Change the world


As you know, last year had indeed been a challenging and troubling one for Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in particular, and the higher education system in South Africa as a whole. Much of the second half of 2016 was caught up in a protracted student fee protest campaign that caused major, and near catastrophic loss of academic time for students and staff alike.

Dear Colleagues

Greetings and welcome back! I hope 2017 will be prosperous and rewarding.

As you know, last year had indeed been a challenging and troubling one for Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in particular, and the higher education system in South Africa as a whole. Much of the second half of 2016 was caught up in a protracted student fee protest campaign that caused major, and near catastrophic loss of academic time for students and staff alike.

I am aware that this has been a traumatizing and difficult time for all of you. Indeed, one had hoped that the promise of a New Year, plus lessons learnt from the self-destructive and senseless illegal ‘siege’ of late last year, its accompanying violence, and its devastating impact on pass and retention rates of students, would bring great caution to any further attempts at destabilizing the system.

However, we have been deeply shocked at news of a brazen arson attack on NMMU’s Procurement building this past weekend. Destroying any university property is an attack on society. This is the third building damaged by arson. It clearly suggests a pattern and an organized group wanting to sow fear and induce insecurity just at a time when academic classes have started for thousands of hardworking students.

We simply cannot tolerate this. It has no place in a democratic society, least of all, at an open university. Council has mandated University management to take every necessary legal and administrative step to ensure a safe and secure environment for teaching and learning to occur.

I am aware of the fact that many staff members may well have deep empathy with, and support for, the cause of a more equal, accessible and transformed higher education system. I share this empathy and support.

However, I do not support the notion that political violence by specific groupings is somehow justified, or its seriousness mitigated, by the existence of structural violence in society – poverty, inequality, racism or past injustices. This is a dangerous circular argument, with devastating logical implications. Firstly, if one follows this reasoning, potentially any act of violence could be exonerated of culpability. Secondly, violence begets violence, and as history shows, becomes the root causes of future structural violence - long after original reasons have been lost in memory. Thirdly, it has no moral or legal basis in a constitutional democracy. It is simply wrong, and there should be no ambiguity about it.

We believe the arson attacks are fomented by a small group of individuals – by no means representing the vast majority of students and student organizations at NMMU. We believe it is a crude attempt by self-serving groups to create fear and insecurity, to ride on the back of genuine struggles for access faced by poor students, and to foment populist demands for ‘free higher education now’ in the full knowledge that the University, on its own, cannot provide ‘free’ higher education.

Whilst we genuinely believe in the idea of an open university with minimally necessary security, and remain committed to preserving this as part of NMMU’s core identity, we must also accept that arson attacks require specific steps to protect lives and property. If staff members had been working in that particular building, they could have been killed. We view these arson attacks in the most serious light. And it is our duty to protect the University and its people.

Therefore, a series of measures are being introduced with immediate effect to raise the level of security visibility, protecting buildings and people, instituting regular patrols, monitoring all buildings, and working with law enforcement agencies to ensure they can identify and hopefully arrest the arsonists and anyone involved in violent activities. Further security measures are also being considered.

I also wish to state categorically that none of the measures are inconsistent whatsoever with our genuine commitment to a more socially just and equal higher education system. On the contrary, such goals cannot be pursued, let alone achieved, by violent means; by closing down the university; by demanding universities scrap their fee-paying levies in the current system; and by disrupting classes aimed attended by thousands of hardworking students.

To be sure, the University has severally committed itself to work towards far-reaching social transformation in line with its legal mandate, and across every sphere of university life. But we cannot pursue this goal if the university is deliberately de-stabilized; if normal activities are disrupted; if an atmosphere of threat and violence stalks our corridors; and if we cannot bring students and staff together in a positive, constructive process of dialogues for change.

Over the past ten years, this University has adopted literally dozens of proactive transformation programmes embedded in virtually all aspects of university life –massively augmented financial aid interventions, new innovations in teaching and learning, new research entities and projects, fresh experiments in curriculum development, recruitment of new staff and development of current staff, and a myriad of student academic and co-curriculum programmes to create a vibrant campus life. To say there has been zero transformation is simply nonsense.

Yet, we must also accept that much more remains to be done - that we have been far too slow in some areas of transformation than others, particularly with respect to diversity of staff in many departments and some campuses; institutional culture change, whilst driven from the top, has not filtered down equally in all departments; innovation in curriculum transformation has been uneven across departments and faculties; and the plight of poor students gaining access to, and success within the university system is still shaped by deep-seated class, spatial and gendered forms of inequality.

We must be fully committed to confronting and hopefully overcoming these challenges. As we focus on carrying on with often difficult day-to-day tasks of teaching and learning, research and engagement, supporting student life, providing key services, we must find innovative ways of driving the change process - transforming our praxis; building inclusive, diverse cultures; nurturing the next generation of particularly black and women scholars and administrators; producing new forms of critical, transformation modes of scholarship and graduate attributes amongst our graduates; and radically transforming institutional cultures at all our campuses.

Our country is going through a difficult economic and social period, with major uncertainties about future funding to higher education. We expect the Heher Commission on Higher Education report to be released towards the end of June, and it is not clear what policy reforms will follow this. Until then, we only have the resources of the present system – based mainly on subsidy and fees – to work with, and we must do so prudently and efficiently.

I would like to sincerely thank you for the role you have played over the past few months and present period, wish you well as an important staff member of NMMU, and encourage you to help in co-creating our common future such that our University fully lives up to the name after which it is called.

Derrick Swartz


13 February 2017

Contact information
Dr Laura Best
Special Assistant to the Vice-Chancellor
Tel: 0415043211