Rebellion to drive change in South Africa
Guest speaker at the NSTF Discussion Forum, Prof Barney Pityana, positioned the current situation as a rebellion with students casting off allegiances to authority and the current order. He says that this is a further stage in the national democratic revolution that must take place for a better South Africa.
Transformation in universities
“We tend to lose sight that universities have changed, but much still needs to change,” says Pityana. Higher education institutions have developed a great deal since the 1980s. There are new ways of teaching, advancing research, student demographics have changed, and more money has been made available to needy students.
However, white students still go to historically white institutions (HWI) and historically black institutions (HBIs) tend to be 100% black. While there is an increase in the number of black staff and women at universities, it’s difficult for black people to become full professors. These issues exist and need to be interrogated.
Cost of education
For a long time, universities have called for action on the funding problem and the need to prioritise higher education. But there are still ever-increasing costs to students.
This is compounded by government and the private sector contributing increasingly less funding to universities. Pityana says that it’s a continuation of the apartheid system where HBIs receive even less of this third-stream income.
Difficulties with consistent student leadership and identifying problems
The current student unrest is a continuation from #rhodesmustfall and #feesmustfall, highlighting the organic nature of the student action. The elected student leadership has been cast aside, with the result that there is no consistent voice for all the students. “Without consistent leadership, you can’t sit around a table and negotiate,” says Pityana.
Another challenge is understanding demands to ensure they can be met. For example, the funding of higher education is a government responsibility and therefore addressing these demands to Vice Chancellors means they are unlikely to be satisfied.
Secondly, demands should be consistent and not ever-changing. “The purpose of action is to arrive at a goal but, if demands and goals are not articulated effectively, it’s impossible to realise goals,” says Pityana.
Ideology and strategy to combat intolerance and violence
“If you are working towards something, you need a foundation of ideas and principles,” says Pityana. Current student activists need to create an ideology that underlies their actions and outlines future scenarios that respond to their demands.
Without an end strategy, how does one identify allies? How does one arrive at a concrete solution? The convolution of lack of strategy, ideology, leadership and demands also results in an intolerance of difference, violence and threats of violence.
Interrogating the decolonisation debate
Pityana contextualises the decolonisation debate around education and knowledge as “ignoring a body of knowledge because the perception is that it is informed by white power structures and hegemony”.
This presumes that ideas are normative and unchangeable, and that ideas are capable of being ‘owned’ by a race, group or culture. Pityana disagrees with this: “Ideas need to be interrogated from a number of perspectives.”
Can science be decolonised?
Within the call for decolonisation, there has been a backlash against science. But have the concept and history of science been understood?
Science is the ability to use collective thinking to solve problems. The general definition of science is the intellectual and practical activity where there is a pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world, using a systematic methodology based on evidence.
This concept of science does not belong to the ‘West’. Its origins and ongoing scientific practices can be found all over the world, including Egypt, India and China. Much needs to be done to change the misconceptions around science as a western concept.
Threat to existence of universities
“There is a real and imminent threat to the ideal of the university in our country,” says Pityana. Universities cannot continue with ongoing instability.
He predicts a brain drain, with academics not wanting to be attached to South African universities, students sent to other countries to study, and the quantity and outcome of universities becoming increasingly less viable. “This is a slippery slide that will be hard to reverse,” says Pityana.
Mirror of what is happening in the country
Pityana says that what is happening at universities is playing out in the rest of society. In sociological terms, the country is experiencing a state of anomie. There is government by demand, intolerance, impatience, and distrust of all forms of authority.
There needs to be a new appreciation of constitutional democracy. “We no longer recognise we are a country of multiplicities of language, culture, race etc, and this is what the constitution seeks to protect,” says Pityana. “The imagination that propelled this country in 1994 needs to be recaptured.”
Move forward with discussion
There is a need to get back to basics. “We’re a society based on dialogue,” says the professor and former student activist. “At CODESA, we were willing to sit at a table and discuss because we all loved our country and knew we all belonged.” From the current unrest perspective, students need to talk as a starting point for moving forward.
“We have all this mayhem at universities but who is taking responsibility?” asks Pityana. For society to take responsibility, it also means looking to the black middle class, private sector and the government. There is a need for tools to resolve the issues. Pityana recommends a forum for dialogues and a place to test solutions.
Academics and academia also need to take responsibility. Pityana believes that we now have a culture where we’re not supposed to say what is wrong and this has translated into actions of populism.
Universities should be hubs of engagement and critical discussion but, says Pityana, “...academics must take responsibility that we have failed students to enable the process of critical thought and logic to check themselves”.
What is the African university?
Pityana says that not enough time has been spent on the idea of an African university. However, first young people need to understand why they go to university, beyond being able to support themselves and their family.
“The university does more than serve a utilitarian ideal. It’s humanising and it’s an agent of civilisation. Unless, as a society, we agree on a common understanding of the university’s role, it will be difficult to come to a shared mindset about how current problems can be addressed,” says Pityana. “We need to interrogate the idea of the African university, debate the issues and recognise that decolonisation is a process and not an event.”
Following are some recommendations that came out of the discussion forum:
Issues in higher education stretch across the entire education system. Critical areas, like education and health, should be the priority and resources need to be allocated accordingly.
Revisit the current Fees Commission where issues are considered holistically. The commission needs to be more open and include more education representatives.
Appoint a national mediator/university ombudsman to bring together the various student issues concisely.
Discuss the notion of ‘free’ education, including dispelling the myth that education is ever really free.
More resources need to be put into HBIs, and vocational training institutions. It’s important to eradicate the racist culture and perception that these facilities are not as good.
Address the issue of the unemployed and unemployed graduates as this is a time bomb waiting to happen.
Video clips with the full speech and discussion can be found on the NSTF web site (www.nstf.org.za).