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Adam Habib, New SOAS Director: ‘Don’t confuse contrary with violence’

By Will Durrant, BA History

SOAS has named Professor Adam Habib its new Director. According to the Wits Vuvuzela, Habib has been ‘harshly criticised for his management’ of several student protests in his seven years at the South African university. We asked him what the future holds for SOAS.

I’ve heard that some outsiders call SOAS the ‘scary college’. Are you finding the prospect scary at all?

No! I mean it’s an interesting institution. I know it well, partly because we’ve had partnerships between Wits [Witswatersrand] and SOAS before. I know it because it’s got a substantive reputation in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. And I’m a political scientist by trade, so I know some of the scholars there. Wits also has a substantive academic and political reputation. This is the place where Nelson Mandela was. This is the place where Robert Sobukwe taught. It’s got a long anti-apartheid history, and if you imagine the United States, Wits is like Harvard and Berkeley rolled into one, and in a lot of ways SOAS has a similar reputation. It’s a humanities university but nevertheless it has an outstanding reputation.

“The way you fight in the middle of the 1920s with fascist movements is very different to how you fight in the 1960s in liberal America, which is very different to how you fight in Hong Kong in 2020. So context matters!”

SOAS pointed out that you increased Wits’ research output and student numbers. What are your plans to ensure that SOAS survives and thrives through its financial crisis?

The worst thing that an institution can do when it’s in crisis is to imagine that it’s only going to be cutting. When you simply cut expenditure, you only create an enormous amount of demoralisation. That doesn’t mean that you can’t and mustn’t make difficult decisions. You have to! So, if you can get income growing, then the ability to contain expenditure emerges, and more importantly, you don’t make this a zero-sum game. The question is, ‘how do you get the balance right?’ I’ve always held the view, and I said this in the book I wrote about #FeesMustFall, the issue of social justice is important, but unless you can balance [that] with financial sustainability, you compromise social justice. That’s the trick, balancing social justice with financial sustainability. So long as you’re making money, everybody will leave you alone, but it’s when you’re in trouble that they come after you, and we’ve got to get out of trouble so people leave us to do the kind of things that we need to do.

Does that mean that you’re expecting people to come after you when you arrive at SOAS?

Well, I mean, I think that part of the decisions that need to be made are: what are the student numbers on some programmes? Is there a way to grow these numbers, and how? If you’re not reaching much, and you’re not researching much, what then is your contribution to the place? Because it’s all of our individual contributions that make the collective impact we want. I think we need an honest conversation and say to people, ‘Look, I accept! I wish the world were a better place, but whether you like it or not, in the UK, there aren’t [substantial] subsidies for humanities programmes.’ In that context, how do we make various programmes effective enough, self-sufficient enough, and how do we achieve the collective financial sustainability that we require? We have to see which parts of SOAS we can grow, but there will also be parts where we have to say, ‘this programme no longer achieves its ends’, or, ‘there are too many people in this department’. I don’t like that, but sometimes we have to make those hard choices, otherwise you imperil the institution itself. Nobody in their right mind would want to imperial the institution as it makes a phenomenal contribution to the UK and to the world.

On a related strand, the government’s attitude towards the humanities also endangers SOAS. In the proposed points-based immigration system, humanities PhDs are worth half the amount than their science counterparts. What would you say to the Home Office about valuing PhDs from SOAS?

I think there’s a problem in how the British Government, and frankly governments around the world regard the humanities. I think that what people are not recognising is that all of the challenges of our world, whether it’s climate change, or renewable energy, or social and political polarisation, will require a humanities element in their resolution. To resolve the global challenges of our world, you need an integration of science, technology, medical science, social sciences, and the humanities. You can’t resolve any of those problems without that integration.

I’m interviewing you amid major strike action at UK universities. Lecturers are facing cuts to their pensions and have faced pay cuts of up to 20% since 2009. I wondered if you had a message for striking lecturers?

I don’t know enough about this. I’ve been watching it from afar, but what is interesting is that it’s systemic, not institutionally based, unlike in South Africa, where pensions schemes are defined systematically. I think that … what’s beginning to happen is that recent onerous cuts tend to impact the lifestyles of academics. They impact retirement prospects, and that erodes the possibility of academia being a career trajectory for many young people. I think we do need to engage public policy in a way that allows us to transform it. There is legitimacy in social mobilisation. I said this in my book! But social mobilisation does not have to be violent! Social mobilisation in a democracy is most effective in a democracy, when it puts millions of people on the streets. I would also like our humanities, I might add to be focused on solutions and recording challenges.

When it comes to engaging public policy, we have a programme in the UK called Prevent which a lot of people at SOAS find overbearing and oppressive. Will you use your position to protect students who are experiencing problems with Prevent?

I will always rise to the defence of students and staff within our institution, even students and staff with whom I don’t share views. For me, when I am in an institution, if there are students and staff who come under attack unfairly, it seems to me that one must always emerge as a collective community in their defence.

Does that mean that we can put to rest concerns students at SOAS have with the #FeesMustFall protest at Wits in 2016?

I’ve written a book on this and it would be useful if people actually engaged [with] the book! … Firstly, I come from an activist background, a background where I was arrested as a political activist. I’ve been deported from the US from what we suspect was ‘anti-war activity’. In a sense, I have an appreciation for arbitrary security policy probably more than most people in the world because I have been a victim of it in very real ways. The second thing is that I am very clear that when we made that decision in 2016 to call the police, we had 17 attempts at arson. We effectively had one-and-a-half billion worth of infrastructure burned around the country. We didn’t have any at Wits, but we had over one-billion worth of infrastructure burnt. We had people pulled out of classes and assaulted by small groups of protestors who insisted that, ‘if there shall be no education, there shall be no education at all.’ Are you saying that I should not have brought in security and allowed people to be assaulted? Prior to making that decision, I took a poll of students, and 78% said to me, while we support the struggle, we desperately need to complete our degree, else we don’t finish, don’t get jobs, my family will starve, or my brother or sister cannot come to university next year because nobody can pay for it. In that real context… Are people saying that I should have allowed poor people to not complete their degrees, that I should have allowed public infrastructure to burn? One of the greatest lessons of radical theory is that context is important!

Don’t ignore context, Will! The way you fight in the middle of the 1920s with fascist movements is very different to how you fight in the 1960s in liberal America, which is very different to how you fight in Hong Kong in 2020. So context matters! I’m not going to give you an answer which makes people happy and say, ‘it’s not going to happen.’ I’m going to give you a complex answer!

So, you won’t bring the police on campus, whether that’s via Prevent or due to protest?

I have never ever brought police onto campus without violence being evident. Here’s the question! If there were a fascist party marching onto SOAS with 5,000 activists, with bombs in their hands, would I demand that police come and defend SOAS? Yes! On the other hand, if there’s social mobilisation happening and it’s completely legitimate within the framework of democratic society, I will under NO conditions bring police to SOAS. You cannot tell me that if SOAS is under attack by a fascist party of 5,000 people that I should say NO NO NO! Context is important, Will. … The point I’m making is that it depends on the challenge. What you are asking is whether I will bring the police in for normal protests. Obviously I won’t! That would go against everything that I stand for, and it would go against everything that SOAS stands for. … And if you came under attack by Prevent and other public policies, then I would rise to your defence as well. I understand what those policies are, and what their consequences are!

So as a SOAS Director, your role in terms of public policy is as an advocate?

Yes! What I want to do with humanities is not simply to record the problem but also to think through the ways to find a solution to that challenge. [For example,] how do we mobilise resources to actually underwrite the costs of higher education? Fifty or sixty years ago, an elite 5% went into higher education. Now, north of 50% of young people between 17 and 25 go into higher education. How you finance that is fundamentally different to how you financed it fifty or sixty years ago. How do we introduce technology to address this challenge? How can we transcend national and continental boundaries? I don’t think we’re going to find the answer nearly, but these are all things that come over periods of time. We’re going to have to work on solutions to this. … Deal with inequalities. Deal with marginalisation. Don’t confuse contrary with violence. That is the danger; we must be as guarded against [this confusion] today, and we are against the complacency of violence within certain circles.

Habib’s book addresses the controversies of the “FeesMustFall” movement

2016 protests at Wits caused a lot of unrest and controversy, with police action being taken Credit: Greg Nicolson/The Daily Maverick

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