Weak report on student unrest
Two disappointingly weak education reports surfaced in the public arena last week.
One was the final report of the Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission of the University of Cape Town (UCT).
The other was a working paper of the IMF titled Struggling to make the grade, and which purports to explain the weak outcomes of SA’s education system.
At first glance these two reports could not be more different.
The schools report comes from that bastion of global capitalism, the IMF, while the university report is produced by a group of progressive personae whose commission was chaired by the former Azapo president, Mosibudi Mangena.
And yet both reports are unoriginal and ineffectual, and therefore unlikely to make a dent in the set of problems each set out to address.
The schools report hardly deserved airtime in the media for it recirculates stale data that other SA researchers have reported on in recent years.
But it comes from the IMF with the crisp authority of its writing style and impressive graphics that our salivating media gobbled up as if it was the first time they ever heard about the dysfunctionality of public schooling after apartheid.
We already know that in black schools teachers teach on average 3.5 hours per day and in former white schools 6.5 hours in the same day.
We have ample evidence that the subject matter content knowledge of SA teachers is dangerously low.
And we have seen data before that more than a quarter of those enrolled drop out in the first year of university studies.
Nothing the IMF report recommends (performance incentives, unsurprisingly, feature large) will change anything because the report lacks a political analysis of what sustains these deep inequalities and dysfunction of public schools in the first place.
Nonetheless, from this small cohort of high school graduates (14% of those starting primary school) the best among them access UCT and if you were to believe the commission report, they enter an absolute nightmare of a white supremacist organisation.
The Cape Town media repeated dutifully in their headlines “there is racism at UCT”.
Really? Anyone who has worked across the 26 public universities will know that there is racism and tribalism in all our institutions.
How could it be different? Our universities are products of the colonial imagination, and apartheid ensured that for each race and ethnic group there was a designated university.
The main weakness of the commission report is its nakedly one-sided account of the crisis.
Of the 80 submissions (out of 30,000 students and 4,000 staff) nobody, says the commission, showed up to claim UCT was not racist.
First, the negative claim is impossible to refute, but then can you imagine anyone even wanting to make such a claim to a commission whose members had so obviously made up their minds?
Put crudely, in this report the students are angels, the management is a devil and the institution is a cesspool of racism.
You fail to find nuance or any sense of the complexity of what happened in the protests of 2015-16 which led to the establishment of this commission.
You will not, for example, find condemnation of the assault on staff or the violent disruption of the right to learn for the majority of students when whips came into the lecture halls.
You will certainly not encounter an attempt to answer the question that Wits vicechancellor Adam Habib (and others among us) posed repeatedly – when a university is confronted with extreme violence by students, threatening human lives and public property, what do you do?
Nothing will be found in this report on the trauma of secretaries, ground staff, lecturers and academic leaders themselves.
So what is this pervasive racism at UCT?
The report references an Americanism called “micro aggressions” which, as critics of the concept have pointed out, could mean anything like not greeting someone.
In fact, former vice-chancellor Max Price apparently perpetrated “structural violence” by not greeting a person in a meeting.
Chapter 6 on “racism” is so weak in evidence that former Constitutional Court judge Zac Yacoob dissented as a member of this commission: “Nor can I agree with many of the factual conclusions drawn”.
For this report to have any real chance of bringing people together in the reportedly “toxic” environment of UCT, it would have had to listen empathetically to students and staff on both sides of the divide.
Like listen to this very accomplished professor who left UCT in the wake of the student violence:
“I am appalled, as a black academic staff member, that the report downplays the severe trauma and intimidation the majority of staff and students suffered at the hands of a small, violent group of students and interlopers…
“As someone who lived through the anti-apartheid protests at black universities, I am shocked that the IRTC appears to be unable to recognise that the state-inflicted violence we suffered then is the same as the violence we suffered at the hands of this very violent group, all who were bent on the destruction of civility and open debate at a university.
“The IRTC report seems bent on political correctness, and it appears afraid to call out incivility, the lack of open and civil discussion, and the right of all South Africans to have disagreements in a peaceful manner.
“I am disgusted and appalled.”