It has now become clear to most commentators that the militant minority, that group of protesters holding campuses hostage at the moment, has absolutely no intention of negotiating the end of the crisis with university principals.
My former colleague vice-chancellors dutifully sit through hours and hours of negotiations in the hope of reaching a settlement, only to have students back out at the last minute and accuse them of not engaging or negotiating in bad faith. Those in charge of our universities realise, once again, that they are being played.
So what is the agenda of the militant minority? They have a theory that if they press long, hard and violently enough, even if that forces tens of thousands to repeat the academic year, then the government will eventually relent and provide free higher education.
That is a possibility, but unlikely for one simple reason – there is no money. Yes, the government might, with some political acrobatics, bow and scrape in front of Treasury and the few universities with declining reserves to contribute to “free education” for 2017.
But there is no scheme in a stagnant economy that can ensure this happens on a recurrent or sustainable basis. The students and families laughing all the way to the bank, if this happens for 2017, are the middle classes and the wealthy, even as our mortal sin, inequality, deepens.
But this week nobody should be too sure about Treasury, for the president just established a rather strange-looking ministerial task force – apart from the so-called Fees Commission whose report is deferred to next year – “to normalise the situation at higher education institutions”. For those who read political behaviour off the composition of special commissions, this eight-member task team includes ministers from state security, police, justice and defence – and nobody from Treasury. Make of that what you will.
In the meantime, the academic year lies in tatters for the militant minority has gambled with the lives of the very poor they claim to defend. Whoever might be their behind-the-scenes political advisers should be condemned. Like Liberation Now, Education Later from an earlier period in our history, we will without question be creating another “lost generation”, however much we might detest that term.
Instead of a more strategic political manoeuvring on how and when to push again for fee-free education, these would-be revolutionaries went for an all-or-nothing approach, thereby pushing a generation of poor students off-campus, into unemployment and with the burden of debt. Those who think the poor simply show up in the next academic year after a year-end shutdown clearly have no idea of how vulnerable marginalised students actually are.
While the militant minority was stoning police, threatening non-protesters and looting shops in the name of the revolution, it has slowly become clear to some major public commentators that the media have been celebrating the endless spectacle of protest while assigning passing grades to the violent agitators; remember how many media houses breezily announced The Year of the Student?
Cobus Bester, an open-minded, veteran journalist, was the first to break with his media colleagues: “It worries me to see the extent in which members of the media, those conveyors of the truth and just the truth, have apparently succumbed to the modern scourge of political correctness in their reporting on the chaos on our campuses and surrounding areas. Not once these past days have I read or heard about the remarkable restraint most police personnel have shown in the face of great physical danger and utter provocation.”
And then one of our more progressive thinkers, Steven Friedman, posted this week: “Public commentators have a duty to tell the truth as they see it even if this makes them unpopular or forces them to take positions they would not usually take. I am increasingly worried that I, perhaps like some colleagues, have been reluctant to share the truth about the student protests for fear of appearing to be rightwing law-and-order nuts.
“The truth we have stopped short of expressing is that no negotiated solution to the current protests is possible. It is not possible to negotiate with protesters whose core goal is to shut you down and who will use or condone violence to achieve that.
“That this is the goal of the protesters has become clear at at least two universities where hours of negotiations, in which huge concessions were made by the universities, ended in protesters demanding a total shutdown.
“Given this, the future of higher education depends now on universities opening and staying open while the law and the constitution are used to protect the university community from violence.”
Right now, we can only hope.