"My UKZN! My Heritage" Webinar Explores Efficacy of Student Protests
The efficacy of student protests was the focus of a UKZN webinar titled: My UKZN! My Heritage.
PhD candidate and researcher at the University’s Maurice Webb Race Relations Unit, Mr Lukhona Mnguni explored the roots of European universities, detailing the founding of the University of Bologna in 1088, which he described as ‘an organised guild of students, for students.’ He added that, ‘Roderick T Long’s paper entitled, A University Built by the Invisible Hand contends that “the University of Bologna was run from the bottom up - controlled by students and funded by students”.’
Citing clashes at the University of Oxford in the 13th century, Mnguni said that this suggests that universities may have always been inclined towards activism. ‘These historical accounts of European and English universities are important because much of their etiquette, ethos and ideology found expression in the formation of South African universities.’
Turning to the socio-political context of the origins of UKZN, Mnguni commented that, ‘While the University sought independence, its imagery and ethos had continuities with the socio-political realities outside its gates. This means that the collective heritage of the University at the time was not beyond the politics of colonialism, imperialism and bastardisation of Black people as heathen, barbaric, subhuman and landless.’
He cautioned that a ‘rebellion against western civilisation quickly gets denounced as uncouth conduct, ungrateful behaviour for the opportunities of conduct or at times it leads to institutional castration rendering one persona non grata in the hallways of Higher Education. There are also those who embrace the language of transformation and decolonisation for public political mileage while in private they suppress efforts aimed at transformation.’
Mnguni traced the #FeesMustFall movement and said that denouncing student protests and the student body as a whole due to some violent and criminal elements was a cardinal error. ‘Protest gives voice to the marginalised, oppressed and downtrodden. This is why our democratic constitution protects protest as a right. Those who are in power can become tone deaf and need to be shaken from their slumber through protest.’
Mnguni said that the efficacy of student protests cannot be examined in isolation from the responses of those in power at whom protest action is directed. ‘Not all protest on the University grounds is about the conduct of University management. At times it is directed to the powers that be in government. It is important for University management to understand this distinction and have dynamic responses to different issues being raised. Given that the University is a space of learning it is bound to be a place where people’s consciousness and activism is fostered in significant ways; this means protest in the University space is inevitable.’
He emphasised that to build a university that students and alumni can pronounce “My UKZN! My Heritage!” demands ‘clear articulation and commitment to the future institution we wish to build. For this to be done, a clear collision course must be created between acquiescing to the demands of “universal knowledge” making and the need for decolonisation in our institutions of higher learning.
‘We also need to rethink curricula and pedagogies in order to infuse self-love in students while heightening their consciousness and giving them space for activism that constructively contributes to the future of our institution,’ Mnguni concluded.
The rebuttal by Fellow of the Maurice Webb Race Relations Unit, Professor Paulus Zulu focused on issues that arise in how a university responds to student protests, including the historical foundation of the University. ‘I don’t think that one can de-Oxford the University of Natal,’ he said. ‘I do not know how you remove King George at the entrance of Howard College and leave the Howard College building intact – because they are both colonial heritages. Nor would it be pragmatic to destroy the buildings and everything in the University and start afresh.’
Zulu said that generally protests have been spontaneous and reactive, but challenged the assertion that denouncing them has been a cardinal mistake. ‘A University is a place of learning, and it is a place where one expects rationality.’ While he condemned the burning of libraries and residences during protests, he emphasised that he does not oppose protests. ‘I think that if there were no protests, there would be no change.’
Acting Dean and Head of the School of Social Sciences, Professor Vivian Ojong observed that students around the world have been at the forefront of major reform and activism. ‘Protest action driven by students was very pivotal in bringing down the apartheid regime in South Africa,’ she said.
The Head of UKZN’s Culture Cluster Dr Maserole Kgari-Masondo delivered a rousing poem on My UKZN! My Heritage and explained the motivation for hosting the public lecture: ‘Culture is the heartbeat of every institution. To be excellent, the culture of that institution has to be profound.’ She added that, while protests are important, ‘We pray and believe that students will start understanding that the heritage of the University has to be kept alive.’
Researcher and anthropologist Professor Maheshvari Naidu, who facilitated the webinar said that young people have often played a role in political and social change. ‘Across history, protests have shaped society in truly remarkable ways and have often catalysed monumental change. In the arc of many nation’s history, the young have often played revolutionary roles.’
The School of Social Science’s Dr Mabuyi Gumede said the webinar promoted understanding of the #FeesMustFall movement and helped to identify what would need to be done in future in responding to student protests.
Words: Raylene Captain-Hasthibeer