Albert Camus. Picture: AFP
Albert Camus. Picture: AFP

THE nation should thank Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib and Rhodes vice-chancellor Sizwe Mabizela for the reasonable tone of their co-authored note published on Wits’s website condemning the violence at SA’s universities.

The condemnation of violence needs saying and it needs repeating, but it is the reasonableness of the vice-principals’ appeal that South Africans will remember, for it will be among the last. When the gormless mobs have their way, and they will, we will lament the end of our freedom to make reasonable, if feeble, appeals to solipsistic fools.

The vice-chancellors also blame the unfettered behaviour of their students on small groups that are supposed to have "hijacked" the protests and who are using "increasingly violent methods to show anger at what they call the systemic oppression of black people". And they regret that "the modus operandi of these groups has changed from the broad movement that united across race, class, culture and gender lines, to one that is politicised, downright violent and even racist".

Even racist? Now there is an understatement of the conditions prevalent.

The principals are appealing to parents to get their children back in line, which is generally a good idea. But it seems a bit late for that. Some of the protesters are rather long in the tooth to be hauled over the knee for a good spanking. Chumani Maxwele, the mature student who still plays with faeces, comes to mind. Perhaps the parents of those delinquent youths should be held to account, and that should go beyond paying bail for a son arrested in connection with violent protests. Perhaps the charge against the parents should be that of recklessly permitting the arrested development of their children.

Our principals do not refer to any such cause of violent behaviour but, instead, propose as remedy that civil society should act. They provide little detail except for seeking support for the #NotInOurName Twitter campaign and calling on the private sector "to better fund our students, to partner with government and universities so that we can collectively generate the high-level skills and knowledge we need to move our economy forward".

That may sound like the usual fundraising line one might expect from the sanctimoniously not-for-gain sector of society, but there may be more in it now that our democracy project is falling apart. The universities’ greatest weakness is their dependence on the government. It is because they are co-opted that their response to violence is so feeble; it is because they lack autonomy and the freedom to solve their own problems that they are in such a bind.

If the government were a benevolent entity, its role in higher education might have been tolerable, but with our lot, any more funding can only mean further co-option, a tighter grip and the inevitable march to fascism. The poor students caught up in this mess are mistaken that they are in revolt as a natural state of existence, what Camus would laud as defiance of absurdity. The tragedy is that the protesters’ actions are the very instruments of their enslavement, noble intentions notwithstanding. By reducing a legitimate demand for access to education to the banalities of class and race they have handed an easy victory to the rising fascists in our midst.

The fact is, industry needs young educated people if it is to be sustainable, but co-opted universities cannot deliver them. The classical model of tertiary education in SA is failing, and it is up to the private sector to redesign the institutions of the future. The question students must answer is where to place their trust.

• Blom is a freelance journalist. He likes to flyfish