A campus coup d'etat

Mike Berger says that what has been happening has little to do with the ostensible reasons being given

Coup d’état

Let's start by stating the obvious: the Universities are facing a coup d'etat. And maybe not only the Universities.

According to the VC of UCT, Dr Max Price (Politicsweb 25 Sept "Why Classes have been Suspended at UCT"), the following issues need to be addressed: affordability of higher education, racism, the pace of transformation, decolonisation, and sexual violence on campus. 

But what we actually see are running "protests" starting with "symbols of colonialism" like the Rhodes statue, moving rapidly onto "worker's rights" and terms of employment and then seamlessly continuing onto a host of the issues listed by Price. There is every reason to presume that this list of potential "issues" is infinitely extendable, limited only by the imagination of the students (and whoever may be encouraging them) and whatever memes happen to be flying around.

In fact, as anyone with an ounce of commonsense knows, these are mainly red herrings, slogans du jour, used to frame the media debates and to confer an air of legitimacy and rationality to spreading mob violence.

From the outset the protests were bullying, violent and utterly contemptuous of the rights, never mind the feelings and sensibilities, of others. In the course of these episodes, deeply offensive racist remarks and actions have been directed at fellow students and even staff with minimal consequence. Naturally it did not take long for this to morph into destruction of property and infrastructure.

The fact is that what has been happening has little to do with the ostensible reasons on which a great deal of hot air is being wasted, but the raw issue of power. What we actually see is a black power movement led by relatively privileged young people determined to assert moral, intellectual and even physical dominance on the campus - though their ambitions are not likely to be limited to that arena. What we are seeing is an attempted coup d’état.

Only by actually naming the phenomenon can we actually deal with the reality. Perhaps the most authentic voice of the movement is the sjambok-wielding black student screaming of "white arrogance" (presumably for existing) while intimidating and humiliating anyone in his path, rather that the mirages conjured out of the "grievances and demands" box of the movement's spokespersons. Any colonising taking place right now is of white minds and the University leadership.

So having identified the phenomenon it is possible to discuss it rationally. Where does it come from? What is it composed of? What are its aims above the raw exercise of power and the delights of "revenge" and domination? Is it necessary and what does it portend? And, finally, for this article at any rate, what positivities can be extracted from it? These are large and complex questions but here are some brief thoughts.

To a significant extent (not entirely) the student movements are a convulsive attempt on the part of black students to rid themselves of the mental bondage brought about by white domination. That is psychologically and morally understandable even though the expression is often ugly and counterproductive at many levels.

Such cathartic self-assertion, will only carry them so far and, depending on the outcome, may well leave them in a more dependent psychological and economic state than before. It is a tricky one for whites (and other minority groups) to handle but I believe little will be gained from abject capitulation. This will merely strengthen the more psychopathic elements within the movement and condemn all of us to a dismal future.

Part of the problem lie well outside the purely psychological however. South Africa is a highly tribalised society with deeply divided value systems and histories. Our leadership has failed to address this problem. On the contrary it is being increasingly exploited for political advantage and it is hardly surprising that spills over into student politics.

Coupling this to self-enrichment by the political elite, the cosy relationship between big business and entrenched political leadership, failures of service delivery (especially crime), economic stagnation and rampant factionalism it is not surprising that our politics, including student politics, is becoming more irresponsible and nihilistic.

It is also reasonable to ask whether the Universities have effective mechanisms for addressing student problems and has effective forums for debate and clarification. I suspect, however, the University is fairly sensitive to student concerns, even if only out of an instinct for self-preservation. There is undoubtedly a need to manage expectations and to vigorously counter the grandiose demands of wannabe revolutionaries.

Finally, regarding the current list of "issues" and the University's response. I wish to make only one point re colonisation and transformation directly to black students. The University is a colonial product from virtually top to bottom. It is the outcome of largely Western cultural, social, intellectual and technological evolution over almost a millennium. This cannot be wished away. You and we are unbelievably fortunate to have this legacy. Embrace it and conquer it.

You will conquer the University not by trashing it or intimidating its staff into submission or deriving special dispensation for yourself by exploiting "victimhood", but by academic achievement won by bitterly hard work. Anything else, is failure which will condemn you and your country to a permanent state of inferiority.

Other peoples are taking the high road and thereby transforming the European University into a global institution. Join them, or be left behind.

As for the leadership of our Universities: they owe it to the students, to the institutions they are privileged to serve and to our country to restore normal academic functioning, including due legal process and the normative values required for a respectable University. If National government is not willing or able to assist, the Provincial governments must step up. Further delay or weakness will only compound the difficulty and further dislocate our binding institutions. It must be done now.

Mike Berger