The event was months in the making. Organisers travelled to the nine provinces and met with the full range of student organisations to hammer out agreements for content and participation at a Higher Education National Convention of stakeholders.
For two days (March 18-19 2017) at the Eskom Centre in Midrand students, parents, staff, vice-chancellors, government officials, corporate leaders and civil society activists would meet to seek solutions to the standoff in universities around several issues, but principally student fees.
There was some nostalgia, no doubt, on the part of the organisers, many older activists from the struggle including Dikgang Moseneke, the once fiery leader of the one-settler-one-bullet Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) who would become the voice of moderation as Deputy Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court.
This group of elders and eminent people came within one word of calling themselves the National Education Crisis Committee, a once powerful alliance of progressive students, workers, parents and teachers which effectively carried forward the education struggle in the last days of apartheid.
You could sense the deep disappointment of the National Education Crisis Forum as chairs, fists and water bottles flew in all directions. Belts came off in the mayhem, said one reporter on the event.
Even before their turn came to speak, the Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, and the Chairman of the body representing vice-chancellors, Professor Adam Habib, were shouted down and threatened.
Just the mention of the Minister’s name would evoke howls of disapproval from the audience. The Minister and the professors had to flee for their safety.
With the real threat of harm to participants, Judge Moseneke “postponed” the event.
As usual, the now routine disruption of this higher education platform was blamed on a small group of spoilers. Some laid the blame on so-called students in red berets and others factions within the student body aligned with the ruling party. It does not matter.
A public event with mass media in attendance was always going to provide the public spectacle for groups who have long targeted two events for national (and international) attention – parliament and universities.
Surely the organisers must have known this was going to happen? And if so, why did they not have a plan B to manage the inevitable disruptions?
The reason the convention failed was because of this romantic idea from another era that you can talk your way out of any trouble. These older men and women of an earlier struggle had clearly not been paying attention to what was happening at universities in 2015-2016.
Remember that time and time again university speaking platforms were disrupted and painstaking agreements to resolve various crises were cynically scuttled at the end of a process or dishonoured when the next opportunity for political spectacle presented itself.
The silencing of the right of others to speak, and to be heard, had long become the new normal at public universities. “Because they are not at the coalface,” shared a highly regarded vice-chancellor, “the organisers were a little naïve” about the event.
A judge, priest, artist and businesswoman, among others, were clearly out of touch with the rough and tumble of day-to-day campus politics. “In the weeks preceding the event, we warned them this could happen,” said the vice-chancellor.
But they took the gamble, and more than millions were lost in hosting this very expensive event. Also lost was the public trust in solving university crises through deliberation.
What is the solution? We know what interventions will not work. Policing public deliberation (a contradiction in terms) or limiting access to the more constructive elements among student organisations will end badly, as we know from hard experience at the coalface of university management.
Having the majority stand up and refuse the chaos, as we have seen, simply invites violent reaction from the disrupters at which point ‘safety and security’ concerns become paramount.
The solution begins with the recognition that for the serial disrupters, the political spectacle is not about fees. You can give every student free higher education tomorrow, and the disrupters would find another item of discontent (“we are hurting!”) and continue the chaos no matter what solutions are offered.
It ends with the recognition that the only solution is a political agreement between the sponsors of the chaos – and that means the major political parties represented in parliament, and the factions within their number. And as we know from recent parliamentary antics, that is not going to happen soon. Universities are in for a long night of discontent, disruption and despair.
Professor Jonathan Jansen is the former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State and currently a resident fellow at Stanford University, United States