Adam Habib, Rebels and Rage: Reflecting on #FeesMustFall (Jonathan Ball, 2019); and Wandile Ngcaweni and Busani Ngcaweni (eds) We Are No Longer at Ease: The Struggle for #FeesMustFall (Jacana, 2018)

WORLDWIDE, the shelf life of university vice-chancellors is declining rapidly; and nowhere faster than in South Africa. Universities have been expected to massify (accept thousands of under-prepared and poor students), sustain postgraduate teaching and research output, attract quality staff, and maintain infrastructure; while the State has steadily eroded their subsidies. Their only escape route from bankruptcy has been to raise student tuition fees in the face of government refusal to fund its own ambitious policies.

The inevitable explosion peaked from 2015 to 2017. It started in the spirit of eighties anti-apartheid protest, a non-racial and relatively cohesive movement to halt fee increases. This escalated into a demand for free higher education and was joined by another for institutional decolonisation. Increasingly fractured, the Fallist movement soon jettisoned any semblance of United Democratic Front heritage and turned to racial nationalism and violence with disruption of academic life, violation of the civil rights of staff and students, and arson – of which the most outrageous example was the burning of the Law Library on the Durban campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Adam Habib

Adam Habib was at the eye of this storm at University of the Witwatersrand. The situation became so fraught that he and his family had to move house – twice. Habib is a respected anti-apartheid activist well-versed in struggle tactics, but he found himself confronted with a very different set of circumstances that he describes as the ‘politics of spectacle’. What started as a grassroots movement with wide support quickly developed a vanguardist character led by posturing ‘commissars of a revolution’ dispensing wild and racist rhetoric. Habib admits that many student leaders were polite and civil to him face-to-face, but engaged in vile, personal abuse in public and on social media that he tellingly typifies as far-right. Sometimes he had to be escorted around his own campus to avoid being taken hostage. But there was humour: having been cursed by a sangoma, prayers were said for him, a Muslim, by Anglican bishops.

Habib is unafraid to name names and write bluntly. He gives a number of examples of the lying and duplicity of student leaders, their crude and inciting language, and the fact that some were under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Promises to negotiate were broken and when a joint protest in favour of free education was organised, students reneged. Mediators who became involved displayed a naiveté that in some cases can only have been partisanship. A summit called in early 2017 ended in total and threatening chaos.

Perhaps appropriately, Habib’s overall attitude to students is forgiving; something he does not extend to far-left academic staff, some of them foreigners, whom he excoriates. Hiding behind self-righteousness, self-indulgence, and pseudo-academic jargon they implicitly condoned or romanticised violence against their own institutions, made radical demands for which they had no practical way forward, and broadcast fake news to the international community. Others claimed agnosticism towards the very principles that protected their academic existence.

The Fallist movements accompanied a surge in anti-Zuma sentiment and fell prey to factionalism. University campuses become a battleground for party political warfare, particularly between ANC and EFF supporters. Academic and management issues were at the mercy of broader agendas and individuals outside universities that saw campus shutdowns as strategic. Central to Habib’s actions was a concern for the overwhelming majority of staff and students of varying opinion who wished to get on with their work as proven by an opinion poll; and he never tired of reminding the world that this included many of the poorest students who could not afford disruption to their studies. He had little option but to employ security companies and enlist the assistance of the police, who use their own protocols and are not necessarily responsive to a university’s preferences. Radical staff and students portrayed this protection of the majority as ‘occupation’ and ‘militarisation’. Perhaps the most important issue raised by Habib’s thoughtful and readable book is that of violence in places of higher education in a democratic society.

Some of the most vocal protestors were female: one was responsible for invading an examination venue and tearing up a Chemical Engineering student’s script; heroic and revolutionary action indeed. But it was not long before women were marginalised: predictably the Fallist movement was fundamentally patriarchal.

One of the causes linked to the Fallist movement was that of outsourcing of what can broadly be described as housekeeping activity. This had been the cheap and easy way universities had avoided an undoubted burden, but one that had attracted many critics including Habib himself. He describes how all essential functions were successfully insourced, the initial cost being borne by interest earned by research grants in spite of his misgivings about ceding research impetus to universities of the global North. As he points out, all change involves trade-offs plus downsides; in this case union demands that make long-term budgeting difficult.

Habib confirms that the terms ’transformation’ and its successor ‘decolonisation’ are essentially vacuous. He argues that change is necessarily incremental, but the Fallists treated it as a political event. Whenever challenged for detail, they could come up with little of substance that had not already been implemented or fell within the competence of government, not universities. One demand was, however, very telling: university governance was to be collapsed into the simple expedient of mass meetings, well known for the silencing of ‘rational and pragmatic voices’.

Exactly what he was up against is revealed in the collection edited by Wandile and Busani Ngcaweni. Almost all of the three dozen contributions are short, many of them statements and speeches, and most never get beyond description to any sort of rational argument or analysis. But the book does have an intriguing structure: in general its tone becomes more reasonable as it progresses.

The opening chapters thus dwell on contemporary ‘legitimate pain’, ‘democratic indifference’, ‘subjugation and repression’ and ‘chains of oppression’ (Mcebo Dlamini, the student who lauded Hitler); and the facts that whiteness is the problem, assimilation an ‘ulcer’, and that ‘we are murdered in plain daylight’ (Ramabina Mahapa). There is a great deal more, some of it simple victimology dressed up in academic jargon such as ‘white supremacist heteropatriarchy capitalism’ (Sarah Mokwebo) and the ‘cis-hetero-white-male-capitalist’ project (Kneo Mokgopa). Wandile Ngcaweni reports sympathetically that ‘Students react to [managerial] bullying by supporting those ready to break bones and flood/burn libraries in retaliation’, an extraordinary implicit incitement to violence, while ‘social media has opened intellectual spaces’.

Azola Dayile describes universities as ‘anti-black space’ and Wits University as an anti-black institution to justify denying all-black space to whites. Nkateko Mabasa rails against the ‘death of African personality … no more than hollow empty shells … robbed of all individuality. Broken by the barbarous system that disguises itself as liberal education, our forefathers have met their end at these heinous crimes [sic] that have been created to feed the abhorrent beast that is white supremacy.’ And so on …

Like abstruse academic jargon, this impresses few people except a small in-group who glory in narrow rhetoric. The names of Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon litter these contributions without further explanation. But the collection does have one major virtue: it dismisses transformation as a numbers game and comes clean about decolonisation. It means complete deconstruction. The internationally recognised idea of the university is vilified as ‘colonial space’ and is to be dismantled, re-imagined and ‘made habitable’ (Mabone Kgosiemang). This is a fancy way of saying run by patriarchs operating behind a façade of democracy provided by general assembly governance. Ultimately the Fallist movement is not about education, but raw power. This book leaves the reader with a sense that it is all about those who shout the loudest and are prepared to act violently; which, in turn, must lead to new inequalities.

While these contributions are correct to reject rainbow nation mythology, they are also notable for what they blatantly neglect. There is little recognition of government failure to fund higher education adequately, in part because of the irredeemably corrupt character of the ANC. Similarly, the chaotic failure of the state school system, a central and provincial government responsibility, is ignored. In effect, Fallism provided a smokescreen for ANC failure. It was not, as suggested, a South African version of the Arab Spring.

To their credit the editors have allowed a voice to Imraan Buccus, a UKZN staff member. He notes a ‘vicious form of … online authoritarianism and bullying from within the ranks of the protestors’ and suggests that Fallism was penetrated not only by the Zupta faction of the ANC and the EFF, but also intelligence service provocateurs. Political capture, racialisation, outrageous chauvinism and thuggery are its characteristics; together with what Buccus describes as disrespect for previous struggle generations. He quotes Julius Nyerere on the burden of responsibility shouldered by university students towards post-colonial society as a whole. One of the editors, Wandile Ngcaweni, emphasises the importance of education for self-employment and entrepreneurship from within the technical and vocational sector of higher education.

Other sane voices are heard, too. Some, like Asanda Luwaca, decry the commodification of higher education with students regarded as clients. Qhama Bona lists the comprador class, kleptocracy and tenderpreneurship as enemies of university funding. Akhona Mdunge, a Democratic Alliance student leader at University of Pretoria, writes sensibly that ‘The issue of over-excessive radicalism on one side and white arrogance on the other only sees the country moving in circles rather than forward.’ Unfortunately, the death of Bongani Mayosi of the University of Cape Town, whose ‘soul was vandalised’ by Fallist students according to his sister, is dealt with only superficially.

Some of the most effective voices in this book are those of women who describe and condemn patriarchal violence and violent masculinity: misogyny, bullying, slurs and threats that caused Anele Madonsela to abandon the Fallists at University of Johannesburg as early as December 2015. Adam Habib recalled with some irony a panicked call from a female student leader terrified by the conduct of male comrades. Tshepiso Modupe bravely records her sexual assault and the fact that she ended up in a psychiatric ward.

Such are the realities of higher education in South Africa today. They inevitably invoke past critiques from Jonathan Jansen, possibly the first academic to question whether universities in the true sense still survive in this country. There are differing opinions, but these two books must lead to a conclusion that if they do, the endgame may not be far off.