Leading through tumult – and emerging with dignity

Review: Vivien Horler

Statues and Storms – Leading through change, by Max Price (Tafelberg)

Max Price, the vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, came back from holiday in January 2016, and looked anxiously ahead to the coming year.

He wrote in his diary: “First day back after a wonderful holiday in Plettenberg Bay. For the first time in eight years I said to [my wife] Deborah, ‘I don’t know if I want this job’.”

The year 2015 had been a tumultous one for SA’s universities. It kicked off in early March with student Chumani Maxwele triggering the Rhodes Must Fall movement by throwing faeces on the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at UCT.

Within a month the statue was gone, but that was just the beginning of troubles faced SA universities that year. Rhodes Must Fall segued into the Fees Must Fall movement and the vexed – and expensive – issue of insourcing of certain categories of workers. 

The year staggered on, and with October rapidly approaching, there was a real possibility exams might have be postponed, leading to a series of unthinkable knock-on effects, such as having no room for the following year’s first-year students.

At the last minute things were more or less resolved, and the exams went ahead over a compressed period.

But Price was under no illusions that the problems had gone away. And it was all about to get much worse.

Price became VC of UCT in 2008, and the first seven years were good and productive. Then came 2015. In this account of those two unbelievably difficult years, Price sets the scene and describes how he and the university executive tried to keep things going despite some students’ increasingly impossible demands.

He was criticised for being too accommodating of the students, and yet often sympathised with what they wanted.

In 2015 many white academic staff, students and alumni were taken aback by black students’ feelings of alienation. The black students’ feelings were incomprehensible… “because to them the institutional culture seemed so natural and neutral, its underlying norms so taken for granted that they appeared universal”.

Because so many black students had been to poor-quality state schools, they often tended not to do as well as their white counterparts, through no fault of their own. So the university introduced academic development programnes and bridging courses which could add a year to their degrees.

These classes were almost 100% black, and created the perception that black students were just not good enough. This was devastating to students who had usually been the top pupils at their schools, admired by their families and communities, and who had no idea they had not been properly prepared.

“So when they cannot keep up with taking lecture notes in the first semester, or when they fail the first class test, the shock, the fear of disappointing their families, the self doubt, the lack of support networks, all conspire to send them into a tailspin of despair,” writes Price.

Then there was the language question – most black students were second-language English speakers, and could have accents some lecturers found incomprehensible. There was also the problem that while many white students came from professional families and some knew their lecturers on a first-name basis, most of the black students did not, and some had never been taught by a white person before nor shared a meal with a white person.

Sport was also an issue – UCT had 45 or so sports clubs – hockey, surfing, water polo, rowing, fencing judo, tennis… and so on. Yet most black students had never played any sports – other than soccer – before arriving at UCT.

This meant that while the sports clubs did not discriminate on the basis of race, black students were on the back foot.

And there were cultural issues too, like the food, and the prevalence of artworks  many students found offensive. And so on and so on.

Some concessions were made, but there was no way university administrations across the country could negotiate with students when there were factions with entirely ulterior motives.

Price quotes from a chilling open letter written in early 2016 by the 2015 RMF leader and SRC president Ramabina Mahapa, who said the aim was to reach a stage where the university would be unable to concede to any further demands, and resort to the police and private security to repress the protests.

“The expectation is this will detach the black masses from the hegemonic bloc of the ruling party and thereby awaken the ‘sleeping’ masses that will then redirect their frustrations and rage towards not only the universities but the state… Should the ruling party fail to change, then an overthrow of the current government will be imminent.”

After 2015 the RMF and FMF movements were beginning to fracture, and it became increasingly difficult for the university to find a body with which to engage. More and more students – of all colours – wanted to get on with their studies, while a relatively small group was determined to continue with their increasingly violent provocation. In February 2016 Price’s office was fire-bombed and artworks were torched, prompting outrage among staff, alumni  and many students alike.

The administration’s solution was to try to deal with what it considered legitimate complaints, and marginalise the relatively small group of hardline troublemakers whose brief was beyond what the university could solve.

But it was hard work. As the 2016 end-of-year exams approached, extremists found ways to disrupt study. One was to spray deodorant on residence smoke alarms in the small hours, which meant  all the students had to be evacuated while security established whether there was a fire at all. This would sometimes happen several times in a single night.

Lectures were disrupted, students and lecturerers were threatened. A number of students were arrested, which became an ongoing source of dissastifaction to the extremists. The goalposts kept being moved.

Things went from bad to the ridiculous. One night a taxi was spotted on campus and stopped by security. Inside there were four bags of faeces. The driver was arrested and the bags confiscated, which prompted extremists to accuse security of theft – of poo.

On another occasion, a student negotiating leader was arrested for transporting portaloo containers of faeces. A Khayelitsha resident had laid a charge of theft after their portaloo container – identified by a council number – was stolen and found in the student’s car.

At the launch of Statues and Storms at the V&A Waterfront last month, it emerged that Price had often been told he seemed unflappable during the two years of conflict, something he said he did not feel. But he was glad he had presented a sense of calm.

It took a toll on his family – at one point he and Deborah moved some of their most precious belongings such as picture albums to a friend’s house off campus as they feared their official residence, on campus, might be fire-bombed.

He also mentioned at the launch that his manuscript had been cut by 40%. As an admiring and interested reader, I think that the cuts were probably wise – sometimes the minutiae of the meetings between Price, his executive, the student leaders and others led to a bit of eye-glazing.

But on the whole this is a deeply interesting look not only at an institution caught in the headlights of an unstoppable movement, it is also an example of how one tries to cope when at the centre of a fundamental shift in society. And in my view, Max Price played a pretty heroic role.

*Statues and Storms is one of Exclusive Books’ top reads for October.



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