More heat than light – the student uprising in South Africa

Many of the discussions and debates in the current crisis around universities and student fees provide more heat than light.

Much has been said and written about the issues, reasons, demands and dramatic events.  Serious flaws in communication and crisis management have emerged.

Often the focus is on the people rather than the issue.  Everyone is looking for scapegoats – “government failed”, “campus remains un-transformed”, “students should study”.

Some leaders on both sides of the divide are not listening to truly understand, but only to give a slick reply once the other party has stopped speaking.  Difficult and crucial conversations are avoided.

This article is not intended as a quick fix solution.  The primary players involved know about study, running a university and a higher education system.  They should ultimately fix what does not work and what has been broken in recent weeks.

Students want to talk to visible, humble, courageous leaders, not those who use the rhetoric of positional power and institutional processes.   Students are demanding humility and respect – “Do not stand on the stage talking down to us, come sit among us.”  Arrogance is a deadly label and hard to shake.  Some students refuse to talk to institutional leaders and politicians, but will chat on the steps with spiritual leaders and other they trust.

The big problem is government’s inadequate and shrinking budget for higher education, but it is easier to be angry with someone who is closer to you.

Things will not be “normal” on campus for quite a while.  People and relationships have been scarred.  Uncertainty and instability will continue for some time.  External factors such as police action and politics will influence campus life and the academic world, the disruption will impact timeframes, curricula, exams and the media debate will rage far beyond the universities.  And, of course, there is the burning issue of money……….

The threat by Dr. Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education, that if students do not accept a 6% increase he would start a campaign, #Studentsmustfall is a match to a gunpowder keg.  Such statements from leaders who should lead, harden attitudes and complicate the search for solutions.

Joseph Grenny, an American expert on crucial conversations, states that problems in relationships in the workplace (read universities, government) and in people’s personal lives are the result of crucial conversations not being held or being held badly.

Most of our conversations are not decisive.  When you have the triple bill of strong emotions, strong differences of opinion and high stakes, you have a crucial conversation on your hands.

What you do not talk out, you will act out.  Suppressed anger, incomprehension and frustration will be converted into body language, words and actions.  This bedevils a solution.  In recent times we have often seen how parties talk past each other.  Grenny asks:  how many “un-discussable” topics are you avoiding?

It will need a brave, visible, humble leader on campus, in Parliament and in the Union Buildings to defuse tension, engineer progress and ultimately solutions.  Time-consuming institutional processes are not good bargaining chips right now.  Rectors, senior public servants and ministers should obtain a firm mandate from their mandating bodies to negotiate nimbly, creatively and boldly – or place their jobs on the line by, as Shirley MacLaine suggests, going out on a limb to get to the fruit on the branches.

The crisis has escalated all the way to the President, but students, academics and managers live on smouldering campuses where winds of intransigence, more political rhetoric and dragging feet could fan flames about “transformation”, decolonisation”, Africanisation” curricula and students fees.

Grenny says crucial conversation, absolute honesty and absolute respect are especially essential in the face of “acute emotional and political risk”.  If you can create  – in the first thirty seconds! – mutual purpose (I care about your problem) and mutual respect (I care about you) his research shows you have a 97% chance of being heard. “Talk through the truth, not around it.”

Recent events have also shown that contingency and crisis plans often remain on file or hard drives.  They are either not used, kick in too late or are not properly utilised.  Easy access to Parliament, broadcasting rather than talking to people?

Positive progress in many areas is often forgotten or becomes irrelevant in a crisis.  It takes years of painstaking excellence to build a proud brand and far less time to smear it.  Of course it is not fair, but this is what a crisis and emotive slogans do.  You are left wondering whether someone will pull the plane out of its nosedive in time.  That is when you realise good communication is like medical aid.  Do not wait until your speeding to hospital in an ambulance before you buy it.

Protecting people, buildings and equipment, improvising around classes, tests and exams is one thing.  The real test now is for level-headed, able leaders to communicate credibly, persuasively and timeously – both inside and outside the university (academic management and students), Parliament and Government.  Those who have those skills can gain sympathy, support and time.  Other could look back on once successful institutions and departments.

Nowadays the reach of crises often exceed their severity: hundreds, thousands, even millions know about crises through the viral power of social and news media.  The world is a network driven my powerful smartphones capturing and transmitting events.  Often those who post and share do not check facts or other views.  Some see what they believe.  They do not believe what they see.

After most crises those involved heave a sigh of relief and forget about the nightmare.  Debriefing is essential.  What went right? What went wrong? Why? What can we learn from it and how can we improve?

Contingency planning precedes crisis management.  What risks (nightmares) do we face, how likely are they?  Can we avoid, mitigate or manage them if they become a reality? Who has to do what?  The plan should state who informs whom, who leads, the procedures, resources and logistics needed and plan “B” and “C”  – also for your ability to communicate.

An executive with calm and balanced judgment, sound knowledge of the institution, someone who can integrate, coordinate and analyse, should lead the crisis team.  The team should have a communication, technical/subject and legal expert.  The team’s job is to master risk, contingency and crisis management; coordinate, collate and digest information, to advise the ”chief executive” with options, risk and advice.

A sound communication plan should guide actions. This would typically record objectives, key messages, target audiences, communication channels, their use and integration, content, timing and budget. The plan should be flexible, clear and quick to implement.

“Charity begins at home.  Inform your inner stakeholders (such as staff, students) first before telling the outside world.  They are sources of information in the community and could be either informed ambassadors or disconnected critics. Use a single spokesperson in a crisis for consistent messages (The Gupta landing at Waterkloof remains the best illustrative case study).  Tell the truth immediately and facts as they unfold.  Have a reserve team to take over when the first shift is exhausted.

Use available leaders – those without egos who are calm, humble, prepared to listen and learn and will not hesitate to make considered, if imperfect decisions and who accept with gratitude the skills they do not have from their team members.

The crisis has produced positives. Some who disagreed in the past are joining hands.  Children of a rector, politician, businessman and spiritual leader, all well-known figures, are protesting – with the support and admiration of their parents.  If you do not know that you are ill, it is difficult to get well.

Without denying how difficult and different everyone’s problem is, there is wisdom in the lyrics of a song:  “There is a place beyond right and wrong. Let’s meet there.”

Pieter Cronjé was communication director for the Independent Electoral Commission in the 1994 election, later for the City of Cape Town and is now an independent consultant.