Adam Habib on Higher Education's Role in South Africa's Racial and Economic Transformation

22 Aug 2013

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Noting the structural problems inherent in the South African economy and high levels of graduate unemployment, SACSIS’ Fazila Farouk interviews the Vice Chancellor and Principal of WITS University, Prof. Adam Habib about higher education’s role in and contribution to South Africa’s racial and economic transformation.

Habib argues that higher education can fundamentally equalize the playing field if it is not simply the preserve of the rich. However, he contends that the problem of graduate employability is not simply a fault of the universities. It has also got to do with the absorptive capacity of the economy itself, he argues, as he elaborates on the skills gap in South Africa and proposes measures to address it.

Transcript of Interview

FAZILA FAROUK: Welcome to the South African Civil Society Information Service, I’m Fazila Farouk in Johannesburg, coming to you this morning from the campus of WITS University where I am to interview the university’s Vice-Chancellor and principle, Professor Adam Habib about higher education and specifically I’m going to be talking to him about higher education’s role and contribution to transformation in South Africa.

Professor Habib recently assumed his position at WITS University as Vice-Chancellor on the 1st of June. Prior to this, he was at the University of Johannesburg as a Deputy Vice-Chancellor. He is an acclaimed scholar, a professor of politics, and a very well known public intellectual in South Africa.

Welcome to SACSIS, Adam.

ADAM HABIB: Thank you very much.

FAZILA FAROUK: Now Adam when I first approached you for this interview, I said that what I wanted to talk to you about was South Africa’s transformation, higher education’s contribution, particularly, towards bringing about a fair and just society based on racial and economic equality. Is higher education doing enough to challenge the current status quo in the country?

But, before get into to that, one of the things that I read about you on your Wikipedia page is that your major influences are Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky. So, I’d really appreciate it if you’d talk to us a little bit about that first.

ADAM HABIB: Well, I mean that’s interesting. It’s one of the big influences in my life.

I mean, when I was in high school, I became politically involved largely as a result of the 1980 boycotts and soon after qualifying and finishing matric, I became involved with the Unity Movement. And as a result of my involvement with the Unity Movement and then subsequently with the Worker’s Organisation for Socialist Action and subsequently with support work in COSATU, I began to get quite extensively involved with Marxist groups of one kind or the other. So, Marx was a particularly profound influence - particularly in my undergraduate years at university.

Trotsky himself was a large influence -- at least the ideas of Trotsky were profoundly influential. I think he was one of the great Marxist theoreticians of our time -- of the last 100 years anyway. And so, I have been influenced by those ideas.

Obviously…those are not the only ideas I’ve been influence by. I’ve been influence by other ideas - Keynesianism.

Subsequently, I’ve been in management for a number of years and I’ve had to deal with issues far more pragmatically than Marx or Trotsky had to, and so I have been influenced by other ideas. But, those profound…those ideas profoundly about notions of equality, notions of creating a society free of oppression and exploitation. Those ideas stay with me today. I mean the question is, how do we do those things in a contemporary era?

And one of the other influences that have emerged more recently is the notion of Antonio Gramsci and how you work in context where the environment is not facilitative of non-exploitative relations, what kinds of reforms you engage in that will allow for a transformation to happen. And those thoughts clearly influence me in my current role, but also in much of my ideas, in much of my engagement in contemporary South African politics.

FAZILA FAROUK: So then, you know, getting to the nitty gritty of this interview then, what role do you think higher education can play in South Africa’s racial and economic transformation?

ADAM HABIB: Look, I think higher education can play a fundamental role, like education more generally. I think it can fundamentally equalize the playing field, but that assumes two things.

Firstly, it assumes that higher education is not simply the preserve of the rich. That it is also the preserve of the talented across both rich and poor communities. And that is a big thing to suggest because you know higher education takes about 17% of our young people. It absorbs about 17%, which means up to 83% of people are not in higher education and so there’s a big challenge here. Three to five million people are standing (on) street corners with no skills sets, no jobs and no access to higher education. And that’s a big challenge. And so, when Blade Nzimande says that he wants to grow the FET sector I think strategically he’s spot on. I think it’s absolutely…

FAZILA FAROUK: FET? Further Education and Training.

ADAM HABIB: Further Education and Training sector.

And I think he’s spot on. He actually…it’s absolutely central to us being able to affect transformation. Ironically, if he succeeds in doing that South African capitalism can thank the general secretary of the Communist Party, because he would have addressed the Achilles heel of the South African economy, which is its skills deficit. And so, that’s the first big thing is, yes, higher education can play that role but it’s based on the assumption that higher education can take on -- is not simply the preserve of the rich.

The second assumption it makes is that higher education is adequately financed, because what you can provide is access to the broad base of young people. And that’s what the entire continent of Africa did. So in the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s, what happened is we opened up higher education to the vast majority of young people in the society, but what we also did is we never funded it appropriately. And so, what happened on the African continent is you have an implosion of the African university, particularly around structural adjustment. And so, these universities have been utterly destroyed. And now we’ve got to re-establish the academic foundation of the universities.

So, as I said a couple of weeks ago to…in an interview I did with SASCO, there is only one thing I hate more than unequal education and that is bad education because it’s no use providing access to the poor and the marginalised - providing them access to South Africa’s universities and then providing them with a shoddy education in South Africa’s universities - because you’ve not empowered them. In fact, you’ve further disempowered them.

And so for me, yes, I think it can play a fundamental role but it’s dependent on two things. Higher education not becoming the preserve of the rich and secondly it being adequately financed so you can provide a quality higher education.

FAZILA FAROUK: But just in the way that higher education relates to the economy and creating jobs, what we know is that there is a fairly high level of graduate unemployment in the country and the constant refrain we hear is that there’s a skills mismatch between what the economy needs and…what the universities are producing.

Can you comment on that issue?

ADAM HABIB: I think that there’s an element of truth in that but I also think that there…one’s got to be particularly nuanced in trying to understand this.

Firstly, nowhere in the world does a student walk out of university completely trained and completely able to do the job that they are (trained for) because the skills transfer process has two components. First is training. The other is mentorship.

I wouldn’t have been a good researcher had I not had some access to mentorship. Doctors do not become great doctors without some mentorship. And those processes are assumed anywhere in the world. So, that’s the first important thing.

The second thing that…that one has to come to terms with is the absorptive capacity of the economy itself.

So the question is, if you go, for instance, to South East Asia and you look at American banks in South East Asia, American banks often employ social science graduates. They don’t employ necessarily economists in this thing. They employ social science graduates because social science graduates bring a relatively generic set of skills to the responsibilities of the job. And if you want to have an investment bank in China or Hong Kong or India, what you need are people who are adept in trying to acclimatize to local conditions. That kind of nuance in employment creation is not particularly evident in the South African economy.

Now that doesn’t means skills sets are not important and training is not important. I’m not suggesting we take…

FAZILA FAROUK: Why isn’t it taking place over here?

ADAM HABIB: Well partly I think it’s got to do with the very nature of (the) absorptive capacity of our economy. One of the biggest job creators, the mechanisms for employment in the South African economy is not formal sector employment. What is fascinating is most jobs get created not through adverts and newspapers, but though networks. But our own networks as part of our history are racialised. So, that is why even today, white graduates get jobs quicker than black graduates. Not because they’re necessarily better trained - because that might be at one level a possibility given our history - but the more important point is that our networks are racialised and young white kids come from middle class backgrounds. From middle class backgrounds, there are certain networks that extend into the economy and to the corporate sector in ways that black graduates don’t have. Black graduates are much more easily getting jobs in the public sector. That’s why -- because their networks are racialised in that kind of way.

And so...we must…need to understand that…now that does not mean that the universities have nothing to learn. I think the universities can clearly begin to grapple with how their curriculum needs to change. We cannot be teaching in 2013 the way we taught in 1979. And that…there needs to be a learning curve around that.

But, what we must also be responsible more…that the problem of graduate employability is not simply a fault of the universities themselves. It has also got to do with the absorptive capacity the economy itself.

FAZILA FAROUK: So let’s take that issue a little bit further, interrogate it further, and let’s talk about it in relation to the formal and the informal economy. There’s been an international study that was released recently. One of the issues that emerged is that globally in the developing countries, there’s half a billion people, young people, youth, who are employed, but employed in the informal economy. They’re overqualified people and they’re not getting jobs in the right places.

Can you comment on that issue because, you know, it relates to the way that our economies are structured.

ADAM HABIB: Yes - no, no, no, I mean, I think, partially does have to do with that.

One of our big challenges is, firstly let’s be honest, the informal sector is two types of informal sectors. The one part of the informal sector is survivalist. It is not particularly an entrepreneurial set of energies that are flowing into the economy. It is simply, people are desperate and so they make do with whatever little they can gather together to simply survive the ravages of their time. And so, that’s the first part of civil society.

And so often people will give you this kind of romanticized notion of the informal economy, but what they haven’t realized is that a large part of the informal economy is relatively survivalist. And that’s something that you see quite evident in South Africa. People selling apples or bananas in the corner tearoom really eking out a very small existence, a very minuscule existence and what they’re doing is trying to survive the ravages of their time. That’s the first part.

The second is the very nature of our economies have evolved. Our economies have evolved in particular ways. If you look at the South African economy, the South African economy is largely evolved in the service related sectors. Manufacturing has declined.

Clearly the resource based economies have declined…the resource sectors have declined and so the big challenge that has emerged in the service related sectors, is the service related sectors can take a particular type of – absorb a particular type of labour. Now if you have large amounts of people who are semi-skilled or unskilled, their ability to absorb that kind of labour into the service sectors of the economy are limited.

And so what you have is this crazy thing in South Africa where we do have space science and IT and all of that and we’ve got big shortages of labour there, and yet we’ve got an abundance of labour elsewhere. And the real challenge is, well those people who are unemployed, do not have the skills set to start working in the service related sectors of our economy.

That’s the skills gap we have. Now the question is, how do you get around that?

One of the big problems that we have is we don’t have the training base to be able to do that. Don’t assume that you’ve got somebody who doesn’t have literacy or numeracy and you’re going to send them through a three-month training programme and then make them work as IT entrepreneurs. It doesn’t work like that.

You need a whole educational foundation from grade one to grade twelve to be able to (have) the infrastructure that can give you the kinds of training that would allow you to compete in the service sectors of our economy.

And so that’s the big challenge that I think we confront. Now the question is, how do you do this?

Well if you ask me, I think there are three elements that are required.

Element number one is we’ve got to get (the) primary and secondary education system working. We’ve got to get basics down. And that means getting teachers in classrooms, getting students in classrooms and getting basic teaching done.

Too often we want to have world-class policies when we can’t get basics done. We want to build, World Cup, world-class stadiums, but we can’t deliver textbooks to Limpopo. We want to put satellites in space and we can’t get grade one education right. It seems to me, let’s get the basics right.

The South African government is often so intent on being world-class, that it doesn’t focus on being locally responsive - and I think that that’s one of our big challenges.

So for me, get education right.

The second thing that I think that is absolutely crucial in this context is we actually going to have to sequence the nature of our economic intervention. If you’ve got 35-40% of your people unskilled or semi-skilled, you can’t wish them away. They are part of your reality.

That means, you either leave them there and the society explodes at some point or you absorb them into the economy. And the only way you going to absorb them in the economy is if you had sectors that can absorb semi-skilled and unskilled labour.

That means agriculture, it means tourism, it may mean construction, it may mean textiles. So, you need to drive through an industrialisation strategy, some of these sectors that can absorb large amounts of semi-skilled and unskilled labour.

Now if you are required to make that competitive, and if that requires you to close down your borders and have high tariffs, so be it, because I think that that’s the hard trade offs that one has to make. But if you don’t do that, you are in trouble. And it seems to me that simultaneously as you do that, you also got to grow other sectors of the economy, which are your service related sectors, IT, space science, all of those kinds of things – so that you don’t leave the graduates of the university sector out without possibilities.

What I would do once you actually absorb these lower skilled and semi-skilled people in labour absorptive sectors – what I would do is cut a deal with them that says, we can’t give a great job, but we’ll give you a job. But we’ll fix the education system so that your children are transformed and have the ability to compete on the higher-level sectors of the economy.

And you want to learn about this?

Go and learn from the apartheid state.

The apartheid state did exactly this for the Afrikaner community. It absorbed them in large amounts of labour absorptive sectors and gave their children the opportunity to be the chartered accountants and engineers of the future.

So you look at the Afrikaner community in the Witwatersrand in the 50’s and 60’s and where were they? They were in the mining industry, they were in the railway industry – they were in all of those industries. Look at where their children are 30, 40 years later. They are the chartered accountants, engineers, doctors of a completely new economy.

And that ability of sequencing our economic intervention has to be thought through. And I don’t think we’ve managed to understand the complexity. It’s not easy; I accept that. But we haven’t dealt with that complexity – and the reason is because we haven’t understood that hard trade-offs have to be made. Effectively, I think we made hard choices…

FAZILA FAROUK: And when you say, “we haven’t,” you talk about government?

ADAM HABIB: I think government and I think the economic entrepreneurs; I think the CEO’s (at) the apex of our economy – both, I mean there’s often the argument that there’s a lack of leadership at government, and I think that there’s an element of truth in that.

I think the president hasn’t shown the kind of leadership that one requires to bridge the divides between different factions in his own ruling party or within the economy as a whole.

But I also think that CEOs have not understood what it means to build a pact. So everybody…if you ask any CEO or any economist, do you want a social pact - yes? What should be the basis of the social pact? Get rid of the LRA (Labour Relations Act). That’s not imagination. It means that you’re never prepared to put anything…you want a social pact only on your terms. That’s not how social pacts get created.

So I think there’s a lack of imagination on how you create pacts. How you create – you bridge divides. And so I think there’s a lack of leadership both at the level of the economy and at the level of the state.

I also think, I must say, there’s been a lack of leadership in civil society itself.

I think, we have a situation where the union movement are shocking at the moment. The conundrums that are emerging, the escapades that are being played out in Cosatu, for instance, is shocking from any perspective. It shows that the leadership have become embroiled in factional battles. They have lost their focus, and the emergence of AMCU (Association of Mining and Construction Union) as a serious competitor in the platinum belt, has in part got to do with the failures of Cosatu itself. And that’s something that they need to start grappling with, if they want to be truly serious about servicing the poor and the marginalised.

But I also think that civil society activists need to start thinking with greater imagination.

I argued that I’ve been influenced by Marx and Trotsky, but I didn’t get stuck at Marx and Trotsky. I think that you have to operate within the realities of your own context. And too often, I think, progressive activists have formulaic solutions that are completely abstracted from the sense of realities. And that’s what I think we’ve got to grapple with – is how do you operate within the realities of today?

You can’t advocate for, if you like, the socialist world, without understanding that we do live in the neoliberal economy and you’ve got to grapple with effecting reforms. That have to be…

So I do think that there’s a crisis of leadership and I think that that crisis of leadership extends across the class divide.

FAZILA FAROUK: Adam I want to touch on one of the things you talked about. I mean, you talked about the fact that we don’t have sufficient skills to service the higher service sectors of the economy. At the same time, you’re talking about developing a sector that can absorb lower levels of skilled people.

But there’s a gap in between there as well that I’d like to talk about, and those are skills that are needed to nurture and build society: our doctors, our nurses, our teachers, our social workers. We have a country where a lot of people are very deprived and need support. What are higher education institutions doing in terms of addressing that need in our society? You know, are we churning out doctors who won’t go and do aesthetic medicine, but who will go and join the public sector? How are we instilling those kinds of values in our graduates?

ADAM HABIB: Look I think that that’s right. I think we are beginning to try and do some things. I mean you come to WITS medical school now; the vast majority of students are black. That would never have existed a couple of years ago. You would have said that a vast majority of our graduates were leaving the country. That no longer happens. The vast majority of our graduates remain in the country.

Now that creates all kinds of challenges and I know that WITS is not alone in this. If you go to UCT or Stellenbosch, there’s a much greater diversity of people entering things like the medical school or the social work divisions or social work departments, etc., So I think that there (are) some significant shifts that are happening. There is, however, a problem…

FAZILA FAROUK: Is it people voluntarily shifting into that or the universities creating space to take more.

ADAM HABIB: Well, it’s partly both. I think it’s partly the…our numbers in medical school have increased quite dramatically. But at the same time, there is political pressure. There (are) people beginning to apply, etc.,

I do think, however, that there are two challenges around this. The first is there is no doubt, there is change beginning to happen -- but as much as the graduates come out, most of them go into the public sector and within two years say, “Uh-uh, I can’t handle it.” There has to be the ability of the public sector to say we are prepared to create a climate and an environment where we are prepared to welcome people, to create an enabling working environment.

You cannot create an enabling working environment when needles are not available in hospitals, when gloves are not available in hospitals, when aspirin is not available in hospitals.

The shocking level of maladministration in public hospitals is something that is a travesty of justice, by the way. And it is a travesty of justice that government must take responsibility for. That often, it’s been so focused on trying to get the racial profile right that it forgets about skills sets. It’s shocking that people do not have skills sets as well.

Now I think there’s attempts to resolve this. And I think Aaron Motsoaledi has done an incredible amount of work to try and fix up systems and I think we’ve partnered him extensively on one such attempt do so. And I think that there are attempts to try and fix this up.

But when a CEO…when doctors say to a CEO of a hospital, “There’s no aspirin.” And he says to them, “Well, what must I do about it?” That’s a shocking level of maladministration and that person needs to be fired. Not molly coddled – they have to be fired.

Your job is to make sure that those medicines are available and you need…your job is to create and enabling environment. And if you can’t create that enabling environment, then its time that you packed up and leave.

And I don’t care what colour you are or which party you belong to. You move if you cannot create an enabling environment. That I think must be a strong message that goes out to CEOs and others in public hospitals.

I think what is also important is that too often…there’s been a wonderful study by Karl von Holdt on why public hospitals don’t work. And he mentions how there is a dynamic in the state to cover up where people are just simply managerially incompetent – and that covering up is really about face saving, because what these are, are black managers.

I’m sorry I think that that’s unacceptable. You’re in violation of our constitution. It’s treasonous, I would argue, for you to cover up for somebody who is not doing well - because - simply on the basis of their colour.

So, I think that there needs to be a serious wake up call. That those violent service delivery protests are a message to government that get your act together. That service delivery should not be subsumed under the target of non-racial…demographic diversity.

Now I want to be clear, I think you can increase your efficiencies and transform in racial terms and I’ve worked in three institutions in the last ten years and every one of them has increased its…

FAZILA FAROUK: Academic institutions?

ADAM HABIB: Academic institutions, and everyone has improved its demographic diversity and simultaneously increased its throughput. And increased its research output. These are not mutually exclusive goals. But the way, in many ways, government departments have implemented it is that they’ve made it mutually exclusive goals and that’s unacceptable. It’s treasonous. And I think that that’s something that we must send a very strong message out.

So for me, that’s the second big component – is you need to create an enabling environment in the public sector to absorb them.

Having said that, I think that our graduates must learn. Everyone of them in our graduation is meant to stand up and take the Hippocratic Oath. But how often do they truly internalise what that means? How often are graduates willing to go and work in rural areas? How often are we prepared to create…to really speak to the very core of what this profession is about?

And so it seems to me that there we should be thinking about cultivating a sense of citizenship – that we need to do more of that. We need to do more about the fact that our…in the middle of Johannesburg, you should be coming out of a medical degree with Zulu or Sesotho sa Leboa because that’s the clients you’re going to be serving and that’s the language they talk. How can you truly do…undertake your job, if you can’t communicate with your very patients?

And so I think there’s much to learn and I think that there’s much to do. But we have to start learning this. And partly, it requires putting in resources and having the courage to make around resources. You can’t, as a government, say to us, “Teach Zulu, teach Sesotho sa Leboa.” Double the numbers and then never increase the budget. It doesn’t work like that. We have to start thinking about these kinds of things.

FAZILA FAROUK: Professor Habib thank you very much for joining us at SACSIS.

And thank you to our viewers and listeners for joining us at the South African Civil Society Information Service and remember if you want more social justice news and analysis, you can get that at

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23 Aug

What a Pleasure!

What a pleasure to listen to such a rational discussion from a VC. Inspiring.

It is heartbreaking that UKZN has been destroyed in the way that it has. I'm sure that anyone at UKZN who can, will be applying for jobs at WITS.

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