Achille Mbembe on the stalemate at our universities

Wits University’s Professor Achille Mbembe says that ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe’s comments about shutting down universities proves a shift in the perception of the university as a cumbersome burden rather than a public good.

I listened to Gwede Mantashe, the Secretary General of the ANC on Wednesday. He has a way of speaking which is pretty peculiar. He was asked about his views on the ongoing strife in our universities and the efforts led by some students to force a closure of the universities.

Mantashe said he would close the universities for six months were he the minister of higher education. After six months he would reopen them, assess the situation, and eventually close them again if this was warranted by the situation.

He referred to one country where this has been done but did not name it. In fact, he could have referred to many, especially in the rest of Africa, where closing universities after students unrest became the norm, especially in the 1980s-1990s.

What Mantashe did not say explicitly is that in those circumstances, the police or the military would be unleashed upon students. They would destroy part of the infrastructure, rape some students, brutalise others, arrest as many as they could and throw them in jail or send them to military camps. They would even kill a few. Panic would ensue and those staying in the dorms would vacate them precipitously. At times years would go by without anybody getting a degree.

In Francophone countries, this was known as “annees blanches” (white years).

What then happened is that those who could leave the country indeed left. Private providers soon moved in and Africa witnessed a proliferation of private universities which entrenched the notion of higher education as a product to be bought and sold on the market.

Today some of the most vibrant universities in Africa are private institutions. Of course, only those who can pay have access to these institutions. They are of various qualities inevitably. But in Central Africa for instance, private Catholic universities are the best by far.

Mantashe did not suggest that this is the direction things should take in SA. But if the experience up north has anything to teach us, it is that when the logic of repeated closure becomes effective, there can only be a narrow range of outcomes, and whenever public institutions are destroyed or crippled, the poor pay the heaviest price. Why? Because their exit options are drastically limited. They end up inhabiting the ruins of what used to be striving institutions.

Mantashe also made some comments about people who believe that their studying at a university is a way of “making a favour” to the government rather than seeking self-upliftment. He concluded by lambasting those who are clamouring for rights but hardly have anything to say about duties and responsibilities.

As I listened to him, I kept wondering whether this is his personal opinion or whether we are starting to see a shift in ANC thinking on matters of higher education There was a time on the rest of the continent when higher education was seen as s public good. A welfarist model of the university then prevailed. A public university was tantamount to a welfare institution. Then came unrest, chaos and destruction. A lot was driven by the Humanities. The university was now seen not as a resource, but as a burden, a load to be carried by those who sought to benefit from whatever it had to offer.

It seems to me that Mantashe is not that far from perceiving the university as a cumbersome burden rather than a public good. These shifts usually happen twenty-some years after so-called decolonisation. They happen when the postcolony – which coincides with the era of privatisation – is gradually consolidated.

This post originally appeared on Achille Mbembe’s Facebook page and is republished with permission.

Featured image by Yeshiel Panchia

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