Adam Habib: Wits is reaching a point of no return

Vice-Chancellor speaks on the student protests, a poll on whether Wits should resume lectures, and the consequences of a shutdown

Photo of protester throwing stone

Students and private security clashed on Wits University last week. Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee

By Benita Enoch

28 September 2016

If the University of the Witwatersrand does not re-open in the next couple of days it will reach a point of no return, says Vice Chancellor Adam Habib in this interview with Benita Enoch. The university is to run a poll of students and staff on whether or not the university should re-open.

GroundUp: Is it too soon for you to comment on what running a poll like this actually means for the university?

Habib: It’s still too early to project. It does depend on what happens in the coming days. We’re hoping to run the poll on Thursday and this poll will give us some indication on what the broader community is saying and how they feel about the next steps forward.

We, as the Executive Committee, are constantly engaging with the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Higher Education and the Minister of Safety and Security. We believe the police have a big role to play. [There are] multiple other attempts at the national level and an institutional level to mediate the challenges that are currently existing. And if any of those things come to fruition, depending on how these things play out in the coming days, we will have to make a judgement on whether we reopen or not and when we do so, under what conditions.

There are two options on the table. Firstly, if we do not open in the next couple of days, then we are reaching a point of no return. And if we reach a point of no return, then we will have to make hard choices about closure, including the closure of residences. There is no point of having the university open and our residences open when no studying is taking place. That’s the purpose of this university — to house people that are studying — and at that point we will have to make the appropriate decision.

GroundUp: Can you explain what you mean about “closure”, for the record? What do you really mean? Is there a possibility of Wits shutting down and closing its doors?

Habib: If for instance we are in a position where we can’t guarantee the safety and security of individuals then it would be unconscionable for us to open up. And in that context the real danger that is a full closure of the university. It will require the closure of its residences, the closure of its academic program and the closure of its operations because the residences are really meant for that.

I wish that we were not in a position to be put there, and that is something that we are currently managing and trying to avoid. But, if we do not get to a position where the academic program is resumed in the coming days, then we will confront the real possibility of having to close down Wits University as a whole. That option is not only a Wits option. It might require the closure of multiple universities in the system and it would be disastrous for this country.

It would be disastrous for public services. for its public hospitals, and all of the other services that are performed in this country. And that is why it is absolutely fundamental that people in the society — parents, students, professors, government, the corporate sector — all recognise the huge challenge that currently confronts us.

GroundUp: These comments might attract retaliatory action from the SRC. The SRC has called you an intellectual thug on Twitter, adding that you don’t quite understand the struggle that pushes them to demand free education. Do you have a response to that?

Habib: People say all kinds of irresponsible things and I wonder whether sometimes the people who make these statements just blurt the first thing that pops up into their heads. Because some of these things are so utterly outrageous, that they not even sensible in any normal world. So, I don’t know what the accusation is. I don’t know why I am targeted. Actually, I think the fact that I haven’t acted suggests that I have been very, very patient.

For much of last week, I wasn’t even in the country and this incident was being managed by my colleagues. I don’t know what they mean by ‘thief’. Can they put some accusation on the table? Ja, I’ve heard people make accusations of corruption. You know what: I’m very, very open to be audited. Let somebody declare their name and make the accusation, and if the accusation is found to be true I’ll be forced out. But, if the accusation is not to be found, they must agree to be fired or effectively expelled for effectively making unwarranted statements against individuals. I’m happy to be investigated. I don’t have anything to hide. Everything I have is in the public domain. My public life is very, very transparent. I have nothing to hide. I’ve never hidden anything. My politics has always been public. My circumstances have been public and there is nothing I have that I am particularly ashamed to have in the public domain.

So, I am very, very willing to be investigated. But, whoever wants to make the accusations … have the courage to stand up and put your name out and … if it’s found that it’s a false accusation, that you are prepared to pay the consequence of putting up false information and fundamentally trying to erode the stability of the university. Have the courage to put your money where your mouth is.

GroundUp: Some of the commentary going around the SRC is that you are all too happy to appear in the media, on radio and TV interviews, but you haven’t sat down with the SRC to address their concerns face-to-face.

Habib: Let me again answer this. I meet the SRC once a month. I’ve got the diaries here. I get emails from them and I have engaged them. They have never once approached me for the meeting, by the way, in this past two weeks. I’ve been away for a week. I came in on Sunday. You can check my emails. I’m making it transparently available. I haven’t once heard from them. It is particularly duplicitous. They’ve asked for me to come yesterday - to collect the memorandum at my house. I made it very, very clear that when you come and ask me to come to my house, why do you want to come to my house? Is that a threat against my family? Why do you come to my house to want to deliver this? And what is your hidden message in that? And I made it very, very clear, I will not accept — I will not accept — an engagement where I have to receive a memorandum [like that]. I do not like the implicit threat, that is entailed in it. I find it unacceptable, unconscionable, that people have the audacity to think that they provide politics like that.

Now, there’s other things that they want to do. They put up a list of demands in the public domain and we’re happy to engage on that. If you ask me I’ll put a management team together to engage them on that. Actually, I am [doing that but] it must be an engagement. You don’t invite me to something and then say to me ‘We can’t talk’. That, ‘You (Wits’ management) are not allowed to talk’ and it’s going to be a spectacle of humiliation. That is not what I am prepared to engage in. … If you want a memorandum to be delivered, you write to the dean of student affairs. We have yet to receive it. I’ll show you SMSes, as of yesterday, where I said we’re happy for the dean of student affairs to come and receive the memorandum. They said, “We won’t give it.”

Now, we have a set of processes that you will engage in and it’s important that you engage as per the rules and ask per what we’ve agreed. That’s the point. … Show me a single time they have requested it (a meeting in the past two weeks). Show me a single time that we didn’t put a team together. This is ridiculous duplicitous behaviour. I’m told by people that we must get rid of private security. I’ll make my telephone calls available … and you will see that student leaders have asked for private security at various processes and times of the last year. Particularly duplicitous.

I’ve had people sit with me and engage me and say one thing in the public domain and then when they see me quietly outside then they say, “We’re sorry, we don’t mean that”. Again, particularly duplicitous. Politics is played on principle. You don’t play it in this kind of duplicitous way because then you’re creating a new generation of political elite that don’t believe in principle, that are opportunistic, and think that politics is about spectacle rather than service.

That’s the problem that we’re seeing. Now, let me answer one final question. I want to know why there is violence. Why are there people burning infrastructure of this country? And I have been publicly going out saying I find it unacceptable that you burn public infrastructure … I find that treasonous that you can burn public educational infrastructure in this country. It is obnoxious. It’s outrageous and I think that that is something that I am saying publicly. People say to me why am I in the media? My job as a vice chancellor is to be in the media. The student movement and the leadership have been sitting in the media for the last two weeks. They’ve been on social media, they’ve been in the public media. When they get challenged publicly, they start crying ‘foul’ and say, ‘Why are you in the media?’ That’s nonsensical. Why are they in the media? Why have they been playing in the media for the last 10 to 15 days? And why shouldn’t I be in the media? That’s my job as a Vice Chancellor. A Vice Chancellor’s job is to engage in the public domain and it’s to articulate the interests of the institution in the public domain. That’s what I am doing. That’s part of my job.

And, who is it to tell me what I should be doing in my role as Vice Chancellor? That’s my job. That’s my experience. That’s what I do. They don’t have a right to tell me what my job is about. If I’m not performing it well then the council will make a commentary on it. But you want to judge a Vice Chancellor — not just me, but anybody in this country — you judge them on the outputs they are made to produce. How much research? How much teaching? What are the finances? How are they doing in projecting the institution? You don’t judge them on the political line they’re carrying. What kind of nonsense is this? That’s not how Vice Chancellors get judged anywhere in the world. And that’s the problem with the protesting leadership. If you want to be serious, if you want to be serious about judging the university, then judge us on the real thing. Take the last four years that I’ve been here. How has our transformation targeted groups? How have our finances improved? Our research output is up 40 percent. Our pass rate is up two percent. That’s what you judge a Vice Chancellor on.

So, you know, people make very loose comments. if it hadn’t been the student movement, I would have taken them to court. Because, if you want to be able to make loose comments, you must be able to understand the outcome. But I haven’t responded, because they are students and sometimes I expect overly exuberant responses that sometimes border on irresponsibility. I learnt to say I have got to live with that. That’s the nature of what I have to live with. But people must start to be held responsible. People say they want to be treated as adults. Well, if you want to be treated as adults, you behave as adults. You behave with the sense of responsibility. You do not destroy the society. You do not destroy higher education. You’re only a custodian of [the institution]. It’s for future generations. And it is not your responsibility to destroy that infrastructure because future generations will judge you.

And that’s my job as a Vice Chancellor. To make sure that this infrastructure stands for future generations. Now, I’m not going to respond to the particular idiotic comments. I mean on Twitter you have some reasonable comments and then you have the extremes and the crazies of all sides. I am not responding to the crazies. Whether of the far left or the far right, my responsibility is to make the right decisions and that’s what this game plan [the poll], is. And I don’t make it as Adam Habib, we act as an executive team. So, even though I was away, the executive team acted with a particular mandate that is a responsibility of the executive team. And maybe individuals want to personalise it, but frankly, this is where we stand and we will respond as an executive to all of the challenges that we confront.

GroundUp: When the executive team sent an email yesterday on the poll on whether the university should open or close, there was an invitation to respond to an email address. Was there any response from the students or academic staff or members of the public at all over whether a poll would be a good or a bad idea?

Habib: The poll will start, probably on Thursday, and so we will have to wait for that. Obviously, I have had many people that have said that the poll is a great idea. We had some people who have written to me and said that they don’t think it is a useful idea, and there have been two arguments for that.

One is an argument that my mandate as a Vice Chancellor is to keep the place open and I should just make my decision as a vice chancellor. [They’re saying] I don’t have to consult anybody in this regard and I shouldn’t feel obliged to get the university’s or the broader view on the that. That’s the one argument. The second is that, actually, the politics of the views of the majority should not impact on the decision of a leadership or a group of activists who are interested in social justice causes.

Now, my views are very simple. Firstly, the poll is to gauge sentiments, and any sensible manager and executive does try to gauge sentiment and understand the environment before making decisions. And that’s what we as an executive are doing. For the second view that, actually, social justice advocates are not subject to the views of a majority. I have said that I think it is a dangerous  attitude that some people think that they have the wisdom to pronounce for society as a whole or for an entire community. And, this is especially if you’re a student representative council or any representative structure. You should be very open to hearing the views of your own constituency because you’re meant to be accountable to your own constituency. If you don’t want to know the views of your own constituency, the very constituency that you’re supposed to be accountable with, then we’re creating and replicating the failures of our past, where we create a political elite that is accountable to no one but itself. And, that, is a dangerous, dangerous attitude to build in a society.

And so, at the moment I’ve got a lot of letters from individuals giving me their viewpoint one way or the other, but effectively, there is no poll and the poll will open hopefully on Thursday and effectively we will have a good sense of what people’s views at Wits are — both of the staff and students and on whether they want the academic program to continue and under what conditions.

GroundUp: In the email that was sent yesterday, it was said that one could vote anonymously. Can you talk me through this process? Because I imagine there are a few students who would want to maintain their anonymity over fear of reprisals.

Habib: I think that there’s a lot of people who don’t want to [be identified for participating in the poll]. We obviously have to tie people’s votes to their identification [to ensure] that they are valid members of the University community. So, we obviously have to see a situation where effectively I have to check whether they are students. But we have a very simple way to do it. I mean there are mechanisms we have in the university where students can sign on through their student numbers and be registered and they vote in a particular way.

We’re not interested in identifying who particular individuals are and how they voted. Our interest is to know what the collective view of the community is. The data that will be reported will be simply reported: how many people turned up to vote, how many people voted yes, and how many people voted no. That’s the only data that we want because that gives us a sense of what the university community is saying. The only other thing we probably will identify, is whether it was an academic or whether it was a student, so that we can distinguish between the academic community and the student community. Other than that, they will be no other forms of identification that we will make available.

GroundUp: In the email, you mention as well that members of the public can weigh in on the situation. Does that still apply and is there still an anonymous factor to it?

Habib: So, there are two things… [First] this is a generic statement, not Adam Habib’s statement. It’s a management statement. The second thing is that we will firstly be announcing the results in the public domain. That is something that I think is important and I have been receiving a lot of commentary from the public about what they think and what their concerns are.

We will be looking at a mechanism that will capture their views. So, you will have seen we’ve put up a blog in which we anonymise the number of people who wrote and put up some of their thinking on the challenges that we have, and we will probably look at mechanisms like that.

GroundUp: There are students who are about to graduate and enter the workforce to get the prerequisite work experience they need to complete their degrees. These are people like medical students or law students who are needing to do articles and internships. If this entire situation does not resolve itself what happens to these particular graduates?

Habib: That’s what I’m so concerned about. Their concerns and those of other students. We produce — not Wits but the country as a whole — something in the region of 1,200 to 1,400 doctors [per year]. That means, if they don’t qualify this year, effectively what happens to those doctors? The public health system will have 1,200 to 1,400 fewer doctors. The same for engineers. The same for a whole host of other professions and the impact on society would be dramatic and the impact on the individual will be dramatic.

This is why I wonder whether the protestors truly understand the consequences of their actions. If they claim to represent the interest of society and the poor in the society, by forcing a shutdown they’ll destroy the very society they’re talking about. And they are destroying the interests of the very people that they’re talking about. That’s the tragedy of what we’re seeing and that’s what has to be addressed. And the problem is, when I say this publicly — as I’ve said over the last 24 hours — then people say, ‘Why are you in the public domain saying this?’ I’m saying it because it needs to be heard, because our future, our collective future, as a society is dependent on this. And it must not be said that the Vice Chancellors were not heard.