Wits and UCT: Two paths taken

William Gild says Adam Habib is courageously trying to keep his university open, while Max Price has just folded

The University of Cape Town (UCT) and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), both large institutions (combined enrollment of approximately 60,000 students), share a legacy of uncompromising opposition to apartheid, and currently high (but falling) positions in global university rankings.

But, today, in terms of their responses to the thuggery and plain criminality of the Fallists and their motley band of camp-followers, the distinction between these outstanding institutions couldn’t be clearer.

Dr. Habib of Wits, notwithstanding his own support for fee-free higher education, recognizes his responsibility to “confront head on” ( Helen Zille ) those who would defile his university with faeces, throw petrol bombs, burn busses, intimidate and assault fellow students, not to mention faculty and senior administrative personnel, and loot neighborhood stores.

He recognizes his university’s obligation to the tens of thousands of its students who have paid dearly for their education, and who desperately desire to improve their (and their country’s) lot. He understands that surrender to the thugs will leave his university in ruins, probably never to regain the ground lost.

So, he and his senior executive took the only path available to them; they opened the university on Monday. Sure, there was mayhem. Sure, the thugs provoked the police to take steps they surely would have preferred not to take. Sure, there were casualties, both human and property. Sure, the rioting overflowed into Braamfontein, resulting in a bus being set alight, not to mention looting and significant damage to civil and commercial life in the area.

But…half the scheduled lectures were held. And in this fact, and the fact that Wits remains open, he succeeded in sending a message, loud and clear: Wits stands! Wits will not be brought to its knees by rampaging mobs of sjambok-and knobkierrie wielding, as well as missile and petrol throwing, thugs.

Further South, at UCT, another narrative has unfolded. Max Price, never one to tarnish his image as appeaser in chief, has firmly set his institution on a path to irrelevancy. He abjectly apologized to “students” who suffered a few bruises at the hands of the Public Order police, exposed his students and staff ( academic and non-academic ) to repeated intimidation and assault, and provided cover to the thugs who burnt artwork ( and vans ), not to mention his own office, on campus.

He persists in the delusional belief that repeatedly (and, to date, unproductively ) “engaging” with the mob’s leaders will magically bring peace to campus. He writes erudite letters trying to legitimize his shameful policy of appeasement and capitulation.

But worst, and not unexpectedly, he now completes his journey to abject surrender by withdrawing security on UCT’s campuses, and by agreeing further to “engage” with, amongst others, a “student” interdicted from entering UCT property (the interdict itself cost UCT R250,000 in legal fees ), and currently on bail for criminal acts committed against UCT and the SAPS.

Increasing numbers of thoughtful and insightful commentators are coming round to the realization that what’s occurring on campuses around the country has little, if anything, to do with fees, or transformation, or decolonization. It has to do with raw power, with control, with destabilization of the entire country, and deep narcissistic impulses.

I believe that Dr. Habib understands this; Max Price clearly doesn’t.

So, as of writing UCT remains shut, and Wits is open for business. Both institutions face the real possibility that their 2016 academic year will not be concluded, but no-one can say that Wits didn’t at least try, honourably, and bravely to stand up to the forces of darkness.