ON October 23, 2015, I lived in Sunnyside, on the top floor of a building with a view over Pretoria's city centre; the Union Buildings to the right and the Voortrekker Monument to the left. On this Friday, the air was heavy with black smoke, the streets filled with the wail of sirens and flashing lights.
At the Union Buildings, thousands of students awaited a statement on university fees from then-president Jacob Zuma. Since the beginning of that week, students nationwide had protested against a proposed 10.5% increase in tuition fees.
The events of October 2015 are familiar to most of us. The protests began at the University of the Witwatersrand, quickly spreading to all campuses across the country, and on October 21 students gathered outside parliament in Cape Town. We witnessed how these young people were attacked with batons and dispersed with tear gas and rubber bullets.
Two of the most striking images from that time show higher education minister Blade Nzimande safely entrenched behind parliament's security gates, and an Anglican priest preventing a Nyala approaching his church, where students had sought refuge.
Protest action on campuses began before the FeesMustFall protests of October 2015… in a shitty way. In March, Chumani Maxwele threw excrement at the University of Cape Town's (UCT) statue of Cecil John Rhodes to make the point that the coloniser should not be revered on a campus where more than 70% of students had ancestors who suffered under colonial tyranny. Former UCT vice-chancellor Max Price starts his memoir at this moment. What follows are detailed accounts of the events sparked by Maxwele's actions, and which forever changed campuses.
Regardless of your opinion on #RhodesMustFall and the various subsequent Fallist movements, they were a catalyst for one of the watershed moments of our young democracy. And Price, like Adam Habib at Wits, Ihron Rensburg at the University of Johannesburg, Cheryl de la Rey, Jonathan Jansen, Sizwe Mabizela and every person in a leadership position at South African universities, was in the midst of the storm.
Tumultuous years followed. Campuses had to navigate a path through a myriad of protests. Decolonisation, curricula, contracting of non-core workers (the insourcing/outsourcing debate), campus accommodation, National Student Financial Aid Scheme management and even the protection or burning of art have come under scrutiny.
Price's book, Statues and Storms, takes readers on a journey through the constant challenges of the period, and even though I followed the student protests on social media and in the news, by the end of the book I realised how much I had missed.
As far as basic information is concerned, Price's book is worth reading. He provides a lot of detail, for example, about the network of stakeholders who were directly and indirectly involved in the crises on campuses: students, alumni, funders, lecturers, university management, trade unions, politicians.
However, I would have appreciated deeper and more critical analysis; one gets the impression Price knows more about what happened behind the scenes than he is willing to articulate. Perhaps he wanted to avoid the kind of approach Adam Habib took in his 2019 book; in Rebels and Rage: Reflecting on #FeesMustFall, Habib did not hold back, naming names and referring to some of his former colleagues as the “Pol Pot regime". (A strong review can be found here.)
The account of the passage of time makes you realise how fluid each situation was. Price received harsh criticism during the years of the most concentrated protests, and it has continued since his departure as vice-chancellor in mid-2018. When you realise what he had to deal with — the ritual slaughter of a sheep on campus, a rape accusation during a student occupation of a university building, the construction and occupation of a shanty town in the middle of the campus, the burning of artworks — you might feel more sympathetic. The book is full of explanations of Price and his management's decisions. In the final chapter, he says:
One purpose of writing this book was to explain my and the executive’s thinking behind a number of key decisions that generated much controversy and continue to be challenged… I have tried to convey, I hope in a balanced way, the complexity of the rationale for these decisions.
What is lacking, in my opinion, is the presence of younger voices. Price explains what he considers to be the reasons for the protests that began in 2015; he analyses the fragmentation of the movement and the anarchy that started to take hold in 2016. They're his opinions, but he strives for balance and nuance in his narrative.
Position of power
As Price looks back on the events at UCT, it's important to remember that his own involvement colours his insights and opinions — and not always in favour of a balanced interpretation. It feels clear that this individual, from his position of power, did not truly engage with students.
Leading through change is the subtitle of the book, but Price was also compelled to adopt certain management styles because change was already under way, thanks to the proactive actions of students.
Many things have gone awry since 2015, and an important and powerful moment in our history was overshadowed by the fragmentation and anarchic turn of the student movement, especially in 2016 and 2017. But change began to happen because brave students decided another transformation task force or commission of inquiry was not good enough. In one week, students prevented the decision on a 10.5% increase in fees from materialising.
THEY brought about change. How different would things have been if adult leaders had led FOR change earlier? A utopian idea, indeed.
♦ VWB ♦
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