Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande isn't being an effective leader because he doesn't use the various crises to bring about change, says the writer. File picture: Dumisani Sibeko
Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande isn't being an effective leader because he doesn't use the various crises to bring about change, says the writer. File picture: Dumisani Sibeko

Why is Blade absent from class?

By Eusebius McKaiser Time of article published Oct 19, 2015

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Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande has underdelivered in a crucial portfolio, writes Eusebius McKaiser.

What has Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande been up to this year? Does anyone know? We do, of course, know what he hasn’t been up to.

He hasn’t been up to the challenge of dealing with the most important set of crises in the tertiary education sector since democracy’s birth.

This year continues to be a momentous one on our campuses, and Nzimande continues to show an inability to make good use of the various crises. He is failing to show effective leadership.

Take, for example, the funding crisis in higher education. Wits University students were fully justified to pressure the university’s management, including vice-chancellor Adam Habib, to agree to set aside fee increases for next year and renegotiate what these should be. Some critics of the student protests keep emphasising that Habib isn’t the enemy of students, and that they should direct their venom at the state. This is correct, but also misses an important tactical point. Of course the state must take responsibility for how much money is directed to tertiary education.

But vice-chancellors and university management need to leverage their direct line to the minister much better, and show solidarity with students who can’t afford to pay university fees.

Habib isn’t powerless, and tactically, students were spot-on to target, in the first instance, university management.

No doubt the vice-chancellor will, in turn, be a better ally of the students by helping to exert pressure on the government to solve this crisis. But during all this time, Nzimande has shown no decisive hold on the conversation about the funding crisis.

Then, of course, there are other items on the decolonisation agenda that could have been assisted with if there were effective leadership from the state: changing curricula to be more reflective of the context in which modern universities exist in South Africa; addressing the low number of black professors and generally unrepresentative staff demographics at many tertiary institutions; exclusionary institutional cultures that lead to alienating experiences for too many students; high numbers of students not completing degrees in regulation time; student hunger; student accommodation crises; and so on.

Yes, yes, a higher education summit happened last week, but that doesn’t count as proof of Nzimande being on top of these issues. He has been in this cabinet portfolio for years, and the challenges in the sector are systemic, well known and understood, and they’ve been flagged for many years.

Why has so little progress been made in addressing these issues over two decades of democracy? That is a core accountability question, Minister Nzimande, and successive ANC governments have to be compelled to answer. And voters can express a view on the quality of the answer with the help of the ballot box.

When the minister does make a cameo appearance these days, it is to lambaste student leaders by pretending they don’t read, aren’t steeped in Marxism as student leaders were during his time (as if Marxism is the only theoretical foundation for revolution), and generally they’re a lazy bunch just making mischief.

This attitude will cost the minister. For one thing, this view of the student leaders is just false.

There is a clear intellectual character in a lot of the student leadership in how they are framing the nexus issues and thinking strategically about how to achieve their desired outcomes. It is crucial for the minister to engage students with the sophistication they demand.

When the statue of Cecil John Rhodes fell, for example, the number of critical opinion pieces from students that analysed the significance of symbols, statues and artifacts was impressive.

Both Nzimande and the president responded by pretending that students wanted pages torn from history books. In that moment, the ANC government showed sheer anxiety to concede that the status quo is deeply unjust. This is so unnecessary. Why not simply engage students on the substantive issues as you would your own peers? This doesn’t mean a priori conceding to any or all student demands.

But you will build up goodwill if you ascribe agency, legitimacy and brains to students, rather than rendering them naughty children.

And that, really, brings us to the key reason for the absence of effective leadership in the tertiary education sector. You can’t tackle the issues unless you concede to having messed up and missed opportunities, for many years now. And so you either freeze, or deny the gravity of the problems. But no one is fooled by this posture of denialism.

It is not too late for effective leadership to be demonstrated in pursuit of solutions. Unless, of course, the ANC government wants to be conceptualised as part of the problem.

* Eusebius McKaiser is the best-selling author of A Bantu In My Bathroom and Could I Vote DA? A Voter’s Dilemma.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Independent Media.

THE STAR

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