituals and symbols of everyday
life. But there is more: the places impose an English whiteness on newcomers that is
hard to describe. So over the years I have asked my most accomplished black scholars at
UCT why they were so angry. The answer was the same time and again, normally
conveyed with deep emotion: “It’s the way they make you feel.” Since I have been at the
receiving end of a few of those withering white put downs by prominent UCT academics,
I know exactly how that must feel if you lived inside that institutional culture day after
day at the mercy of a professor, head of department or dean.

At the Afrikaans universities the racism is often blatant; you see it coming as in the Nazi
salute on the Potchefstroom campus or the urinating into food for black workers on the
UFS campus or the Blackface episodes on the University of Pretoria and Stellenbosch
campuses. At the English universities the racism is much more subtle. It is the snub in
the hallway; the put-down remark about your promotion; the sense of cultural
superiority; the clipped, foreign-sounding accent; the Oxbridge referencing; the biting
criticism of your manuscript; the coldness in relationships; the patronising comment;
the talk behind your back; the fear of reprisal if you speak out; the weak-wristed
handshake; the inability to hug or deliver an unconditional compliment; and the
constant reminder that you are not part of the club, literally.

It is for this reason that black academics at places like UCT quickly found common cause
with the RMF students even if they disagreed with their tactics; for many years they too
had waited to exhale.

That said, at the core of many of the disruptions at the former white English universities
is a kind of gangsterism masquerading as progressive politics. It is a vile, in-your-face
hooliganism that conjures up the language of radical politics but is, in fact, nothing less
than a tsotsi element that one Vice-Chancellor called this behaviour. By conflating the tsotsi element with the progressive element in scholarship or journalism or
everyday observation, we give recognition to bad behaviour and undermine the seeds of
what could become a very powerful movement in student protests. This is a crucial
point.

Where does this hooligan behaviour come from—that beats up other students, violently
disrupts university meetings, assaults members of staff, spews forth anti-Semitic and
anti-white froth, and gratuitously attacks the dignity and integrity of leaders? There is
no question that the on-campus behaviour seeks to mimic the off-campus behaviour of
political parties, to begin with. The ongoing fracas in Parliament, broadcast for all to see,
is the model on which some of these youth base their on-campus tactics. Often the
students involved in the more violent confrontations come from political movements
and community contexts where intellectual disagreement and tough debates are not
enough—it must escalate into physical confrontation and verbal abuse.

Needless to say, this is worrying in terms of our country’s future. If the next generation
of leaders resolve their conflicts through hate speech and violence, we sustain the very
conditions that apartheid and colonialism embedded in our society. The role of
leadership is to change that behaviour and the role of education is to tame those
passions. The failure to discipline this particular version of the angry mob is a failure of
education and leadership at home, in schools, in community organisations and in our
universities.

But to simply dismiss all of this violent rage as irrational is not very helpful either in its
resolution. The new anger feeds off unresolved inequalities in school and society. The
angry student is hungry on campus, struggling to find finances for tuition, hustles to
secure cheap accommodation, and then with a dodgy quality of school education that
reflects in his poor academic results, finds himself in a laboratory or lecture hall where
whites are in charge and continues therefore to make a direct connection between his
miserable state and the race of the lecturer. In former white institutions with their cold,
clinical and alienating institutional cultures which fail to recognise this student and his
estrangement, fire and oil meet.

In this tight and twisted bundle of raw emotions, what appears as anger is not always
clearly articulated and there is no particular enemy, so everyone is—the Vice-Chancellors,
the white university, white staff, all whites, unsympathetic blacks etc.

The political philosophy of the critique is similarly dense and confusing, ranging from a
broad pan-Africanism to a narrow black ethnic nationalism with more than a hint of a
poisonous anti-white racism. And the language of critique is straight out of an
introductory social science course, repeatedly referencing harm done to “the black
body”—for example, by being a minority in a largely white literary festival—with a fair
amount of exaggeration, to put it mildly. Simply to go to classes at Rhodes or UCT is to
“subject the black body” to an unrelenting oppression.

All kinds of figures are therefore invoked in these angry flashes from Biko to Fanon to
Cornell West but unsurprisingly not King or Ghandi or Mandela. If Mandela gets any
mention at all, it is as a sell-out, the man who led South Africa into a soft transition that
left white privilege undisturbed and black poverty undiminished. It is this instant reinterpretation, and dismissal, of Nelson Mandela that is the most marked feature of the
new anger.

There is no ideology or memory or history here, only a hodge podge of pro-black/anti-white
sentiment on the tip of an angry tongue that finds expression in the lashing out at
public gatherings and memorial lectures, in newspaper columns of especially the
Sunday Independent though with more balance in City Press, and in the occasional book
production.

It is an anger that is particularly vicious of its critics. In its milder forms of dismissal the
critics are old, representing a bygone generation that simply by virtue of age is out of
touch and irrelevant to the struggles of youth. They should allow the space for political
articulation to be occupied by those who really know, the newly angry young activists.
In its harsher version, the older critics of the new anger are trounced as everything from
right-wing reactionaries to white-loving establishment figures who have done nothing
to advance black professors in the academy or decolonise the curriculum or change
institutional cultures.

It is worth repeating that what we are witnessing at the moment is a segmented anger,
by which I mean not all universities are affected by the new disaffection and that
English and Afrikaans universities are affected differently. For example, none of this
upsurge of anger has expressed itself in the bureaucratic solidity of the University of
Pretoria; it has been for the most part the experience of the old English universities—
UCT, Wits and Rhodes. Despite efforts to make RMF a movement rather than an English
moment—such as evidenced in the letters from UCT student leaders to SRC leaders on
all campuses—the new anger as described has not ventured beyond these privileged
sites.

None of this particular brand of criticism, for example, has emerged at the historically
black universities where, in some instances, such as TUT, the old struggles of funding
access rolls over with predictable regularity in the form of violent protests, and nothing
has happened at places like the University of Venda or in institutions where simply
meeting the monthly salary bill is the immediate preoccupation.

These basic struggles are light years removed from the new anger that drives the
transformation moment at the liberal English universities or that seeks to repel the
crude racism and under-representation of black youth in the conservative Afrikaans
universities.

So in summary, campus struggles are not the same from the English to the Afrikaans to
the historically black universities; and the genuine moments of student activism for
either access or equity or transformation are often undercut but a destructive violence
that threaten to keep our universities in states of turmoil well into the foreseeable
future with serious consequences for the academic project.

So what of the future?
There must be a reason the President would set aside time to meet with executive
leadership of university councils and university principals. It must be awareness of the
fact that if this turmoil continues all universities are at risk. Just as investors do not
invest their money in chronically unstable societies, so too top academics do not spend
their time on serially disruptive campuses. Parents who have choices send their
children elsewhere for higher education, including out of the country, leaving behind
moribund institutions where the only students and academics left are those who cannot
move. Major foundations and private sector funders of universities and their projects
change their investment destinations. The government then becomes involved in trying
to shore up these universities and to take control of governance and even management
under crisis conditions.

A very good example of how promising universities decline slowly over time as a result
of chronic instability is the University of Zimbabwe—they met their “transformation”
targets quickly, one could say, but they failed to sustain and build the kind of cultural
and intellectual capital necessary for creating top class African universities.

These problems are not insoluble. They can be solved through a different kind of
leadership than what the present offers at all levels of our society including government
and universities. The students are not the problem; it is how we lead that matters.

In this respect, the white English universities received a necessary wake-up call from
their academic smugness reinforced by overseas ranking systems that did not measure
institutions on equally important metrics such as social justice and racial integration.

The historically Afrikaans universities now realise that they can no longer use this
beautiful language as a bulwark against the penetration of black African students in
their undergraduate classes—which is the real “site of struggle” in this class of
universities.

An important question remains—will the leadership of top universities like
Stellenbosch and UCT truly accelerate the deep transformation of their institutions in
ways that satisfy the demands of justice? If the leadership of these institutions retreat
into their pre-RMF or pre-OSM slumbers, those universities themselves—including
councils and senates—threaten the future stability and academic standing of higher
education in South Africa. To blame the students, in this case, would be disingenuous.

Which raises the question of the historically black universities in this equation. Here we
need to be frank. There has to be a radical new financing model that effectively makes
university education free and accessible to all poor students for purposes of
undergraduate studies. Until this happens, the chronic violence that keeps so many
campuses in turmoil is not going to go away; it is as simple as that. To resolve this
matter, governmental leadership is paramount. Simply appealing to students to not be
violent, given our history, is not going to make this problem go away. The longer
government takes to resolve this matter, the longer black universities will remain mired
in sometimes very violent protest cultures.

In the meantime, the historically black universities need courageous leaders who with
government support can steer back these institutions into stability so that students are
no longer short-changed in the depth and quality of training required for their degrees.
Some of these universities are under threat of losing accreditation for some of their
qualifications in part a result of the lack of concentrated focus on the academic project.
This means disrupting some of the regressive union ‘activism’ on these campuses which
with singe-minded salary agendas push universities into financial ruin by holding the
academic project and academic leaders to ransom. It also means appointing leaders who
can manage with strong, disciplined management teams which can turn around
endemic crises within these universities. It means recruiting leaders with political savvy
who can anticipate and redirect crises towards positive resolution of staff and student
demands.

And it means finding leaders who can win the confidence of students and student
leaders by demonstrating through personal example and visible actions that they have
gone to the wire for students when it comes to financial, academic and emotional
support. Then, and only then, is it possible to require a discipline of student
organisation and politics—when an ethic of care and compassion is thread through the
management of everyday student life.

Let me say this clearly: in the absence of solving the leadership problem in these
universities large injections of state bail-out funding would be a waste of official
resources that could have been deployed elsewhere.

If we fail to do this, the South African universities will remain a mirror of the national
school system—a small, elite group of functioning institutions which produce the top
graduates in the system and a large, chronically dysfunctional set of institutions which
remain in a state of stable crisis, surviving from one month to the next without being
able to give attention to the academic project. In time, that small elite group of
universities will also unthread under the constant stress of student and staff and
governmental demands, until they too lose their shine in the international academy and
become simply part of an all too familiar post-colonial tale.

It is this felt sense of a present past that Stephen Ellis wrote about and whose warnings
we dare not ignore when it comes to the continuities that mark destructive student
behaviours on campuses then and now.