That South Africa has one of the best academic systems on the continent is beyond doubt. It is, for the most part, well-resourced and actively engaged in ground-breaking research on many fronts. It is exclusive – that cannot be denied – but it has well-established foundations, produces a great deal of research, and by all measures, leads the continent in many disciplines and fields. The South African academic system is also deeply engaged in understanding and solving South African challenges, and views itself as critical in the role of nation-building and intellectual leadership. We have many well-respected professors who are internationally renowned for their contributions, and exhibit a depth of knowledge and analytical capability that is enviable.
So it begs the question; with all the in-depth research and analysis that is undertaken each year, and with all the well-funded and resourced programmes we have that focus on the social and cultural dimensions of change in South Africa, why did nobody see the current student crisis coming? Moreover, why did nobody prepare adequately for it?
Indeed, the public is left with the impression that our institutions of higher learning have been caught off guard, that they have been unfairly cast before a set of circumstances that have appeared out of thin air, a complete surprise; a “black swan” that rose up from the hidden workings of society catching all and sundry unawares. Surely there is something wrong with this picture? After all, is it not precisely the purpose of research to detect significant societal changes that are unfolding, and especially those that threaten to destabilise it?
Climate scientists and researchers, for example, spend a lot of time warning society about the potentially harmful effects of climate change. Let’s not get into the merits of whether these warnings are taken up by society, but the fact is that the campaign to inform society about potential climate change impacts has been widespread and extremely active. They have got the word out.
What failed academia in respect of the youth uprising that is currently on its doorstep? Was it not foreseeable? I have sat in on many discussions where concerns were raised, and laborious data sets were presented about growing public discontent with the status quo (especially service delivery data). Youth politics has changed dramatically in recent years. Closer to home, there have been protests and grievance processes running at South African Universities since the early 1990s. With all the well-paid and highly skilled leadership teams that these institutions have had, how is it possible that nobody picked up on the warning signals?
Surely the question of how the best higher education system in Africa failed to pick up the signs that a veritable thunderstorm was brewing on its doorsteps speaks volumes for its incapacities and inadequacies? And is this not precisely the question that should be given the very highest of priorities right now?
With all the mea culpa’s, the angry accusations of militancy, radicalism and violence, the concerns about the academic year-end and the potential consequences of shutdown; the central question – which revolves around a critical failing of our institutions – is not being asked. Why is this the case?
To reiterate the point, we have many extremely skilled and intelligent academics, who produce volumes of research, secure large amounts of funding for research programmes, and collaborate with colleagues from across the globe. They are not stupid or ignorant. So why aren’t they asking themselves the questions that they should be, namely; how did this happen on our watch? What did we miss?
It’s all fine and well to point fingers in every direction, and descend into the minutiae of who did what first, and who is to blame for what, but surely, the burning question should be – to people who are concerned with understanding society and the changes unfolding within it – how did we miss a discontent so large that it has crippled our institutions?
Moreover, in order to solve a crisis that is characterised by deep conflict, surely one has to begin with recognising one’s role in helping create it, or catalysing it? Is that not what we teach our children? That no conflict is ever one-sided, and owning up to that is the basis for negotiating compromise. Putting oneself in another’s shoes, so to speak?
It simply cannot be that the system we have is beyond reproach, and beyond the need for re-envisioning and transformation, if it failed as dismally as it has in respect of the student protester movement that has all but crippled it, with great pain and regret on both sides of the fence. This must be acknowledged and absorbed, adequately contemplated, before we can even think of moving into a future where these protests cease to be the new norm.
Indeed the logic that poses that our institutions are above reproach, and that any tampering will ruin them, is surely misplaced? Surely this crisis, is a stronger indicator than ever, that the system itself is problematic in some – or many – ways? That it is in need of change?
I have many speculations and observations to offer on why our higher education systems failed to predict the crisis that landed so squarely on its doorstep, but for the sake of keeping the question open I will abstain from colouring the exploration of this question with my own suppositions. Academia needs to interrogate itself. If it cannot, then it is not an academic project in the true sense, it is merely a system of knowledge production, one that does not introspect deeply on the society that it is resides within.
I will say this, however. The fact that questions regarding what kind of changes are necessary are thrown back to twenty-something protesters with annoying regularity, indicates what mode of engagement our academics have descended to in addressing this crisis. It does not matter how many accusatory articles are written in the end, if an honest appraisal of the system is not something that South Africa’s intelligentsia are willing to undertake. And it would be ironic, as they have been central to a number of prescriptions regarding what kind of society we should aspire to live in, and continue to fight hard for their positions; amongst each other as well as in efforts to influence policy and decision-makers.
What is clear, is that it is time for academia to take some of its own medicine, humble itself, and get down to solving the very pressing and potentially enlightening and transformative challenges that face it. There is no way around this central fact; that this crisis has been a long time in the making, and that many feet have dragged on issues concerning inclusivity and transformation. The proverbial chickens have come home to roost and it is ridiculous to treat them as pure externalities, as events outside of the control of university administrations. This crisis is not just about fees, it is about the lack of an inclusive academic culture, and a rigid adherence to a status quo that is unquestioning of itself. The crisis mirrors that unfolding in our society and we would do well to put all our effort into understanding and acting upon it, before it’s too late.