FLASHBACK twenty-seven years to September 1989: police had fired on demonstrators on the Durban campus of the University of Natal ahead of the (final) whites-only general election. Pietermaritzburg staff and students decided to march on Alexandra Road police station in solidarity, but the riot squad were one step ahead and blocked the university’s King Edward Avenue entrance. The marchers sat down in the road. Van after van arrived and the protestors were arrested row by row until some dim-witted officer realised that people were queuing up to be taken away and chased off the remainder. Three hundred and ninety-six detained demonstrators spent an entertaining afternoon at the riot police depot at Plessislaer before the vans took them into town to the Magistrate’s Court. There, Campus Principal Colin Webb pitched up with bail money, a suitcase full of R50 notes, and a supply of hamburgers. The last of the demonstrators arrived home in the early hours.

Three weeks ago at the same junction where we were arrested I watched twenty youths, some clearly part of the Economic Freedom Front student command, throw rubbish and rocks across the road and declare King Edward Avenue closed. A couple of drivers disagreed and revved through the apology for a barricade sending a student sprawling. His enraged colleagues started stoning every car in sight before public order police charged around the corner firing tear gas rounds. Almost every day, ostensibly in support of the abolition of student fees, there are similar incidents. Molotov cocktail caches have been found residences and the William O’Brien complex has been struck twice by arsonists. The most notorious episode in this trail of destruction was the torching of the law library on the Durban campus. Yes, the medieval practice of book burning is currently in vogue in South Africa.

Such images fill our television screens. But the significant developments are more mundane. The Pietermaritzburg campus is now full of private security guards sporting combat gear and motorbike helmets controlling access to buildings and perimeter gates. It is they who give permission to enter the library, which not long ago was a facility open to the public. University security personnel stand around looking helpless. Otherwise the premises are eerily empty of staff ‒ experience suggests they are locked away behind security gates. At present the university is functioning at a basic level, but there are numerous signs that its very future, like that of all South Africa’s higher education sector, is fragile indeed. The extent of the crisis and the vacuum of authority were highlighted by a rumour that the police had taken control of all university campuses. Like speculation about a state of emergency, this turned out to be baseless but illustrated how close to disaster higher education now stands.

Universities cannot function in the climate of violence that is now the norm. Voices of reason have been marginalised; intimidation is rife. Extremists can empty a residence at dawn and instruct its occupants to join in protest. Whether a lecture takes place, a laboratory functions or students can study in a library is no longer the prerogative of the university authorities. It is now determined by a bunch of thugs (the description given by a Pietermaritzburg magistrate who has refused bail to seven students charged with public violence and obstruction of police) guilty of criminal activity that should earn them permanent exclusion from higher education.

Like all movements prepared to exercise violence in pursuit of populist aims, this one can quickly mobilise a crowd. Reduced to newspaper or television coverage it can look impressive, but it is still the work of a small minority. The bottom line is that the constitutional right of a mass of university staff and students to teach, learn and research is being repeatedly abused. Does South Africa have a government asked former academic, now member of Parliament, Belinda Bozzoli? Its response to the higher education crisis has been inept; the normally voluble minister of higher education, Blade Nzimande, reduced to indignant platitude.

Apart from their own brand of violence signalling complete incompetence when it comes to crowd control, the police have resorted to that hoary old South African myth, the third force. There is no third force, nor has there ever been. It is simply a denial mechanism to avoid the truth that various movements and institutions harbour the extremely violent; in this particular case student criminals. Nor is the unrest just about fees. At a tactical level it concerns the maintenance of a situation of permanent institutional crisis. Such so-called revolutionary action involves constant moving of the goalposts with the deliberate intention that no issue will ever be satisfactorily resolved. It is a ploy of opportunists and flourishes under meaningless terms like ‘transformation’. In such circumstances negotiation, mediation and any other reasonable process becomes pointless and worthless. This could indeed be the revolution that did not happen in the 1990s.

But strategically, another term has entered the revolutionary lexicon: ‘decolonisation’. Universities long ago transformed their curricula and staff and student profiles yet transformation is, supposedly, as far away as ever. Thus the demand for decolonisation: its objective appears to be fundamental change in the character, ethos and governance of universities. Demands for involvement in day-to-day administration have already been made, but the highly fluid agenda goes far beyond this. It strikes at the heart of academic authority: the sovereignty of ideas and reason, the role of the teacher, and academic freedom. What price the last in institutions dominated by people whose preferred means of dialogue involves demented rhetoric, intimidation, stone throwing and arson; in which the rule of law and the rights enshrined in the constitution are meaningless?

South African universities have been their own worst enemies, tolerating those who pose a threat to their very existence for far too long. A catastrophic decline in the structures and quality of university administration over the last ten years has made this situation almost inevitable. Ironically the country’s flagship institution, University of Cape Town, has been the first to close down (although University of Zululand, which has reportedly sold 4 000 degrees, has been inoperative since August) and resort to a virtual existence. This is presumably the future: online education, although even that will require a basic and vulnerable infrastructure. The technocrats will feel gloriously vindicated oblivious to the impossibility of learning Science without laboratories, Music without practice rooms and Drama without a stage. Oddly enough Sabinet, the national bibliographic database, has been advertising on lampposts near the Pietermaritzburg campus. Why it needs to do so is puzzling, but maybe this is prophetic. Are libraries and universities as we know them dead? If so, inspired teaching will disappear together with the value of universities as communities of human beings. Violent intimidators will be thwarted but increasing resort to cyberspace will simply accentuate growing alienation.

A colleague nearly ten years ago reminded me how proud we used to be to say that we worked at the local university. Now, she said, ‘I hide the fact.’ Who would want to teach in an institution at which students throw excrement around lecture theatres, where libraries are torched and students live in fear of exercising their right to learn? Talented people, staff and students, will simply walk away from universities that have been turned into police states to protect them against their violent members.

Yet, amidst the chaos there has been barely a mention of its root cause: the dysfunctional public high school system. A large fraction of university students are not equipped to be there, forcing the higher education sector to function in lieu of secondary education. Whatever the decision on fees this seems to be the fate of South Africa’s universities: surrogate high schools awarding the certificates so many believe to be the passports to employment. This tipping point has probably arrived. Institutions will doubtless survive, but no longer entitled to the description of universities.

Sharp Thoughts from the Thornveld 47, 18 October 2016