South Africa should have made early childhood education free for those who cannot afford it, not higher education, says Dr Max Price

Published On: 11 December 2023|

Dr Max Price (left), who was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town (UCT) at the time of the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall student movements, said his one regret resulting from that period was about a decision that government had not made – namely to provide free higher education to people under a certain income.

He said he regretted both the undemocratic form of that Government decision (when it was pronounced), as well as its content.

“It was a political outcome of Zuma (former president of South Africa) wanting to curry favour with the youth,” he said. “I think that the budgets of governments and countries in democratic countries should be decided by Parliament, in terms of the so-called ‘will of the people’. It should not be decided based on who is shouting the loudest, who is able to bring a set of institutions to a halt. And so, I regret that the protests resulted in a form of decision making which is fundamentally anti-democratic.

“And I regret the content of the decision. Because in the bigger scheme of things, even just within the education sector, early childhood development and education, which has not been free and is not universally available, is an extremely high priority, and a higher priority than spending a bit more on university education,” said Price.

“Early Childhood Education will benefit nearly 100% of people who don’t access private early childhood education, whereas university education will only benefit 25 to 30% of the population. So, even in terms of just the sort of utilitarian calculus of who’s benefiting, aside from its real value, I think we ended up with the wrong policy. But I also understand the pressures,” said Price.

Price, whose book about his experiences, Statues and Storms – Leading Through Change, was published by NB Publishers in August, was speaking during an online panel discussion on 21 November. Titled Student Protest Action, Politics, and Higher Education, the event was hosted by the University of the Free State (UFS) as part of its Thought-Leader Webinar Series. The other panellist was Professor Adam Habib, former Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and now Director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. 

Up to 180 individuals attended this webinar. The audience represented the university community, the private sector as well as civil society. 

Dr Price’s thoughts on regrets were in response to a question by Professor Francis Petersen (above), Vice-Chancellor and Principal at UFS, who moderated the discussion and wanted to know if, in hindsight, he regretted any decisions.

Price responded that he did not.  However, UCT could have done some things differently, he added, such as managing the university communication. “That was a real weakness in my team, and it was largely about not having figured out how to how to deal with the changed world of social media, to the point that our own staff were getting the news from student feeds, because they were instantaneous and in real time, whereas our systems were much more traditional,” he said. 

Their system, he explained, involved someone drafting a press release to be sent out under his name, 

Social media has changed the methods and nature of protests

Price said social media has changed the method of protests. “When you can call a gathering by putting a message on Twitter and the gathering will be there in half an hour, we haven’t updated our procedures, our rules, nor our ways of responding to cope with those social media developments,” he said.

Dr Max Price: Social media changed the nature of protest organisation, which kept universities on their toes.

“Social media not only changed the way that protests happen but could achieve national coordination in ways that could never be done before. In the past you’d have student leaders from all the campuses meeting at a particular place, planning a programme or a strategy. Now they were watching each other live; the demands being made on one campus could be mirrored on another, and the responses of management on one campus would be used as a lever for concessions on another. Often the management teams didn’t know what had been agreed to or considered on different campuses, but the students knew because they were so much more adept at using social media,“ said Price.

Social media also changed the nature of protest organisations, which meant universities had to work on how to respond. He said the model for the Fallist movements was to “Occupy,” as had been done on Occupy Wall Street – an almost two-month protest in New York’s Wall Street financial district in 2011. “And so, we faced movements which had no official leaders,” he said.

“They had no constitutions. We had no way of knowing who the spokespersons were, and who had a mandate to speak or negotiate, because the organisation was flat in ways that the students and Occupy movements thought was a strength. You couldn’t, for example, detain or discipline one leader and think you had significantly cut off the head of the organisation; there would be five or 10 new people the next day, and that changes how you negotiate – the goalposts keep moving. 

“The mandates that you think your negotiators have, can be removed by the plenary group that evening.  They think their leaders have been coopted and send you a new team of leaders the next day. There’s a tremendous lack of trust within the social movement. And so, we ended up using social media to livestream our negotiations – that was unheard of.”

Context matters in decision making

He said for leaders making tough decisions, context matters. “Once you apply principles consistently, regardless of circumstance, it leads into problems and then bad decisions.”

Price said Petersen’s reference to trade-offs captured what it was about. “If a particular principle would always lead to a particular decision, there would be no tradeoffs and they wouldn’t be difficult decisions. Decisions are often difficult because there may be competing value systems. There may be a principle which you would very much like to adhere to, but which will lead to consequences that would be very negative for the institution and a downside in the long term. Or there may be decisions which have multiple stakeholders with competing interests. So there isn’t one right decision. At one point in time, it would be one decision while at another point, on the same set of issues, the right decision would be different because of the context.” 

Compromises he regrets – but not in hindsight

He said they had to make concessions about what was unacceptable protest, such as students in residence setting off the fire alarm twice a night in the week before exams, unsettling students,  disrupting their sleep and affecting their ability to write exams. “Most would say that’s not violent protest. But it’s surely unacceptable protest,” he said. “We found that we could do nothing about it because we didn’t have a fire alarm system that could pinpoint who was triggering the alarm. We only knew that it was in one wing of a building. And that was part of the #FeesMustFall concession battle. 

“And those are compromises that I regret. I was regretting them at the time. Not so much in hindsight. We knew at the time what this compromise was. We were trading off the pros and cons. We were deciding that in the interests of 7 000 students being able to write their exams, write them in peace, write them without disturbance, without security, frisking everyone as they went into the exam hall was necessary,” he said.

#RhodesMustFall was not only about the statue

He said Petersen had said the #RhodesMustFall campaign had started at UCT, but he wanted to point out that it had “spread to most of the historically white campuses in the country. It certainly spread to the Afrikaans campuses where the issue was often around language”.

As Petersen had rightly pointed out, the protest was about more than just a statue. (The statue of British mining magnate and politician Cecil John Rhodes occupied a central position on UCT’s main campus and in March 2015 a student sparked off extended protests by pouring human excrement on it.) #RhodesMustFall, said Price, was about “what the statue represents. And that was the institutional culture, which to them (some of the students) felt like a colonial culture, a culture which they found alienating, and which the attitude of the university said ‘You come to us, you come to UCT, Rhodes, Stellenbosch and we want to help you become more like us’.

“We had bridging programmes and acculturation programmes and norms, which many of us were almost blind to the extent to which they were reflecting the norms of one part of society and not the norms of the other. And so, the #RhodesMustFall component of these protests was very much about changing the institutional culture. That’s about everything from statues, from artworks, from names of buildings, from issues of language and accent, from curricula to things like the menus in student residences,” he said.

He said some UCT alumni criticised them for taking down the Rhodes statue and changing the name of Jameson Hall to the Sarah Baartman Hall. “They talked about airbrushing history, erasing history. I believe they just did not understand this issue of institutional culture. They had blind spots as I had had blind spots in my own development over the years. And part of the reason I wrote my book was to explain to that audience why students, particularly black students, and staff felt so angry and alienated,” said Price.

A watershed in higher education

Price said he also wanted to give his perspective on the protests, which were “a watershed period in the history of higher education in South Africa. And higher education has been permanently changed as a result. 

“It was also a watershed because of the scale of the protests – probably the first time in the 20 years post democracy, perhaps the first time in many years preceding then – that you had such a national movement, coordinated and acting simultaneously. 

“And so it’s also a watershed in how protests happen, protests might be managed, and how social movements function, and therefore it’s a period in our history, which will be much researched and written about, and it’s important to document that history for the archive,” said Dr Price.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.