Read of the Week

Free Fall: Why South African Universities are in a Race Against Time

Malcolm Ray


Review: John Harvey

Former anti-apartheid activist, journalist and academic Malcolm Ray describes his 422-page offering as “mainly a book of reporting”.

While journalistic elements certainly feature, Free Fall would be better billed as an exercise in literary activism. There is no question that it is meticulously researched and written, but throughout there is an overwhelming sense that Ray has chronologised specific events and viewpoints — and spurned others — to prove a hypothesis.

Reporting in its truest form at least makes the attempt to be objective, but it is clear that Ray’s sentiments lie with the Fallist movement and its ambitions for free education at any cost, rather than government and education officials who are frequently painted as turncoats and neo-liberal acolytes.

What cannot be questioned is the significance of this book, both in terms of its timing and content. The student uprisings of 2015 and 2016, from #RhodesMustFall to #FeesMustFall and beyond, have dominated the public discourse in South Africa, and Ray has brilliantly married the emergence of student movements under apartheid to the present-day iterations at Wits and UCT, in particular.

The implementation of Bantu education and the apartheid regime’s draconian policies to ensure black people remained second-class citizens are thoroughly explored, while Ray also lays out the clandestine involvement of foreign governments in student movements to ensure their business interests in South Africa were protected during apartheid.

In the latter part of the book, Ray turns his attention to the so-called born-free generation and the disappointments they have endured as a result of failed basic and tertiary education policies, most of which are rooted in political gamesmanship in the higher echelons of government.

Promises to eradicate inequality and create a better future for all are repeatedly reneged on, notes Ray, leading to a deep-seated malaise that eventually spilled over into protest action.

“‘Betrayal’ was in fact many acts: the economic crisis, limited resources, elitism, corruption — but also the ingrained sense of racial inequality. With it came disappointment at what the government could achieve, and the disappointment in youths’ minds was only heightened by the performance of the education system.

“Each year, quite literally thousands of school leavers — a generation of potentially key players in any successful economy — were either failing the grade or dropping out of the education system, fuelling an already crippling skills deficit.”

Where Ray has missed something of a trick is to overlook the impact of global millennial trends and attitudes on today’s South African students. Social justice issues shared extensively on social networks form the basis of much of this generation’s interactions, and highlighting transgressions on Facebook and Twitter feeds into this collective “revolutionary” psychology, which, in turn, breeds a culture of populism in cyberspace.

Modern-day student revolutionaries, such as Wits’ Shaeera Kalla and UCT’s Chumani Maxwele, are compared to Che Guevara and Steve Biko, demanding the university executive and the state accede to their demands. Yet, for all the bombast and rhetoric, they have largely failed to look beyond the mobilisation of their peers and how no-fee education can be achieved in the long term, particularly in a country on the brink of junk status.

Be that as it may, Ray has planted more than enough seeds to engender earnest debate about an issue that will not be going anywhere anytime soon.