The unrest at our universities is no longer about #FeesMustFall. South Africa is in the throes of an incipient youth revolution targeting higher education.
At this stage it is weak, sporadic and dispersed. But every day that it remains unchallenged – whether because of incompetence, cowardice or simply misguided tolerance – it gains momentum, confidence and strength.
Like every incipient insurrection in history, it dupes with promises of democracy, with slogans of liberty. In reality, like every revolutionary guard that has preceded it, its murky ringleaders are indifferent to those ideals. They are driven by a determination not to change the existing order, but to usurp it.
They want power and they want it now, and universities are just the first site of struggle. Conventional democratic mechanisms for gaining power can be tediously challenging, especially for what is an ideologically self-righteous minority. So the process has to be short-circuited using intimidation and violence.
That seizure of control of tertiary education conceivably may succeed is an indictment of the sector’s leadership. At best it has been vacillating, at worst, pusillanimous. One shouldn’t blame the vice-chancellors entirely. Because of the erosion of university autonomy in the face of ANC browbeating and more than a year of student protests, most university managers are now emotionally spent.
The tactics, standard fare from the revolutionary cookbook, are the ones that the EFF has deployed repeatedly: abuse, threats, the isolation and scapegoating of minorities and“spontaneous” eruptions of violence.
Mpho Morolane, president of its “Students Command”, stated this week that universities would not be allowed to operate, despite the majority of students having indicated that they want to complete the year in peace.
“You must know, we are coming for you.” The response to such war talk has been a series of abject capitulations.
Explaining this week’s closure of the University of Cape Town, its management said that there was “a risk of serious conflict and escalating violence”.
“We will not be able to contain the situation without a very large increase in security and intervention by the SA Police Service. This may lead to injury and even lives being at risk.”
In effect, the UCT message to rioters is: if you are sufficiently violent, we will capitulate because we are scared that, to stop your violence, the forces of the law will be, um, forceful.
In an article in University World News, professor Nico Cloete, an expert on higher education policy in developing countries, presents a cogent explanation of why “free” higher education is impossible.
“As was the case in fascist Germany and populist Cambodia, the petty bourgeoisie was encouraged and misinformed by certain intellectuals. During this SA conflict, traditional academics have been almost completely silent and passive.”
Indeed. Most academics have been shamefully complicit in the campus chaos. In response to government’s incoherent response, it is up to ordinary citizens to make clear that they find the situation intolerable.
Otherwise the wannabe revolutionaries will ultimately triumph.