Mantashe and student protesters agree on university shutdowns, but this is the last thing Africa needs

I just listened to Gwede Mantashe, the secretary general of the ANC. He was asked about his views on the ongoing strife in our universities and the efforts led by militant students to shut them down.

Gwede Mantashe has a way of speaking which I have always found pretty peculiar: a mixture of common sense, hyper-realism, bombastic hubris and coarse humour typical of a hardened street fighter.

“I am not the minister of education,” he said.

“Because if I was, my first reaction would be to close them [universities]. For 16 months. And open them after six months, and close the residences for six months. After a year, people will know higher education will be important for their future.”

There is a lot of irony in the secretary general’s position. This week, the most militant sections of the student movement have been advocating for a shutdown of the universities including in physical battles with the police and other private security services in and outside various campuses. Mantashe is in agreement with them: closing the universities is, for him and for them, one way of getting out of the current mess. 

Mantashe and the militants nevertheless differ on a few points. The militants want to close the universities for an undisclosed amount of time –  presumably until the government agrees to implement the call for “free education for all” (the rich included). Mantashe would like to close them for a lot longer than the students may envisage.

If, for the militants, the shutdown is a means of pressurising the government and university management, for Mantashe it is a means of teaching students a lesson on the importance of higher education for their own future.  One side is using coercion as a means of forcing the government to better take care of the students. The other side would like to use coercion as a means of forcing students to better take care of themselves.

Mantashe referred to one country where, in the midst of similar crises, the politics of closing down higher education institutions had become a normal occurrence. He did not name it. In fact, to make his point, he could have cited countless examples from the rest of Africa in the 1980s-1990s. 

The other thing the secretary general did not say explicitly (may it be construed an intolerable threat) is that, in those countries which adopted the politics of closing down universities as a routine technique, the police or the military would usually be unleashed upon students on behalf of undemocratic governments. In cahoots with paramilitary forces often recruited among the students themselves, they would routinely rape a few students, physically brutalise countless others, arrest as many as they could, throw them in jail and torture them before sending them to military camps where they would be shaved and disciplined.

At other times, unemployed youth from the townships and shantytowns would be brought to campuses to foment mayhem, destroying infrastructure and “teaching a lesson or two to these privileged and ungrateful class of spoilt children”. As it happened, the police and the army would even kill a few. Panic would ensue and those staying in the dorms would be forcefully evicted and sent back home. At times, years would pass without any degrees being awarded. Faculty staff were lucky if they got paid in the meantime. In Francophone Africa, these were known as “annees blanches” (white years). 

The long-term consequences of such organised chaos were devastating.

Those (faculty staff and students) who could leave the country promptly left. Today, many are found in various corners of the planet. The formation of a very substantial African scholarly diaspora in places such as the present-day United States was the result of such a dislocation.

Those who could not leave were trapped in the fields of ruin their universities had suddenly become. Decaying infrastructure, global intellectual marginalisation, unplanned massification, “lumpenisation” of the professoriate, corruption and bad governance became the rule and academic freedom a pipe dream. The state had entirely colonised the academic sphere.

Universities earned a negative reputation and their status gradually declined. Their legitimacy was severely eroded as they went through a turbulent period of structural, infrastructural and moral decay. By the late 1990s, the “welfare model” of the university that had become dominant in the aftermath of decolonisation (no tuition, bursaries for almost all, free transport, free accommodation) was clinically dead.

Private providers soon moved in. From the late 1990s onwards, Africa witnessed a proliferation of private universities which operated according to pure market principles. Education was not so much a public good as it was an investment in one’s own future. As a valuable commodity, it was bought and sold on the market place. Debates on students’ rights became secondary. To use Mantashe’s language, those who ended up in such privatised ventures because they could not study abroad were “not doing anyone a favour”. By paying the required fees, they simply invested in their own future and eventually that of their families.

Today, some of the most vibrant universities in Africa are private institutions. A number of these private universities are confessional (Catholic, Islamic, Pentecostalist). Others are unabashedly commercial. Students are mostly taught in disciplines supposed to foster economic development, business and entrepreneurship. Hardly any of these institutions manifest any interest in the humanities. As a result, there are no endless debates on “the decolonisation of the curriculum”, the “vulnerable black child”, “black pain and the black body” and various other tropes from the Afro-pessimist lexicon.

Mantashe did not suggest that this is the way in which the politics of closing universities should unfold in South Africa. Nor did he advocate for the opening of the South African higher education market to private institutions and funders although there is no substantive reason why this country should not establish its own privately funded Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Duke.

But if the experience up North has anything to teach us (in this country which believes that there is strictly nothing to learn from the rest of Africa), it is the following: when the logic of repeated shutdowns of higher education institutions becomes the norm (a point of agreement between Mantashe and the most militant sections of the student movement), there can only be a very narrow range of outcomes.

Whenever public institutions are destroyed, crippled or rendered dysfunctional, the first loser is not necessarily the government.  Nor is it the rich private citizen.

The first loser is usually the poor. As a matter of fact, the poor usually pay the heaviest price whenever public institutions are paralysed. 

Why? Simply because their exit options are drastically limited. The poor always end up squatting at the institutions that have been subjected to willful destruction or benign neglect because, with everything torched, they have nowhere to return to. Whenever the politics of destruction prevail, they are always the most likely to live with the ashes.

If the unfolding economic dereliction is not forcefully addressed, rich South Africans (blacks and whites) will increasingly find their own exit options drastically reduced. But even in such a scenario, “equalisation from below” through the destruction of common infrastructure and public assets will still hit the poor harder.

Another lesson from up North is the following: it is pretty easy to destroy institutions. But there is no guarantee that once the destruction is over and violence recedes, those institutions will be easily rebuilt. It is never easy to rebuild what has been willfully erased and there is always something precious and unique which is forever lost every time institutions are destroyed or seriously damaged. How can we reform institutions without ruining the accumulated capital (material and immaterial) they harbour and which it is our duty to pass from generation to generation is therefore a question we might want to take seriously.

Finally, many have found Mantashe’s pronouncements outrageous. But who would seriously disagree with the generic principle that says “any right goes with a responsibility”? We cannot endlessly clamour for rights while having nothing to say about duties. It is also true that “if we destroy universities, we are not going to have them tomorrow and the dream of free education for the poor will fly through the window”.

As I listened to the secretary general, I kept wondering about the extent to which his opinion was the signal for an unfolding shift in our perception of what public universities are, and for him they exist in the first instance. We are starting to see a shift in the way in which public universities are perceived as well as in relation to the sources of their legitimacy.

There was a time in the rest of the continent when universities were considered pivotal tools in the building of the nation. They were seen as a public good. A public university was, then, the equivalent of a welfare institution.

Then came unrest, chaos and destruction in the midst of an economic crisis, indebtedness and structural adjustment policies imposed by international financial institutions. Just like the state, the university lost moral legitimacy. It was now seen not as a resource, but as a burden, a heavy load to be carried by those who directly sought to benefit from whatever it had to offer, starting with knowledge and skills.

It seems to me that if the current crisis is not decisively dealt with, the same might happen to South African universities. If we keep subscribing to their repeated shutdown (whether a la Mantashe or a la student militants), many will start wondering whether they are really that important. Many will realise that we can indeed close them, and nothing apparently happens. Things do not fall apart. People simply move on.

We need to come to a consensus in this most important nation in Africa. Public universities should be the last thing we try to shut down. A public university is an endlessly open project, both literally and figuratively. Once we shut down our universities, there is strictly nothing left. We expose our nakedness.



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