The Running Commentary

Student crisis – leadership failures all round


Crisis ahead warning signWiser folk than me have spoken into the student crisis that has beset the universities in South Africa, this then is my view on a sub theme of the protests, namely lack of leadership.  I believe this situation best illustrates leadership in crisis on all sides.

Lets begin with the definition of leadership and what I believe is the lens through which this crisis should be viewed. A basic definition of leadership then:  an act or instance of leading; guidance; direction and is the premise on which I base my observations.  Some of you at this point will want to disagree, but do continue.

Fundamentally this student crisis is devoid of strong leadership on all sides of the argument.  The student leadership lacks the ability to control their supporters and bring them together in a unified manner. The police (and private security firms) lack the leadership required when dealing with a volatile situation. The administrators lack the leadership which can decisively deal with the petitions and requests presented. Finally, the government (who I believe ultimately should be held accountable for this situation) lacks the leadership to handle the crisis in any shape or manner.

We knew they were coming

We knew that these protests were coming, this is a fact, because the students had already articulated their demands during the last set of protests.  Therefore any attempt to pass increases through without consultation was bound to be met with anger and frustration.  As we see now, this happened.  The leadership at the institutions that attempted this must therefore stand up and take account for this.  This fundamentally flawed approach is what set the proverbial “cat amongst the pigeons”

Now, let me add that I do not think the institutions had a choice.  Budgets are effectively finite. The level of funding from government has in fact decreased to institutions of higher learning and therefore they needed to pass on the increases. This would then ensure that they could maintain their levels of delivery. They simply hoped that nothing would come of it, unfortunately for them, things went downhill and fast.

Student response

The next failure is the response of the student leadership.  They mobilised, nothing wrong with this, but then they resorted to violence.  Now I hear some of the leadership say it was “out of our control” or “the police started it”.  These arguments while perhaps valid, never-the-less point to a lack of leadership ability.  The truth is that if there was true leadership, their would be respect and respect for all elements of the process.  So ultimately I do not believe that the student leadership is blameless in all of this.  They lack a unified approach and by unified I mean the ability to bring their constituents together as a single non violent voice.

Police and security – instigators or reactors?

Law and order, both state (in the form of the police) and private sector have significant leadership failures as well.  I hold a contrary view to many who claim that they are instigators. I think that they are simply poor reactors.  My case is made when you study each of the impact moments.  The common thread throughout, is that they are not in control of the situation from the beginning. They allow the actions of the few volatile students to escalate to a situation that they are then unable to manage. They are then forced to introduce stun grenades, rubber bullets and water cannons. These cause significant injuries and create a tension that leads to further damage to life and property as the protesters vent their anger on others.

It is common cause that when you use violence to suppress a situation you can expect violence in return, a fact I think true for both sides of the argument.

Government absent

The ultimate leadership challenge is that government is not seen in the situation.  The president and his cabinet are not leading the change and therefore are not leading the possible outcomes. The creation of the ministerial task team was slow in the making and in my view they have not offered any significant comment on the crisis.  We cannot say, students should go back and study, when we have not offered timelines to meet the requests presented.  Ultimately government will need to meet the request for free education for all, otherwise we will see these troubles each year.

I believe that rational South Africans acknowledge that free education for all can be delivered, but not in one foul swoop.  I believe that government has the opportunity, still, to offer a timeline for change, which will see access to education for all students who wish to study, without the constraints of finance.  This goal, in and of itself, is not just admirable but actually is attainable in our life times.


One of the characteristics of a good leader is humility. By default then, one of the characteristics of a successfully organised group is humility.  I think that this situation could do with a great deal of humility, on all sides, as we seek to see a resolution that ultimately benefits South Africa.  If the proponents on each side could bring themselves to truly dialogue, I think the result may be simply brilliant for the generations to come.

My views only, hopefully helpful to some.

crisiseducationpoliticsSouth AfricaStudents

Mike • October 27, 2016

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