Burning varsities: Responding to fire

Jonathan Jansen’s book, As by Fire: The End of the South African University, predicts an apocalyptic scenario, one that may well become a reality if the issues it delineates are not confronted and contained.

The book’s subtitle is a warning rather than an alarmist clarion call devoid of evidential substance. Jansen’s dire prognosis is an inference drawn from the historical downward spiral of many African universities. To reject this seeming inevitability may be to confirm the myth of South Africa’s exceptionalism. In reality, South Africa is not immune to the pressures afflicting the rest of the pan-African fraternity.

As by Fire is an earnest undertaking, the declared purpose of which is to study the “leaders of those [South African] universities and how they managed and led within their particular environments” during the 2015-2016 period. It was a period that seemed, literally, to mark the beginning of the end of universities, when libraries, laboratories and vehicles were torched and artworks were indiscriminately destroyed in the #FeesMustFall protests.

Vice-chancellors and other academic staff were threatened, assaulted, driven to resign or to emigrate; all, to varying degrees, suffered. The bizarre behaviour of the students was what academic and writer Njabulo Ndebele sought to unravel in his insightful Helen Joseph annual memorial lecture, They Are Burning Memory!

The protests caused bewilderment among both experts and citizens, who failed to see the logic behind destroying the very infrastructure whose purpose is to facilitate the acquisition of knowledge and its valued knowledge-creation function.

Jansen trains his analytic arsenal on the critical role played by those charged with managing the universities: the vice-chancellors. Eleven out of 26 were interviewed. The significant sample was reasonably representative of the spectrum of university types: historically white and historically black; well endowed and inadequately resourced; urban and rural; large and small.

From these sources — diverse but sharing a common vocation — Jansen paints a rich portrait of a collective of vast experience, specialisation and commitment. The challenges faced by the vice-chancellors were monumental. The protests exceeded the levels of violence and destruction of valuable property relative to student protests elsewhere on the globe, both historically and contemporary. The vice-chancellors’ perceptions, assessments and perspectives are carefully elicited and help to engender an appreciation of the complex institutional habitats they occupy.

Jansen was prompted to carry out this study by the dearth of research about senior university management in South Africa, in the hope that better theorisation would ultimately emerge as the body of research in this area grows. Presumably a grounded theoretical construct would emerge, with powerful explanatory power and utility. Such an understanding has the potential to improve performance, not only in terms of ­professional practice but also in transforming the general institutional milieu.

Though the focus is on the 2015-2016 period, it is important to remember that student protests have been there for decades. According to the author, what is distinctive about the period is the “sheer ubiquity of violence, its deadly intensity, and the accumulating costs … in damage to university property”.

It was the result of a combination of influences, among them the glaring socioeconomic inequality so blatantly obvious in contemporary South Africa. The students were informed by “memories of the heroic struggles of their parents’ generation”, a phenomenon that Ugandan political commentator Mahmood Mamdani describes as “the present is not its own explanation”. In other words, the present cannot be understood without an understanding of the knowledge, both informal or formal, embedded in the past.


As by Fire is a rich narrative of the complexity of the university environment, showing that, although the students are at the centre of its business, a variety of often competing actors comprise the academic environment.

The #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall student movements became the twin campaigns around which a multiplicity of attendant issues arose, as different student actors vied for prominence in quick succession.

For example, at the beginning of the period under study, some women students, especially at the University of the Witwatersrand, effectively articulated the issues with a relatively high degree of clarity. But as the protest movement unfolded, the women seemed to retreat from the front lines, displaced by men employing more aggressive tactics.

Interestingly, in a recent essay titled “How to Detoxify Young Minds from Indoctrination”, Laureate Wole Soyinka bemoans the externally induced religious zealotry that has undermined the central mission of universities in Nigeria: that of pursuing knowledge unfettered by bigotry and prejudice. In both countries, external political influences on campus politics appear to be on the rise.

READ MORE: Professor Jonathan Jansen’s roadmap to saving South Africa’s higher education system

Jansen describes some of the elements in the student protest movement as being “bereft of signature literature or heroes of the past”. Credence is lent to this view by the disruptions of seminars featuring renowned decolonisation scholars such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o. A University of Cape Town student even understood decolonisation as doing away with “Western science”.

It is important, however, to bear in mind that these ideas and behaviours were not shared by the majority of students. There were students who felt strongly, and rightly so, that change must take place, but did not engage in large-scale intimidation or in destroying property. Within the educational domain, decolonisation or transformation does not mean the wholesale decimation of so-called Western knowledge but rather a rational and systematic establishment of epistemological equity — in other words, the democratisation of knowledge.

Indeed, higher education in South Africa is faced with daunting problems at a time when the promise of the future depends to a large extent on the sector. “Being the head of a South African university [has] become a thankless task,” Jansen avers, and “trying to manage the demands of rival constituencies in the face of declining revenues and threats to lives and facilities” is the unwelcome, weighty albatross around the vice-chancellors’ necks.

His call for further research to deepen the body of knowledge about the management of universities in these trying times is timeous. This is an invitation to be heeded, in anticipation of what may become even more dire turbulence.

As by Fire is an insightful work that deserves to be read and pondered, particularly by government officials. South Africa is presented as a post-conflict country, one that calls for the development of a post-conflict management theory, in the same way that a post-conflict pedagogy was proposed by Jansen in his 2009 book, Knowledge in the Blood: Confronting Race and the Apartheid Past.

The interviews in As by Fire display a deep commitment to the preservation of the universities as they have emerged historically, but the current momentous challenges require more innovative and pre-emptive responses that better theorisation can bring about. It may not be possible to find a single theory that addresses the challenges that universities face. In the meantime, we should recognise that there already exists a body of theories that need to be identified and applied.

The dire premonition in the book’s subtitle is subverted by the Pollyanna inclination that defines the core of Jansen’s thinking. In Knowledge in the Blood, Jansen summoned up a verse from Earl Robinson and John LaTouche’s Ballad for Americans, sung by Paul Robeson, to reflect his enduring optimism: “Our country’s strong, our country’s young/ And her greatest songs are still unsung”.

Despite the dark higher education landscape portrayed in As by Fire, it appears that a subliminal dynamic, of the kind that inspired Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, may be about to be birthed. In the final paragraph Jansen proclaims that, “even though buildings might have been burned and material losses suffered, we are a resilient people and our spirits will not be broken”.

“We have come through the fire before. We can do it again.”

Professor Mokubung Nkomo is an independent academic. This review is a shortened version of one that will soon be appearing in the South African Journal of Higher Education

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Mokubung Nkomo
Guest Author
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