top of page

UWC: From ‘Intellectual Home of the Left’ to ‘Preparing to Govern’


‘Intellectual Home of the Left'


Universities change constantly, but they do so slowly and haphazardly.[1] It seldom happens that a university is able to set itself major historical goals, especially when these will take it in a radically new direction. In the South African context, the opportunity to set such goals which opened up for the University of the Western Cape, after it became an autonomous university in 1984, must be counted as more or less unique.


The idea of UWC as an exclusively coloured institution had been discredited; the management of the university, a large part of the staff and the overwhelming majority of students rejected the place it had occupied within the apartheid order; its students were drawn from a background of intense political struggle, and lived in communities locked in battle with the state; the university had a considerable degree of international credibility and support; and a decade or more of intellectual radicalism in SA and abroad — particularly in the social sciences — meant that new perspectives were coming to the fore in a range of academic disciplines. All of these circumstances helped to give rise to the goal — articulated by Prof. Jakes Gerwel at his inauguration as rector of UWC in 1987 — of making UWC an ‘intellectual home of the left'.


This conception of the role of UWC enjoyed widespread and strongly-felt support at the time. The grounds for this support can be explained by setting out four elements of this conception which seemed to set UWC on a different path from other universities in SA.


(i) It sought to expose, through its practice, the liberal idea of academic neutrality. The whole conception of UWC as an intellectual home of the left was premised on an explicit recognition of the role that universities had played in reproducing an oppressive social order in SA. At UWC, there would be no dishonest justification of existing practices and structures on the basis of academic tradition and the power of the state. Instead, all questions could be approached on the basis of a frank and open acknowledgement of the political commitment underlying our teaching and research. Education was intrinsically political insofar as it empowered people to transform the material and intellectual world in a context in which this transformation will be contested by differing outlooks and interests.


(ii) It sought to accommodate and encourage a commitment to radical social change in SA, and to remaking SA intellectual life in such a way that it served the needs not of the rich and powerful, but also of the oppressed and exploited. Political commitment could not take the place of academic work, but it could inform and enrich that work, and enable that work to deepen and strengthen political commitment in its turn.


(iii) It promised a unity of purpose within the UWC community. Indeed, this conception made it possible to think of UWC as a community, where each would regard their interests as being tied up with those of others at the institution, and where people could make real sacrifices for the institution instead of each individual merely getting from it what they could.


(iv) Finally, this conception of UWC was only possible on the basis of the highest possible degree of democracy within the university itself. Only by drawing the largest number of staff and students into the decision-taking process could UWC provide a real alternative to the hypocrisy of the liberal universities; only by upholding norms of democracy in its own context could it advance them in the broader society; and only with the participation of students from oppressed communities could it revise its curricula in order to serve the needs of the oppressed.


I believe that there is still considerable support for these ideals at UWC today, although it is much more diffuse and inchoate than it was in 1987. What has changed, however, is the belief that there is any real prospect of realizing these promises at UWC. There are very few people who still believe that UWC is in the process of becoming an intellectual home of the left, apart from the handful who are involved in presenting an image of UWC to the media, funders and to notables in the liberation movement.


There has been no headlong retreat from the conception of UWC as an intellectual home of the left. There have been no mass expulsions of activist students or dismissals of left-wing staff. On the contrary, it is likely that most (though by no means all) of the academics who have left UWC in the years since 1987 have been relatively conservative, while most of those who have been appointed since then have had broadly left-wing views, and some have been very prominent figures in the liberation movement.


A higher proportion of academic staff is black, and a higher proportion of the student body is African. The right wing in its original sense — those who hoped to see UWC return to its role as a ‘coloured' university, with strict discipline, training compliant bureaucrats to supervise their own oppression – no longer exists as a real force on campus. Instead, what has happened is that the original conception of UWC as a home of the left has been hollowed out from within and the meaning of its key terms transformed, and the empty shell which remains, and is paraded on ritual occasions, gives rise to cynicism or embarrassment rather than any sense of identification.


The symptoms of this process are most immediately visible in such phenomena as the failure of UWC students to elect an SRC for the past three years, or to organize themselves politically in other contexts; the decline of the democratic academic staff association, held together by salary negotiations and little else; and the widening gap between the university's management, on the one hand, and its staff and students, on the other, with its resulting legacy of distrust and resentment. All of this is part of a broader process of political decline which has been taking place within the liberation movement throughout the period of negotiations initiated by F.W. de Klerk in 1990. But the process takes a different form in each context, and it is necessary to study carefully the way in which that process of disillusionment and depoliticization has worked itself out in the specific context of UWC.


The purpose of doing this, it should be emphasized, is not to find a historical scapegoat. Rather than allocating praise or blame, this paper is intended to describe the basic shifts which have taken place at UWC's self-conception in recent years, and to see what lessons can be learned from them. To this end, it focusses on four areas: first, the process of democratisation of UWC; second, the distribution of privilege among academic staff; third, the question of curriculum reform; and finally, UWC's stance on the question of state subsidies for university education.


Democratisation and its Limits


Of all kinds of change within a university, changes in the decision-making process are probably the easiest to set out and to implement. Consequently, issues of democratisation came quite rapidly to the fore after 1987.


The initial focus of attention was the Senate of the university: the highest decision-taking body in academic matters, which is usually limited to professors of the university. In 1987, non-professorial members of staff were elected to Senate for the first time: four by the entire body of academics below the rank of professor, and one from each of the eight faculties. In the same year, the UWC Association of Democratic Educators (UWCADE) was established, with a constitution committing it to non-racialism and democracy at UWC and in society, and to the development of progressive teaching methods and curricula.


Among the student body, mass meetings convened by the SRC were frequent and usually well-attended. (The major exception was during boycotts, which quickly degenerated into stayaways, with no real political activity on campus at all.) The SRC never entered into UWC's official decision-taking structures, out of a fear of co-optation. This fear was perhaps understandable, as the SRC also felt itself to be bound by the decision of the mass meeting, and saw its role in student politics as being defined by the demands of the student mass. There were undoubtedly real differences between students and staff on the appropriate direction for UWC, and no doubt there still are. Also, although students were offered representation on Senate and faculty boards, it was never clear on what terms, nor why they should accept the status of a permanent minority if they could gain greater influence from outside these bodies.


What was perhaps more significant, however, was that neither the SRC nor any other student body was able to put forward an alternative conception of the direction of UWC around which to organize. The implications of this failure are considered a little later in this paper. But most of this section will be concerned with the more structured efforts to involve academic staff in the democratisation of UWC.


Apart from the election of non-professorial staff to Senate, a fixed number of these elected members of Senate were also elected to the Appointments Committee and the Executive of Senate. Then, at the end of 1989, departmental chairpersons were elected for the first time, and also became members of Senate (although they are not eligible for election to all Senate committees). Until then, professors had automatically been head of department, and had wielded extensive powers in this capacity. Greater emphasis was laid on democratic procedure being followed at department meetings. It became increasingly common for departments to play an active role in making academic appointments — interviewing candidates, attending trial lectures by them, voting for those they preferred. Although departmental preferences are sometimes overruled by higher committees, a department which is thorough about its selection process has considerable influence in making appointments to its own ranks.


These achievements were relatively modest, but they are probably still not matched by other universities in SA. They seem to give substance to the promise of democratisation contained in the idea of UWC as intellectual home of the left. Why have they so signally failed to do so? To understand this, we must consider the factors which have placed limits on this process of democratisation.


First, the principle of democratic elections has almost never led to democratic control of those elected to office. Candidates for election as members of Senate, department chairpersons or deans of faculties do not commit themselves to anything before election, and voting takes place on the basis of the technicist fiction that there is complete agreement about what each post entails, and no more is required than to ‘find the best person for the job'. Democratisation is made necessary precisely because we recognize that the post of dean, department chairperson or member of Senate is also political. Yet the basic principle of democratic politics — that of seeking support for an openly stated point of view — is denied in the process.


Thus, elected members of Senate have never really sought mandates for the positions they take in Senate, nor have they tried to report back to those who elected them on how they have used their positions. Nor has there been any particular pressure on them to do so.


Deans of faculties found themselves in an inherently ambiguous position: did they represent faculty members’ needs to the management of the university, or management's needs to the faculty? The procedure for a dean's election reinforces the idea that the dean's task itself is neutral, and in practice the requirements of management come to be seen as objective requirements, which the dean must simply carry out. (Interestingly, when the conditions of service of deans were reviewed in 1992, those who elected them were at no stage consulted; instead the review was entrusted to outside consultants.) Regulations also restrict the dean's post to professors, on the grounds that the dean must be a member of Senate. This is clearly inconsistent, as there are already elected members of Senate who are not professors, but has the effect of putting executive authority in the hands of those higher up in the academic hierarchy.


Something similar applies to the post of chairpersons of department. They are elected democratically, but then transformed in some measure into administrative functionaries by the ceaseless flow of instructions to complete reports, attend meetings and the like. With the support of their colleagues, individual chairpersons can choose other priorities, but this will probably be viewed as truancy by those higher up in the hierarchy.


Then, the most senior executive posts in the university are not subject to election. This is true, first of all, of the university council, the highest body of the university with control over its finances and over the appointment of the Rector and Vice-Rectors. Apart from the Rector and Vice-Rectors, Council consists of 8 members appointed by the State President, 2 elected by Senate, and a further 8 nominated by convocation, donors, the City Council of Bellville and principals of secondary schools. The Senate members elected to Council do not report back to those who elected them, nor do they seek mandates from them. It will be said that the composition of Council has been fixed by Statute; but no attempt has been made to change the statute, and no campaign mounted to transfer any part of its authority to a democratically-controlled body. Although the Rector and Vice-Rectors are initially appointed by Council on the basis of recommendations made by Senate (Senate sends three names forward, and Council picks one), these posts are thereafter exempt from any control except that of Council. In effect, the higher you go in the hierarchy of UWC, the less democratic control you will find. And being democratically accountable does not necessarily increase the legitimacy of your actions in a context in which you never had to win support for specific views before being elected. The democratic principles at work in the democratisation of UWC are curiously incomplete.


Second, although there might be a limited degree of democratic control over a great many university activities, this control very rapidly diminishes as soon as the crucial question of the university's finances comes up. Even as imperfect a democracy as the apartheid state always required that its budget be public knowledge, and that the salaries paid to its officials be disclosed. In universities throughout the world, there is no such public disclosure, and UWC is no exception to the rule. Yet without that public disclosure, all democratic decisions are confined to the resources of what the university's management says it can afford. Student demands, which are often concerned with matters of resources, are either confined to petitioning, or forced to disregard the limits of the university's resources.


Control over funding at UWC impacts on the democratic process in many areas. One which illustrates the point is that of campus media. UWC students have not managed to bring out a student newspaper of any substance or continuity. One reason is that UWC has a well-staffed media office which brings out a weekly publication, which is distributed free of charge in large quantities – previously the ‘UWC Bulletin', now ‘On Campus’. It includes no investigative journalism, but a good deal of justification of the current policies of the university's management and some glorification of its individual members. As far as I know, there has never been any form of democratic control over the media office. Clearly, it is able to affect processes of decision-taking by using its very considerable resources to present a selective interpretation of events on campus.


It is clear that the democratisation process at UWC has promised a great deal more than it has delivered. Indeed, what it has delivered «can hardly be called democratisation at all, although it does include some important advances in that direction. (The two which stand out, in my estimate, are the election of departmental chairpersons and the role of departments in appointing their own academic staff.) But UWC has not removed the term ‘democracy’ from its official vocabulary. Instead, it has gradually changed its meaning in order to fit into its very limited practice of democracy.


Thus we find our open admissions policy described as ‘democratisation of access' to the university, and the policy of affirmative action in making academic appointments is called ‘demographic democratisation'. In neither case is there any suggestion that a more democratic procedure is followed. Instead, these usages reveal a basic misunderstanding of the concept of democracy: a belief that democratisation is something that can be done to you, and which you can passively endure (like catching an infectious disease). The essential point which is overlooked is that there can be no democratisation without mobilisation. Democratisation is necessarily a conscious and active process, in which people are mobilized around definite perspectives, for which support is openly won, in competition with rival perspective which can also be freely heard. It is the absence of such mobilisation at UWC which has stunted and impoverished the process of democratisation.


Yet this raises a further question. There has been a great deal of political mobilisation at UWC in these years, very often under the banner of democracy. Why has it failed to overcome these limits to the process of democratisation? To understand this failure, we need to refer briefly to the theory of different ‘constituencies' at UWC: in most accounts of the matter, students, academics and workers. Each of these could mobilize support for particular demands, and these demands would be put to the university's management. At that point, all problems ceased to be political and became managerial instead; there was never any need for management to win support democratically for its views, as it was subject to no democratic control. Instead, it sought to balance between these constituencies, and find a solution which would allow the university to get ‘back to normal’. Once this conception of the different constituencies of UWC had been established and gained credibility, it became increasingly unnecessary for those who spoke on behalf of them even to mobilise support, and the constituencies for which they spoke rapidly dwindled away.


This was the downfall of the SRC, in particular: it did not need to win support from students, it needed to exert pressure on management, and could do so (through boycott, for example) whether it had persuaded more students or less of the legitimacy of their demands. As student organizations took less trouble to organize the student body, so they became increasingly interested in the perks of office, and student politics declined into a contest of cliques. The decline is more visible in student politics, but the same pattern probably holds elsewhere as well.


Privilege and Solidarity


Universities have always been hierarchical institutions. In some measure, this is unavoidable. A university includes teachers and learners, and the teachers must have a certain authority in order to teach and access to certain resources. Among teachers there is also a certain necessary hierarchy, with the more gifted and experienced having higher status and more demanding duties. In all such hierarchies, there is likely to be a hierarchy of reward as well, with higher pay and privileges going to those higher up the ladder.


Even the most conservative institution can be threatened by an excessive concentration of privilege among certain of its members. If privilege is allocated inconsistently, or on a basis which clearly contradicts the norms of the institution, or out of proportion to the reasonable needs of the person or the requirements of their work, then it is likely to provoke cynicism about the integrity of the institution. For a university — such as UWC — which claims to be committed to democracy, the justification of privilege is especially problematic.


UWC began its history with an additional form of racial hierarchy: whites occupied the senior positions in the university, had a separate staff association and their pay-scales were some 30% higher than coloured academics holding the same post. One of the major demands of UWC's students in the 1970s was for the removal of this racial hierarchy. By 1987, however, there was little emphasis on the question of privilege in left-wing politics at UWC. Among left-wing academics, there was an awareness of discrepancies of power, but discrepancies of privilege were largely accepted. Academics were aware that their own living standards were far higher than those of the majority of UWC students and their families, and probably felt it was best not to draw attention to the matter. For students, the matter appeared to be of little interest, except as a rhetorical device for legitimating demands made on the university. The result was that the pattern of academic privilege at UWC was probably much the same as at any other South African university with roughly similar financial resources.


Gradually, however, the material rewards of democratisation became evident. Lecturing staff elected to represent their colleagues' views among the professors became professors themselves — sometimes in spite of not having especially distinguished academic records. An increasing number of individuals from struggle organizations found their way into posts on campus which no-one could describe very precisely, but which allowed them adequate time for political activity. Overseas travel became an increasingly important part of the life of the left, and these trips were sometimes paid for — at many thousands of rands a time — from university funds which were governed by little in the way of rules or procedures. SRC members were given trips to Lusaka to meet the ANC, and free meals in the staff dining-room; they were said to have easier access to loans and bursaries, and often had difficulty explaining missing sums of money from their budget when their AGM came around. Democratisation, in the distorted form it assumed at UWC, brought with it a need for co-optation which provided privilege on a still relatively petty scale.


After 1990, however, this relatively inconspicuous dialectic of democratisation and co-optation took on a dramatically new form. The ANC and other organisations had been unbanned, exiles were returning, and many in the liberation movement began ‘preparing to govern’. Universities were ready to bid against each other for the services of academics who were prominent within the movement, and particularly for those who might be close to a future ANC government. UWC decided to enter this market.


It would be pointless to enter into discussion of particular appointments made to the academic staff of the university. The point is not whether this or that post should have been created or filled, but the principle of establishing new and unprecedented discrepancies of privilege within the university for the benefit of notables within the liberation movement. New extremes of exploitation, on the one hand, and privilege, on the other, came into being and were justified, if at all, in the most casual way imaginable. In 1992, there were temporary lecturers being paid R40 per lecture to prepare lectures and present them, set assignments and make sure the relevant material was available on reserve in the library, mark hundreds of essays and exam scripts, be available for student consultation, invigilate for tests and exams and the like. In some cases, they were required to do all this without the benefit of an office or a telephone. If they could call on any secretarial help at all, they might find that a single secretary was dealing with the needs of a department with more than a thousand students, or, in a smaller department, was required to share her time between four different departments. Even the photocopying that academic staff could do for teaching purposes was being slashed back by budget restrictions. At the same time, posts were being created for notable figures in the liberation movement, who would have very little teaching, or none at all, considerable freedom to attend to their political duties in other parts of the country, or other parts of the world, full-time secretaries to attend to their personal needs, and a standing in the university which did not correspond in any way to their apparent contribution to it. The rate of R40 per lecture for temporary lecturers — usually UWC students working on postgraduate degrees — was presented as an absolute necessity for the financial survival of the institution, and no possibility of debating its fairness was presented. The benefits of the special category of professors were negotiated according to procedures that were not made known even to Senate. If special salary packages, above the ordinary scale of a professor's pay, are not being negotiated for such notables, then it is reasonable to expect that they will be before long.


This new level of privilege was often paid for with what is misleadingly known as ‘outside funding': funding, that is, which is made available by donors for one specific project, and not for general use. What this category of ‘outside funding' obscures is that donors will seldom approach the university with a ready-made project: instead, the university approaches donors to seek funding according to its own priorities. Fund-raisers are able, in other words, to decide on their own priorities, raise funds accordingly, and then claim that they had no choice as these funds were only available for the specific purpose for which they raised them! Those of us who are not involved in fund-raising would not even notice until we discover that, without any kind of open debate, the priorities of the university had been shifted.


The question of privilege might appear to affect academic staff primarily, and to be of less concern to students. The effect of excessive levels of privilege, however, is precisely to break down the bonds of solidarity within the university, and convey to all — whether they are students or staff — that these are not valued highly. And students certainly notice when prominent academics are seen more often on TV than in the classrooms of the university.

The difficulty with privilege in an institution such as UWC is not simply material; it is not simply that it misdirects resources which could be used for other purposes. It is also political; once entrenched, privilege breeds arrogance, and creates a belief that it is deserved, and part of the natural order of things. It is not possible to create privilege and fight against it at the same time. It creates a corresponding sense that those outside the circle of privilege are equally deserving of exclusion. And it reinforces an idea of human worth as essentially measurable in terms of the material rewards given the individual. This is well-understood by capitalists, who are eager to extend whatever privileges they can to the leading figures of the liberation movement. They know that once the leadership of the liberation movement defends their own privilege it will not be long before they come out in defence of privilege in general.


Reforming the Curriculum


It is not possible to attempt any kind of survey of curricula and curriculum reform at UWC in recent years. All that can be attempted here is to comment on the way in which some of the basic premises of such reform have developed.


The first of these concerns the procedures for changing the curriculum, rather than the contents of such changes. It would be reasonable to expect, in a university seeking to respond through its curricula to the needs of communities from which its students are drawn, that students would be encouraged to take an active part of discussion of the curriculum. In the Arts faculty, at least, the largest faculty in the university, it is noticeable that very few departments make time even for basic course-evaluation. Those that do get students to evaluate their courses make little effort to report the results of that evaluation to the students who filled in the forms. UWC has made no attempt, as far as I am aware, at establishing any kind of standardised questionnaire or centralised facility for processing questionnaires, comparing results, etc. (Some years ago it was proposed that a prize for outstanding teaching be instituted at UWC; presumably one reason why this has never materialized is the lack of comparative data of this sort.)


Similar comments apply to questions of continuous evaluation of student work in undergraduate courses. There is no doubt that the introduction of continuous evaluation was a real step forward after the situation in the mid-1980s in which students could pass or fail an entire year's work in a single exam. Continuous evaluation had the potential to shift the emphasis away from the rote-learning which exams encouraged. But some years after continuous evaluation has been introduced, there is still no system for reporting —within faculties, or senate, or to the student body — on how it is done, with what purpose and what success. In some cases, also, it appears that the single exam of the mid-1980s has been replaced by a succession of smaller tests, which fragment the course-material without requiring a different approach to understanding it.


Of course, there is good reason to think that academics are best-placed to initiate curriculum reform: it is their job, after all. Even if we leave aside the question of how students might contribute to the process, there still remains the question of the direction which such reform is to take. Is there a specific direction of curriculum reform which is appropriate to a university seeking to contribute to the transformation of South African society?


There can be no rigid guidelines for all disciplines, but one general tendency which we might expect is that curricula would come increasingly to reflect on the social role of the discipline being taught. The fundamental premise of the initial conception of UWC as intellectual home of the left was the recognition of that social role, and without that recognition the whole conception is reduced to little more than a attitude of political preference. It is likely that there has been an increasing degree of reflection on the social role of knowledge included in the curriculum at UWC. But it is has been extremely unevenly distributed – almost entirely in social and literary studies. The absence of any course at all in any faculty at UWC — even so much as an optional module — in the history of the natural and physical sciences raises real questions about the extent to which the fundamental premises of curriculum reform are taken seriously. While massive resources appear to be available for the study of policy options, no sustained attempt has yet been made to establish the study of South African intellectual history at UWC: precisely the one discipline which could give real effect to UWC's claim to ground its own practice in the recognition of the social role of knowledge in the specific context of SA.


But the indecisiveness which characterizes the entire process of curriculum reform at UWC has its source in a more basic ambiguity. This concerns the relationship of UWC's educational work to the job market. The question can be phrased like this: is UWC training its students to compete successfully in the capitalist economy, or to challenge the priorities of that form of economy and contribute to its overthrow? Again, there is no simple answer to such a question. A student who is able to compete in the job market is not necessarily able to understand or criticize the system which forces that competition upon us, or to grasp the existence of any alternative to it; one who has a critical understanding of capitalism might still be well-equipped to work in its context. And a university education which teaches no more than a set of attitudes to capitalism or anything else, without conveying the discipline and skills which enable the graduate to conceive and carry out tasks effectively in the sphere of work is no good to anyone. It is likely that, in the boycott-ridden years of the 1980s and in the excitement of an insurrectionary political climate, there were many students at UWC and elsewhere who gave themselves a certain political credit for not learning the skills of effective work. In countering this attitude, the opposing point of view has taken root in our context: that it is in itself politically or socially significant for graduates from black campuses to hold highly-placed and well-paid jobs. This is a view which capitalists themselves are keen to promote, and it is not clear that it is being questioned any longer.


It is an extraordinary irony that the idea of a curriculum which prepares students to challenge the capitalist system is disappearing from view precisely as capitalism itself loses its ability to provide jobs for graduates. (It is not only trained teachers who are without jobs; it has also estimated by the Association of Law Societies that more than 50% of law graduates in SA will not be able to find jobs in 1993 [Cape Times, 9/2/93].) And without this basic premise — the idea of a curriculum which prepares students to challenge the job market rather than compete in it — it is difficult to know what curriculum reform at UWC can aim at. If UWC should aim simply at providing the graduates that the job market requires, it would be retreating not only from its conception of itself as home of the left, but even from the ideals of the liberal universities.


This basic indecisiveness is responsible also for the relatively shallow roots put down by left-wing ideas in the academic context at UWC. There are many courses in which students learn to repeat them in simplified form for purposes of exams, but sense that the examiners have little interest in whether or not these ideas are integrated into the lives of the students themselves or their lecturers. This is particularly true of feminist ideas, which are the staple of all courses on gender at UWC and make little impact on the real relations between men and women on campus. It is also probably true of Marxist ideas, which often seem to become increasingly distant from the lives and experiences of UWC students as they encounter them in more of their courses. The ideas which are most vigorously put forward at UWC at present are quite possibly those of postmodernism (among academic staff) and evangelical Christianity (among students): the high-brow and low-brow versions of present-day intellectual reaction, respectively.


My own impression is that, as the capitalist economy has declined in recent years and the negotiations process has drawn the liberation movement into dependence on it, so we at UNC — as elsewhere — have been persuaded to seek compliance with the norms imposed by state and market. This is clearer in the field of UWC's research policy than it is in the complex field of the curriculum. This has effectively come to be divided into two streams. The form of research which enjoys most vigorous support at UWC is concerned with policy options for a liberation movement that is ‘preparing to govern' and is carried out largely by notables of the movement in full-time research posts. The overwhelming majority of the academic staff are urged simply to increase their research output, and given incentives to ensure that this results in publication in SAPSE-approved journals. What the research is about, and whether anyone reads the work published or not is a secondary consideration at best. Indeed, there is no clear indication that UWC's research policy considers it at all. In this context too, the idea of making UWC an intellectual home of the left has lost much of its meaning.


The reform of the curriculum at UWC is, in the final analysis, a political question. Curriculum reform aimed simply at improving pass-rates and producing more employable graduates may deliver certain advances; but these will constantly be reversed by the broader context of the economy. And without a clear political approach to the question of the curriculum, there is little reason to think that the curriculum can aim at anything else. A great deal depends on how UWC understands its broader role in transforming South African society.


Can the SA Economy afford Working-class Students?


The idea of UWC as an intellectual home of the left was formulated from the beginning not only in educational, but also in political terms. In a sense, that self-conception was a means of channelling the abundant political energies of the student body towards academic ends. Throughout the 1980s, UWC students were active in struggles for the overthrow of the apartheid state. It was in response to these political struggles that threats were made to close the university down, or make punitive cuts in its subsidy. Subsidies were in fact slashed, as the state refused to recognize the growth of student numbers at UWC after 1987 as its own subsidy formula required. In this the contest was clear: UWC upheld the right of larger numbers of working-class students to a university education; and the state sought to restrict that right through its subsidy cuts.


As the economic crisis of the apartheid state deepened, so more general cuts in university funding became necessary for it to survive. And once it began negotiations with the ANC and other organizations, it had a strong interest in reducing state expenditure on institutions which could be used for the benefit of the majority — or privatising them, when possible — in order to reduce the ability of a new government to redress past injustice. Inflation and unemployment continued to cut savagely into the living standards of the majority. Fewer bursaries were available for black students, as funders felt the pinch or shifted their interest. All of these factors made themselves felt at UWC in February 1992, when large numbers of students were excluded for non-payment of outstanding fees and conflict developed on the issue of upfront payments required at registration.


The course of this conflict is worth examining, I believe, as it shows more clearly than any other the ideological shift which has taken place at UWC from its idea of itself as intellectual home of the left to that of an institution preparing to govern. My own belief is that the stand taken by UWC's management in that conflict was crucial both in redefining the role of UWC in the broader social context, and in redefining its internal ethos by seeking to disguise its new social role.


It should be said at the outset that UWC's management was in several important respects in the right in this conflict. The principle of excluding students on financial grounds is not wrong in itself, and is probably the fairest response to non-payment in most circumstances. The principle of requiring upfront payments at registration makes practical sense as well. Matters were not made easier by having to deal with an SRC who excited the rage of all who had to deal with it. And student demands did not succeed in clarifying the issues at stake in the conflict.


How then did UWC's management redefine the role of the university in responding to the conflict? They made students suffer the consequences of not having provided financially for the crisis situation on campus, while not at any stage acknowledging responsibility for their own continued failure to provide politically for that crisis. Instead, the whole question of the university's political responsibility was swept under the carpet of a vague call for a ‘national scheme' to provide loans for deserving students. For a university which had defined itself by its acknowledgement of its political responsibilities towards the majority of South Africans this was perhaps the most fundamental redefinition that it could undertake.


It is easy enough to see that working-class students, in the economic context of the 1990s, would not be able to meet their financial commitments. Was it possible for UWC to have responded politically their plight? The answer to this question hinges — in the first place, although not exclusively — on UWC's relationship of ‘critical alignment’ with the liberation movement in general, and with the ANC in particular. After its unbanning in 1990, the ANC entered into negotiations with the government in a context of massive state-sponsored racial inequality. Instead of using negotiations in order to put forward popular demands for the removal of this inequality, and to show the inability of de Klerk to meet them, they followed a strategy of tempering popular demands in order to avoid alarming the white minority. A concrete example will illustrate the point: it would have been perfectly reasonable for the ANC to have campaigned for equal per capita spending for every schoolchild from 1991 onwards, in a single non-racial education department, for a massive programme of building schools for the million or more black children not in school, for increased spending on black universities and colleges to enable them to redress the educational damage done by apartheid. There is no doubting the support there would have been for such a campaign, and no grounds on which its demands could have been denied. It effectively ignored the issue — along with the issues of jobs, housing, land, health and the like — and the 1991/92 budget allocated four times as much for every white child at school as for every African child.


This created a very simple choice for institutions such as UWC: either they could put forward the case for redressing the damage done by apartheid education and expose the hollowness of de Klerk's commitment to a non-racial SA, or they could let their students suffer the consequences of continued racial inequality. They could give priority to the right of the majority to a decent education, or they could give priority to the need of the ANC to avoid alarming the privileged minority. Throughout the country, teachers and students showed their readiness to fight for the removal of apartheid education. The response of UWC's management was to explain that the economy could not afford to spend more on university education than it was spending already. In that way, UWC signalled that it did not intend to struggle politically for the right of working-class students to a university education in future either.


UWC had a responsibility to stand up for the rights of their students which it had confirmed in offering its solidarity in their struggles — not just on campus, but in the community as well. It forsook that responsibility in order to avoid conflict with the leadership of the ANC, and then acted as if it had never existed.


That responsibility is not affected by any argument about the likely outcome of a real campaign for increased subsidies for black campuses. In the 1980s, UWC's stand against apartheid was sometimes compared with the failure of German universities to stand up to Nazism in the 1930s. No-one ever suggested that German universities could have altered the policies of Hitler: a far more formidable foe than F.W. de Klerk! Their shame was to surrender — and then to justify their surrender as an advance — without putting up a fight.


Of course, the claim that the economy could not afford to spend more on universities was not a direct justification of racial inequality in education. But it was a capitulation to the needs of capitalist profit and a mystification of its role in society. In a society in which capital is so closely tied up with racial privilege, this stance could not but have the effect of providing support for continued racial inequality.


The mystification involved in UWC's response is quite easily explained. In any society, certain resources are put aside for the education of the next generation and for acquiring the knowledge necessary for its advance. These resources include not only those needed for actual study, but also the labour that could be used for other purposes. It is true that these resources can never be unlimited. But it is totally misleading to ask only how much of society's resources are available, without asking also how these resources are appropriated. For there have been many different historical methods of setting aside those resources, and that of capitalism is by no means natural, inevitable or neutral. If capitalism in SA has indeed appropriated as much of its wealth as it can afford for university education, and the result is that a white South African is still ten times more likely than an African to go to university, then this shows us nothing more than the deficiencies of capitalism.


If society requires that part of its youth be educated, and that new knowledge be acquired and developed, then the cost of this is not necessarily any different whether it is paid by individuals and families, by the state or by a combination of these. That is why it is perfectly fair to campaign — as French and German student organizations did in the 1960s — for all students to be paid a regular salary for studying. If society requires them to acquire that education, then it will pay that part of its total wealth anyway. The reason why capitalists oppose that demand is simply to ensure that a university education remains the preserve of the wealthy, and that the minority of working-class people who gain access to it do so on capitalist terms.


The real question is not whether the SA economy can afford to spend more money on university education. It is whether the SA economy can afford to have working-class students coming to university in increasing numbers. If the capitalists who own the productive wealth of SA want to maintain and increase their rates of profit, they cannot. If UWC wants to ensure that capitalist profit is secure, it will eventually have to compromise and abandon its idea of giving increasing numbers of the working-class the opportunity to study at university.


But let us ask more concretely what the SA economy could actually afford in early 1992? At the end of each year, the ‘Financial Mail' publishes a list of the 20 wealthiest families in SA, on the basis of holdings in companies listed in the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. This list does not reflect overseas investments, cash, property, companies which are not listed in the JSE and the like and is therefore an inadequate account of the real wealth of these families. In December 1991, these 20 families owned more than R10,8 billion in JSE listed companies. The poorest family on the list had R61 million. It is not difficult to calculate that a wealth tax of just 5%, on no more than these 20 families, which disregarded all their other wealth apart from JSE listed companies, would bring in over R500 million per annum. Could the economy truly not have afforded that tax on wealth?


It might be said that that wealth is tied up in production, and cannot be used for any purpose you like. Let us take another example then. At around the same time as the 20 richest families of 1991 were made known, the ‘Weekly Mail’ published an article on a reception held for the American actress, Whoopi Goldberg, by Nelson Mandela at the house of his friend, the Afrikaner businessman, Douw Steyn. Mandela had apparently been staying at the house for some time, after separating from his wife. The house had recently been built at a cost of R35 million. It had 12 bathrooms, a 20-seat cinema, and accommodation for the 12 domestic servants who attended to Steyn's family and guests. The economy could afford that sum for the accommodation of a family of six. What did it mean for us at UWC to declare that it could not afford to spend more money on universities? It meant effectively that we would rather defend the right of one individual to live in extraordinary luxury than defend the right of students who had passed their courses at UWC, but could not pay their fees, to continue their studies.


From 1987 onwards, UWC committed itself in word and deed to standing on the side of the oppressed majority. None of the university's spokespersons ever said that we would stand by the oppressed on condition that the ruling-class could afford to meet their demands. For we knew that the ruling-class would never meet the demands of the oppressed without a bitter struggle. In 1992 the management of UWC saw fit to decide the legitimacy of student demands according to the needs of the ruling class. So eagerly were we preparing to govern that we forgot that we did not govern already.


Is there a Way Forward for UWC?


In this paper, I have described some of the processes which have transformed UWC over the past few years, in a direction which no-one will be proud to acknowledge: the dead-end of democratization, the creation of new layers of privilege, the continued absence of the basic premises of curriculum reform, the political capitulation to the needs of capitalist exploitation and profit. It is not a tale which I am proud to tell; but I would not have taken the trouble to tell it if I did not believe that we could learn from it how to reverse these processes.


I have no doubt that the will and the capacity to do so exists at UWC. It will continue to exist for as long as the working-class in SA — from whom the majority of UWC's students are drawn — has not yet been defeated. The question is how the pride and energy can be focussed on the goals which can give it historical meaning. There is a way forward at UWC — even if it is not easy to find that way forward — for as long as oppressed people do not believe in the necessity of their oppression.


What is necessary, above all, is that we at UWC regain our belief in ourselves, and our belief in the ideals which animated our struggles for so many years. South African intellectual life is in complete disarray; its institutions are fragmented and its goals are infected with opportunism; there is no practice or tradition in it which is capable of interpreting truthfully the living ideals and aspirations of the vast majority of South Africans: the oppressed and exploited. Even a relatively small number of people — a few hundred students, a handful of staff — can make a huge difference if they are willing to work patiently and without illusions at building the resources of an intellectual life worthy of a South Africa in which ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’. The tale which I have told here is not over yet.


 

[1] Paper presented to Marxist Theory Seminar, University of the Western Cape on 23 February 1993, in lecture hall GH1. Jakes Gerwel, then Rector and Vice-Chancellor of UWC, was the respondent.

Comments


bottom of page