Universities in Crisis: Why Minister should do Nothing about it

Our universities are in crisis – here’s why Minister Blade Nzimande should do absolutely nothing about it.

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20 years ago, Marguerite Poland began her seminal work – Shades – with the following words: “There is an odd sense of predestination. It is strange how strongly I feel it. But I shall leave before it takes me in, before I become its victim.”
South African universities are currently gripped by a crisis that threatens the very essence of the academy. At the heart of it all is the issue relating to what these institutions ought to represent. The issues are more explicit in the institutions that suffer from the apartheid hangover of being classified as pro-Afrikaans in nature. Through it all, the loudest silence itself has been from the eminent Bonginkosi Blade Nzimande – the liberal communist also known as the Minister of Higher Education. Naturally everyone sees the Minister’s silence as an abrogation of responsibility and the type of reason that would make most ministers hang their heads in shame. Except of course this is not the case. Minister Nzimande is completely right in his stance.
The current university crisis is not fundamentally about fees. It is about the very essence of the African academy. The various universities claim to be incapable of managing the crisis and desperately need assistance from the minister. This is hypocritical at worst and laughable at best. The hypocrisy lies in the tendency of such institutions to confer upon themselves the unilateral ability to dictate to the state when it ought to intervene and when it ought to stay away. The basis for such decisions seems to be nothing more than an occasional meeting of that company known as the ‘Universities South Africa NPC’ – a most unorthodox company if ever there was one. This is occasionally followed by an abrupt press release that generally condemns violence, mentions the sanctity of the right to peaceful protest and calls on the state to do something. From my vantage point – very few of such press releases have ever encouraged a group of protesters to stop marching and read a press release. I might be wrong though. In any case we all know that the elephant in the room is yet again the idea of autonomy.
Last week, I received a request from 3 individuals soliciting my views regarding the current state of the university system. Naturally I have been silent because precisely nothing about the current crisis surprises me except for the fact that it took us so long to get here. Let us take a step in time to dissect how we ended up here.
From the creation of the University of Cape Town in 1829, universities have romanticized a few core ideals on how they ought to function and what their social role is. Conventional wisdom has prescribed that they would perform much better if they retained the right to define and implement their own curricula. This became defined as ‘institutional autonomy’. Such an ideal works best in a normal society. Except ours isn’t a normal society. The story of the 3 M’s is at the core of the current struggle. The 3 M’s represent 3 of the most controversial black scholars in the history of the South African academy – Archibald Mafeje; Mahmood Mamdani and Malegapuru Makgoba. In 1968, Archie Mafeje was offered the post of senior lecturer at UCT in the Humanities Faculty. At this stage, UCT had positioned itself as the intellectual vanguard against the apartheid state and did not entertain any interference from the political apparatus (autonomous). This meant that it could appoint whoever it liked in any capacity without deferring to the state for approval. Until 1968.
In 1968, after an exhaustive interview process, UCT offered Mafeje the post of senior lecturer. Jan de Klerk – the Education Minister and father of FW de Klerk – then decided to issue a letter to the Council of UCT advising against the appointment. Armed with the full might of its ‘autonomy’ and commitment to academic freedom, the UCT Council bizarrely decided to agree with De Klerk and withdraw the offer. Upon hearing this, the student body of UCT occupied the Brenmer building for 9 days starting from 13 August 1968. The impasse was only broken when the Council and Senate issued a letter citing their disagreement with the minister’s decision – but nevertheless sticking to it.


At this stage, UCT and that other vanguard of convenient political expedience – Wits University – sought out to pursue a programme of action that entrenched institutional autonomy which would ensure that they would never be influenced by government interference again. Wits’ position was influenced by the fact that they had denied their most distinguished scholar – a certain Nelson Mandela – his LLB degree for what eventually turned out to be a remarkable 46 years.


The concept of institutional autonomy as it currently stands was the net result of spirited lobbying and was finally ratified by FW de Klerk – who had followed his father’s footsteps by becoming the Education Minister in 1984. Throughout these years, universities enjoyed a unique ability to call on state funds for their functioning and yet be able to set their own agenda with limited state interference. This is a status they have spiritedly defended ever since. The problem with this status is that it also confers on the universities the ability to adopt a curriculum that has no African context in itself. It also allows them to define the culture and make-up of the professoriate. It also serves as method of convenient suppression of the black academic. In this case, UCT was happy to use its autonomous status in keeping its academic programmes quintessentially Eurocentric and avoiding the employment of black academics in order to avoid offending the state.


At other institutions, the government of the day still managed to dictate fundamental issues relating to language policies, quotas for non-white students and curriculum design. Such institutions that towed the line were rewarded with generous subsidies and an even greater financial windfall if they managed to make the Afrikaans language the primary medium of instruction (welcome to the conversation UFS, Tukkies, Potch, Stellenbosch). Meanwhile, the black universities were starved from the funding windfall and subjected to political interference linked to the ability of the state to unilaterally declare a state of emergency on any organ it wished. And hence the different types of universities were created (and thrived) not on the basis of academic excellence but the ability to exploit political patronage.
This autonomy was used by universities to retain a professorship made up of old white men whose capacity to resist transformational objectives is cloaked under the guise of autonomy itself. UCT found itself at the epicenter of this dilemma again in the 1990s. At this stage, Mafeje had established himself as the pre-eminent African scholar in Anthropology after his PhD from Cambridge. Sensing the changing political landscape, Mafeje offered UCT the unique ability to amend for the scandal of 1968 by applying for a post in the Department of African studies in 1993.


This meant that UCT had at its disposal the most accomplished black intellectual seeking to return home and make a contribution to the development of African scholarship at his alma mater. Except UCT screwed up – monumentally. Confused by the idea of a black man being good enough to be a professor – despite the fact that he had been a professor at various international institutions for 27 year – UCT responded with the offer of a senior lecturer post for a 12-month period. Naturally, Mafeje turned this down.
Later on, UCT decided to advertise the chair of African studies for which they had rejected Mafeje – only for a Mahmood Mamdani to take it up. Mamdani was a Princeton professor who hailed from Uganda. Mamdani was one of the original exhibits of the current scandal at South African universities of appointing black academics from foreign countries in order to tick the box for equity purposes which is apparently formed on the perception that foreign black staff are more willing to accept the status quo compared to the indigenous blacks who ‘keep questioning things’.


Except Mamdani refused to comply with the status quo. Keen on de-constructing the Eurocentric curriculum so prevalent at UCT, Mamdani introduced a course in African studies. As he imagined, it made sense to infuse the teaching of African issues into the curriculum in order to facilitate African scholarship. Except the Senate of UCT intervened and blocked the course altogether as it threated the Europeanism of the institution. Through these twin developments of the 1990s, the state was paralysed from intervening as the universities were subjected to an autonomy that meant that they could unilaterally decide that African scholarship was not necessary on their campuses. And so the state kept its distance.
Back at Wits, Robert Charlton had decided that his successor as vice-chancellor should be a black man. After a worldwide search for an academic who had limited connections with the ANC, Malegapuru Makgoba from Oxford University was selected as the candidate. And so he joined Wits in 1995 as the university’s first black deputy vice-chancellor with the departure of Charlton set for 1997. At that stage – as it is today – the Senate of the institution was dominated by the old white cabal whose primary mandate it was to retain the status of the institution and avoid ‘lowering standards’ which simply meant a refusal to accommodating the very idea of African scholarship.


Except of course Makgoba was no ordinary black scholar. As soon as he settled in, Makgoba set about pursuing an agenda of promoting African scholarship within the institution – only to be openly challenged by 13 senior academics who set out to destroy him. The most prominent members of this group were Charles van Onselen, June Sinclair and Etienne Mureinik who employed various forms of deceit, deception and manipulation to get rid of Makgoba and install June Sinclair as the vice-chancellor. After a spirited dogfight that succeeded in getting rid of Makgoba he retaliated by writing a scathing critique of his experience at Wits which is recommended reading for all those who wish to understand current crisis at South African universities. And so Wits lost an opportunity to transform itself. Sinclair eventually ran for the post of VC alongside Njabulo Ndebele and they both lost to Sam Notshulungu – who then decided not to take up the post after all and died soon thereafter. Makgoba exited Wits. Mureinik walked from his office in the West campus to a hotel in Braamfontein and killed himself by jumping from the 23rd floor at the Parktonian Hotel. Van Onselen and Sinclair were offered senior posts at the paragon of transformational inclusivity – Pretoria University. Through all of this, the state was unable to intervene due to the existence of autonomy.
We are currently witnessing the polarization of the various universities regarding issues of language policies. These are not 2016 issues. Rather, these are the ghosts of Mafeje, Mamdani and Makgoba reviving themselves at these institutions and asking the simple question of how such institutions can be so intellectually anti-African and expect to thrive within the African context. The issue at Pretoria University is that when the political regime deemed it fit to fund the infusion of the Afrikaans language into the curriculum they found a way to do so. And the students are simply asking how such a dispensation was limited to one language. When I walked through the corridors of UCT, UKZN, Wits and Pretoria I was able to remain oblivious to the exclusionary state of the academy – except today’s students do not share this sense of oblivion.
It is therefore an absolute fallacy for the university principals to declare they have no understanding of what’s creating the current crisis – they were warned of it through the intellectual hysterics of ZK Matthews, Archie Mafeje, Mahmood Mamdani and Malegapuru Makgoba – and they pretended to deal with the issues – only to completely miss the point. It is especially surprising for UCT to sound surprised by it all. Because once Njabulo Ndebele lost the Wits leadership race in the 1990s, he went off to replace Mamphele Ramphele at UCT. Ramphele had completely ignored the Mafeje scandal and Ndebele initially did the same, until he reached the end of his term and realized the problem needed to be addressed. Unfortunately by the time Ndebele had this epiphany, Mafeje was long dead, and Max Price had been offered the UCT leadership. Max Price had been part of the Wits Faculty during the Makgoba years. As part of his installation, Price offered an apology to Mafeje and he and Ndebele conferred an honorary doctorate on Mafeje in August 2008 – precisely 40 years after the debacle started. So if no one else – Max Price knows exactly what ‪#‎RhodesMustFall is talking about!
So what is the Minister’s position in all of this? Well it is simple really – he shouldn’t do a thing. The unrest we see today is centred around how the institutions have constructed themselves – using autonomy as the primary tool of insulation from the Minister’s intervention. So the institutions need to fix this mess and so far – the denialism they have used to discredit the protest is not working – and it never will.
From the day ZK Matthews introduced the essence of African Scholarship at Fort Hare in 1945, through the Mafeje affair of 1968 and the Makgoba scandal of 1995; such individuals have warned us about the impending sense of predestination. They became its victims. And the rest of us feigned ignorance of it all. Over a year ago, Chumani Maxwele walked past the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at UCT and felt an odd sense of predestination. Like most of us, he could have walked on and ignored it all. Except he didn’t become the victim of it all. He tackled it. And the university system is all the better for it. Whether they realise it or not.

By Khaya S Sithole

Academic at the University of the Witwatersrand

He writes in his personal capacity. The views expressed are not necessarily those of Afropolitan Explosiv or any of its subsidiaries.