In September 2012, when talk first began circulating of the possibility of Professor Adam Habib becoming the vice-chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand, he brushed it off as rumour.
At the time, he was a deputy vice-chancellor for research, innovation, library and faculty co-ordination at the University of Johannesburg. He was also a highly sought after political analyst.
Three months later, the rumours proved to be more than scurrilous gossip. Habib was announced as Professor Loyiso Nongxa’s successor at Wits.
When his suitability for the position was still being assessed in November 2012, Habib stood in front of an audience at Wits where all the candidates vying for the job were being quizzed by the university community about how they would take “Wits into the future”.
Calm and confident, Habib told students, administrative staff and academics that he would not be able to make the institution’s problems disappear by himself. He appeared even then, to understand the importance of reaching beyond his office to build a consensus to drive the university forward.
A few months later, in June 2013 Habib assumed the role of vice-chancellor. Since then, he’s been at the coalface of student unrest, and public demand for better access to education. Depending on who you ask, Habib has either done very well, keeping Wits afloat amid trying times, or, he’s suffocated academic life at a once-proud institution. He is currently serving his second term after his five-year contract was renewed in 2017. He will, however, not be finishing his term as he announced his resignation this week.
He is headed to the University of London where he will take up the directorship of the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
He’s not the first Wits principal to head that way. After serving as vice-chancellor at Wits for four years from 1997, Colin Bundy also left to become the director of SOAS.
But it is Habib’s experience in weathering a particularly turbulent time at Wits that is said to have tipped the scales in his favour for the SOAS job. Alongside Max Price, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, and Blade Nzimande, the minister for higher education and training as the ministry was then known, Habib became the focus of the ire of #FeesMustFall protesters. The relative prestige of institutions like Wits and UCT, lent protesters access to urban based media, and amplified the profile of the students leading those protests. This, even though much of the message of the protests was not new. Rural universities, in particular, experienced these kinds of protests as a seasonal occurrence.
But when it happened at Wits and UCT, it also exposed every decision taken by university management. And in many instances, university management appeared ill-equipped to respond.
While Wits campuses were held in a chokehold in October 2015 with protesters barricading entrances and forcing classes to be cancelled, Habib had to leave a higher education transformation summit in Durban early.
Students had demanded his return so he could listen to their rejection of the proposed 10% fee hike for 2016.
Scenes of him sitting on the floor of what was then known as Senate House, surrounded by students late at night, became emblematic of the tussle between students and management to be heard, but to listen too.
Days later, Nzimande in an address to the media joked that perhaps “students must fall”. His attempt to find some levity amid the gravity of the protests had severely misread the mood. So too, his attempts to offer a capped increase on the cost of tuition the following year. Students stood firm.
Within days, there was a nationwide shutdown of universities. And #FeesMustFall had become one of the greatest challenges to authority in democratic South Africa.
But it was not president Jacob Zuma as the ultimate authority on the matter who had to face the rage of the students, or their playfully insulting banners and demands for immediate change. Though Nzimande continues to be reviled for his handling of the protests, even inviting this week a swipe by Julius Malema in Parliament as being the “most useless minister”, it was up to university managers, such as Habib, to forge a way forward in the searing heat of anger and mistrust. It would ultimately test the reputation of Habib as a progressive against a new generation of activists who had little patience for the bureaucracy of university management.
In an interview with the Mail & Guardian this week, Habib acknowledged that #FeesMustFall was one of the toughest periods of his tenure.
It would culminate in Zuma scrapping increases for 2016 but it would prove a temporary fix.
The most difficult days were yet to come.
When the second round of protests began almost a year later, the hefty private security team that Wits had hired was struggling to contain protesters. And in response to a poll that found the majority of students wanted to resume classes, Habib called the police.
“It went against the grain of everything in my life. I had to make a really hard choice,” he says.
If he had not called the police Wits would not have completed the academic year, Habib says. Yet, he came in for a barrage of criticism for his action, with students and staff alike accusing him of “militarising” the campus. But he holds firm, saying those who find fault with his decision were “opportunistic activists”.
“I think the choice was perfectly correct. But it was my most difficult choice. Because I am aware that it could have gone wrong so easily. But you know, when you take a hard job, when a difficult choice lands up, you don’t duck it. You must have the courage to make hard choices. Otherwise, don’t take the job. And that was my moment of reckoning in a sense,” he says.
Does he regret having made that decision?
“I’ll be honest with you, if I was confronted with the same choices and the same challenges, I’d do it again.”
Habib says the decision to allow police on to campus was not borne of expedience but rather necessity — he was protecting a public institution that was under attack and he had risen to its defence.
But the ghosts of that decision continue to linger at Wits.
Wits student representative council president Thuto Kgabaphethe told the M&G this week that if there is one thing the student body will never agree with Habib on, it was criminalising a just cause.
“We do not agree with some of the decisions he took during FeesMustFall, and even when we entered office in 2020 we made it very clear that we will not agree with the tendencies of militarising the university and of him calling the police to shoot at us,” he says.
Kgabaphethe said even though this SRC has only worked with Habib for four months, so far they were pleased to have been able to solve issues amicably and have found common ground with the vice-chancellor.
“That is why in 2020 you never had the university being in the news for wrong reasons as it has been for the past few years. Our term has generally been a quiet one with the vice-chancellor. We have fought at times and we have disagreed at times, but we always found common ground,” he says, adding that the SRC wished Habib well in his next chapter.
Habib says there might have been difficult times during his tenure, but if his leadership must be judged it must be on what he has been able to achieve, with the help of the university community.
For example, he says in 2013 when he arrived at Wits, 7 000 students graduated. The number went up to 9 500 in 2019. And from only 1 200 research papers published in 2013, there were just under 2 000 published in 2019.
He says one of the goals he set himself when he joined Wits was to use the university to address inequality. To that effect, he said currently 47% of students at Wits are first generation university students and 94% of those who had graduated had found employment within six months of graduation.
“When I see these students cross that stage having achieved the outcome, some under very difficult circumstances, it’s really a butterfly moment. When I hear the ululations from grannies and mothers and fathers when they see the first person in the family cross the stage … and when they get jobs, they earn a salary, when they earn a salary they lift their families out of poverty, you create social mobility, and you create a completely new society,” he says.
He claims Wits has also made great strides in terms of transformation and that today 82% of its students are black compared to 75% white students in 1994, while administrative and professional staff are 90% black and more than 50% of the academic cohort are black.
And it is perhaps the decision to desist with outsourcing that is most often swept aside in remembering the protests of 2015 and 2016. That decision has made a huge difference to the lives of many Wits workers.
But Nehawu branch secretary at Wits Tumisho Madihlaba says that although workers can give credit to Habib for certain things, his pace has been slow on the transformation agenda. But he praised Habib for having an open-door policy and working hard to resolve some of the key issues of workers.
In a statement, Wits chairperson of council Isaac Shongwe thanked Habib for his leadership and said that under him the university had its 2022 strategy and had exceeded expectations in all indicators.
Habib leaves Wits in December and will take over his new role in London in January next year.