Statement on University Crisis by UCT History Honours Class of 2016

7 Oct 2016 - 16:15

To the academics of the Department of Historical Studies:

UCT’s Department of Historical Studies has prided itself on its ability to present and champion ‘history from below’. It is a department that stresses the need to uncover ‘forgotten histories’ and listen to the voices of the powerless in society. The current worker and student mobilisations on campuses in South Africa are an example of these voices emerging collectively to demand a more just and equitable society at large. As the Honours Class of 2016, we stress the importance of a commitment to accurate history that recognises how these voices are being silenced and misrepresented.   

Universities in South Africa are in crisis. As postgraduate history students we feel it necessary to acknowledge that this is a crisis that university departments, university managements and government are responsible for. Furthermore, we feel that it has become important to collectively express our dismay at the narrative created by these stakeholders – one which has been adopted by the mainstream media – that attempts to lay blame at the feet of students and workers. This narrative is purported by UCT management and entrenched by those who refuse to challenge it and must be seen as a flagrant abuse of power. UCT management and their propaganda team have been particularly responsible for fear mongering in attempts to divide students, feeding little to no truths as to how students and workers protest and what they are protesting for. Herein the university essentialises protests through selective reporting that promotes, whether knowingly or unknowingly, prejudices and racism. The dominant narrative is one that suggests that the broader student population is being held hostage by a small group of students and workers who are making impossible demands. In our experience we have found that this is not so. Collectively we have agreed that the basic demands for free education, a radical rethinking of the academic project and the insourcing of workers under conditions needed to live a dignified life are not only legitimate but are nothing short of necessary.

What has become clear over the last two years is that the university system cannot continue to operate the way it does. The commodification of education only serves to entrench the rampant inequalities that have been created through years of capitalist exploitation under colonial, apartheid and post-apartheid regimes. It is a broader societal issue that negatively affects the poorest - with regards to social and economic capital - most. On campuses students and workers of colour suffer its effects first-hand. Student and worker struggles have thrown the effects of this commodification under the microscope, while the responses from managements and the government have been insufficient: The incessant propaganda, the use of underhanded tactics to divide workers and students, the victimisation of student activists, the targeting of individuals for the actions of collectives, and the militarisation of campuses are all desperate attempts to defend an exploitative and exclusionary tertiary education system that is unraveling at the seams. These are attempts to ensure the ‘normal functioning’ of universities. But the last two years have shown that these institutions are anything but normal. Institutions that protect and entrench the privileges of an elite minority are not normal. Inviting police and private security onto campus to protect the status quo is not normal. If anything, the last two years have highlighted the abnormalities of a tertiary education system that is built on oppressive principles and runs for profit. To ‘carry on as normal’ is to deny that this system has imploded.

We recognise that the collective actions of workers and students over the last two years have made massive strides towards creating more humane institutions of higher learning. They are also efforts that carry much broader social significance. In the process, however, the normal functioning of the university has been put under stress, tensions have arisen and anxiety has set in. It is easy under these circumstances to see the ends of the students and workers as admirable yet decry the means. It is more difficult to take a stand with workers and students to put pressure on management to concede to what we deem are fair demands. As postgraduate students we call on the History Department to consider the more difficult route. Considering how the Department of Historical Studies lauds its staff's academic progress and achievements - including settler genocide, the legacy of Indian Ocean slavery, and the relevance of oral history in our post-colonial setting - the contrast of outspoken academia and silent action on structural inequalities, access and justice that the university is currently facing is indicative of a greater issue amongst academics. This is a Department that memorialises the murdered miners of Marikana in its break-room, yet it remains silent on worker issues on campus and has little to say about the violations of students’ rights to protest? The momentary inconveniences of deciding to take a collective stand as a department for the demands of students and workers pale in comparison to the possible victories that can be won with your committed support.

This past week saw attempts by management, departments and lecturers to keep the university open despite the difficult conditions. We question what constitutes an ‘open university’ in the first place? Does an open university discriminate on the basis of whether a prospective student can pay their fees? Is an open university one that racially profiles? If not, then it is fair to say that UCT has never been open. What do we say of a university, through its Vice Chancellor, which encourages and thanks its staff and students for reinforcing an imbalance of power relations? These are the types of questions that we believe the Department can no longer ignore.

As postgraduate students we feel uncomfortable with a continuation of the academic project under the current circumstances. We call on the department to take a committed stand on the following issues: 

·     Better, equal working and living conditions for all employees   

·   A commitment to a process of restorative justice (for students and workers - including reparations for the pain and damage caused by many years of outsourcing)

·       Free education

·       Decolonial education

·       A radical rethinking of the academic project in its entirety

·       An end to the victimisation of individuals for actions of a collective

·       Drop interdicts and the expulsion of students

·       Demilitarisation of campus

·       The end to anti-student and anti-worker propaganda

We call on the History Department to not stand and watch history being made from the sidelines.

Forward to the struggle of workers and students!