38 degrees south: statue divides a university

A person dead for 113 years does not often overwhelm a leading university and dominate national headlines. But on 10 March politics student Chumani Maxwele emptied a bucket of excrement over the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the centre of the University of Cape Town’s campus. Maxwele’s protest has electrified long-standing resentments about the ways in which the past is remembered and celebrated in the present. It has also crystalized deep and entrenched disagreements about student admissions, the university curriculum and academic appointments.

Rhodes’ s brooding image and the UCT campus are framed by Devil’s Peak and the World Heritage site of Table Mountain. They look out over the Cape Flats and its townships and informal settlements, many of which still lack basic services. Extreme income inequality remains a persistently stubborn problem more than two decades after the end of apartheid. Inevitably, issues that are precipitated by symbols and fought through at the university have a far wider resonance. Nelson Mandela, who was awarded an honorary degree by UCT within weeks of leaving prison in 1990, knew this. When opening the new national museum on Robben Island in 1997, he said: “Having excluded and marginalised most of our people, is it surprising that our museums and national monuments are often seen as alien spaces? With democracy, we have the opportunity to ensure that our institutions reflect history in a way that respects the heritage of all our citizens”.

Maxwele’s protest was in the tradition of guerrilla theatre; unexpected performances in public places designed for maximum impact. Wearing a brightly coloured safety helmet and two placards – “Exhibit White Arrogance UCT”, “Exhibit Black Assimilation UCT” – Maxwele emptied his bucket in front of the press, tipped off to attend. Maxwele was already well known for protesting the privileges of power wherever they are found; arrested in 2010 for gesturing at President Jacob Zuma’s motorcade, he successfully sued the Minister of Police for wrongful arrest. His UCT protest has again touched a point of acute sensitivity, setting off widening responses and reactions.

Maxwele’s guerrilla theatre referenced an established mode of protest in Cape Town. While South Africa’s 1996 constitution guarantees equity in access to basic services, many in the townships and informal sessions lack basic services such as sanitation. In June 2013 raw sewage was thrown at Western Cape Premier Helen Zille while she was visiting a township in the city, and buckets from portable toilets were emptied in the Legislature. Similar protests have continued, including the arrest of some two hundred people travelling into the city with bags of excrement and the dumping of sewage at Cape Town International Airport. In his protest at UCT, Maxwele was taking this form of confrontation to another of Cape Town’s iconic places.

There have been comparable flashpoints in the past. In 1986, Irish intellectual Conor Cruise O’Brien’s decision to confront the academic boycott of South Africa by lecturing at UCT was a focus for student protests and deep differences between academics. In 2005 a white professor died after an altercation with a black doctoral student in the campus, leading to campus-wide protests about the pace and direction of change. Will the fallout from the Rhodes statue protest be one in a series of punctuations in an on-going trajectory of change or will it precipitate the radical shift that UCT’s Student Representative Council and black staff group – TransformUCT – are calling for?

Dean of Humanities Sakhela Buhlungu thinks that Maxwele has pushed open a door to radical change. A sociologist and expert on the labour market, Buhlungu has seen how “symbolic moments” can result in the convergence of pressures for change.

Speaking at the Vaal University of Technology a few weeks before the Rhodes statue controversy exploded, Buhlungu expressed the mounting frustrations across a number of universities at employment practices that count against black South Africans. In parallel, students are increasingly calling for changes to the curriculum, and for academics who are more representative of the diversity of their country. Student Rekgotsofetse Chikane: “why must it be that a student at the University of Cape Town is pushed to the point of having to throw faecal matter over the statue of Cecil John Rhodes in order to have a conversation about transformation?” The issue, Chikane says, is the “subliminal racism” “that makes you ignorant about your subjugation because you are never challenged to seriously engage on critical matters”.

The University of Cape Town’s first response to these calls or actions was to convene a discussion about heritage, signage and symbolism. But before this could meet there had been further protests centred on Rhodes’ statue, now swathed and taped in black rubbish bags. By the time that these first negotiations with the university administration were convened, the Student Representative Council position had hardened. SRC President Ramabina Mahapa: “I understand it is part of history but the institutional representation of black people at this university is negative. The SRC has taken the stance that the statue must come down”. The SRC walked out of the meeting.

From here, the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement escalated rapidly, culminating in a march and the occupation of UCT’s administration building. Vice-Chancellor Max Price has responded with an extensive timetable of university-wide debates and a special meeting of Senate to consider proposals. He has said that he and his Executive favour removing the statue but only the University Council can decide. An emergency meeting of the Council has been called for April 25.

Meanwhile the UCT stand-off has become a national issue. Students at Rhodes University in Grahamstown have protested in sympathy and Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande has given his support.

Where next? If Sakhela Buhlungu is right then symbolic changes – or the removal of the statue – will not be sufficient. There will also need to be significant changes to the university’s curriculum, its staff profile and its admissions policies. Because UCT is South Africa’s – and Africa’s – highest rated university in global rankings, such changes will have implications across the higher education system as a whole. Rekgotsofetse Chikane sees UCT as being in “the unfortunate position of being a European university stuck at the bottom of Africa”. This could change.

While views on what should be done to resolve these issues continue to differ sharply, few will have any sympathy with Cecil John Rhodes. In his 1877 “confession of faith”, Rhodes wrote “I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race”. Such a set of beliefs puts Chumani Maxwele’s guerrilla theatre in perspective. Whether this is a moment that will be remembered for its consequences or another flashpoint on a long, slow, road to change remains to be seen.

Also published by BBC News, 25 March 2015: http://www.bbc.com/news/business-31945680




Our Virtual World: seven hot topics

I’ve been “teaching” this year’s Executive MBA class at the UCT Graduate School of Business. Teaching is with scare marks because, with a group like this, you rather convene, and learn.

Putting 45 motivated, mid-career people from a wide range of private and public sector organizations together in one room for six hours makes for a torrent of ideas. Our focus was on our digital world – on the speed, intensity and scope of digital innovation and its contradictions; conflicts of interests, unanticipated consequences and opportunities.

Here are seven hot topics that shaped our deep dive into this digital ocean.

Power and Politics. In some countries, elections are now made or lost in the Virtual World. In others, access to the Internet and social media has been claimed as the rise of a new form of democracy in which peer-to-peer networks can bring down dictators and repressive regimes. In politics, information is power. How are digital systems of communication reshaping government? Is the Internet the answer to the freedom of the press, or a hostage to the destruction of media independence?

Net Neutrality. The Internet was conceptualized as a virtual commons; the World Wide Web was designed as an open protocol that would facilitate equality of access. But a great deal of the development of the Internet has been driven by private sector investment and by the sale of digital services. Here, speed and priority are a premium, creating a demand for a “fast lane” on the Internet. This contentious issue hinges on the recent decision by the US Federal Communications Commission and will be determined by complex legal challenges currently before the US courts. How will this work out?

Data Ownership: Everyone expects a right of privacy over their tangible data: their medical records; bank accounts; family photographs; personal correspondence. And yet virtual data is collected about all of us, most of the time, often without our knowledge. Does digital privacy matter? If it does, how do we achieve a balance between the public benefits of shared information and the need for protective restrictions? Should there be a right to be forgotten, for personal digital data to be erased at our request?

Disruptive Innovations: New ideas are stimulated by the success of others but result in their destruction. Shumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction” is now widely accepted as driving innovation and creating economic and social value. Our Virtual World has seen more creative destruction than ever before. But what is the downside and the value of what will be lost? Will there be more consumer choices, or will the end result be new global monopolies that are able to prevent their own creative disruption, and kill off future innovation?

Cyber security. Cyber security is a real and growing concern and effective cyber security is now high on the agenda of many organizations, from universities to commercial firms to government departments. Many of the most effective defences are pre-emptive, collecting intelligence and nipping assaults in the bud; most police and security services across the world now have specialist services that fight all their battles on-line. But how far should this go? How do we get the balance right? Security services should not be sequestering cell phone records without due cause. But none of us wants to be a victim of the digitally-enabled terrorism that may make travel and big city living a question of survival.

New Inequalities. In many respects, digital devices have been the great equalizers of our age. There will soon be over 2 billion smart phones in the world – one for every four people, everywhere. But at the same time this digital world is driving new levels and forms of inequality. There is a a new digital proletariat: low-paid knowledge workers in call centres; service staff on minimum wage contracts; factory workers in Asia who work long hours to meet the insatiable demand for phones and tablets. Should we be concerned, or will the market sort this all out and establish a new economic equilibrium?

Cyborgs. Some of the most significant advances in digital technology have been in Health and in Medicine. Increasingly, digitally intelligent devices save or prolong life: digitally-enabled pacemakers, intelligent stents, cochlear implants that restore hearingBut at the same time, the convergence of digital technology with the life and living of the human body has more complex implications. Location-intelligent chips are now being embedded beneath the skin as a convenience (to substitute a sweep of the wrist for a bunch of keys) or a requirement (tagging offenders on parole). Such advances in our Digital World may well render our children as cyborgs; part human, part machine. Does this matter?

Did we reach any conclusions? Of course not; if any of us could predict the digital future we would already be living in the new Xanadu. But we did realize that we spend too little time out of the whirlpool of daily digital life to get a critical perspective on what these innovations mean for us.

For some in the room, letting Google trawl e-mails for retailing data or Facebook tag our every photo on-line was of little consequence, repaid with the conventience of the services these companies provide. For others, these invasions of privacy are creepy, unacceptable; few of us had actually read Facebook or Google’s privacy policies before.

The issue of net neutrality came out as equally complex. The principles of openness and equality of service are good – the virtual commons that inspired the Internet pioneers of the early 1990s. But the utilities of the virtual world depend on massive, transcontinental investments in infrastructure, and these have mostly been made by global corporations with investors’ capital. From this point of view, the Federal Communications Commissions ruling can look like a form of nationalisation.

And looking ahead to a world of cyborgs split us down the middle. While we all agreed that we’d willingly accept an intelligent, connected, implant to save our lives, we were at distinct odds when it came to SIM cards embedded beneath our collar bones, or RFID chips under the skin of our wrists to open doors, or miniture cameras in the skin of our necks, to see behind us. But then again, we probably wont get to choose, since we are launching our children into a world where digital technologies and their uses are everwhere.


Connected Learning

“Connect” is one of our most overused words. We’re in the flow of the digital world and in the river of instant images, text fragments and postings – like this one. The same goes for learning, from the toddler’s digital toy through all levels of schooling to every university classroom. In 2010 YouGov found that 53% of Britons suffer from nomophobia – the fear of being out of phone contact – and that one in two nomophobes never turn their cell phones off.

The Connected Learning Alliance is determined to turn this syndrome on its head and restore appropriate depth and humanity to being connected. Seen in this way, connections start with valued relations with others and with communities and the principles of social justice. Their approach reaches back to the progressive ideals of Paulo Freire and John Dewey. They are opposed to the prevalent assumption that education is a wholly private benefit, to be sold and bought as a service industry. These long established priorities for “being connected” are now augmented by the liberation of new digital technologies. In a nice twist, a nomophile is defined as any creature that thrives in a pasture; a comforting metaphor for an educational ideal.

I’ve found it useful to think of Connected Learning in three dimensions: firstly, the inner subjective world that defines and directs our sense of self; secondly, the network of those with whom we interact as “familiars”; and thirdly the collective outcomes that we achieve as “knowledge communities” and which are an important public good.

Let’s start with the second dimension of Connected Learning – the value in the web of interrelationships between people drawn together by common interests and objectives, whether their passion is for nursing, marine biology or history. The intangible asset of this web of mutuality has always been at the core of good learning and teaching, whatever the setting and technical paraphernalia. New digital technologies, designed applied and used to enable and augment these interconnections, offer wonderful opportunities that we are still discovering. Our universities are full of imaginative people experimenting with hashtags, microblogs, smart phones and any new app. This is a grassroots revolution in enabling learning, with all the advantages of open innovation and crowd sourcing. Administrators, strategy wonks and IT directors should be kept away from this; their job is to keep the virtual pastures open, and stand back.

Whatever the ways in which groups of learners convene, their connections with one another are as individual sentients with unique combinations of competences, experiential histories, objectives and ambitions. Here, in this first dimension of Connected Learning, new digital technologies can, and do, augment and extend individual direction. This is what sociologist Margaret Archer calls the “contextual continuity” that shapes the inner voices that we all have and which drives us to seek our “ultimate concerns”. There’s been a lot of attention to the negative side of this virtual world – harassment, trolls, cyber-bullying, loss of privacy. But digital connectivity has also allowed a myriad forms of self-expression and continuity. The technology’s neutral; it’s how its used that matters.

Successful and productive networks of learners produce an aggregate value that is in addition to the benefits they gain as individuals. This aggregate value is an essential public good, and the third dimension of Connected Learning. Good nurses have a vocation for achieving their inner ultimate concerns and forming a community of practice with their peers, bring to their wider world all the benefits of a health care system. The expertise of marine biologists, enhanced by continuing professional networks, is key to global ecosystems, sustainability and food security. Together, historians produce the temporal perspective that anchors our sense of ourselves and our social life in time. Again, new digital technologies augment this aggregate value in transformative ways, in particular though the massive and expanding availability of open resources available to everyone, anywhere, who has an Internet connection.

At the heart of the idea of Connected Learning is the interdependency of all three of its dimensions. The public good of education as a system is vested in its collective outcomes; the creation and dissemination of new knowledge, the reproduction of expertise, the generation of new levels and kinds of competences for an ever-changing world. These collective outcomes depend on effective networks of learners, however they are convened. And without people who, as their inner sense of self, can articulate their ambitions and realize their potential, there are no learning networks and no collective outcomes. New digital technologies spiral through these three dimensions, as enablers rather than as ends in themselves.

This piece was inspired by participation in last year’s Higher Education for Democratic Innovation Global Forum, held in Belfast:

Some sources:

Archer, Margaret 2007. Making our Way through the World: Human Reflexivity and Social Mobility. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Connected Learning Alliance 2015. Make learning relevant. http://clalliance.org/ Accessed 10 March 2015

Ito, Mizuko, Kris Gutierrez, Sonia Livingstone, Bill Penuel, Jean Rhodes, Katie Salen, Juliet Schor, Julian Sefton-Green and S. Craig Watkins. 2013. Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. Irvine, CA, Digital Media and Research Hub

What the Syrian crisis means for education, everywhere

What are the consequences of contemporary conflicts for education? Education systems, at all levels, take generations to build, with key investments in infrastructure and – particularly in people. Universities develop their capacity for professional training and research over many years before they can function as anchor institutions for their communities. Any sustained or intense conflict can destroy these accumulated benefits within a few months.

Syria is now enduring the worst humanitarian crisis in more than fifty years. A recent study by the Institute of International Education has looked in detail at the circumstances of Syrian students and academics in exile in Turkey, proposing interventions that could address the devastating damage to Syria’s Higher Education system and build resources for the eventual process of national reconstruction that will follow from the end of the current war.

At the time that Syria’s civil war began in 2011, the country had a population of about 23 million people and about a quarter of school leavers continued into post-compulsory education. The United Nations estimates that, by the end of last year, 3.8 million Syrians had fled the country and a further 7.6 million people have been internally displaced as a direct result of violence – about half of the pre-war population. Of those remaining in Syria, more than 12 million are in need of humanitarian assistance.

Turkey is currently hosting about a million Syrian refugees; exact numbers are unknown because, in addition to official refugee camps, significant numbers of people escaping the war live in the sprawling metropolitan regions of Istanbul and Ankara. Of these, the International Institute for Education estimates that between 20000 and 30000 are either potential Higher Education students, or are students who have previously been enrolled in Syrian universities but have had to abandon their studies. There are also unknown numbers of Syrian university staff in exile in Turkey, surviving by any means possible to them. In addition, there are large Syrian refugee communities in Jordan and Lebanon as well as a global diaspora that includes many academics and students.

The IIE’s work in Turkey begins to show how Syria’s future needs can be anticipated by supporting students in exile. This starts with understanding the challenges faced by the host country. While Turkey’s Higher Education system has expanded significantly over the past decade, and the overall participation rate has risen from about 15% in 2002 to close to 40% in 2012, there is significant unmet demand by Turkish nationals for university places. Turkey has welcomed Syrian enrolments in its universities, but this has been at very low levels to date; the IIE estimates that just 2% of eligible young refugees have gained access in their host country. Clearly, Turkey’s ability to absorb the pressing educational needs of its unanticipated refugee communities is constrained.

In addition, and in common with refugee communities in other parts of the world, Syrians face particular challenges when seeking out educational opportunities. This is not because of prejudice or animosity; the IIE study found that, overall, Syrians can integrate into Turkish society, particularly in those regions where there are deep historical ties between the two countries. The main barrier is language; teaching and administration in universities is in Turkish or English, rather than in Syrian’s native Arabic. Again, this is a factor that would restrict any significant increase in access to education by refugee communities.

The key finding of the IIE study is that meaningful responses to education provision in the face of humanitarian crises of this proportion must be international, and that international responses will be an investment against the eventual reconstruction of a stable social and economic structure in Syria. Put another way, the failure to provide for the marginalization and educational disenfranchisement of large numbers of young adult exiles is to risk creating large reservoirs of alienation and anger – fertile ground for the advocacy of violent responses to violence.

The Institute’s research team also found that, faced with these extraordinary difficulties, young Syrians in exile in Turkey are developing their own responses. In both large metropolitan centres such as Istanbul and in smaller towns and cities close to the border, refugee students are coming together for mutual support. In Istanbul, Syrian neighborhoods have begun to form and social and cultural centres have been established. In areas in Turkey’s south, which have strong historical ties with Syria, exiled university students have set up significant and supportive networks with the assistance of NGOs. There are clear opportunities for imaginative and contemporary education solutions using new digital media to provide access to academic programmes that are offered and supported internationally.

“Improving the access of Syrians to post-secondary education can contribute to regional security and stability by providing alternatives to a range of undesirable outcomes, including crime, radicalization, or fighting for young men, and early or forced marriage for young women. In addition, the human and intellectual capital these young people represent has tremendous potential to increase social stability in postconflict Syria, as well as in Turkey and the greater region. Syria is now categorized as a ‘low human development’ state because of the collapse of its economy, health, and education sectors. The failure to connect Syrian students to higher education and other training opportunities will only accelerate this decline and leave Syrian society without experts trained in fields of study critical to post-conflict recovery. This is also the outcome when Syrian professors and researchers are left without access to the research facilities and other resources that would allow them to collaborate with Turkish and international colleagues to conduct research relevant to Syria’s recovery and reconstruction”.

This conclusion by the International Institute for Education could apply to many other current and post-conflict situations. Transnational Education, with international student mobility, is now an international industry, and a significant part of the GDP of those nations that have invested significantly in its provision. But at the same time the implications of sustained regional conflicts and the displacement of millions of people are also international issues with significant educational dimensions. Studies such as the IIE’s work in Syria and Turkey begin the show how appropriate and meaningful solutions could be developed and implemented.


United Nations 2015.”Syria”. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.     http://www.unocha.org/syria

Keith David Watenpaugh, Adrienne L. Fricke, James R. King, “’We Will Stop Here and Go No Further’. Syrian University Students and Scholars in Turkey”. International Institute of Education, University of California Davis. October 2014. http://www.iie.org/Research-and-Publications/Publications-and-Reports/IIE-Bookstore/We-Will-Stop-Here-And-Go-No-Further-Syrian-University-Students-And-Scholars-In-Turkey