Makgoba: Student protests leadership failure – a ’picnic’ of what’s to come

Professor Malegapuru William Makgoba, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kwazulu-Natal and Deputy Chairperson of the National Planning Commission, says the student protests sweeping across South Africa are due to poor leadership at the institutions. Makgoba says the transformation of these institutions is overdue and the students have taken the appropriate lead. Professor Makgoba says the apartheid style exclusion should be reversed through bigger education budgets that can be raised through a reparations tax, the current protests are going to lead to a bigger social uprising.

Professor Makgoba, thanks very much for joining us as we discuss the developments within the university community of South Africa.

Thank you, Tim.

Now the issue seems to be reduced to that of fees but when one looks at the way its spread across the country, it looks as though many more issues are emerging here. Is it just financial or would you say there is a specific problem with the way the universities are run at the moment, which has led to this problem?

Well, I think the fee issue is just a lightning rod. The real issue and the bigger issue is the issue of transformation. We’ve seen that transformation project. It’s the leadership issue within the university.

How so?

Organisations and nations’ fortunes are often entrusted in the leader persona. We entrust Brian Molefe at Eskom to run Eskom for us as a nation. We don’t appoint Brian to come to Eskom and cry about Eskom’s problems or tell us that he can’t solve Eskom’s problems. He is appointed there to find solutions for the nation.

University leaders are appointed in the same way. They are appointed to lead and not to administer or manage universities. They are there to provide strategy, to read the environment in which they live, and to plan ahead and anticipate issues before they occur. Unfortunately, I have to say this: Brian is trying to do a good job at Eskom. I think our Vice Chancellors are not at that level. They’d rather manage/become operational and that’s why the student leadership is ahead of them, is outsmarting them all the time, and they are actually chasing and reacting to what students want rather than plan the future of our education in our country.

Read also: Matthew Lester: University out of reach. Current fee model unsustainable.

That would be regarded as a very generalised statement Professor, because it cannot be that all Vice Chancellors are like that.

Well, look at the complaints and look at the productivity of the system over the past 20 years. I’ll just give you a very simple set of figures. In the year 2000 in something called the National Working Group, which was appointed by Kader Asmal, we set a target that each academic within the university community must produce what is called ‘one statutory unit of research work’ per year. At the time, the average was point-three-five per year, which was produced by each academic. We sit here in the year 2015 and all we can be proud of is that we’ve moved from point-three-five to point-seven-zero. We still have not reached the minimum. If you go into countries that we want to compare and compete with, they are way above that. We want to be a competitive nation. We want to be successful. We want to be classified ‘high’.

The problem is this: when you have leaders who themselves are not productive, they cannot actually elevate the standard of productivity in the system. The second set of standards I can give you is this: scholars are known and are measured through a metric called H-Index. The average H-Index for example, at the University of Natal for a full professor, was about 15. I can tell you that the average H-Index of our Vice Chancellor is no more than ten. We have a group of people whose productivity and citation impact in the knowledge arena is not consistent with where they should be. That’s why I’m saying that they are not fit for the purpose because they can’t read the environment. They can’t inspire students. Neither can they inspire staff, but we sit with them.

Of course, it’s generalised because we have 26 universities and I can only count one person in the whole system, who is actually competent and (I think) fit to be a Vice Chancellor in South Africa.

An argument can be made Professor that the Vice Chancellors do not appoint themselves. If the Higher Education system were keen to make sure that it takes Higher Education to another level then (let’s use your words ‘the fit-for-purpose) Vice Chancellors would have been appointed.

It is true that people don’t appoint themselves but a smart person knows what they are good at. Nobody can appoint me and say ‘go and be the National Police Commissioner’. I would tell them that I’m not competent to do that. Of course, it’s true that they don’t appoint themselves. I think the council should examine themselves and look at the criteria as to how and why they appoint Vice Chancellors. As I said in one of the articles I gave, it’s as though we were still living in the colonies where Vice Chancellors in the colonies were never supposed to lead institutions because their inspirations came from the motherland. They were in the colonies to administer. They were sent there to the colonies to come and administer. We are doing it ourselves when we are away from that.

We think we are liberated from the colonial mentality, but we are adopting the criteria of the colonies to appoint our Vice Chancellors. To administer and not lead institutions, not to provide strategies, and not to provide solutions. When the environment is cool and quiet, they claim to be autonomous. When there’s a problem, they cry to the Department. On one hand, they are autonomous. On the other hand, they lose that autonomy to cry to the mother (who is the Department of Higher Education).

Read also: Wits University to seek new model, suspends 10% fee increase after protests

I will come back to this point in a moment. The institutions of Higher Learning (the universities in South Africa) are located within the South African context and you did raise the point of transformation. When you say ‘transformation’ in the South African context, what do you mean specifically, for these institutions?

Okay, I think there are four instruments, which form the basis of transformation. It appears embedded in our Constitution and every Vice Chancellor should know what the Constitution says about transformation. It is embedded in the White Paper of 1997 (it’s called White Paper), which spells out the details of what needs to be transformed and how it needs to be transformed. It is embedded in the equity legislation of the country, which most universities don’t comply with and are not measured against. Fourthly, it is the latest White Paper on post-school education and training. These four documents (the legal documents, White Papers, and the Constitution) embed what needs to be done. Let me come to the issue that you are asking me. “What does it mean, in reality?” Universities are the centres of knowledge and action. They should excel at that.

They are the pinnacle and the jewel of our education system. If you were to look at every study that has been done about the knowledge productivity, the qualifications of our staff, and the supervision of students; all of those parameters/matrixes are very low in South Africa and that’s what needs to be transformed. Of course, embedded in that as to who produces this knowledge, you would have to have African people and women in the sector. Currently, we have a white male-dominated sector. That is obviously, threatened by every form of change that you articulate. Therefore, we need to deal with white culture within the Higher Education system, particularly white male culture and transform it to be a relevant culture that articulates to the majority of South Africans, rather than to one group of South Africans, which is in the minority.

That needs to be changed. Of course, equity is a very big issue, which is linked to white maleness and to this institutional culture. We need to deal with that too, but then we need to provide access to students. That’s where the financial issue, which is easily measurable (for example, when electricity’s not on, you know that you can’t have good food). The students are protesting now but they are protesting across the sector. They are not protesting in isolation. They are protesting across the sector and I can tell you; they have planned these activities, which they’re engaged in.

They have planned this activity. How do you arrive at that conclusion?

They talk to each other.

Read also: Matthew Lester: Student loan ‘financial suicide’. Where’s Govt’s 20c:R1 tax spend going?

I can understand that but I’m saying; it’s something that Government maybe should have anticipated. It appears that Government did not anticipate that.

Tim, let’s be very honest. Government is not in the universities. Vice Chancellors are at the universities every day. If they anticipated that, they should have given that intelligence to Government – if that’s what they thought they should do. The Council of the university doesn’t run the university every day. They come there every three months. The person, who runs the university every day, is the Vice Chancellor. The buck stops with him. He is employed to find solutions, not to cry about the problems and they are not doing that job well. That’s why we have this uprising.

There is a view that what we are seeing now at universities is a taste of things to come. One commentator said ‘this is a picnic compared to a serious protest and uprising that we’re going to see coming from the youth in South Africa’. Do you agree with that?

I totally agree with that. I only came back to South Africa in 1994 when we were beginning to talk about transformation. Now these students are close political parties. It doesn’t matter. They are united on this issue of transformation. They are united on this issue of student fees. You ask me how I know this. They send me SMS’s. They talk to me. I know most of the SRC’s in the university sector and they tell me what they’re doing, so I’m aware of what they’re doing.

What does this mean then for South Africa as a society – as a nation? What should we prepare for, and how should we be managing these developments?

Firstly, I think we should be proud that our students are hungry for access to knowledge and access to qualifying. We, as a nation, and maybe (I can call myself an elder now that I’m retired) as elders should ask ourselves, “What is the best legacy that we can leave for the future of South Africa?” Try to ask ourselves, “Is that a very good story?” It’s a very simple story. Education is the priority of our Government. Let’s do everything. Let’s put our minds together. Government, the private sector, the Department of Higher Education should say, “We have children to educate, to leave a good legacy of a nation that is qualified, and can compete. Let’s do everything. Let’s find every means. Every South African can be educated without being encumbered by finances.”

I want to go back to that point of leadership and the transformational issues that you raised. Of course, in the context (again) of the economy and constraints, we’re told by Government that there’s not enough money for all of these things. There’s only so much money. How do you pull everything together then Professor, so that you at least show that you have embarked on a journey of total change and of empowerment?

I’ll give you two examples. Firstly, we know that Apartheid denied almost ten generations of Africans, education. Indeed, it consigned them to an education that was inferior. That was the biggest crime that the Apartheid government left for us – an uneducated youth and uneducated African people. If we were honest and serious about our reparation program, I would suggest that we come together and create a Reparation Fund that is embedded in education for the future of South Africa. Instead of giving Makgoba R1m for having been beaten by the security police, I would suggest that we create a Reparation Fund in South Africa to deal with the legacy, which is embedded in education into the future for the next ten generations because that’s what Apartheid did to us. That is the first thing.

Secondly, I think the current Government should have the guts to understand that if education is their priority, other things are going to suffer in that priority. I would prioritise education and go and look for the money. The private sector, which benefits from the products of Higher Education, is not part of the equation. Somehow or another, we don’t need to force them, but we need to entice to get them to engage in the process to provide those funds. I don’t believe that our country is so poor and so strapped economically, that it cannot invest into the future education of its children.

Professor Malegapuru William Makgoba, thank you very much for talking to us. I appreciate it.

Thank you, Tim.

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