Chaos on campus: What is to be done?

Mike Berger says it is time for zero tolerance towards protests which overstep normative and legal boundaries

Mere anarchy

Images of students battling police and trashing property on University campuses have become commonplace and predictable. These mirror similar events which have been occurring all over the country (and globally) with seemingly increasing frequency, though the loss of life has diminished substantially from the bloody days of the early 1990's.

The popular media feeds off (and stokes) such sensational events. Hence, despite much passionate rhetoric there is remarkably little in the way of serious analysis of why this is occurring, what it portends and what, if anything, could have and still should be done to remedy it.

We live in a "small" country (indeed world) courtesy of the power and impact of modern communications technology and the media industry. This highly efficient but selective meme dissemination engine blankets the country tapping into historical and cultural divisions, tribal instincts, old and new identities, individual and collective frustrations and grievances and dominant, self-serving narratives created by the political-media axis.

In this environment, serious factual analysis hardly impacts the "meme space" in which political battles are conducted, in any significant way. For instance, despite the heavy news presence of the current "feesmustfall" movement (itself the offspring of "rhodesmustfall", which demonstrated the impotence of the Universities/State in the face of grievance backed by mob violence), how many of general population can answer simple questions concerning the central issue of fees within tertiary education.

In order to begin to understand and evaluate the legitimacy of student demands, the information required would minimally include university costs, what bursaries and other financial aids are available to deserving students, how many potential students are unfairly disadvantaged/blocked from a university education for economic reasons, how much/little  exploitation of assisted education occurs now and what steps would be taken to ensure an "enhanced" system would not be exploited in the future... and so on.  It would also include what representation in respect of fees have already been made and what kind of response ensued.

I'm not aware of any serious effort made by any quarter to make such information systematically available to the general public. This together with the manifest weakness and confusion of University Administration has opened the political arena to endless manipulation and spin by ideological  activists and has incentivised political entrepreneurs of all stripes to up the ante with violence coupled to an infinite reservoir of fresh demands/grievances. Writ large, such processes are reproduced on the national and even the global scale to a variable extent.

But even in the absence of decent factual information and informed debate it is possible to formulate a broad intellectual perspective within which the current turmoil in the Universities, schools and society at large can be viewed.

In part it is indeed the legacy of our complex, multiple histories including, but not exclusively, the physical brutality, psychological indignity, economic exclusion and social marginalisation of black, coloured and Indian communities under colonialism and Apartheid. But, and there is a large "but", having freely conceded the negative impact of white domination on other groups, especially black Africans,  the reduction of all current "problems"  to a Manichean fairytale of evil colonialists and innocent natives also contributes to the present troubled political state of South Africa.

It is intended to psychologically disarm whites from asserting their own individual, never mind collective, interests in the new South Africa and to provide activists with an impregnable moral fortress from which to justify their actions. Such strategies are reflected in the racist and offensive construct of "whiteness" as a form of original sin which echoes the worst of 20th century bigotry and provides demagogues with covers for their own tribal and personal agendas.

The issue, therefore, is not whether injustices continue to exist in South Africa or whether they have a racial or ethnic dimension. Manifestly they do and need urgent remedy. Equally manifestly, this cannot be allowed to provide a licence for endless appeasement of patently unlawful, thuggish behaviour, for the suppression of the rights of others and for the exclusion of voices which deviate from the current slogans occupying the minds of the noisiest elements. Yet, as pointed out by David Benatar in a recent article in Politicsweb, this is precisely what has happened.

The recent history of University response to the challenge laid down by the hard-line student activist core, has been abysmal appeasement and capitulation under cover of "understanding" and conflict management.

It is not for students, still in their intellectual and experiential diapers, to dictate to their elders the substance of the University, its mission, its operational guidelines or its ethos. It is their right and duty to engage in vigorous and respectful debate and even protest. And it is their obligation as students in a higher educational establishment, (which they, ironically, owe to the legacy of their colonisers) to not only tolerate but listen to and engage with views  with which they are unfamiliar or find disturbing or even distasteful.

Finally, it is the direct line responsibility of the VC and the University Executive Committee to draw clear red lines as to what form protest may take and to ensure that these are adhered to. Right now, without any further caveats and qualifications, it is time for zero tolerance towards protests which overstep the normative and legal boundaries of University behaviour. Only this will restore the reputation of the University in the eyes of the public which supports it and will ensure a foundation for future development.

Although this article has focussed fairly narrowly on the University, it needs to be stated that the rot starts mainly at the top with the ANC and its allies. To analyse the set of false beliefs, ideologies, tribal impulses, psychological aberrations and personal ambitions which drive their actions is beyond the scope of this article.

But the consequence is a low trust, inequitable, hyperpolarised and fragmented society in which anarchic anger and violence is barely contained by the constraints of social and institutional norms. We are desperately in need of pragmatic but visionary leadership. Where else can it come but from the people themselves.

As an immediate step let the Universities show the way by apologising and re-inviting Flemming Rose to deliver his 2016 TB Davie Memorial Lecture, by ceasing all dialogue with student leaders until due order has been restored and until it has elicited a commitment to a set of normative rules for the conduct of protest and debate and, finally, making available to the broader public an internet site providing basic information regarding University fees and a moderated forum for debate. However without a positive pro-active response from the broader body of students and staff this may not fully turn the tide.

The rest of us will judge accordingly.

Mike Berger