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Conversation With – Adam Habib

2016 Retreat – Opening Dinner Conversation

Professor Adam Habib and Vuyiswa Sidzumo at 2016 Retreat Opening Session

The 2016 Annual Retreat opening dinner featured Professor Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor of the South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand in conversation with Vuyiswa Sidzumo, Director of the Mott Foundation’s South Africa office and Chair of the AGAG Steering Committee. 

Prof. Habib described student uprisings nationwide over such issues as tearing down a statue of founder Cecil John Rhodes – who left a legacy of oppression – and government efforts to increase university tuition fees dramatically. The uprisings, which were the result of widespread feelings of alienation, served to stimulate wider community debate over the nature of political protests.

Despite the end of apartheid, Black South African students are still feeling alienated from the university’s culture that they believe did not recognize their interests. Seen in the context of affirmative action, the protests attacked the irony of universities which are supposed to foster open learning and fight inequality but which deny some people and professors access. If the university’s goal is to combat financial inequality, then raising fees that exclude poorer students only serves to deny the working and middle classes access to better-paying futures.

The protests and sit-ins shut down the national university system for 15 days last October. While the philanthropy sector can question the tactics that were used, the legitimacy of the students’ demands remains unquestioned.

The protesters themselves were surprised at their success, and many lessons were learned from the experience. University administrators had known for years that the current system was unsustainable so the fact that the protests occurred did not surprise them but they were not prepared for their scale. Habib met with the student groups and saw this as a demonstration of social activism that academicians write about but often do not have an opportunity to see first-hand and internalize.

The demonstrations were indicative of rising social inequalities that lead not only to economic disparities but also to debilitating political polarization. Unless we address that polarization we will not be able to adequately address the social pathology of our time. Philanthropy can play a major role as an innovator in bringing together the political and non-governmental sectors in partnership, but it needs a more coherent agenda. He urged philanthropy organizations to partner with the state to leverage resources that can enable effective programs taken to scale.  He cautioned against the tendency of philanthropy to circumvent government, pointing out that if philanthropy’s goal is social justice it must demand accountability from the state which requires that it get involved with the country’s political leaders.

Despite the “romance” of social movements, there can also be a “dark side” when protesters do bad things: some protests turned violent with students burning buildings. “I worry when people romanticize the idea of violence,” he said. “Any social struggle anywhere in the world that crosses the boundary of what are the legitimate rights of people can manifest itself in socially irresponsible ways with unintended consequences. A country that only burns and kills creates the culture of a violent state and it becomes a violent cycle.”

“You must be clear that means are important to the end: too many activists lose their sense of humanity in their struggle for humanity.”

Read Prof. Habib’s article in the Daily Maverick (1/18/2016) to learn more