Wits University philosopher Achille Mbembe took ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe to task for suggesting that universities should be closed for a period of time until the turmoil among students has calmed down. Read the article here. This was an irresponsible call, he wrote, on a continent where universities have in the 1970s and 1980s borne the brunt of state action through the use of armed forces and ghetto thugs to assault, murder and rape students. Their resultant closure often lasted for years and gave rise to the establishment of a range of private universities across Africa. Hans Pienaar sat down in Johannesburg to talk about the movement away from public universities, and the prospects of something similar in South Africa.
I just want to pick your brains, your knowledge on African universities, to the north of South Africa. You wrote about a wave of private institutions in the 1990s. Were these universities actually a kind of a vanguard, compared with the rest of the world? Were they inventing new ways of doing things, or was it part of a broader global trend?
They are both. As I explained in the article, what happened in the 1970s was that ten, fifteen years after independence African universities up north, most of them by the way, began facing serious problems in terms of their future. Between 1960 and the mid-‘70s they set up something I would call the welfare model of the university. The university was a welfare institution in the sense that citizens didn’t have any fees to pay. Those who were admitted were very likely to have free accommodation; they had access to food at a cheap, highly subsidised price. The same went on with transport: they paid nothing in terms of transport. In that sense the university was a welfare institution.
Now from the mid-‘70s to the early ‘80s most of those countries went into deep economic crisis and their economic policy was basically taken up by international financial institutions, in particular the IMF and the World Bank, which pushed them therefore to slash expenditure, especially social expenditure, to privatise state-owned enterprises, to free exchange and basically push for a market-driven type … from that moment on universities went into turmoil, strikes and long years without any degrees being awarded, police and the army being sent in on campuses, destroying infrastructure, raping women, incarcerating a number of protesters, basically sowing mayhem. Those who had money, of course they sent their children abroad.
So you begin to see private universities coming in, by the early ‘90s. This movement is driven by entrepreneurs who understand very well that higher education is a market, an educational market that is global – it is not national, and a number of countries have positioned themselves to tap into that economy, which is a hundreds of billions of dollars economy. So you had the Catholic Church, for instance, that was a pioneer of private university education in a number of places, in places like Kenya, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, and Catholic universities today are some of the best performing universities in those places. And then you had Muslim universities, and you had commercial universities, franchises established by major campuses in the US, in the model not far from what they are doing in Dubai, in Abu Dhabi or in China.
And as we speak, all of the major northern universities, the really serious universities – Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Duke, Harvard – all of them have franchises, especially in Asia and in the Middle East, or more precisely in the Gulf States. They have smaller franchises in West Africa, in Senegal, for instance, where they have established campuses in which they basically teach skills that are required for the management of the global economy: finance, management, law, accountancy. Not the humanities.
So the scene in South Africa is somewhat different and it seems to me it might be time to begin to think about what are the conditions here, opening up the market, and instilling a little bit of competition between public universities and other types of universities. Nothing prevents us from thinking along those lines.
The cynic might say that these institutions were acting in self-interest, that they were serving the neoliberal order.
That is true. You see, the global tendency these days is global capital is sceptical about the university as an institution. But so is the US. We have seen defunding of public universities worldwide – in the US, in the UK, a little less in Scandinavian countries and other parts of Europe, such as France, but broadly speaking the public university as an institution is in danger, because of the privatisation, because of the overwhelming view that education is a market – it’s bought and it’s sold. And in that sense the real global capital doesn’t believe that we need national universities. They think that we need some key, core places, transnational universities where the new transnational classes that serve capital have to be educated in very specific sectors of knowledge.
And don’t you think these market-driven policies are in a big way a cause of the current turmoil? In the sense that you create a new kind of consumer student. His immediate demands have to be met as a consumer instead of a person who comes to university to be educated.
Definitely. That is the driving force as we speak. The driving force in the world of higher education is not the state, it is the market. In fact, it is different kinds of market. If we take the example of the rest of the continent, and Latin America or Asia … it’s a segmented market, fragmented, that serves different kinds of clients. And of course, if you don’t have enough money to go to the elite universities, you have a poor education. It doesn’t mean it is entirely closed to you – you can go to a provider, but someone who provides cheap quality education, as we see in the rest of Africa. So you have all kinds of adventures, completely faked. It’s like the churches. These days universities have become like churches. You just basically set up your own tent.
So if we are talking about setting up private universities, what do we have to do to prevent that kind of thing continuing?
The way that it is prevented today is … in places such as Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Dubai, it’s basically through what is called franchising. That for instance NYU or Columbia University establishes a campus in Cape Town, or Yale University establishes an extension of its own campus in Johannesburg, just as they have done recently in Singapore. So they provide education for those who can buy it, I mean serious education. You have Yale degrees, but you don’t have to go to Yale University. They are offered to you on-site, which means that some kinds of ventures have to be put in place between those universities and those owners of capital in South Africa who are willing to invest in that market. That’s how it works. And then you have proper education. But of course, if the market is free, then you have some charlatans who sell fake degrees and stuff like that. Then it depends on local state, government, to introduce some kind of regulation.
But then, as you pointed out, they tend to leave a huge gap when it comes to the humanities.
Of course. First of all, statistical reason … meaning anything that cannot be turned into numbers is presumed to have no value, and anything that does not produce something that can be bought and sold is understood to have no value. And the universities do not really produce things that you can buy and sell, very rarely … some do. So many people believe they are useless. And, of course, they are useless because they don’t bring anything to the market, and second many people believe that they foment disorder. Because they educate people to think critically, which means to constantly question the status quo, and in that sense they’re just being inchoate.
So if you had this new order of private universities, how would you fix the gap? Do you think the digital humanities might be the answer?
Just before we go to the digital humanities … The other thing is that part of what you have seen and was tested in particular in East Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and is now becoming the norm, the emergence of virtual universities, where everything is done digitally. You do not need to go anywhere. There is no building to burn. If you are angry and you want to protest you do not have a structure that you can go and burn because it is all digital. You hardly ever see your teacher, you’re hardly in a face-to-face encounter with someone who is teaching you. So you begin to see a lot of that. And I think it is a force that is unstoppable, and these are forces we will really be hard-pressed to stop. Or if you want to stop you have to develop a level of intelligence that is commensurate with what it is they have put in in the first place. Which means changing forms of protest, forms of action, understanding very clearly what it is that we are up against. Because older forms of struggle will not be able to stop those new processes. So unless we invest in that kind of intelligence, our ways of resistance will be completely outmoded. It’s part of what we are witnessing, I mean with what is going on our campuses. These are modes of resistance that are inefficient, they are not adapted to the kind of real hostile forces that are trying to reify everything and commodify everything and our existence.
Do you think that the welfare model can ever be revived?
No, it’s dead. I think it is clinically dead. The drama we are seeing is that we are asking the university to do things it was never meant to do. I mean welfare is the domain of the state, it is not the domain of the university. We can’t be asking the university to do things it was not designed to do. Not only because it costs a lot of money, but also because it’s just not what it is supposed to be doing. It is not supposed to be creating jobs, for instance. It’s supposed to be training people in such a way that they make choices as to what kind of jobs they want to do. But it’s not to be creating jobs. If your thing is that, go somewhere else. But we are overburdening universities while not providing them with the means to fulfil these myriad functions we want them to be fulfilling, which by definition they are not supposed to be doing. So the welfare model I think is clinically dead. For it to be resurrected at all you need a social revolution.
And what are the chances of that social revolution?
Nil. Especially in a democracy. The thing is that in a democracy you have to compose with different, other forces. In a dictatorship you just say “that is my opinion and that’s it” and anyone who would disagree, we deal with them. But in a democracy you have to compose with other forces, other voices. You have to persuade people to rally to what you believe is true or is just. You have to build coalitions. So change by nature can only be incremental in a democracy. Democracy, what it does is it makes it very difficult to have to witness sudden, major ruptures. Because you have to negotiate. So in a democracy you cannot stand up and say “my way or the highway”. But today that politics of patience, where you build coalitions, you persuade people, you bring them to coalesce around a goal, people are not patient. They have lost sight of the politics of patience. I was reading in News24 they want free education to be delivered in a week. It’s a conception of time that can only pave the way for the politics of destruction. You cannot have free education in a week. It’s completely, (laughs) incredibly … And it shows you the extent that time as a resource has been … Our concept of time has been compressed. Completely.
Do you think Zuma has a similar disdain for universities as that displayed by African countries in the ‘70s and ‘80s, even though the government has not unleashed armies and thugs?
I do not believe that there has been a general attitude of disdain in relation to higher education – it has not been the policy of the government of South Africa. You might have a few individuals who are sceptical about the project of higher education who would not fully understand the importance of university education in the making of a nation and its economy. What is true is that the government has not invested the money that universities have needed. All the studies that have been done of late show that government’s financial contribution to financial sustainability to universities … that money has been going down. My worry is that what is going on on campuses with the current impasse is many will begin to wonder whether it makes sense to invest so much money in these enterprises – which is exactly what happened in the rest of the continent, that the university ceases to be seen as a public good and more as a burden. And a place out of which not much is coming, except disorder, chaos and disturbance.
You responded to statements by Gwede Mantashe and you used the phrase “politics of closing down higher education institutions”. But do you think Mantashe’s call is just a case of starting to dabble with the idea or are there factions in the ANC taking this seriously?
The ANC as a whole hasn’t come up, as far as I know, with a coherent theory of the university. I would be happy to read if there is such a document that they have made up their mind as to what a university is and what a university is for. We have general, generic pronouncements – so you see, for instance, Mantashe’s declarations have been qualified as reckless by the ANC Youth League. So there’s no consensus among them as to what this thing is all about. Who should be admitted, how it should be funded, how we make sure our university institutions can compete with other universities globally, because universities may be national but they operate internationally. There is no university that is only national. If you have a strictly national university it doesn’t count on the international scene. So the question of international competitiveness is absolutely central to the existence of a university in the current global world. And it doesn’t appear anywhere in the discussions we are having.
But don’t you think this is a symptom of a lack of a broader coherent educational policy?
Oh definitely. Our debates on the matter of education are piecemeal debates. They do not add up to any coherent strategy. We cannot talk about the university without talking about what comes before the university. The students we receive in our universities have a long history that precedes their entry into the university. We cannot dissociate the debate on the university from the debate on secondary education, or primary education.
A lot of people are talking about (and you have raised the issue yourself) the move to private universities. I don’t think one can say that it is really a movement yet …
No, not here. Not in South Africa.
But do you think that, speaking of democracy, the censorious attitudes displayed by the management of the University of Cape Town would promote such a movement towards private universities?
No. My feeling is that if the current crisis, which involves many, many forces … It’s not simply the managements. Management is just one force among many. Management is caught right, as we speak, between government and the students, militant students. Of course, down there they made mistakes like that but nobody foresaw what we are in, nobody saw it coming. So everybody is inventing as we go along. There are multiple forces that are involved in the resolution of the current impasse. Not only management. My hypothesis is that if this is not the result (resolution of the impasse), you’ll see a number of things happening. First of all, levels of violence will go up. This morning I was reading that a campus in Pietermaritzburg is the subject of fire, was set afire, so you see levels of violence going up because of frustration and all kinds of things. Second, the number of parents who really want their children to be properly educated, because that is the passport to their future, those who can, will send their children somewhere else. That is how it usually happens. You take them out and send them where they will get a proper education. Third, we will lose a lot of our higher-level staff, professional staff. Both in management and in teaching and research. People who … they want to pursue their career, they can’t do it here because laboratories cannot operate, there is chaos on the campus once in a while, so they go somewhere else. So we’ll see that haemorrhaging becoming structural. Not just episodic, structural haemorrhage. We’ll see the collapse of the intellectual infrastructures without which there will be no universities. Access to libraries, research, and all of those intellectual infrastructures collapsing .. that’s the end of … and of course material infrastructure, buildings won’t be built everywhere. That’s usually how it works. And if all of that then crystallises, it will give legitimacy to the idea of private universities. For those who cannot send their children to China or Dubai, but who can pay for them to be educated in an environment that is free of violence. And what will happen, I said in the article, poor people inherit crippled institutions, because they have no exit option.
Why do you think it is so difficult for students to understand this?
I have no idea.
They have all the ideology that tells them this. Do you think it is because the motivation is short-term political aims?
Not many people have been putting that idea out there in their public discussions. It would be really interesting to have a referendum in each university where the students, all of them …
… the whole student body …
… the whole student body, the faculty body too, all of those who make a university, have the possibility of saying whether or not they support what is going on. Because I don’t believe that … I believe that the number of people who are in favour of closing down the university, of burning the buildings, intimidating the people, I don’t think that that they are the majority. I don’t believe that. But as happens in most instances, a small band of people who are very determined can impose their point of view, because not many people want to go to the trouble of running a –
And what you are also seeing is the divide between the humanities and …
… all the other disciplines. The humanities in South Arica are taking a big, big risk in the sense that they seem to be fuelling the kind of politics that is mostly negative politics, because of a kind of obsession with questions of difference, questions of trauma, questions of hurt … and questions of identity. If we do not make sure that the disciplines of the humanities somewhat … look critically at those questions of identity, the humanities will self-destroy. It’s not sustainable. I don’t think the humanities are sustainable if they preoccupy themselves only with matters of identity and difference.
Someone made the remark, that the digital humanities might be the way out of this, and he also referred somewhere to the repetitive debates, that don’t go any further, that deal with old issues, thirty or forty years old, they’re stuck in a rut. Do you think the digital humanities is a way of getting out of this rut?
There won’t be any shortcut when they have to explore many different paths, and the digital humanities is one. The digital humanities can be used to foster – in fact they are being used in most instances to foster – the kind of politics I was criticising, politics of identity … you see the fundamental project of the humanities, the disciplines of the humanities, originally, they have to do with the cultivation of those faculties that allow us to recognise in each face we meet. The disciplines of the humanities are about looking at your face and seeing my face in yours. They are about that question of encounter, empathy and fundamental similarity, and mutual understanding. They are about those questions of mutuality and reciprocity. That’s what the humanities are. When you have students telling you, you know what, I don’t want to read a dead white man’s book, and you ask them, OK, why don’t you want to read a dead man’s white book? and they tell you because I don’t recognise myself in that … it makes me uncomfortable. I mean, they are both right and wrong. They are right in the sense that if you read Hegel, for instance, on Africa, his opions were horrifying …
He had racist views. But the students are wrong in the sense that reading is not about finding myself, reading in its true sense is getting out of myself and projecting myself on the road to meet someone whom I might recognise (myself), that is what the humanities are. So we have to go back to those foundation grounds and then see how we can use modern technologies to shape the discussions and to develop the medical humanities for instance, using digital stuff but also text and the resources of the imagination. It’s a complex task, it’s absolutely complex. The immediate urgency is to make sure that the humanities are not bogged down in exclusively matters of identity. I think that’s where the poison comes from.
How do we do this? Do we resolve the issue? Or do we avoid the issue?
We resolve the issue in the sense that, first of all, we invest more in higher education. Where will the money come from? That is a serious matter. Why should we put more money there and not in health care, for instance? All those competing claims have to be balanced somewhat. Some national discussion has to take place over what our priorities are. Why should we put R4 billion into buying a plane for the president and not into something else? What are our priorities? And to what extent is the nation willing to invest in its future? And what amount of our national wealth should be invested in preparing for the future, and what amount should be invested in the present? These are key choices and they can only be made politically. These are political matters. Then, of course, universities have to change, the curriculum has to be reformed. But we have to be clear about what reform means. It doesn’t mean OK you read only one set of texts. It means you open up the canon. You diversify the canon because that is what our world is. I think agreement can be found easily about that. Disagreement comes in when you begin to argue that I want to read only Cheikh Anta Diop, Nkrumah … but you are stupid when you say Cheikh Anta Diop, Nkrumah. I mean they read many other people in order to produce what they wrote, so you won’t understand anything about what Nkrumah and Anta Diop are talking about unless you also read the way they did. Of course, most of governance of the university have to change, but these are things that can be done without violence. I think the big deal right now is … part of what is really terrible is that people believe that change within the democratic set-up is impossible, and especially among some young militants, they believe the solution has to be extra-systemic, that the solution will come only out of the system, not from within the system. And that is a matter of trust. It means the trust in the capacity of democratic institutions to provide justice, fairness, and that that trust has been broken. So how do you rebuild that trust, is the real issue.
Surely it is also that they are not equipped to bring the solution from outside.
No, of course, they are not. I didn’t think that the forces are such that you can transform from outside the system. What does it mean to do it from outside the system, to inflict, trigger violence to state structures? It means you foment social revolution, a violent social revolution. And that’s where we are – we are at a point where the legitimacy of existing structures has been deeply eroded. There is a crisis of legitimacy, beginning with Zuma, the ANC and all of that, and institutions. There is a crisis of legitimacy, creeping crisis of legitimacy going on. So the question is how we change it. It is a contest between people believing more and more that it should be through violent social revolution and you have some who say we still have space within the democratic institutions themselves for it to self-correct. That is the debate. So everybody is … those who are into violence, they are trying to experiment with it and see how far it leads. So every time you see an increase in forms and levels of violence as a way of testing whether this tactic can work.
And if the state doesn’t clamp down …
[Request not to be quoted]
To get back to our original framework for discussion: Judging from your observations and interaction with people, do you think there is a demand now for private universities, enough for it to grow into some kind of market?
I think that in South Africa if this is not resolved, the demand for private universities will grow. Especially for people who have the means to get their children educated. Children for whom it would be cheaper to educate them here rather than sending them to England or the United States, or it will go up. So if public universities are not reformed, the demand for private universities will increase. It will become unstoppable. And private universities are not in the business of equality. They are not at all into that business. If anything, they increase inequalities. Public universities are still our best chance to make inroads in terms of a possible less unequal society. That’s the importance of not destroying them. Or not getting involved in actions and unintended consequences which are crippling those institutions. Because in the end it is always the poor that pay the price. But for those who are more interested in questions of broad social revolution, of course an argument like that they’ll just laugh at it. Because that’s not really what they want. They want a social revolution and they use the university as a laboratory to test the feasibility or not of a social revolution. You have forces like that implicated in the current turmoil at the universities.
But it’s a laboratory of archaic ideas.
As far as I can see. It’s not a laboratory for the future.
The other thing, in fact, is not every single student should be going to university. Which means that the other thing we need to do is to provide as many openings as possible. University should be one of many different formulas of what higher education should be about.
Technical colleges, technikons …
Other skills, other professional … But if we focus on universities as the only avenue for higher education, we prevent ourselves from having at our disposal as many tools as possible for opening up a future for the mass of young people who want to be trained and educated.
But as you know, by 1994 the tertiary system did consist exactly of this range of institutions. Do you think the ANC erred substantially in dismantling this system and amalgamating them into these enormous universities we have today?
What they need to do is obvious. I mean the levels of dropouts is astounding. These are structures … people come in … the moment you get in if you come from a poor background, it is a debt trap. And that is part of why the students are rebelling. You just have to get in, you are already in debt. And you have no certainty that you will get a job. So why do we keep using … it doesn’t make any sense for anybody to keep them the way they are. So open it up, diversify it and people are more likely to find a job that … because of training in things for which the market will always be there … We need plumbers, you will need electricians, you will always need those. The demand will always be there. I’m not sure there is a demand in all the fields of humanities … I doubt it. So whatever they did in ‘94 clearly has to be corrected.
Or we should return to the basic idea they had. Of course, it was skewed towards the whites, and the ANC wanted to correct that, but maybe they overcorrected.
They overcorrected and you have to find … deepen openness. That’s why the idea of closing universities ... I mean it is ridiculous. It is further openness we need, we don’t need to close anything.
A friend of mine’s idea is that tertiary education should be free for everybody, anybody should be able to walk into a university, attend lectures, but then they start paying when they want to be evaluated. So anybody can sit for exams, as long as they pay R20 000 or whatever just to be evaluated.
I was a student in France in the mid-‘80s. Anybody could … if you wanted to attend a lecture by Derrida or some of those philosophers, you could arrive and sit and attend
… and hundreds of people did …
Ja. It’s an interesting point that you’re making. Anybody can come and attend a lecture. The thing is when you want a degree, you have to register. You also have to fulfil a set of duties. You have to be evaluated according to a set of criteria. So one can imagine the … It’s a question of access to knowledge in many different ways. Access to knowledge should be in principle free. In a democratic society it should be free and a citizen should be able to sit at a place of education and learn. When it comes to a degree, which is a certificate of your competency, of course you have to go for exams, whether you pay for that, that’s what’s being debated. I think that the welfare model where we expect the state basically to pay for your lodging, your food, I mean, maybe it’s possible. Maybe somebody wants to pay for it, but that’s a different discussion.
The demand for private universities will only increase. When we look at the issue from the national point of view we miss so much because South Africa has all it takes to become an educational hub on the global market. You know we have thousands of African students who go every year to study in China. And of course the Chinese have space for it. We have thousands of students from the Philippines and other Asian countries – Taiwan, Korea – who are eager to learn English. Thousands, hundreds of thousands, and who are willing to pay to learn English. South Africa could become a hub, where all those people come to learn English, worth billions of dollars a year. But it means, of course, that we have to change our mind, we have to think broadly beyond our borders. We have to think globally.
Think beyond 1976.
Yes. We have to make sure that we open our borders intelligently. If we want to retain, for instance, capture our legitimate part of the brain’s circulation, what’s in motion, for our own development, it means crafting immigration policies that are intelligent. Like in the US, you have one work permit that allows you to move around – there are so many things we can do, and that money can be used to foster education, maybe not for everybody but for some. We think nationally, therefore we … Nigeria is full of those ventures. Full. Full. They are all of very different quality. Quality insurance – how do you make sure the quality of what you are being sold is worth the money we put into it?
Peer review is important.
So far in the East and the Gulf countries the main guarantee has been given by modern universities, Oxford … they offer the same quality as the original.
A service that can also be provided from South Africa is evaluation.
Yes, you can use local mechanisms of evaluation that can also … You see, if you ask me, the moment is right. One thing the government didn’t really do in ‘94 when they took power was to create real new universities. The space was open to reinvent the university, the university of the 21st century. Even in the West the old model of the university is finished. They are like factories – they produce masses of people that hardly have a job, or if they have, who end moving from one job to another … lowly-paid jobs, because of the change in the structure of the economy. The changes we have witnessed since the last quarter of a century, the changes in the economy, make it such that much of the wealth today, first of all, it is off-shore, it is not in the real economy; second, it is abstract, it is electronic, it is algorithmic, further and further abstraction of wealth, which means that a lot of jobs we used to do in the model of industrial capitalism are obsolete. Nobody needs them any longer, so you have a job market that is becoming more and more specialised, more and more requiring highly specialised expertise only a few people have access to. So what it means to be a university in that context is to be completely reformed.
It’s also an opportunity.
A huge opportunity. We are building new universities in Kimberley; they’re building a new one in Mpumalanga … When you have to build a new university, what should the new campus look like, how do you build a new campus? Is it that you come and you find a space and you build new buildings, or some kind of conceptualisation goes into what kind of space you want to build? What should the buildings look like, because you want those who inhabit them to interact in what way? There’s no thinking put into that.
That’s also where the digital humanities come in because this is the new way.
How do you inhabit the digital, which is something that is basically virtual? And then you go to the question of what it is that you want to be teaching. But we miss all those moments when we can create. Of course, repetition is easy.
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