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 of GroundUp. The university ran a poll of students and staff on Thursday, on whether or not the university should re-open on Monday, October 3.

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

It’s still too early to project. It does depend on what happens in the coming days. 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.

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.

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.

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 [on Monday] – 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? 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.”

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.

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. 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.

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?

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.

For the full interview, go to: