Recently, the former provincial executive committee of SASCO in Western Cape, comrade Sive ‘Madala’ Gumenge, penned an article on the national publication of the student movement, Moithuti, arguing that the recent collapses of the Eastern Cape local municipalities will negatively affect the education institutions in those regions. Specifically, he referred to the Amathole district municipality where Alice is located and the Makhanda local municipality that hosts Grahamstown as two local government institutions that are faced with challenges of maladministration, corruption, and poor provision of basic services to their communities.

Comrade Madala then goes further to underscore particularly the case of the University of Fort Hare that has found itself faced with the same challenges as that of its local municipality – maladministration, corruption, and substandard provision of quality services to its students. He particularly underscores corruption as the major problem that has visited Fort Hare, which, according to him, was a moving problem that slowly shifted from the local municipality of Alice into Fort Hare.

By extension, the predatory corrupt class that captured both the local municipality of Alice and Fort Hare University drove a consistent value chain of depleting these two public institutions of their resources mainly through illicit procurement processes. He then cautions that the same fate that has currently visited Grahamstown’s local municipality could also spread into Rhodes University and the neighbouring schools of that town. Put differently, when the predatory corrupt classes deplete the Makhanda municipality of all it has, the looting spree will also gain entry into the remaining public institutions in the area – particularly these education institutions which seemingly remain the only functioning enterprises of the public.

I argue that Madala’s submission is broadly true but also incorrect when it gets to be traced down into specifics.
Firstly, the reasons for the collapse of local governance in South Africa as an institution generally cannot be overemphasised. The country’s Auditor General for the past 19 years has consistently highlighted the high levels of corruption, wasteful expenditure, and inappropriate appointment of underqualified personnel across all levels of this institution.

Elected leadership is primarily responsible for this – both politically and administratively.

– Politically – because the municipal institution’s bureaucracy is overseen by the elected leadership of political parties who craft its financial architecture, then recruit and appoint the personnel fit for its strategic objectives to implement it optimally and collaboratively with communities
– political parties therefore have not taken the weight of this responsibility seriously especially the ANC which leads the overwhelming majority of the country’s municipalities – including these two that Madala speaks of. Continuously, the local government sphere has been characterised by political deployments that are grossly mediocre, and it has been a site of vulturine forms of factionalism which breed the ugliest tendencies of our society i.e.  immense plunder of public resources, high rewards for shady work performed by outsourced business syndicates, an environment of constant
– instability, including political killings. This is the kind of political environment that took Sindiso Magaqa’s life, the former secretary-general of the ANC Youth League.
– Administratively – because political oversight is in a state of crisis as I’ve indicated, the net effect of this irregularity is that systems of accountability, monitoring, evaluation, performance, ethical considerations, and law enforcement – all get to be completely undermined. The municipal institution becomes a rent-seeking enterprise for a few to just collect their monthly salaries and for the predatory business class to unremittingly make illicit earnings from unfulfilled contracts. Because this predatory business class is in intimate contact with the political leadership – the whole municipal ecosystem becomes a refinement ground to repetitively bleed the state of its resources at the expense of communities.

As a result, communities that would have been far developed than they are currently are still faced with the same challenges they had before 1994 – lack of water, electricity, sanitation, housing, and economic underdevelopment. There is no political party that is interested in resolving this matter comprehensively and the obliteration of the country’s law enforcement agencies in the past 15 years has also weakened any possibilities of deriving the accountability measures needed to address these problems. At least, me and Madala agree on this aspect.

Now, Rhodes University and Fort Hare University find themselves located in a municipal context engulfed with these challenges. As institutions of higher learning tasked by the public to rollout consistent and world-class programmes of teaching, learning, research, and community engagement – they get severely affected by these inadequacies. Without water and electricity, the university cannot have classes and utilise its technological infrastructure to drive research innovation and quality teaching and learning on a daily basis. Without sanitation, housing, and local economic development, the university cannot attract the best professoriate and the necessary talent needed to, directly and indirectly, ignite local economic growth and urban renewal.

These interrelationships that universities and municipalities seemingly share as I’ve indicated are microcosms that remain understudied in our South Africa context – both from a productive point of view (municipalities as assets to universities) and from an unproductive viewpoint (municipalities as liabilities to universities).
This is not unexpected in South Africa largely because universities are still viewed as national and international institutions that rely on generating universally applicable research for purposes of establishing a sizable national footprint. Economically and politically, universities are still understood as assets that belong to the domain of a national Minister who must utilise his/her leadership collaboratively with the higher education executive and student leaders to mobilise a political economy that will serve the macro-priorities of the sector – such as access, success, free education, equity advancement, anti-racism, anti-sexism, and social justice broadly.
In other words, universities and local government do not have a traditional working relationship – both from a strategic point of view and from a task-orientated understanding. In addition, the sustainability matrix of universities as public institutions do not depend on local government whilst the institutional design of universities does not allow local government to have any influence on their autonomous operations either.
Importantly, universities are ‘accountability intensive’ – with a robust culture of tight management mechanisms, monitoring, evaluation, and auditing principles. From human resource appointments, financial management, procurement systems, examination control measures, and research ethical obligations – universities have placed the value of their qualifications and brand reputations on instilling these highest standards of practice and human conduct. Therefore, it is nearly impossible for any illicit business class to capture universities for their own corrupt ends in such a tight working environment.
Of course, this does not exclude potential risks that universities can be exposed to. For instance, the University of Fort Hare is in a state that it is currently, as far as its financial management status is concerned, primarily because, at one stage of its institutional life, it was occupied by executive leadership that did not have any regard for these ethical measures I’ve outlined. The necessary obligations of integrity needed to operate an institution of higher learning were eroded for short-term gains – including the monitoring, auditing, and prosecution bodies needed to rescue the university.
Without these internal mechanisms in place, the corrupt political class that emanates from municipal structures as Madala argued would not have gained such a significant entry into the operations of Fort Hare. These are the same weaknesses that the white capitalist class exploited under apartheid to gain entry into the fiscus of former white universities to plunder them up to the current epoch.
One of the greatest unknowns of South African higher education that came out of the #endoutsourcing and #FeesMustFall protests four years ago is that former white universities had to reassess the costs of their procurement services which were largely found to be wasteful, illicit, and valueless – with most of them being provided by the white economic class located in the cities where those universities are. Today, these former white universities are trying their level best to transform the BBBEE scorecards of their procurement spends as they largely remain white and significantly distant from their core priorities.

In other words, our higher education system, for many years, has been bleeding resources made from the taxpayer to the monopoly local industries owned and controlled by the white minority in university towns and cities. These local monopolies are the same cartels that are beginning to emerge from the context of former black universities such as Fort Hare and they all carry the same mandate – which is to maximise their profits and padlock universities as permanent sites of accumulation.

None of these forces are concerned about the academic project that these universities are supposed to maintain for their intergenerational sustainability.
Moving forward, the student leadership of the working-class and organised labour must fight for the professionalisation of university structures. These structures must have auditing, accountability, monitoring, and evaluation strictly embedded in them. The recruitment of the best talent and experienced executive and professoriate needed to manage and lead these university structures must be a non-negotiable. A university that will produce graduates with the highest reputations and talent to serve the country’s economy and its people adequately can only be generated out of a well-managed university. In other words, a university that operates with a rule of law is useful for our revolution.

Municipalities then must be seen as strategic partners of higher education to generate the necessary urban renewal frameworks needed that will drive local economic growth and sustainable communities. These relations must be legally and autonomously guided for purposes of ensuring that both the municipality and the university share their talents and expertise to optimise the intellectual project to best serve society.

Pedro Mzileni is a former Regional Executive Committee member of SASCO in Western Region, Eastern Cape.

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