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South African students and universities may now be trapped in a cycle of conflict

Police open fire with rubber bullets on protesting university students in Pretoria, South Africa. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

South African students and universities may now be trapped in a cycle of conflict

Universities are a microcosm of society. They represent a gateway to education, opportunities and advancement. This makes them an obvious site of potentially violent struggle for those denied access in any society. South Africans were reminded of this when the country’s campuses erupted in what have become known as the “fees must fall” protests.

South Africa incurred heavy costs on the road to liberty. It was hoped that violent confrontations, such as those witnessed when the students took their grievances to Parliament and the seat of executive power, the Union Buildings – were relegated to history. The post-apartheid slogan “never again” as coined by Nelson Mandela, was internalised as part of our “new” human rights discourse after apartheid.

These student protests are a rude awakening. Where did all this anger and fury come from? And, crucially, have the protests set a worrying trend of victory through violent conflict?

Boiling point

South African children born in or after 1994 are called the “born frees. They and their parents, who lived through apartheid, expected that democracy would materialise the right to education and a better life. But this remains a pipe dream.

Tuition fees are too high for most families. Language policies marginalise those who don’t speak English as a first language. The curriculum remains Eurocentric, alienating African learners and thinkers. All of this has cast a deep shadow on universities.

These latent conflict conditions embedded in university structures have engendered a profound sense of injustice and resentment in students and their parents.

When social systems are unresponsive to fundamental human needs like identity, autonomy, participation and security, frustration is inevitable. Frustration leads to aggression and feelings of relative deprivation. This creates the potential for collective violence and the precursor for revolution in society – particularly one that has a history of intractable, deep-rooted conflict and remains deeply unequal.

An escalation trajectory

The student protests represent a watershed moment in the history of higher education in post-apartheid South Africa. Social-psychological processes, once set in motion by violent escalation, have a dynamic that is difficult to undo. In the wake of the protests, as in common after an eruption of this nature, we are now likely to see:

  • a proliferation of issues that go far beyond the initial debates;

  • increasingly unrealistic demands;

  • negative emotions of anger, hate and fear;

  • polarisation and negative stereotyping;

  • morally outrageous collective behaviour; and

  • the emergence of militant hostility

The psychological dynamics unleashed by violent confrontation have set a different course for student-university management engagement going forward in South Africa. These destructive dynamics have the potential to reinforce and sustain repetitive patterns of ongoing violent cycling and escalation.

The baggage of emotions from each conflict cycle is carried into the next cycle, which makes destructive conflict both self-sustaining and self-perpetuating.

Violence provides leverage

It is not only students who have realised that violence gives them leverage. Marginalised South African communities waiting for basic services like water and sanitation have learned this dangerous lesson, too.

Service delivery protests often lead to destruction of public property. This behaviour receives media coverage, civil society attention and forces the government into dialogue and negotiation with communities. So, the violence becomes a learned response - because it garners results.

Now even our brightest young minds have slipped into the historical default pattern of violent struggle. This is perceived as the only recourse they have. Violent protest has finally galvanised institutions of higher learning and government to consider students’ needs in a substantial way. Social learning indicates that violent behaviour has inadvertently been reinforced – and even rewarded. The message is that needs are best fulfilled and rights attained by force in our nascent democracy.

Students have shifted the balance of power with strong-arm techniques that have disrupted the academic programme and threatened to shut down institutions completely. In this first wave of escalation they have "won”: the government and university management have backed down. A pattern of destructive conflict cycling has been set in motion

Too little, too late?

Institutions of higher education in South Africa have been “transforming” since 1994. Their student populations are far more racially diverse than ever before; there is work underway to alter the demographics of academic staff, too. The curriculum, frequently dismissed as being too Eurocentric for an African environment, is another area that’s seeing slow change.

This has mostly meant “top-down” processes filtered through the chain of command, starting with the office of the minister of higher education. There has been some important structural change, but none of it has been truly participatory.

Administrators and the government seemed reluctant to engage with intractable, stubborn issues relating to race, class and culture. It may even have been thought – consciously or unconsciously – expedient to avoid or suppress dialogue that might threaten a fragile stability. Consequently the concept of “transformation” has been so overused and abused in the academy that it’s been rendered almost meaningless. Transformation “fatigue” has set in.

This is going to hamper the “real work” that now needs to take place in the aftermath of the student protests. The current climate of destructive conflict processes does not bode well in resolving deep-rooted transformation issues in higher education going forward.

In the genesis of conflict there are “ripe” moments when conditions, even though extremely harsh and negative, present an opportunity for constructive conflict engagement. Has South Africa’s higher education sector, by allowing frustrations to boil over into the sort of conflict described above, missed its chance?