/ 23 August 2022

High time TikTok generation of student leaders step out of solipsism and into activism

Students March for no increase to tuition fees in 2016.
Students March for no increase to tuition fees in 2016.

For centuries, universities have played a central role in shaping society, whether through education of future leaders, research and technological inventions, development of political ideology and/or as centres of arts and culture.  

But universities are not just there to provide vocational training and facilities for students. Outside of their formal educational role, universities are also a recurring meeting place of the best and the brightest, who come together to shine a light on some of the darkest problems that beset the society in which they live and to serve as a voice for the voiceless.   

In pursuance of this secondary role and throughout the apartheid era, so-called “liberal” English-medium universities, such as the University of Cape Town and the University of the Witwatersrand, and the so-called “non-white” universities and technikons were at the forefront of the battle to dismantle apartheid.  

Academics and students alike at these institutions protested against the continuation of a racially divided South Africa, whether through academic treatise, physical protest or simply by being voluntarily exposed to something other than the conditioning of a racially segregated Christian national education.  

Many students and academics were either imprisoned or worse as result of their anti-apartheid activities.  Gradually these institutions were joined in protest by an increasing number of the Afrikaans-medium universities and by the late 1980s delegations that met the ANC began to include academics from such universities.

Although the contribution of tertiary education students and academics to the ultimate demise of the apartheid system is not quantifiable, there can be no doubt that their activities added to the pressure felt by the government of the day and, arguably, when the Afrikaner intelligentsia gave up their defence of the apartheid regime, the writing was on the wall.

The challenges faced by South Africa today are different but no less serious.  The miracle of 1994 has long since descended into corruption, collapsed infrastructure, sustained inequality, heightened gender-based violence, increased crime and ongoing hunger and poverty contributing, in part, to the July 2021 riots.  To this must be added the economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Yet throughout these new challenges, our tertiary institutions have remained largely silent.  

When last did a student body march for a cause other than no tuition fees and free accommodation?  When last did a law faculty protest against the abuse of the court structure by the corrupt?  When last did any medical faculty protest against the state of government hospitals?  When last did any education faculty protest the state of government schools?  And when last did any chancellor, rector or vice-chancellor lift their heads above the parapets of their ivory towers and say something of any lasting consequence about anything in the society in which their institutions exist?

Of course, there are exceptions.  Some academics have raised their voices in regard to the issues of the day, but they are few and far between and there is no sense that their institutions support their views.

Student bodies, too, remain silent and are seemingly preoccupied only with kicking over every historical rock to find the next “racist”, “coloniser”, “homophobe” or “white monopoly capitalist” underneath and, if they cannot find one, then they manufacture one from the flimsiest of materials, the recent unjustified vilification of Professor Adam Habib being a case in point. 

As a result, university administrators cower in their offices (or work from home) out of fear of being the next target. Many academics edit their lectures and research to remove anything that may be seen as discomforting to a student body intent only on improving their so-called personal brands with a “gotcha” TikTok video or virtue signalling tweet to their equally narcissistic peers.  

It is not just university leadership that is failing in its role in the larger society.  Student leaders, it seems, are intent on securing their political futures by remaining silent on any issues that are critical of the government. Rather than upset their path to riches, they seek to make a name for themselves by attacking the very institutions that once stood as a bulwark against government ineptitude.  

The result of all of this has meant that free exchange of ideas has ceased to exist in large part on our campuses.  Anyone who dares to question the new (dis)order is vilified on social media or driven into early retirement or worse. This process is akin to the “Terror” that followed the French Revolution where those critical of the excesses of the social revolution were beheaded without due regard for their rights of libertéégalité or fraternité for which their accusers, ironically, had fought.

Time will tell whether it is by accident or design that the “clever” people, who in earlier days would have held the government’s feet to the fire, have been neutralised. 

Fortunately, the gap left by tertiary institutions has rapidly been filled by civil society and business organisations such as Freedom Under Law, the Helen Suzman Foundation, Section27, Business Leadership South Africa and even those from the right of the political spectrum such as AfriForum.  

Some members of the Fourth Estate have also rediscovered an audience for investigative journalism, so long missing from their repertoire as large media houses collapsed under the pressure of the internet. The visceral response to these organisations by the government of the day serves only to demonstrate their effectiveness.

We can only hope that the silent lambs, that our tertiary institutions have become, find their voice before they too are led to the proverbial slaughter.

Shaun Read is the chief executive and founder of Read Advisory Services and a graduate of, as he puts it, “two of South Africa’s formerly relevant universities”.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.