South Africa's chaotic cultural revolution

August 7, 1998

The ANC's attempts to make South Africa's universities cater for the black majority population has plunged them into crisis, argues R. W. Johnson

South Africa's universities are struggling against the greatest pressures they have ever encountered. They are having to cope with tough budget cuts, frequently unruly students, militant unions, sharply declining academic salaries, an enormous flood of often very poorly educated entrants and insistent pressure for their "transformation".

The rhetoric of transformation has many meanings. It began as a demand for the decolonisation of university syllabi, the preferential admission of black students and affirmative appointment of black faculty, the diversion of resources to the historically deprived universities (HDUs) - the old tribal colleges, loan schemes for black students and the appointment of black vice-chancellors.

But all these things were energetically embraced by the liberal English-speaking universities a decade ago and the HDUs have always been black - yet even there the demand for transformation is insistent. Sometimes it seems to be little more than a stick with which to beat white academics, administrators and the politically incorrect, particularly if they are males.

Higher education is suffering an often chaotic cultural revolution. Some of the results are extraordinary: at the University of Cape Town (UCT) the vice-chancellor has declared it unthinkable that white deans of the faculties can continue in office and has stated that even rich Africans must be preferred over poor coloureds; the new vice-chancellor of Wits cheerfully told his selection committee that he was in the habit of addressing students as "comrade"; at the University of Durban-Westville all African applicants for entry automatically have their school marks doubled before they are compared with others; in recent riots at the University of Venda the vice-chancellor not only deployed police, tear-gas and rubber bullets against the students but armoured cars, helicopters, a fixed wing aircraft and live ammunition.

The modern history of South African universities begins with the infamous Extension of Universities Act of 1957 which forced the ideology of racial segregation on the liberal English-speaking universities and pushed black students into the grossly inferior tribal colleges. If only government had left well alone Wits, UCT, Rhodes and Natal would have produced the large, well-educated black middle class which South Africa now so desperately needs.

Undiscouraged by this obvious lesson, the ANC government stamped its own parochial ideology on the system with the Higher Education Act of 1997. The act provides for overweening central control - the minister of education is given power to close any university he chooses - and prescribes to every institution that it must adopt "co-operative governance" including, notably, permanent "transformation forums" in which students, workers and (politicised) representatives of "the community" tend to marginalise the voice of academics on campus.

The fact that none of the world's leading universities govern themselves in such a way was brushed aside as irrelevant by the government in exactly the same way that its predecessor, 40 years before, brushed aside objections that everywhere else in the world racial segregation was being abandoned - just as it was choosing to enforce it.

None of this can really achieve "transformation", for the real stumbling block to transformation is Hendrik Verwoerd's infamous Bantu education system which shut down the often excellent mission schools and consigned black children to schools where they were to be deliberately educated for inferiority: there was to be no maths; whereas a white child would learn that a plane was something you flew in, a black child would learn it was something you saw fly overhead - and so on.

From the 1970s, this system began to disintegrate under the pressure of pupil resistance, led by the ANC's "liberation now, education later" campaign. It was fondly imagined that the ANC's accession to power in 1994 would see a rapid revival of black schools and the rebirth of a "culture of learning". This has not occurred: indeed the disintegration of township schools has continued in most cases, with a massive shift by the black elite (including government ministers) towards placing their children in formerly white private schools and by all the other black parents who can manage it towards putting them into formerly white state schools.

Among the vast mass of black children still left in black-only schools, school matriculation exam results - despite a downward adjustment in the exam standard - have continued on a downward track since the ANC came to power. Despite this, the government has strongly espoused the philosophy of "massification" - that is, of flooding existing higher education institutions with enormous numbers of poorly educated, and sometimes barely literate - black students. Inevitably, this leads to trouble of every kind.

Despite a great deal of rhetoric about "academic excellence" it is virtually impossible for any university to maintain standards under these pressures. Effectively, and despite a good deal of remedial education, a two-track standard tends to emerge, with the bulk of the black students pushed through at the bottom end thanks to "affirmative marking". Despite that, there is inevitably a high failure rate among black students which recurrently leads to student demands for a "pass one, pass all" policy and bitter resistance to the exclusion of failed students.

Campus authorities, weary after more than a decade of sit-ins, strikes, littering campaigns and a good deal of violence and intimidation, tend to treat their black students with kid gloves - but even so the art of university government has long been one of continuous crisis management. This has made higher education a difficult place to be and not surprisingly there has been a haemorrhage of academic talent, with promising black academics the first to be picked off by commerce or industry at many times their academic salary - which in turn makes affirmative action targets for faculty appointments all but impossible to meet.

Two other trends are strongly marked. Militant black students are mainly organised in the South African Students Congress (Sasco) which, although formally ANC-aligned, is often closer to the Communist party (the SACP) - it gets its funds from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the whole of whose top membership belongs to the SACP.

On most campuses Sasco has formed a worker student alliance with the (SACP-led) National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu), which unionises the non-academic staff. This alliance is a far more real thing than the radicals of 1968 ever dreamt of in Europe, for often the students and workers will come from the same villages and even be related to one another.

The resulting Sasco-Nehawu alliance has been the main wedge of radical politics on most campuses, driving the "transformation" process and attempting to subordinate every kind of decision-making on campus to its authority.

The new Higher Education Act gives extraordinary powers to the transformation forums which Sasco and Nehawu dominate, including a leading role in the selection process for all top management positions. Already it has become commonplace for Sasco and Nehawu effectively to choose vice-chancellors. The result in many cases is the virtual intimidation of university management and the exclusion of academics from any real say in running their institutions.

The other key process is that of "ethnic bumping". As the vast mass of black students pours onto campuses like that of the (formerly coloured) University of the Western Cape or the (formerly Indian) University of Durban-Westville, so Coloured students migrate to UCT and Indian students to the University of Natal. As the (formerly white) University of Natal becomes mainly Indian and African, so its white clientele migrates to Stellenbosch, preferring to be taught in Afrikaans in what is still a stable atmosphere with high standards. Similarly, there has been a large migration of English-speaking white students away from strife-torn Wits to the calmer pastures of Rand Afrikaans University and Pretoria.

The drama is that all over the rest of Africa, universities have collapsed under the pressure of many of the same forces that operate here. But while Ghana or Uganda could, in the last analysis, survive the downfall of Accra or Makerere - their chief exports were, after all, cocoa and coffee - South Africa's sophisticated industrial economy depends on a supply of well-educated graduates. This economic imperative is why neither government nor business can afford to let South Africa's universities fail.

R. W. Johnson is director of the Helen Suzman Centre, Johannesburg.


The youngest and most northerly of South Africa's universities, the University of Venda is a historically deprived university situated in the old homeland capital of Thohoyandou. Its first two vice-chancellors, both Afrikaners, were relieved of their jobs following inquiries into corruption and mismanagement, opening the way to a new election for v-c in 1993 in which the South African Students' Congress (Sasco) and the union of non-academic staff Nehawu played the main role.

Their candidate was Gessler Nkondo, who had just been stripped of his position as deputy v-c of the University of the North (Turfloop) when news leaked out that Yale University had stripped him of his PhD on grounds of plagiarism. Venda's academic staff association and senate both refused to consider Nkondo but Sasco and Nehawu had by this stage captured the university council and he was appointed.

Nkondo set out to subjugate the academics who had tried to block his appointment, packing the senate's executive committee with clients and cronies andbringing in expatriates on short-term contracts. The latter now account for six of the eight deans of faculty.

It soon emerged that Nkondo had acquired a university credit card with a limit larger than a professor's annual salary - though the academic who revealed this fact was quickly sentenced by one of Nkondo's draconian disciplinary committees. When the head of the nursing department failed to shortlist Nkondo's wife for a job, he was demoted and his pay cut. Academics became unwilling to attend meetings of the academic staff association, for it was known that the attendance register was scrutinised by the v-c.

Real trouble began when student fees were raised by 13 per cent and the Azanian Students Convention (Azasco) campaigned against the increase on the grounds that the money was simply going into Nkondo's pocket. Sasco loyally supported Nkondo. This led to their being chased off the campus by angry students and a long period of unrest was followed by an Azasco landslide in the student representative council elections. Nkondo responded by banning Azasco, exiling its leader from campus, suspending the student council, and instituting a pass system whereby students had to forego their rights to free political activity in order to be allowed onto campus.

Nehawu failed to protest at this quashing of its brother union, for its members too are scared of losing their jobs. The university's legal aid unit has refused legal aid to any students who oppose Nkondo - though the unit's director may be distracted by his own problems for he has recently been charged with two counts of attempted murder.

Recently Nkondo's name has been in the news again, for ignoring six consecutive court summonses over his failure to pay maintenance to a former wife. In July 1998 deputy president Thabo Mbeki signed the authorisation for Judge William Heath's special anti-corruption unit to proceed with an investigation of Venda.

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