Blog of the International Sociological Association (ISA)

Crisis of Inequality at Wits (South Africa)

January 10, 2010 7 Comments

By Kezia Lewins, University of the Witwatersrand

The University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (Wits) as with other historically advantaged white English-medium universities in South Africa prides itself on its “open”, liberal tradition. Officially the university makes much of its role in opposing the Extension of University Education Act in 1959 which brought into law racialised universities and required black students to obtain special ministerial permission in order to attend the so-called white universities. The University has always had a radical component which gained increasing momentum throughout the 1960s to 1990s and contested apartheid restrictions within universities, the state, and society more generally. However, this was certainly not its mainstream position and both gender-based and race-based segmentation were historically evident.

In post-apartheid South Africa, Wits has had an equally chequered record. In terms of the historically advantaged universities (HAU), it is one in which both staff and student equity have advanced. Of HAU, it graduates the second highest proportion of black graduates at 61% generally and 56% at the post-graduate level. It ranks fourth amongst HAU with 29% black academics and second with 47% women academics. Despite the slow pace of deracialisation, particularly at the staff and post-graduate level; Wits has performed relatively well. However, the Makgoba Affair of the mid 1990s and a number of high profile black academics, sociologists included, who left Wits in 2008, further signified cracks in the edifice.

Wits continually operates in crisis mode driven by institutional and broader social forces. I shall refer briefly to specific events which highlight key moments of crisis, resistance, and solidarity that have emerged at Wits. Like other universities worldwide, Wits has experienced institutional corporatisation, educational commodification and increasing internal inequities. The corporatisation of higher education has meant that all South African universities are headed up vice chancellors, deputy vice chancellors, and deans who now perform executive managerial roles. Vice chancellors salaries are approximately double to triple that of professors, four to six times that of lecturers, and conservatively 46 times that of the average cleaner (janitor), putting most on a par or even above high ranking corporate CEOs in terms of the differential between the highest and lowest earners within a company.

At Wits, as with most other universities, the outsourcing of the so-called non-core workers including cleaning, gardening, maintenance, security and catering staff occurred on a massive scale in 2001. The cleaning sector workers, predominantly African women and men, have borne the brunt of this lumpen proletarianisation. All outsourced workers experienced substantial salary cuts; lost medical aid and pension benefits; and lost access to staff bursaries that fund higher education for the children of university staff. Cleaning workers today, in 2010, still earn less than they did when they were Wits employees over nine years ago. The overpaying of managers has accompanied the super-exploitation of workers.

At the end of 2009, the University renegotiated its Service Level Agreement with the outsourced cleaning company Supercare. Supercare served all onsite workers with retrenchment letters that were subsequently rescinded after joint union, staff, student and worker protest. However, some supervisors were still retrenched and approximately 15% of workers were redeployed to other sites. The remaining workers faced the alteration of employment conditions with: the termination of existing contracts, the introduction of new contracts in which the employer abdicated even more of its responsibility to workers by for example: the removal of worker severance pay upon client-directed retrenchment, and the introduction of team cleaning further threatening worker autonomy and control. The experience of workers has shown that transformation has not come without costs. The neoliberal agenda coupled with the absence of socioeconomic class as criteria for employment equity has meant that, despite continued sloganeering, the vision of a classless society has all but vaporised.

With vast levels of national poverty and inequality, a decreasing proportion of the GDP being spent on higher education, and a very limited National Financial Aid Scheme (NFAS), student funding is highly prized and contentious. On an almost annual basis, Wits students protest the proposed fee hikes (typically between 6% and 12%) which inevitably affect tuition and residence as well as the proportion of upfront payments students are required to pay before registration. In 2009, the university management tried to enforce a surveillance culture requesting staff and students to report on each other and to provide documentary and photographic evidence of anyone engaged in protest action, specifically those who “disrupted” classes.

Students argued that the blocking of their student cards and their inability to continue with studies should the proposed increases go ahead was itself tantamount to the disruption of their education and that the university left them no choice but to stop classes until the matter was resolved. Nonetheless at no time were all classes stopped. Whilst classes were brought to a halt over a two day period, several were also cancelled in solidarity, and many carried on regardless for the rest of the week. This division within the student population reinforced the differential class backgrounds and sympathies of students and in many ways also reinforced the racialised differentiation in student experience.

Armed police were called on to campus to “restore” and ensure order remained on campus but allegations of intimidation were also reported. The university has subsequently instituted criminal proceedings against a number of students involved in the 2009 protests. The School of Social Science objected to the presence of police on campus and to the ways in which the university management dealt with the matter. Student tutors in the school also took a principled and historic stance by issuing their own statement and using tutorials as a space to raise awareness, to discuss and debate the key issues. Unfortunately this stance was only partially supported by academic staff.  Whilst fissures were clear, there were renewed attempts at solidarity in opposition to the management strategy.

Students and staff joined in protest against the presence of Colonel David Benjamin of the Israeli army on campus calling into question the ways in which the university hires out its space to outside constituencies. A subsequent inquiry raised questions on the commodification of public space; the social, moral and political role of the university in relation to academic freedom; and the recommendation of a renewed commitment to students’ right to protest.

On other fronts, staff and their respective unions won and lost battles. In 2008, university staff collectively successfully bargained and protested in opposition to low salary increases. However, by 2009, the temporary deregistration of two of the main unions provided management with fuel to suppress staff solidarity. Wage negotiations were conducted independently resulting in a substantial increase for academics of 12% whilst administrative staff only received an increase of 10.5%. Subsequent re-registration of the unions can only bode well for the reassertion of staff’s voice. But will the unions rise to the challenge and what of collective solidarity in 2010!

South Africa

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