Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib penned an opinion piece on Monday in the Daily Maverick in which he hit out at 2016’s student protesters, charging that they were not only acting in bad faith but had resorted to the “politics of spectacle” in a manner that made him liken their actions to the Nazis of the Weimar Republic in Germany nearly a century ago.
He drew a distinction between what he called the more legitimate protests of 2015, which had resulted in a 0% fee increase and enjoyed massive buy-in from a huge portion of the student population, along with various cross-sections within it. He said that these protests had been occasioned by genuine concerns about the growing expense of higher education and how there had been a lack of leadership from the state for several years.
The 2015 protests, to him, had been a success, and students “achieved in 10 days what vice-chancellors had been trying to do for 10 years”.
By contrast, Habib wrote, this year’s protests were driven by a far smaller, more radical group, which was itself splintered into factions that had become inexcusably violent.
“At Wits University, we could count at least eight groups, including new informal student societies, all of whom represented different political constituencies. These features of factionalisation, racism and violence consolidated in the student protests in 2016 and were especially apparent in the round of protests which emerged in September. Perhaps the most disconcerting feature of the current round of protests has been the propensity to violence and arson.”
He substantiates his allegation that the protesters were in the minority this year by referring to the results of an SMS poll conducted by Wits university that found “77% of students and 92% of staff who responded, voted to return to the academic programme, with appropriate security measures in place”.
The smaller group of protesters had to resort to the politics of spectacle, Habib writes, and were aided by the media, who, intentionally or not, amplified their efforts. He also slammed certain media outlets for pretending to report objectively, while actually being embedded and biased towards the protesters.
He said that “small groups of student protesters and left-leaning academics are not the only ones that need to account. The media establishment must also take responsibility for dismaying coverage of the student protests. Mainstream journalism, which has become very juniorised, has been incapable of nuanced reporting of the protests and their causes. Instead, they have focused largely on the most dramatic incidents, which were often staged for the camera.”
He later draws “three lessons” from the events of this year, concluding that there was some similarity between the protesters and strategies adopted by Adolf Hitler and his supporters in the 1920s during their rise to eventual power in the 1930s.
“First, it is rational for smaller factions to emphasise the politics of spectacle for it is only through this that they can control the political narrative. Asking them not to do so goes against their rational interest. It is worth noting that this strategy was perhaps best perfected by the Nazis in the Weimar Republic in the 1920s.
“As a minority, the Nazis effectively used the politics of spectacle to capture political power by mobilising on the very real grievances of ordinary people. Moreover, it should be remembered that the politics of spectacle is as much a means of silencing ordinary, pragmatic voices as it is of mobilising others.”
Some would say there’s no small coincidence in this comparison, given that the most outspoken Wits student protester, ANC Youth League member Mcebo Dlamini, is most famous for his statement about loving Hitler.
Habib also strongly criticised the alleged duplicity of many of the students or student sympathisers he interacted with, who had offered him one opinion in their personal capacities while publicly expressing the completely opposite view.
He concludes by writing: “Hitler would not have been successful in the Weimar Republic without the strategic blunders of the left. When progressives abandon representing the interests of ordinary people, then the people turn to the right with devastating consequences for society and all humanity.
“This is the strategic lesson that progressive student activists, academics and their allies need to recognise. Pursuing a maximalist agenda will not realise the outcome that they hope for. In fact, it may very well create a mainstream backlash that allows the right to take power. Societies can only be transformed by policies that are rooted in the realities of the world as it exists, not a world that we wish existed.
“This is a lesson that progressives have forgotten in the past, and it is urgent that they internalise it today. For without this, South Africa’s universities and its society are doomed.”
Read Habib’s full opinion piece here.