Patronage student politics at South African universities has stoked a fierce debate about the future of post-Covid-19 higher education as campuses increasingly become strategic sites for political parties in a contestation for material resources and political social capital.
The outgoing vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), Adam Habib, recently condemned the infiltration of student politics by national parties, which, he said, created a “toxic culture … and replicates the most negative features of our political system in the universities”.
He said that in the absence of a firm response calling student leaders to account for violent protests and their “fascist and Stalinist behaviour”, “we will lose the best of our institutions of learning”.
Similar cautions about the fate of South Africa’s higher education system have been expressed by other leaders in the sector, such as the former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State (UFS), Jonathan Jansen, and in academic studies on the damage done by party-political involvement at universities in other African countries after liberation.
Such is the level of concern that Habib has recommended delinking campaigns to elect candidates to student representative councils (SRCs) from party-political activism, as well as action to hold incendiary student leaders responsible for the mayhem they may unleash.
Jansen, whose analysis of the scale of the threat posed by the present kind of student activism led him to publicly ponder the question: “When does a university cease to exist?”. He prohibited political party affiliation for SRC candidates at UFS’s Bloemfontein campus in 2016.
The decision was made partially in light of the damage done by, among other factors, party-political student activism at the University of Zimbabwe, Makerere University in Uganda, and North-West University’s Mahikeng campus in South Africa.
Habib’s latest call came in response to opposition from the SRC at Wits to a popular online learning programme implemented by the university to provide educational support during the national Covid-19 lockdown. The SRC’s campaign had been launched, Habib said, in line with directives issued by the South African Students Congress (Sasco), which is aligned with the ruling ANC.
The alleged grounds for the action were that disadvantaged students did not have laptops and data connectivity to participate, although the university was explicitly addressing this issue with support from the department of education.
Habib’s analysis chimed with the views expressed by a number of leading academics and senior administrators, including vice-chancellors, at a roundtable discussion on Habib’s book Rebels and Rage: Reflecting on #FeesMustFall, held at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study last year.
At the meeting, parties including the ANC and opposition Economic Freedom Fighters were accused of working through student-protest leaders to undermine and corrupt the nationwide #FeesMustFall student movement, which emerged in 2015. It was alleged that their goal was to win access to limited resources and to leverage their influence over higher education to service their own political agendas within the broader society.
The meeting heard that the pattern of student protest movements being run by self-appointed commissars had been replicated across the continent. Many aspiring student leaders seeking election to SRCs had been sponsored in cash and in kind by political parties and, as a result, were more loyal to their political godfathers than their university constituents.
In 2014 researchers Taabo Mugume and Thierry Luescher-Mamashela found that, since the late 1960s, higher education systems across Africa had become embroiled in webs linking student and national politics. Campus branches of national parties competed for student support to influence university governance and to shape national political agendas.
Although the establishment of dynamic relationships between political parties and student leaders may be viewed as beneficial in established democracies — for example, ensuring a flow of politically astute young minds into the party system — student politics under the patronage of parties tended to become a battleground for positions, visibility and resources in countries where democracy is fragile.
For example, at Makerere University, Mugume and Luescher-Mamashela found that the establishment of a patron-client relationship between political parties and student leaders rewarded those activists who submitted to party control but distracted them from representing students’ interests.
Elsewhere, the post-independence transformation of the University of Zimbabwe under Walter Kamba, who had helped to forge the country’s new constitution after liberation, led to major transformation: the return of Zimbabwean and foreign academics; new governance structures; expansion of student numbers; and the introduction of a no-fees policy.
But a decade later, the campus was wracked with boycotts by students complaining of over-crowded classrooms, inadequate hostels and libraries, and poor food. At the same time, no mention was made of widespread national disappointment with the ruling Zanu-PF’s failing development project — indicating the hidden, political hand behind the unrest.
Although the campus protests were put down by the police and the military, Kamba resigned at the university’s 1992 graduation ceremony, declaring that he could not manage the institution as it should be managed because of the threats to, and interference with, academic freedom by students with links to the government and opposition parties.
In the long run, this led, among other actions, to the university awarding a PhD to then-president Robert Mugabe’s erstwhile secretary and wife, Grace. Is this the kind of ‘transformation’ being pursued in South Africa?
In South Africa, the arena of student politics has also become the site of party-political contestation against a background of widespread dissatisfaction with national efforts to promote equitable access to economic opportunity. In this context, universities have been made responsible for providing services that would normally fall within the scope of the public or private welfare sectors.
“A failed state has passed the burden of social and medical services to higher education,” Associate Professor Lis Lange, deputy vice-chancellor for teaching and learning at the University of Cape Town, told last year’s roundtable at Stellenbosch University.
The scale of the challenge involved in supporting massification and a growing influx of poor students, combined with pressures exerted by student unrest, have led to an almost permanent state of crisis management and there are clear limits to what universities can provide, as articulated by Habib: “We can ameliorate the situation with initiatives such as food schemes, etc, but we cannot take responsibility for the government’s failed development project.”
Against this background, last year’s roundtable at Stellenbosch University discussed the notion that universities have become strategic sites in a national contestation over limited resources and to acquire political and social capital.
For example, a ministerial task team into the destruction of property at North-West University’s Mahikeng campus in February 2016 found that the unrest had little to do with issues of race or colonialism as the rhetoric of the protest leaders claimed, but rather stemmed from students aligning themselves with rival ANC factions in the province as they sought election to the SRC.
Describing the phenomenon of party-political allegiance among activists on campus in his recent article, Habib said: “This has resulted in a student community increasingly alienated from their leadership who are more responsive to external political interests than academic and campus issues.”
Habib’s viewpoint has been challenged, including by Sonwabile Ngxiza, a student at the University of Cape Town and the deputy provincial secretary of the South African Communist Party in the Western Cape, who argued that the vice-chancellor was merely hoping for “less or limited contestation from recalcitrant student leaders” and was creating a “straw man” by raising the spectre of fascism and Stalinism.
Ngxiza said Habib’s “preference for independent candidates is really a promotion of parochial orientation as distinct from the broader political orientation concerned with transformation, social justice, gender struggles, etc”.
In response, Habib outlined a conflict of interests which he viewed as inherent in student party-political activity in South Africa. He tweeted: “The student leaders often belong to the party responsible for the policies they protest against & that govern universities. But instead of directing the protest at the party they belong to, they direct it at the university which is burdened by the very policy.”
For a number of vice-chancellors, including Habib and Jansen, the destructive effects of such rent-seeking activism, in which student leaders are in thrall to their political godfathers, have placed South Africa’s universities on the edge.
The fear is that, if the systematic weakening of higher education institutions — symptomatic of a wider political dissolution — is not countered, South African universities could become little more than undergraduate training grounds for unproductive, competing national political elites.
Manuel Castells, one of the world’s leading sociologists and now minister of universities in Spain, gave warning in 2000 during a visit to South Africa that the country must avoid the situation in Latin America and the rest of the African continent where universities were very good at selecting elites, and training undergraduates, and very poor at producing new knowledge and socialising critical but constructive citizens.
In response, a number of recommendations have been made for regulating party-political activity on campuses.
Habib has suggested rejecting a strategy of “appeasement” that has historically been adopted towards students, under which the “most outrageous racist and sometimes even violent behaviour is overlooked and excused on the grounds that the person is young, even though the person is of legal adult age”.
He has argued that student leaders are “developed not only through acculturation and educative processes, but also by being held accountable for their actions” and should take responsibility for the violent destruction unleashed by the campaigns they lead. An example is the student who was caught on camera throwing a petrol bomb into a police vehicle and then a national campaign followed to reduce his sentence.
In addition, Habib has proposed the strict regulation of the presence of political parties in universities. They would be free to organise, but should be excluded from canvassing for SRC elections, in which candidates would have to stand as individuals addressing campus and education issues, rather than being party representatives (although they may still belong to a party).
Furthermore, the department of higher education and training should only engage in its consultative processes with the non-party designated SRCs. Thus, student political parties would not have any greater access to department and ministerial officials than any other university club or society.
A recommendation made by Robert Mattes and Luescher-Mamashela is that higher education institutions should undertake citizenship education in a systematic, co-curricular development of attitudes, skills and competencies — the idea being that this would help to foster universities as training grounds for democracy, and not as party political hothouses.
Another next step is to put together a group of constitutional law experts to provide clarity on whether political party activities can be prohibited from the campuses of higher education institutions on the grounds that they provide an essential service.
This is an edited version of an article that was first published in University World News on June 4. Nico Cloete is higher education research professor at the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy at Stellenbosch University. He is also the chairperson of the board of University World News – Africa