Change the world



This article appeared in the Herald of 7 October 2016, written by Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Teaching and Learning, Professor Denise Zinn, and Acting CEO of the NMMU Trust, Dr Denver Webb.

THE current turmoil in higher education is bringing out the best and the worst in people. Judging by the comments on social media and letters to newspapers, there is a wide diversity of opinion. In our democracy, this is to be welcomed.

Some of the comments show empathy and a deepening understanding of the issues. Sadly, in other cases, much of the complexity in the issues is lost when people resort to stereotypes and retreat to entrenched ideological positions.

The genuine concerns of parents and staff for the future of their children should not be hijacked by opportunists of any political persuasion.

Worryingly, in some cases opinions seem to be a substitute for facts. Perhaps this is inevitable in a highly charged atmosphere where many of the details of behind-thescenes processes cannot be placed in the public domain without risking the negotiation processes.

On the other hand, there is also clear evidence of deliberate attempts to distort facts to push different agendas. Several examples of this emerged from comments in the last week.

Firstly, the personal attacks on both NMMU vice-chancellor Professor Derrick Swartz and acting vice-chancellor Dr Sibongile Muthwa are unwarranted and based on misrepresentations.

Professor Swartz is on formal leave focusing on the long-term financial sustainability of the university, and Dr Muthwa was appointed to act in his stead with all the powers and responsibilities that go with this.

There cannot be two accounting officers in any institution. Decisions about how NMMU responds to the current student protests are not taken by Dr Muthwa alone.

They are taken by a broad collective of management, advised by an even wider range of managers and administrators, who collectively bear responsibility for those decisions.

To ascribe spurious motives around promotion or otherwise, as has been done in the media, is not only disingenuous, but malicious.

Secondly, the general approach by management is either not understood or is misconstrued by some.

A cursory reading of the communiqués and management responses to the student petitions on the NMMU website (available to all at will show that from the start management has been engaging with students to try to reach consensus on how the university can resume the academic programme while addressing the genuine concerns raised by students.

At the same time as we recognise that sensitive and confidential information cannot be placed in the public domain, we also need to recognise that there is a contestation of ideas going on.

Statements in a news report over the weekend that management is not engaging with students were made by someone who is either no longer involved at the core of the engagement or was peddling misinformation.

The management response to the protests from the start has been to try to find common ground as the basis for resuming operations while issues are addressed.

The position of NMMU on the issue of fees is very clear and is already in the public domain – NMMU supports the call for free higher education for the poor.

This support is not only contained in evidence to the Commission on Higher Education Fees, but was also given practical reality through innovative interventions initiated last year after #FeesMustFall to broaden access to the university and provide “access with success”.

The task team approach, which included students in co-creating solutions, was also very helpful in building ownership and buy-in.

Thirdly, those calling for a more forceful approach through increased security, interdicts and police actions appear to ignore how counterproductive this has been at other universities where it has been tried. If anything, it has led to greater conflict, injury, damage to property and, in one instance, even loss of life.

Managers of the university are very conscious of the brutal past from which we have emerged as a nation. It is a past to which we do not wish to return. We understand that the medium is the message.

The apartheid tactic of kragdadigheid will not provide sustainable solutions to the crisis in higher education. We cannot expect our students to uphold the values of the university if we resort to the strong-arm tactics of the past to deal with protests.

After the protests, however they end, there is going to have to be a process of healing, of finding each other. The impatience of parents and students in this regard is understandable, but a negotiated approach based on consensus will undoubtedly yield more positive results than brute force.

Fourthly, irrespective of the perceptions reflected in some comments in the media, the protests at NMMU have been peaceful. As one student leader put it, not so much as a glass has been broken. This is as much a tribute to the quality and maturity of much of the student leadership as it is to the approach adopted by management.

Jane Duncan, in a very thoughtful piece on why student protests turn violent, recently drew attention to the fact that disruptive protests are not the same as violent protests. She makes the point very clearly that the road to increased security clampdowns is the road to nowhere.

At NMMU, the protests have indeed been disruptive, but they have not been violent. This is, of course, not to say that some students and staff who wish to attend classes have not felt intimidated by burning tyres across university entrances.

The challenge here is fundamentally how to balance the needs of those students who wish to continue with lectures while respecting the rights of those who wish to protest. This is something management has been trying to resolve with student leadership.

Fifthly, the point needs to be emphasised that although NMMU is the site of protests, the issues at the heart of the protests are national issues requiring national solutions.

Free higher education might be the clarion call, but the protests are really about the stalled transformation of our society, unequal power relations, racism and supremacist notions, poverty, inequality and unemployment. The sooner this is recognised, the closer we will be to finding a solution. Threats of legal action, strident demands for force to open the university, unfortunately reinforce perceptions of sectarian privilege and intransigence.

Lastly, the university management has been at pains not to take sides in the student protests. It is no secret that students are themselves divided on issues. Outside the glare of publicity, management has been trying to balance its responsibilities in an even-handed approach without compromising the values and principles at the heart of NMMU’s identity. It would seem that this finely-nuanced approach is misunderstood as inaction in some quarters.

Our country is at a crossroads. What we need in this time of troubles is not intransigence, coercion and divisiveness, but greater tolerance, understanding and empathy.

It is only through reaching out to each other and finding consensus on key issues that a lasting solution to the crisis will be found. Most importantly, this needs to be done without sacrificing the dreams and aspirations of a generation of students. 

Contact information
Prof Denise Zinn
Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Teaching & Learning
Tel: 27 41 504 3215