Students protest at Wits. Picture: REUTERS
Students protest at Wits. Picture: REUTERS

In October 2015, fire erupted across university campuses in SA. The flame was ignited at Wits University that summer. What started as a protest against a 10% fee increase would become the biggest revolt in education in postapartheid SA.

Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib was not even in the city for the first two days of what became known as the Fees Must Fall protests. He was in Durban, attending a higher education conference on transformation convened by then higher education and training minister Blade Nzimande.

Two days after the protests started, he flew back to address students, but the situation was no longer in management’s control.

It was on this day that some of the most striking images during the protest were seen, with Habib sitting on the floor of what was then known as Senate House, having agreed to stay with the students until an emergency meeting could be held by council, the body that governs the university, to discuss the fee increases.

But the demand had already changed from no fee increases. The aim, as proclaimed by Mcebo Dlamini, one of the foremost student leaders and former SRC chair, was free education.

Now more than four years later, SA indeed has free higher education flowing from the two consecutive years of protests in 2015 and 2016. Senate House is no more, and the building is now called Solomon Mahlangu House.

And on Monday the university announced that Habib, who led Wits through this time, will not finish his term, which was due to end in 2023, and will start as director at the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London in January 2021. Habib was headhunted for the position, and the entire process of his appointment took just three-and-a-half months.

Dlamini, who clashed with Habib on multiple occasions during Fees Must Fall, was one of the first people quoted in response to the news of his resignation, in which he said in an article on TimesLIVE that it was “a pity” that Habib was leaving at this time where the university needs him the most.

In an interview with Business Day on Thursday, Habib says he was “bemused” by this reaction.

He says leaving Wits was not a complete surprise, as he was already in his second term, which is the cap for vice-chancellor at Wits. He would have been in his mid 50s by the time his second term ended and the big question was what he would do after life at Wits.

Ironically, he says, Wits is considering changing the term limit to allow for a third term to be an option, given the skills deficit in SA. There aren’t sufficient high-level strategic and executive skills in SA’s education system, and offering someone a third term should therefore be an option, he said.

But with the move to SOAS, he will go to another university that faces challenges, which include its finances. Is he going from the frying pan into the fire?

He acknowledges that SOAS has got “deep financial problems”, but adds that he did not think they were insurmountable. “I  think part of the reason they might have offered me the job is because they think that through Wits and other experiences in SA’s higher education we have dealt with some of these challenges,” he says.

Part of these challenges are how to bring out the university’s social justice mandate while balancing it with building a financially sustainable university. He says this is not mutually exclusive and has been achieved at Wits.

He goes straight into the numbers of what has changed since 2013 when he started his first term. The university then had 7,000 graduates, which went up to 9,500 in 2019. From 9,800 postgraduate students in 2013, the number had grown to 15,000 in 2019. In 2013, the university produced 1,200 research units, in comparison with just under 2,000 in 2019, he says. All this while almost doubling its budget.

In terms of what type of person his successor should be, Habib says you need someone who is politically astute, and who understands and has stature in higher education. That person must have strategic ability and drive, and know how to execute a strategic plan as part of a team, and be able to speak truth to power.  

“Truth not only to state power, but also to societal power. To have the courage to say to stakeholders, unions, social actors that actually you are behaving in a manner that is destructive to the future of this country,” he says.

Looking back at the Fees Must Fall period, it is not specifically the dramatic scenes that are etched into the memory of South Africans that will remain with him. It will be the time in 2016 when students were telling him that they supported the cause, but they were desperate to finish the academic year, because without their degrees they could not find work. If that student could not get a job, it would also affect the future of their younger siblings, who would be deprived of a source of support towards their own studies.

It was after this that he made the call to bring the police on to campus.

On whether he would change anything he did during that time, he says there are small things. “If confronted by the same issues and the same challenges, I will bring the police again,” he said. That was “the most important revolutionary act I have ever done”. 

“When public institutions are under attack, I will rise to their defence. I don’t care what the fascists say and what the anarchists say. I will stare them down, day after day, year after year, decade after decade. Because it’s the right thing to do.”

And the call that he makes to South Africans amid more protests at the University of KwaZulu-Natal is that they should rise to the defence of these institutions. To ensure that SA’s universities do not end up like the state-owned enterprises, “because we will not recover from that”.

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