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Which Way Forward for UWC?

Three Questions facing Progressive Forces at UWC

The University of the Western Cape has committed itself to working for a non-racial democratic South Africa. That commitment is itself the outcome of struggles waged by students at UWC, almost since its first establishment. More fundamentally still, that commitment is the outcome of the larger struggles waged by the oppressed masses in SA, particularly in the years since 1976, for the right to take their destinies into their own hands.

The democratic struggle, with which we need fully to identify ourselves, has recently had severe blows inflicted upon it by the state. At the same time, the state finds itself in crisis, and is devoid of a policy with which to address the questions of the day. As its crisis deepens, so too it will intensify its attack on the liberation movement, and on the oppressed people of South Africa. The illusions of "reform" have been shattered.

As the character and demands of the struggle change, so we need to gain the utmost clarity on the major questions facing us at UWC. There are three such questions – crucial to the future direction of UWC – which we wish to raise here:

(i) how can the unity of progressive forces be built and extended at UWC in the new conditions created by the onslaught of the state? more specifically, how will the tactic of boycott affect attempts to build such unity?

(ii) how can we resist the state's attacks on UWC - in the first place, in the form of the de Klerk subsidy conditions - while at the same time contributing to the broader struggle of the oppressed?

(iii) how will the future direction of UWC as an academic institution be decided, and how will students play a role in the transformation of its teaching and research?

On all these questions, we have definite views which we wish to put forward. These views are put forward here for discussion, and for the criticism and correction of arguments and events. We do not expect that everyone will agree with our responses to these questions. But we hope to show that the questions themselves should not be avoided.

The Question of Unity and the Tactic of Boycott

In order for UWC to contribute to the struggle for a non-racial democratic South Africa, it is essential that as many students and staff as possible be united behind a clear understanding of their goals and the appropriate strategies for pursuing them. That unity can only be built politically, by constantly winning over the uncertain and uncommitted to those goals and demonstrating the necessity of those strategies. It cannot simply be assumed that unity is the automatic result of oppression, and that those who have not been won over are to be treated as enemies.

In this context, we need to assess carefully the tactic of boycott at UWC. We would certainly not oppose the use of the boycott as a weapon of struggle. There can be no doubt that it has contributed fundamentally to major advances in the struggle in the past — e.g., during the school boycotts of 1980, when UWC students were active in mobilizing and organizing in both rural and urban areas. In the present situation, in which the state is on the offensive against workers and students, the boycott remains an essential weapon of struggle, provided that it contributes to building the unity of progressive forces at UWC, and ultimately the unity of the liberation movement.

But it must also be recognized that the boycott becomes divisive when clear goals are not set and a conscious effort cannot then be made to win people over to those goals. The conditions prevailing at UWC make it possible for a boycott to be called without having to persuade students politically of the importance of the cause in which it is used. It has become unnecessary in practice to mobilize seriously and raise the political level of students in order to bring them out on boycott. This results in definite political shortcomings in the way boycotts are run, in the character of the demands raised during the boycott, and the degree of control over the boycott exercised by the mass of students. If these dangers are not consciously avoided, the tactic of boycott becomes divisive and depoliticizing.

It must be stated openly that this danger is threatening at UWC. It was evident in the pattern of the boycott to protest against the late payment of bursaries in September last year and that to protest against the de Klerk subsidy conditions in October. Sadly, it is evident also in the current boycott to oppose reductions in student bursaries. All these actions have been characterized by mass meetings which were well-attended only when the decision to boycott, and then to end the boycott, were taken. Apart from these meetings, there was little sign of student participation in these boycotts, which soon degenerated into stayaways.

Often such actions also alienate those in the community whose active support should be maintained. (In an article which appeared in South in December last year, for instance, Johnny Issel asked whether the boycott at UWC has not become retrogressive.)

For the past year or so, there has been an increasing level of resentment at UWC at the way in which boycotts are run. This has been apparent for all to see, even though it is seldom articulated in political terms. Yet it is in political terms that this resentment needs to be assessed. It reflects the difficulty which has been experienced in mobilizing students and staff politically around the issues involved in the boycott. In this context, we need to ask:

Are disruption squads being used to enforce the boycott instead of actively campaigning to win students over to its cause? Are active programmes being worked out to capture and hold the interest of students, to inspire them to maintain unity and to prepare them to make sacrifices for that cause? Are attempts being made to explain the necessity of the boycott and the justice of its demands in the oppressed communities, or even to students at schools and colleges? Are these questions being taken to the trade unions, and are organised workers being informed about the struggles of UWC students? Is anything being done to address the antagonism felt by many parents towards the boycott? The use of the boycott cannot be justified on political grounds without giving clear answers to these questions.

A boycott directed against an aspect of the system - such as late payment of bursaries - can only provide a basis for drawing increasing numbers of students and staff into the struggle if they are actively mobilized and involved in the broader political issues surrounding the specific demands of the boycott. What is needed is a clear political programme of aims which can be struggled for at UWC - aims which can be spelled out long before the specific issues arise which might precipitate a boycott, and to which these more specific issues can constantly be related as they arise.

The Crisis of the Apartheid State and the Funding of University Education

Such a programme of goals and strategies which can be pursued at UWC would itself be the outcome of sustained political work. It is not our task to list the issues which might be addressed in such a programme. But it is necessary to give a more concrete idea of the kind of issues which are at stake, and this can be done by considering the question of the funding of university education.

Any viable programme would have to respond to the specific needs and conditions of UWC. But it must at the same time contribute to the broader struggle for democracy and challenge the real enemy in that struggle - the apartheid state and the bosses. For the apartheid state has already made clear its intentions of carrying its attack on the oppressed into the field of university education as well - primarily by cutting back on expenditure on subsidies and bursaries.

The de Klerk measures have been halted for the moment by the courts, but this’ has not prevented massive cut-backs taking place in state expenditure on university education. This year subsidies at some universities have been cut by as much as 30%. The slashing of subsidies and bursaries is made necessary also by the economic and political crisis of the apartheid state - which is committed to the upkeep of tricameralism and its homeland puppets and to waging wars in Angola, Namibia and indeed against the people of South Africa as well. The money saved on bursaries for students at UWC is being spent on bullets for Savimbi in Angola!

In this context, the need for a campaign to increase the funding given by the state to universities serving oppressed communities can clearly be seen. At UWC we have a first- year failure rate almost as high as the more established universities’ pass-rates. This is an unacceptable situation. The solution for it does not lie in cutting back student numbers or lowering standards. Rather, the solution lies in making proper provision for overcoming the deficiencies which result from an inadequate and crisis- ridden school system and extending the resources of the university itself. In a context such as ours, the staff: student ratio should be higher than at the established universities, not lower; there is more pressing need for a suitably designed academic support system, capable of addressing the language problems which lie at the heart of our academic difficulties; more and better facilities and buildings are needed. And all of this can only be provided if millions of extra subsidy rands are made available. Without an active campaign to change the basis on which funds are allocated, we will find ourselves simply reacting to ever more frequent outbursts of legitimate anger at the state's attacks.

Such a campaign could draw in not merely those directly affected by whatever cut has most recently been made. Working-class school students also have every interest in seeing more money spent on tertiary education, as this alone can make it possible for them to further their education. While 29% of white secondary school-leavers attempt tertiary education, at present only 4% of black secondary school- leavers get that opportunity. It is this inequality that must be challenged. We cannot do so effectively, however, for as long as we accept the implicit criteria of state funding of university education - that the funds spent must benefit the state and the bosses rather than those who produce the wealth.

Of course, such a campaign will not come from nowhere. It would have to be built by patiently explaining and winning over increasing numbers of students, staff, and the community to its cause. But this is precisely what we argued in the previous section: that it is only by consciously winning people over to a clearly-defined cause - rather than reacting to sporadic anger - that true and lasting unity can be built.

The Transformation of UWC as an Academic Institution

A campaign to increase the scale of funding for universities serving oppressed communities could articulate the specific needs of students at UWC, provide a basis for winning over to the struggle many who are not yet politicized, and at the same time expose the inability of the apartheid state to meet the legitimate demands of the oppressed. But it will only be possible to build campaigns around such issues if we have clear goals for the transformation of our universities as academic institutions. We need to know what major problems we face within the university if we are to convince people that it is worth campaigning for the funds to solve them. We need to know how the teaching of the university, in particular - but also its research, for this can make a great difference to its teaching - is going to be transformed if we are to convince people that these institutions are worth transforming. And such clarity will not fall from the sky! Rather, we can become clear about these goals only if we find a way of actively involving students in the transformation of the courses they are studying.

How can this be done? At least three steps are necessary in the context of UWC:

(i) promoting departmental accountability to the stated goals of the university;

(ii) creating structures and forums for students to assess the work of academic departments, and to contribute to giving direction to the courses the departments offer; and

(iii) actively opposing and dismantling the excessive orientation towards exams and consequent rote-learning which has been instilled by years of apartheid's gutter education.

If we are serious about UWC's role in the struggle for a non-racial democratic South Africa, then we cannot avoid the question of how its academic work can be made to contribute to that struggle. And if we are serious about transforming UWC as an academic institution in such a way that it actively equips its students for that struggle, then we must ask how students themselves are to participate in that transformation. They cannot do so for as long as departments can simply tell students what the contents of their courses are without having to give any account of the broader purposes served by doing the specific work required for that course.

It is necessary, in other words, that academic departments at UWC should be required to provide comprehensive accounts of the goals of their teaching and research and the way in which these goals are reflected in each of the courses they teach. These should be available to students and to the staff of other departments, in order to provide a basis for discussion and assessment of the work of academic departments in the light of UWC's stated commitment to work towards a non-racial democratic South Africa.

And if departments are to be made accountable, it is not enough for them to provide such accounts of their goals and how they hope to achieve them through the courses they teach. The university must also create opportunity for discussion and criticism of these accounts of the goals of departments, so that students involved in their courses can assess whether the work of the departments is actually contributing to these goals. A certain number of days must be set aside in each academic year for students to participate actively in the evaluation of courses - not just filling in a form containing questions drawn up by the lecturers, but themselves formulating the questions that must be asked of departments within the context of the broader struggles of the time. For UWC cannot transform itself as an academic institution behind the backs of its students.

Practical arrangements would have to be worked out and negotiated. We would suggest that six or eight days of the academic year might be set aside - spread over three weeks, say, in the middle of the third term - in which students discuss their courses first in the context of specific departments, on the basis of departmental statements of their goals; then in the context of faculties, in which student representatives of different departments report to the faculty as a whole; and finally, in the context of the entire . university, in which students from different faculties report to the student mass on their efforts to transform UWC into the intellectual home of the left which it hopes to become.

For the processes outlined here to succeed in the long run, structural changes to the constitution of the university would have to be considered: for example, the empowerment of existing student faculty councils and their inclusion in the university's decision-taking processes. And such changes would contribute in turn to the transformation of UWC as an academic institution.

If the participation of students in the transformation of UWC's academic life, along the lines suggested here, were to gain sufficient momentum, we would consider it justifiable in educational terms to set aside even 10% of the scheduled teaching time in an academic year — i.e. 12 or 13 days — for these activities. But we would stress also that such an exercise will be fruitless if it is aimed at discovering what to spot for the exams or how to reduce the work-load, rather than developing the intellectual skills that can be taken back to the community and its struggles.

It is essential, in other words, that an active effort must be made to move away from UWC's, present orientation towards exams towards a system of evaluation requiring students to work consistently throughout the year. In this context, it can clearly be seen that courses evaluated on the basis of work done throughout the year, rather than in a final exam, are an essential precondition for the transformation of the university. If there is no year-mark, then courses automatically orientate themselves towards the exam - and become tests of memory rather than skill, preparing students for subordination not for liberation.

Which Way Forward for UWC?

In the previous three sections, we have argued:

(i) that unity among students and between students and staff at UWC must consciously and constantly be built on the basis of clear programmes and goals, and that the tactic of boycott should only be used in such a way as to create a progressive basis for building that unity;

(ii) that, for this to be done, we must consider ways of not simply responding sporadically to the state's attacks on the university and its students, but of linking our response to these attacks to a broader campaign for increased funding for such universities, which can articulate the interests of oppressed communities;

(iii) that such a campaign will only be feasible once the process of transforming UWC as an academic institution is started, and definite structures are created for students to participate in that process.

What we wish to point out, in conclusion, is that these issues are inextricably tied up with one another. To address any one of them effectively, we need also to address the others. And should we decide to neglect any of these issues, it will become more difficult to address the others at all effectively. How these questions are to be addressed "is a matter for further discussion, and the arguments set out here are intended to provide a basis for such discussion. In the end, these issues need to be clarified in order to enable us to face up to the question: which way forward for UWC?

We do not wish to pretend that there is an easy way forward. All of us know that we have to move forward in the face of a formidable enemy - the apartheid state, which draws its strength and resources precisely from the labour of the oppressed masses of South Africa. The whole historical project of extracting wealth from the labour of the people of the sub-continent for the benefit of a tiny minority defined by a political system of racial domination will not easily be brought to an end. That project has sunk mines into the earth and raised buildings up to the sky, while seeking always to smash every attempt by those who work the mines or build the skyscrapers to gain control of their own. lives. It has built schools, colleges and universities, and in the process distorted and mutilated almost every conceivable intellectual or moral value we might uphold. It is for that reason that we, as a university, must strain every nerve for the overthrow of the social order which it has produced and the construction of a non-racial democracy in South Africa. It is for that reason that we must face up to the historic question: which way forward for UWC?


Thomas Auf der Heyde, Department of Chemistry

Richard Bertelsmann, Department of German

David Bunn, Department of English

Rhoda Kadalie, Department of Anthropology

Jack Lewis, Department of Economics

Andrew Nash, Department of Philosophy

Jane Taylor, Department of English

28 March 1988.


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