REPORT [+PDF] Adler, Bezuidenhout, Buhlungu, Kenny, Omar, Ruiters, van der Walt, 2000, “The Wits University Support Services Review – A Critique”

The Wits University Support Services Review: a Critique (2000), paper prepared by Glenn Adler, Andries Bezuidenhout, Sakhela Buhlungu, Bridget Kenny, Rachmat Omar, Greg Ruiters, and Lucien van der Walt.  Presented to the Council of the University of the Witwatersrand in June 2000.

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The document above was collectively produced by the Concerned Academics Group at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in 2000:  the Group included Glenn Adler, Andries Bezuidenhout, Sakhela Buhlungu, Bridget Kenny, Rachmat Omar, Greg Ruiters, and yours truly, Lucien van der Walt. It was supported by the Congress of South African Trade Unions, and for many years, was hosted on the COSATU website.

It was just one initiative in a range of actions designed to try and halt the university’s proposed outsourcing (in effect, privatisation) of support service functions, including catering, cleaning, and grounds, affecting 600 workers. This programme was summed up in a Support Services Review, which was then voted on by Council: the aim of the Critique was to make a case against the outsourcing at Council, since the Review had already been pushed through Senate. 

The outsourcing was part of the neo-liberal Wits 2001 programme, which aimed at cutting costs, raising student fees, and commercialising research through partnerships with the state and big business.  While some of the Critique’s arguments centred on issues of social justice – for example, issues of job insecurity, wage cuts and union-busting – others highlighted additional problems arising from outsourcing, including the difficulty of coordinating separate cost-centres  contracted out to separate companies, and a general lack of accountability by private providers.

The Critique also demonstrated that management claims that the support service outsourcing was shaped by an in-depth and fair process of consultation with support staff were nonsense: alternative proposals for in-house, pro-worker restructuring were ignored; staff concerns were swept aside to the extent that the outsourcing was presented (disgracefully) in official documents as providing a ‘career opportunity’  for workers (!)

I should add a few points  here on the Critique’s fate:

1) academics in support of Wits 2001 programme sought to discredit the Critique, and even went to the extent of presenting a sort of petition to the June 2000 meeting of Council, where the Critique was presented. There was certainly a large bloc of academic support for the outsourcing, often motivated by naive hopes that management would restrict its attacks to support workers: course, it didn’t, instead introducing unelected Executive Deans, rationalising and centralising departments and Faculties,  marginalising Senate, and closing and freezing posts;

2) the University was hellbent on its neo-liberal restructuring, and forced it through despite  (as the Critique demonstrated) serious problems with outsourcing. This was (and here I disagreed with certain of my co-authors of the Critique, as well as with certain COSATU people) because management was undertaking the Wits 2001 programme gladly not reluctantly, and with the blessing of the African National Congress (ANC) government; nor did it implement Wits 2001 because it was racist or anti-‘transformation.’  The senior management was by this stage controlled by ANC-linked people; the ANC was formally committed to fiscal austerity plus commercialisation and privatisation in universities, and the neo-liberal restructuring of Wits was part of a wave of attacks on workers via outsourcing across South African higher education; Wits 2001  was part of a whole series of neo-liberal attacks in all sectors.

3) Wits 2001 went ahead, with the predictable results: hundreds were retrenched, and workers re-employed in services like hostel / residence cleaning found their wages halved, their benefits largely removed, and their workloads doubled: perfectly predictable in operations characterised largely by exploitation through absolute surplus value. ANC-led ‘transformation’ created not a  ‘People’s University,’  as anti-apartheid forces had sought, but instead defeated workers. COSATU’s affiliate in universities, the strongly pro-ANC National Union of Health, Education and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU) – in which I was then active – lacked a clear strategy to address university restructuring besides protests and court cases on procedural grounds.  NEHAWU hardly undertake the confrontation with the ANC that was required, and was defeated on almost every single campus. A legal case against Wits, for example, ended with an undisclosed settlement, and all jobs lost.

4) However, the struggle against Wits 2001 – through the Concerned Academics Group,  through NEHAWU, through the Wits Crisis Committee, in all of which I was heavily involved – had one happy outcome. Links were made between the anti-Wits 2001 struggle and the struggle against Johannesburg Municipality’s neo-liberal iGoli 2001 plan, leading to the formation in mid-2000 of an important movement, the Anti-Privatisation Forum.

Meanwhile, click here for a PDF of the The Wits University Support Services Review: a Critique.

About Lucien van der Walt
I teach at Rhodes University, the Eastern Cape. I’m South African, born and bred. I am currently also involved in union education and have a background in social movement and left-wing activism, the Workers’ Library and Museum, the Anti-Privatisation Forum, and the National Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU). I’ve presented papers at more than 120 conferences and workshops, published in key journals like 'Capital and Class' and 'Labor History', have co-edited 3 journal specials (these on global labour history, African labour, and unions in the Global South), and written well over 130 other articles, papers and entries. I was Southern Africa editor for the 2009 'International Encyclopaedia of Revolution and Protest' (Blackwell). My focus has been on South Africa, but I have also done research in Zambia and Zimbabwe. I won the 2008 international 'Labor History' thesis prize, and the 2008/2009 Council for the Development of Social Science Research prize for best African dissertation, for my PhD thesis on South African anarchism, syndicalism and black militants. I have several books, including 'Negro e Vermelho: anarquismo, sindicalismo revolucionário e pessoas de cor na África Meridional nas décadas de 1880-1920,' 'Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940: the praxis of national liberation, internationalism, and social revolution' (co-edited with Steve Hirsch, Brill, 2010/ 2014) and 'Black Flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism' (co-written with Michael Schmidt, AK Press 2009).

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