The shutting down of universities in the context of student protests is neither unique nor original to South Africa. It has been a preferred weapon of repression for dictators all over the world.
Several post-independence African governments have invoked this weapon many times over the past 40 years. The salutary role of student protests and student leaders as a force for social change – nationally, continentally and globally – is well established and can never be gainsaid.
Student protests have had a particular significance in post-independence Africa. In many countries, the attainment of independence was followed by great efforts at the massification of basic education and the opening up of higher education opportunities for the children of the masses, with new universities being established.
One of the many consequences of these noble efforts was the emergence of an educated elite as well as of a loud, disagreeable and restless student body, many of whom were plucked out of a struggling underclass.
Randi Balsvik, who has done research on the relationship between governments and university protests in several African countries including Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya, Cameroon, Tanzania, Uganda, Côte d’Ivoire and Zambia, concluded that “students have been a major driving force in the second liberation of the continent, that of democratisation”.
The pattern followed in the confrontations between state and students in many African countries was as predictable as it was banal and it would, as Balsvik noted, generally proceed thus: students would announce a demand, followed by a demonstration or a protest march. Next came confrontation with the armed forces, often with tragic consequences, followed by a period of uncertainty and division among the protesting students. At this stage, the state would step in to shut down the troublesome university, sometimes for an entire academic year.
This movie has played out again and again over the past 50 years in several African countries – lusophone, francophone and anglophone. Nor were the student demands only about money. Curriculum reform was always central.
Almost all the standard texts of decolonisation – still in vogue today – were written during times of great national upheaval, times in which students and universities were an essential part of the calls for reform after political independence had been attained. These include the hugely influential works of Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney, Steve Biko, Cheikh Anta Diop, Paulo Freire and Okot p’Bitek.
The protests were, of course, never over struggle theory. Rather, the theory produced by such thinkers was born out of the crucible of struggles in which students and universities were central.
On May 11 and 12 1990, at least 12 students died in then-Zaire during a protest on a university campus in Lubumbashi. In 1986, up to 15 students lost their lives when the army moved in to quell a student protest at Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria. The violent exploits, including rape and murder, of Idi Amin’s army at Uganda’s Makerere University in the 1970s have become the stuff of traumatic memory.
Some remarkable differences notwithstanding, citizens of our fellow African countries could be pardoned for viewing the current #FeesMustFall wave of student protests sweeping over the South African university sector with a sense of both déjà vu and déjà fait.
Of course, #FeesMustFall, #RhodesMustFall and #AfrikaansMustFall come with their own South African particularities. But we must ensure that we learn from, rather than merely repeat, history.
Unlike in many other African countries, in South Africa it is the protesters, rather than the state, who have been demanding the shutdown of universities. This is a remarkable difference.
At one stage, when ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe said, in apparent exasperation, that universities should be shut for a long time to punish the protesters, I feared that we might plunge into a national reality television show titled Who Shut Down the University First: Government or Students? Indeed, sad as it is to say this, I still insist that there are multiple duels of brinkmanship going on at the moment.
The voices lamenting the dire consequences of shutting down universities are also the incentive for calls for a national shutdown. When some university management teams take the initiative, however tentative, and call for constructive engagement, then the most vociferous section of the student protesters will problematise and filibuster the motives and terms, and the rules of engagement proposed.
In this atmosphere of brinkmanship, the word engagement has assumed multiple and even contradictory meanings.
Are shutdowns and violence our best and only forms of engagement? For the most part, the participants engage by not engaging.
The brinkmanship takes place among and between the protesting student groups themselves as they seek to outdo one another in the manufacture and performance of outrage and rhetoric.
There could even be some unspoken brinkmanship between the various universities – who knows? Why else have the universities so far failed to join forces to confront the government of the political party that, as recently as 2014, campaigned with posters proclaiming: “Vote ANC for free quality education”?
Having thrown this curve ball at the universities, the government has been watching developments at a distance, it seems. Apart from his cameo appearance at the largely disastrous fees imbizo recently, the president has been nowhere to be seen.
Let us not forget that the single trigger for the current wave of student protests was not anything that was done or said by universities. The trigger was the higher education minister’s announcement regarding fee increases for 2017 and the government’s lack of urgency to deal with the matters that were put before it as early as March 2015.
Today, it is not as if university corridors are teeming with ANC leaders and higher education officials coming to mediate and explain the meaning of free, quality education for all. The most visible response from the government to a patently political if also educational matter has so far come from the state security cluster.
Meanwhile, the nation is being groomed to tolerate violence. For their part, the protesters have served up a variety of definitions and performances of violence, including the torching of libraries and lecture halls.
Spokespeople of one or other group of protesters have often asked the public, with straight faces, to appreciate the fact that no university has been burned down entirely. They are often at pains to justify the violence of the protesters on account of what they dub extreme provocation and continuing black pain in post-apartheid South Africa.
The argument that is repeated most often is that, unless there is burning and violence, nobody cares, nobody listens. Indeed, the tendency to burn seems to feed off the government’s inability to be responsive.
Student protesters often pit the torching of property against the lives and futures of the students in an either/or binary. A slightly more sophisticated argument has been to suggest that the violence of protesters pales in comparison with the devastation of the violence of the state and institutions. My view? All violence violates.
This brings us to the second source of the violence we are being groomed to tolerate and to accept – the violence of the state and its institutions. The visible securitisation and militarisation of university campuses – which, by the way, is not new but has been slowly increasing over the past 22 years – is one of the most palpable demonstrations of covert state and institutional violence.
#FeesMustFall protesters have repeatedly and articulately pointed out that there is violence in the very visible presence of police and private security, their paraphernalia as well as their in-your-face performance of physical and military power. Many have pointed out that military might is jarringly out of place in a university setting.
We have hardly begun to understand the full effect and implications of the securitisation of university spaces. The move from universities riddled with symbols like the statue of Rhodes to universities encircled by high walls and CCTV cameras is retrogressive and not progressive. And this is not merely a matter of aesthetics and superficial symbolism. It goes down to the very core of what a university is about.
In a country with a history like ours, the deliberately invasive presence of private security and police triggers rather recent memories of terror, pain and death.
All these raise the question: Where, then, does the macabre politics of university shutdown take us? Shutting down universities in and of itself is not going to lead us to free, decolonised, quality education. We need to snap out of the various games of brinkmanship currently playing out. We need to snap out of either/or towards a both/and approach.
Shutdown cannot be the only option open to us. Neither is violence. We have to move beyond the anti-dialogical and macabre politics of shutdown. Above all, the copyright holders of the slogan “Free quality education for all” must own up and urgently do a roadshow at all our universities to do some explaining.
Tinyiko Maluleke is a professor at the University of Pretoria. The views expressed here are his own. Follow him on Twitter @ProfTinyiko