Vice-Chancellors unite in addressing the threats to South Africa’s democracy

Published On: 23 July 2021|

The Board of Universities South Africa has expressed deep concern over the civil unrest that broke out in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal recently. Reducing what played out in the two provinces to a direct threat to South Africa’s constitutional democracy and to its economy, the Board felt stimulated to reflect on the context in which the universities find themselves and to understand better their role in finding lasting solutions for a humane, sustainable future. This was also an opportunity to consider the threat to universities at this difficult moment in our post-1994 history.

All vice-chancellors of South Africa’s 26 public universities, and the USAf CEO, make up the Board of Universities South Africa.

At a special meeting convened this week to reflect over the recent incidents, the USAf Board agreed that universities through their research and teaching must, more vigorously, step-up their efforts to address the grand challenges facing South Africa; deepening democracy and social cohesion, building a more inclusive economy, eradicating corruption, etc. They also agreed that at the heart of last week’s unrest was a society that defaults to violence as a standard for expressing discontent.

While the directors agreed that the social ills of poverty, inequality and unsustainably high levels of unemployment had fueled the civil unrest, they also noted that the rampant looting and destruction of property was politically motivated and driven by the eroded morality of South Africa’s political sphere.

“Although some supply chain issues appear to have been resolved, to an extent, the manufacturing sector in KZN remains on its knees, with serious implications for the core operations of universities, including the food security of students and staff,” Professor Ahmed Bawa, USAf’s Chief Executive Officer said. He expressed concern that widespread vandalism and inadequate policing had serious implications for universities. “Is there action to be taken for the safety of our students, staff and our physical campuses and infrastructure?” Professor Bawa asked his peers. Bandwidth inadequacy was also a looming threat, following the attacks on 3G and 4G masts in KZN.

Dr Thandi Lewin, Acting Deputy Director-General: University Education in the Department of Higher Education and Training, who was in attendance of the special USAf Board meeting by invitation, also expressed the concern of trauma and worsening mental health issues in students, and the possibility of an acceleration in SARS-CoV-2 infections from the potentially super-spreader circumstances that were witnessed in the mayhem.

Even though the USAf Board understood that the recent tensions were confined to Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, they were not oblivious to the possibility of this type of riots flaring up in other provinces. It was therefore necessary to be proactive and act for nation-wide social stability.

For the longer-term, they agreed that universities would galvanise their teaching, research and innovation to work with other social partners to reverse the trajectory of deepening poverty, inequality and unemployment. The future of South Africa’s democracy depends on the human wellbeing of its people. This would be critical in addressing the vicious cycle of violence and destruction of property as a method of voicing social discontent. Universities have a special role to play in addressing these challenges as knowledge-intensive institutions, understanding that they might not, by themselves, resolve structural issues of poverty, social inequality, and unemployment, and that matters of community policing and state security are beyond their sphere of influence. Universities will work closely with government, business, trade unions and civil society organisations in shaping an inclusive approach to addressing the lessons of this historic moment.

“Critically, we need to create an inclusive society from an economic perspective,” Dr Sizwe Mabizela, Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University said. “We need to galvanise our research to bring to the fore, the areas that could be activated to create jobs,” Professor Bawa suggested another perspective. Professor Xoliswa Mtose, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Zululand and Professor Marcus Ramogale, Acting Vice-Chancellor at the Mangosuthu University of Technology, both focused on matters of curriculum and the entrenchment of entrepreneurship education as one way of inculcating self-reliance in students, to reduce dependency on state resources for survival. Dr Whitfield Green, CEO at the Council on Higher Education who also attended the USAf Board meeting by invitation, spoke to the building of institutional resilience.

For short-term solutions, Vice-Chancellors agreed to address the immediate threats to institutions. Each public university would draw an action plan to engage students, unions and other stakeholders towards creating a new generation of student and academic leaders that would see their role as contributing to the creation of a more humane, more inclusive, more democratic society. The vice- chancellors admitted that there were both positive and negative lessons to be learnt from civil society leaders who had mobilised themselves amidst the chaos of the recent past, to protect their businesses and communities where the state had failed. Universities could draw from the resilience of these leaders in re-building a more humane society.

The USAf Office, under the leadership of Professor Bawa, was mandated to draft an action plan and to nominate a task team drawn from the universities, to galvanise intellectual input and to mobilise the capacity needed to address these challenges. The CEO would share the draft action plan with the Board for further consideration and implementation.

Inquiries: ‘Mateboho Green — Manager: Corporate Communication (072 807 4677).