Jonathan Jansen. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Jonathan Jansen. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

AS BY FIREJonathan JansenTafelberg

The university in SA is, and has been since before the end of apartheid, entangled in several social, political and economic issues reflecting some of the broader challenges facing the country.

When democracy entered its second decade, the rightly and wrongly labelled born-free generation entered institutions of higher learning and these became contested environments where students demanded the realisation of the promises embodied by their liberation from apartheid.

When the statue of Cecil Rhodes was removed from the University of Cape Town (UCT) in March 2015, a conversation about the symbolic significance of SA’s histories of colonialism and apartheid echoing at universities in the democratic present began.

The conversation morphed into a national wave of activism and protests focused on the issue of annual fee increases.

And in 2016, the momentum spilled over into activism and protests, many of which became violent through fire and aggression and cost universities hundreds of millions of rand.

What the enduring consequences of this period might have on the future of higher education are the subject of Prof Jonathan Jansen’s new book As By Fire: The End of the South African University.

 As the title suggests, Jansen approaches the roots of this activist resurgence and questions the motivating factors behind trends in student movements as well as the use of violence as a mode for achieving real, sustainable transformation of universities.

Departing from much of the previous analyses on campus protests, Jansen examines this topic from the perspective of a vice-chancellor, the manager of a university and locus of much of the criticisms of students. He draws from his extensive knowledge of education to interrogate the cultural, historical, social, political and economic dimensions of student activism and protests.

He provides a somewhat bleak portrait of the future of the university in SA.

He begins by acknowledging that writing about student activism is necessarily a political activity and frames his analytical approach in the book as "both emphatic and critical".

On the one hand, he appreciates "the power and authenticity of student voices, especially in the 2015 period, and the need for leaders to listen and pay attention to what is being expressed by courageous student leaders" throughout his analysis of the roots of the crisis, empty promises by the government and the rise of what he refers to as the "welfare university".

But he also repeatedly questions "the main lines of attack on the public university, especially in 2016".

These are related to a variety of topics he covers, including the feasibility of funding free education in SA, media coverage, the cultural alienation of students or the "more dangerous position that violence against individual persons and public property can be justified by some theory of revolution or by the logic of justified retaliation or by no theory at all".

He appreciates ‘the power and authenticity of student voices, especially in the 2015 period’

 This approach will be engaging for anyone involved with universities; but it might be dismissed by people sympathetic to or involved in activism, because Jansen doesn’t mince his criticisms of the activists’ misreading of Frantz Fanon’s work, their unwillingness to debate and several other components of their movements.

However, it would be shortsighted to think of this book as simply a kind of management finger-wagging critique many students have come to find patronising as the mixture of empathy and criticism helps to demonstrate the kind of passion and resolve, along with intellect and experience that is required to fix the mess in which institutions of higher learning find themselves.

An important part of the book is Jansen’s retelling of conversations he had with several vice-chancellors, including Max Price at UCT, Prof Sizwe Mabizela at Rhodes University, Prins Nevhutalu at Cape Peninsula University of Technology and Prof Adam Habib at the University of the Witwatersrand.

He draws on these conversations to emphasise the importance of leaders in a time of crisis. These perspectives provide crucial insights about university managers’ experiences of 2015-16 and the significance of organisational culture, student experiences and challenges with funding, housing, race and class, the formation of campus microclimates, protest violence and many other issues.

It is tempting to think of the university as a microcosm of society. At times, Jansen draws links between inequality among student populations and the broader inequality of society. One of the more interesting ways he articulates this is in his discussion of the rise of what he calls "the welfare university".

He argues that, because of the significant levels of inequality in SA, many students are entering universities shaped by the experience "of growing up as children of welfare families in which the state as an institution lifted communities out of abject poverty".

Students thus arrive at universities with an expectation that the institutions will do more for them than provide an education, which, according to Jansen, helps to explain the Shackville demonstration at UCT in 2016.

However, he also shows the limits of commonly held assumptions about universities because of moral convictions we may hold.

Challenging the notion that a university reflects society at large, Jansen draws a comparison between the performances of protesters and, at times, their contempt for leadership and institutions, and the at times disregard for the rule of law and swell of aggression that has taken shape in the political arena during the tenure of President Jacob Zuma.

Jansen does not think it’s an accident that the performances in Parliament are mirrored in some of the displays of activism and campus protests.

What makes this book so worthwhile is his thoughtful and considered perspective as an insider who clearly believes in the personal and national benefits a university education can provide.

His sombre analysis doesn’t let students and protestors off the hook for their behaviour or, at times, their lack of thoughtful deliberation and it equally expects the same of readers who may approach the book with a specific point of view.

Jansen wants to start a conversation about the work universities must do so that they can effectively channel the energy and desire of students to receive an education that not only challenges them but also inspires them.

This book is a welcome place to start.

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