Amnesia at HDIs - The debate continues

Alex | Sep 30, 2009
RW Johnson replies to Prof B Figaji, who wrote to Focus in response to RW Johnson's article in Focus 26.

Dear Sir

I have considerable sympathy with Professor Figaji's resistance to the Asmal multi-merger policy and I'm pleased that we also agree on what the Asmal policy is (whatever the Minister may say). No doubt Minister Asmal - a classic victim of the so-called "Napoleon complex" - would really like all higher education institutions to be merged into just one giant mega-techniversity of which he would be Chancellor and solonic law-giver, with statues of himself in every courtyard and common room.

Professor Figaji makes a number of points with which I can agree but he is also quite wrong about a lot. He finds "it strange that the HDIs (Historically Disadvantaged Institutions) are associated with 'separate development" policies, which by implication means that all the white institutions must have been part of a democracy. But every single South African institution was part of the separate development plan." This is very poor and parochial history.

The universities of Cape Town, Wits, Rhodes and Natal all long pre-dated the introduction of apartheid and, indeed, accepted students of all races and vigorously opposed the Separate Universities Act of 1957. Has Figaji forgotten that Mandela was a student at Wits and Biko at Natal? Long after 1957 the University of Natal maintained its so-called "Non European" section, UNNE and as a member of the Natal SRC in the early 1960s I used to work closely with the UNNE SRC on a host of issues, particularly our long and bitter battle for racial integration. One of the greatest problems we faced was that the ANC-controlled SRC at UNNE, our allies in the fight for integration, was permanently in danger of being eclipsed by the PAC, which enthusiastically embraced segregation and wanted nothing to do with us whities.

Of course, these English-speaking universities were far from perfect -although they denied operating informal racial quotas I have always suspected there may have been some truth in this allegation. But the real history of these institutions cannot be collapsed into such simplistic categories as Figaji suggests: it was all a great deal more complex than that. A more interesting point is that the Asmal reforms in some ways retreat towards the old pre-apartheid model with, for example, Rhodes University taking Fort Hare under its wing again, just as it did before 1948. Similarly one cannot help wondering if Natal's absorption of UDW may not also recreate de facto many of the old features of a dominant UND and a dependent UNNE.

Figaji thinks that the HDIs' main problem was that they were home to a lot of "angry students". Well, that's one way of putting it. There were plenty of "angry students" creating mayhem at UCT (denying academic freedom to and actually physically manhandling so distinguished a visitor as Conor Cruise O'Brien) and Wits as well as many other places.

It would be nearer the truth to say that the liberation movements, still lacking a legal base in the 1980s, used the campuses as key arenas of mobilisation and, second, that the expansion of higher education saw large numbers of barely educated and often ineducable black youth recruited onto campuses where they were fish out of water. I taught many of these kids over a long period of years. They were just hideously out place, should never have been admitted, were bound to fail and were certainly ripe for political mobilisation and "anger" because that at least offered some excitement and some possibility of real leverage which they would not otherwise have enjoyed. I wonder if Professor Figaji remembers the Knowledge Mdlalose affair at the University of Natal? The whole university paralysed for months over a student who had failed every course for three years, riots, intimidation, a vice chancellor brought low.

Professor Figaji assures me that his own leadership at Peninsula Technikon has been a shining success. I am happy to hear it - but am surprised that Figaji disputes the leadership failure at HDIs. Why have several VCs been kicked out? Why have several HDIs collapsed to the point of having an administrator put in? Why are so many bankrupt? Why has the VC of UDW suffered a vote of no confidence from students, academics and admin staff? Why did the Heath Commission have to censure the VC at Venda?

And I am also surprised that he disputes my remarks about the way the new elite have treated campuses as fiefdoms and have shown a taste for dressing up in mock medieval academic gowns. He must know how often the poorly educated in South Africa grasp at the appearance rather than the substance of education, how common the inflation of CVs is, how elite members love to call themselves "doctor" when having only honorary doctorates and so on. The traits I alluded to derive from the same desperate striving. It is, frankly, beneath Prof Figaji to indulge in racial name-calling because he didn't like this uncomfortable truth.

RW Johnson