- Goals and means:reimagining the South African university and critically analysing the struggle for its realisation1
2015 was a tumultuous year for the higher education sector in South Africa. Transformation moved to the heart of the national discourse through two sets of events: the ‘#RhodesMustFall’ and ‘#FeesMustFall’ movements. Collectively, these became the largest student social movement since the dawn of South Africa’s democracy in 1994. It shook up the state, changed the systematic parameters, and began the process of fundamentally transforming our higher education sector.
The #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements emanated from two major challenges facing higher education: alienation and access. The #RhodesMustFall movement, in which students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) demanded the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, captured the alienation of the largely black student population at UCT and reflected valid concerns about institutional racism and/or the slow pace of transformation at all of our universities. Transformation movements were established at all of the historically white universities, and while they were focussed on specific institutional challenges, all questioned the institutional identity of the university and what it meant to be an African institution in the twenty-first century. The #FeesMustFall movement began at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and spread across the country, culminating in student marches to parliament and the Union Buildings. Its high point was when President Zuma, after negotiating with student leaders and vice-chancellors at the Union Buildings, conceded to a zero per cent fee increase for 2016. In that moment, the students had achieved in a matter of ten days what vice-chancellors had been advocating for at least ten years, [End Page 111] namely bringing down the costs of higher education. The #FeesMustFall movement, whose principal concern was access for poor black students to affordable, quality education, gave notice that the zero per cent fee concession was merely the first step in a broader struggle for free education.
The discontents of the students are undeniably legitimate. It is unacceptable for black students not to feel at home at South Africa’s public universities. Neither is it acceptable for talented students from poor communities to be denied access to higher education. Both challenges need to be urgently addressed by all stakeholders, including university management, academics, students and government. Addressing these challenges is not only positive for the students, but it would also enable the agenda of inclusive economic development and help to challenge the high levels of inequality within our society.
Of course, I may not be the best person to undertake a critical review of the struggle to reimagine and transform South Africa’s universities. After all, I am an in-system actor constrained by the burden of managing within the parameters of existing resources and other institutional limitations. Moreover, it was the announcement of the fee increases at my institution which sparked the nation-wide protests. I was also part of a team that had to manage the protests and think through how to enable the evolution of a social movement for the legitimate struggle for affordable higher education, without allowing it to undermine and weaken our institutional commitment to being a free and safe space for ideas. In this process, we also had to balance the competing interests and rights of a variety of stakeholders, including those within the student community who were intent on completing their academic year.
Nevertheless, there may also be merit in my thinking through our transformation struggles and the student protests simply because I bring a particular perspective. As an in-system actor, I was not only part of a team managing an institutional protest, but also a member of various institutional and national initiatives trying to negotiate and fashion solutions to the challenges generated by the students’ collective demands. However, I am also mindful that despite bringing a particular critical lens to the analysis of the protest, as a conflicted party, I can only be one small voice, among a plurality of louder voices, undertaking the critical review of the transformation struggles and student protests of 2015.
This is of course not a new debate in the global academy. It is in...