James Pendlebury and Lucien van der Walt, 2006, “Neoliberalism, Bureaucracy and Resistance at Wits University,” in Richard Pithouse (ed), Asinamali: university struggles in post-apartheid South Africa, Africa World Press: Trenton, NJ/ Asmara, Eritrea, pp.79-92.
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This paper outlines the neo-liberal restructuring of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg (Wits) in the 2000s, of which process more can be read in the post here. It also provides a partial account – but one of the few available – on the struggles to stop that restructuring from the late 1990s.
The paper also stresses, at one level, how this ruling class restructuring project was shaped by attempts to cut spending, centralise power and weaken unions – thus, shifting the balance of class forces towards management after the struggles of the 1990s.
An immediate effect of massive outsourcing to private companies from 2000 was the loss of 600+ jobs, and effectively breaking the power of the National Union of Health, Education and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU). Affiliated to the Congress of South African Trade Unions, NEHAWU had an impressive history of struggle in the universities.
It is a little known but incontestable known fact that NEHAWU provided a very large number of those present in ‘student’ protests at Wits in the 1990s, not least because it was far better organised than structures like the South African Students Congress (SASCO). With outsourcing, the bulwark of resistance and workers power was broken, with bargaining decentralised from Wits-as-employer to bargaining separately with each of the at least six outside contractors – each of which was largely unionised. NEHAWU’s failure to develop an affective strategy to halt – or reverse – outsourcing made the situation even worse.
But at another level, this paper stresses how neo-liberal restructuring at Wits was shaped by the institution’s own organisational dynamics – specifically, neo-liberalism had to be implemented by a fragmented and often inefficient bureaucracy, that was by no means the sort of business-style system that management wanted. As the neo-liberal project was implemented, that is, it was (re)shaped by the larger was in which the means of administration were organised at Wits.
The result was that many elements of Wits 2001 – for example, a university that could rapidly adjust to market demands, or that could consistently increase research output – never emerged. On the contrary, systems remained sluggish, and often became more inefficient; unforeseen consequences included ever-growing administrative demands on academics’ time, as reporting upwards kept increasing while administrative support declined. In practice, this meant that increasing numbers of slightly different reports had to be submitted to a proliferating number of centres, while many basic elements – for example, registering students correctly, or arranging the marking of Masters theses – had to be redone several times before the system actually did the job properly.
So, while this chapter stresses the impact of neo-liberal policies, it also sought to avoid some of the problems that dog quite a lot of radical analyses of South Africa. These include a narrow economism, in which everything is explained by reference to a simple and single neo-liberal economic logics; and functionalism, in which restructuring the actions of structures like the Wits bureaucracy are assumed to neatly ‘function’ to carry out plans for management.