Should all our #institutionsfall?

2015 and 2016 are arguably the Years of the Fallists in South Africa. From #rhodesmustfall to #datamustfall, there was a plethora of social media, and real world, campaigns calling for a radical break from the status quo.

It is very easy to argue that its merely populist elements raising their heads, or even more ominously, the emergence of a fascist element. Dennis Davis gives a sober warning about fallists, particularly academics, that support ‘disruption for its own sake, which in the current environment has violent undertones coated in warped identity politics.’

But to believe that this is a purely South African phenomenon is incorrect. Indeed the overall situation is a lot more nuanced than popular media would have us believe. These protests are taking place in the context of a global social shift. If you pay attention to the events around world, there is growing unrest with the status quo and people generally don’t trust institutions, particularly government. Rachel Botsman gave a TED talk about how people are increasingly losing trust in traditional institutions whilst simultaneously putting their trust in unknown entities and people.  In a recent Gallup poll, they have found Americans trust in their government and its related institutions are at an all time low. Many would argue that this distrust underpins Donald Trump’s meteoric rise. In South Africa, and rest of the continent, the picture is not very different.

In recent times, no institution has faced the level of upheaval than our universities which are at the coalface of the anger against the prevailing socio-economic system. A university, as some would argue, is a microcosm of society. Therefore, understanding and dealing with what is going on there, serves as a good basis for creating solutions on a larger scale.

Coming back to the South African context, often on social media, and in the real world context  people ascribe nefarious intent to heads of institutions but gladly follow mysterious people or processes. But does this mean that all traditional institutions, including universities, should fall? I don’t believe so. What I do believe its that there needs to be a drastic re-ordering of the our institutions if they have any hope of survival.

One of the key contours that should guide our re-ordering of the prevailing social milieu is ensuring the appropriate inclusion of women. It is one thing to decolonise the curriculum and ensure properly funded access for poor. But, without a concerted effort to ensure that women don’t get left behind, at any level, there can easily be a roll back towards a more intense patriarchy. We can already see the pockets of this in the fallist movements, where women and non hetero-normative activists, although being literally on the frontline, have been increasingly and sometimes violently side-lined. We can’t allow this to become the new status quo.

Without a doubt is that change is coming. Within our circle of influence we have an unprecedented opportunity to work towards building a just and equitable society. However, we have to be conscious where we place our trust. I would end with a quote for you to ponder from George Orwell’s 1984, which admittedly may be considered a bit subversive: “power is not a means; it’s an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship”.

Leading while bleeding

A little while ago I attended a women’s conference at my church and one of the speakers talked about leading while bleeding.  The title of her talk really resonated with me even though the imagery is rather unfortunate given the brutal scenes from the #feesmustfall protests.

To my mind ‘leading while bleeding’ speaks to having the ability to meet your objectives even when the situation is far from ideal. For instance, there is a young man in our department who shows an incredible amount of grit. He comes from a very difficult background and has managed to get himself through university, with the help of bursaries, till masters’ level; the highest education level in his family is grade 10. Moreover, he does not have access to the basic amenities that many of us take for granted and often has to do without food but the hunger to change his family circumstances drives him to succeed. The best way to describe him is someone who has mastered self-leadership; this trait is important if you ever have the hope of successfully leading other people.

Self-leadership is one of the key components of not only getting through your academic journey but also getting through life. Andrew Bryant and Ana Kazan describe self-leadership as “…the practice of intentionally influencing our thinking, feeling, and behaviors to achieve our objectives” (Bryant & Kazan, 2012: 13). Your situation may not be a dire as the young man that I depicted but we all have challenges that we have to overcome in order to be successful. I believe that the choice to be intentional and fully conscious of your purpose is the one thing that would keep you rooted when life’s journey gets too difficult.

A few more lessons that I have learned from other people and reflecting on my circumstances:

  1. If life hits you with a bazooka, keep moving even if all you are doing is belly crawling.
  2. Do a little bit everyday towards your goals even if its only 10 minutes
  3. There is always somebody who is smarter, better organised and wealthier than you and that is OK. Your job is to figure out your life’s purpose and achieve it. What other people have is not your business.
  4. You can lead while you bleed but know when you need to stop, get help and continue when things are better.

Pursuing a post-graduate degree, especially a PhD, is difficult. The difficulty is not necessarily the degree but the fact that life does not come to a halt. I end off with this: “[s]uccess often comes, not through skill or ambition or even ingenuity, but through simple, old-fashioned guts” (Martin 2011).