- Rebels and Rage: reflecting on #FeesMustFall by Adam Habib
Adam Habib has written a spell-binding book that dissects four turbulent years at Wits University. The book can be read in many ways but two stand out. As an examination of universities as a site of struggle between competing interest groups and ideologies where the analysis is on the balance of power within the institution. On the other, it can be read as an analysis of institutional dynamics where the focus is on institutional health including academic freedom, employment practices and staff and student demographics.
In this review I shall focus on both but will follow Habib's line that when universities become sites of struggle that feed off, and into, national political developments and attract national party-political involvement, then the health of the university as public educational and research asset is threatened.
Adam Habib describes his book as a 'personal memoir' and a 'reflection' (232). The memoir focusses on the period 2015 to 2018 during which time most South African universities were the sites of protests and fervid media attention. His earlier life, as lecturer and activist, occasionally appears in reflective comments about struggle in higher education, specifically highlighting lessons from his time at the University of Durban-Westville. The reflective aspect of the book references his regular contributions to public debate, particularly via opinion pieces in the Daily Maverick, while seeking to develop these into a unified analysis of the challenges that Wits University faced in these years. [End Page 209]
Habib's book is part of a growing genre of works on higher education in South Africa. Apart from a number that focus directly on the Fallist moment, there are others that deal with challenges faced collectively by universities (Jansen 2017), with difficulties facing particular universities (eg Bank et al 2019) and with processes of academic growth (Beaudry et al 2018) and teaching (Mbembe 2016).
The book has ten chapters which are for the most part chronologically organised. The first chapter, 'The night on the concourse', describes the events that unfolded on the evening of October 16, 2015 in the concourse of the Wits admin block. In a way this sets the scene, identifies the protagonists and the issues that increasingly would dominate debate. The second chapter – 'A movement divided' – discusses the interplay between national government, the Wits Council, various academics, the Wits SRC and rival student groupings. He concludes the chapter with the comment that, by the end of 2016, 'the institutional community at Wits, and elsewhere, had begun to fracture' (57). Habib is concerned about racism and violence and this is the theme of chapter three. He argues that as the protests went on they became more violent and more divisive, necessitating the deployment of private security and the recognition that the functions of the University were under serious threat. Chapter four momentarily goes chronologically sideways to discuss the question of insourcing university workers and how this was resolved – at great cost but in the interests of social justice. In chapter five – 'What's in a name' – the book engages with questions of transformation. Refusing to reduce these to issues of representation or access (but neither to ignore the importance of these demands), Habib suggests that 'Transformation is not an immediate outcome. Rather, it is the result of the slow accumulation of structural reforms. It must be imagined as a continuous process' (93). He criticises immediatist perspectives and calls for more research into what changes have taken place. In this process he rejects arguments that 'nothing has happened', arguments implicit in UCT's recent IRTC (Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission) report (cf Nordling 2019). This chapter also highlights issues of gender and sexual harassment, pointing out how Wits dealt severely with various cases and that staff were fired. Within Wits there were demands for a 'moratorium' on the appointment of white staff (103). Habib, forthright as ever, rejected this view: 'not only did I think it was unconstitutional, but it went against the ethos of a research-intensive university' (103). Habib supports curriculum [End Page 210] reform...