Thembi Luckett & Ben Fogel


“Black workers built UCT with their own hands in the colonial past. Black workers were oppressed at UCT in the apartheid past. Black workers were retrenched and outsourced at UCT in the post-apartheid past. The first people to know about racism and sexism and exploitation at UCT are the black women workers. It is there in workers’ lives every day. There is no UCT without the labour of workers” (UCT Workers Forum/UCT Workers Solidarity Committee, March 2015)


The statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town (UCT) has fallen, but one of the most pernicious aspects of his legacy continues to thrive at almost every other tertiary institution in the country – the continued use of cheap, black labour upon which Rhodes built his fortune. The country’s elite universities continue to employ outsourced black workers for far less than a living wage, often in appalling conditions and at institutions to which workers could never afford to send their kids. One of the key demands raised by the Rhodes Must Fall movement is a break with the apartheid labour system that persists at these universities as part of the efforts to decolonise them.

This is an imperative.

Workers at institutions such as UCT and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) have been outsourced for the past 15 years, which has led to increased economic and political precariousness. “For now, I survive,” said a worker who asked to remain anonymous. “It [wages] is not enough. We have to suffer first in order to get anything. We are drowning now in debt.”

“We work hard for little,” continued the worker. “We can’t feel secure, because if they want to transfer you, the company has the right to transfer you anywhere.”

At Wits, Marius Johannes Labuschagne (MJL) Electrical workers have not been paid their wages properly since January 2015, receiving only part of one month’s wage over five months. Workers have been told that they do not have jobs any more because of MJL mismanagement, and that their current state is not Wits’ responsibility. Workers here expressed the same insecurity: “We are really struggling, even to get food. We are all in debt,” said a worker in March this year who also chose to remain anonymous. “We are all worried about losing our jobs.”

An older MJL worker from Germiston on Joburg’s East Rand, who has worked at Wits for more than 15 years, has already lost his home. “I had to move out. I am staying with my brother now … Our children are suffering because they don’t have food,” he said heavily. Others worry about not being able to pay their rent, and speak about the pain of not being able to support their children: “I have five children … I didn’t manage to pay rent. I worry about being chased out [of my home] … I can’t even provide my children with school fees and food. Now it’s winter – I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

This is not an isolated case. It represents the reality of many outsourced workers at our universities.

Outsourcing enables university management to absolve its responsibility towards all who work and study on campus. In this recent incident at Wits, university management positioned itself as benevolent, with its hands tied, even though it is responsible for bringing private companies into public universities in the first place.

But if we are to imagine a different kind of university, workers cannot be an afterthought. Workers built universities with their hands; there would be no buildings, classrooms, books, computers, electricity, food or water at universities without workers. Their labour continues to enable universities to function.

Part of the project of transforming the university – as identified by the Rhodes Must Fall movement and TransformWits – involves building inclusive institutions in which workers are seen as integral. This, necessarily, means ending outsourcing.


History of outsourcing at universities

In 1999, UCT embarked on extensive retrenchments and began outsourcing all so-called support services. It pioneered the move that other universities soon followed, except Rhodes University. This was a strand of neoliberalism that was anchored in the Mbeki-era Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) policy, South Africa’s economic approach at the time that encouraged a shift towards a corporate model of the university – the “market university”. According to the department of finance at the time, this meant cutting back on public spending for tertiary institutions and encouraging public-private partnerships and third-stream income.

UCT styles itself as a world class university, a Harvard or Oxford on the hill if you will, and prides itself on being consistently ranked as one of the top 150 universities in the world. Part of the obsession with “world class” standards is the rise of managerialism in universities, which tends to infringe on academic freedom by performance-managing academics and viewing students as customers to be churned through the educational service system at the lowest cost.

The driving imperative behind outsourcing workers at universities is to cut costs. The justification provided is that, to be competitive and efficient, universities need to focus on their “core business”. Services that are considered peripheral or noncore are outsourced to private companies that are meant to be able to deliver the same services at a higher standard and at a reduced cost.

The cost imperative can be seen in the words of Mamphela Ramphele, the vice chancellor of UCT who pioneered outsourcing at South African universities. “We had gross distortions in our salary and wage structures,” Ramphele said. “In a nutshell, we overpaid at bottom level and underpaid at the top. We needed to review and rationalise our staffing structures and numbers to ensure we retained the best and eliminated ‘dead wood’,” she has been quoted as saying. It is rare to hear such callous straightforwardness among higher education managers. What does it mean to be the “dead wood” of society and to have someone claim you deserve even less economic security when you are already living in poverty?

According to academic Lindiwe Bardill, through the casualisation of workers, the employer shifts the reproductive costs of the workforce on to the backs of the workers, thereby leaving workers increasingly vulnerable and on the margins of society, and a crisis of social reproduction is created. When UCT began outsourcing, workers lost nearly all their benefits and part of their wages. Benefits included, UCT cleaning workers earned between R11 and R14 per hour in comparison to R6 per hour after outsourcing.

This is more than an issue of poverty wages (some Wits workers earn less than R2 000 per month) and economic insecurity. The social relations imposed on workers by their managers and supervisors are characterised by an unjust hierarchy and degradation. Workers experience a lack of recognition and respect for their human dignity, both from their managers and from the university community. Before outsourcing, relations were by no means characterised by a culture of respect for workers, but were generally more inclusive. For example, after outsourcing, workers at Wits were forced to eat in designated worker-only areas, and were banned from using public spaces, toilets and entrances.

Jonathan Grossman (2006), in World Bank Thinking, World Class Institutions, Denigrated Workers, argues that outsourcing workers results in universities becoming workplaces where workers work next to and with each other every day but for different employers, including the core public sector employer that once employed all of them. This fragmentation makes it more difficult for workers to unionise and struggle collectively. Aside from this division between workers, there has been a general deterioration of working conditions for those relegated to the periphery of the workplace.

The new hegemonic model of the university positions itself as a business to be run competitively and efficiently – to the detriment of many other qualities such as social redress, social justice and equality.


Workers speak out

When asked about outsourcing, all workers interviewed at Wits expressed their dissatisfaction. One worker described how he was tired of moving from one company to another. He wanted to be hired directly, as a permanent worker. Another worker said “outsourcing only benefits the bosses of the companies and Wits management”. An electrical worker was angry, saying “Wits management must stop outsourcing. I don’t feel good because of the way the management of Wits is treating us like we are not important, but we are the most important people.”

Another worker dreamed of a university where all workers would be employed directly, earning a living wage (of between R8 000 and R20 000, according to workers interviewed), and where their children could also study. There was also hope that workers themselves could use the university facilities to better their education and lives. He was indignant with the status quo: “I didn’t expect the university to be like this after apartheid.”

After a picket in solidarity with Wits workers in April, one of the workers said they needed more support. He hoped that thousands of students would stand with them. “We want students to see us as parents who are in pain, because we can’t put food on the table for our children,” he added.

The boundaries of contemporary inclusion and exclusion are not as crude as they were under apartheid, but they serve a similar purpose of reproducing inequalities of class and race. Black workers previously exploited under apartheid are now exploited in the name of neutral, dissimulating economic imperatives to be efficient and competitive while those in managerial positions ensure their salaries increase exponentially.


Imagining a transformed university

The Rhodes Must Fall movement that started at UCT and spread to campuses across South Africa is opening up a debate on transformation and imagining a different kind of university. As the movements to reclaim and reimagine universities grow, it is necessary to turn our attention to the struggles and visions of workers; when workers and students come together, this vision is made more possible.

In their Charter for the Public Sector Workplace, the UCT Workers Forum and UCT Workers Support Committee imagine a university where “teaching and learning could happen without a few getting the benefits and many having to pay a price; students could learn about justice by opening their eyes to what was happening around them, instead of having to shut their eyes; academics could be part of advocating and promoting justice in their everyday life, not just in words; UCT could be a community where no one was made invisible because everyone was treated as human … Treating human beings like human beings is too much for a university running like a business. Then the answer is clear: we must stop it running like a business. We must make it a place where people can work and learn and teach as human beings. Maybe this looks like a dream. It is true. It is a dream. But it is a dream we must turn into the truth of our lives.”

Under apartheid, workers, hand in hand with youth and communities, imagined and collectively struggled for a different future. This legacy can be drawn on and built on through imagining universities in which everyone who works and learns is treated as a human being. A truly transformed university would create a space for all to develop and express their capacities and creativity, where learning and knowledge creation would be a collective process rather than one rooted in competitive careerism and built on the suffering of others. A university like this would comprise a definitive break from the legacy of colonialism and apartheid that persists 21 years after the regime fell.


 Gif Credit: The Black Student Movement at Rhodes University address the management of the university on transformation issues by Lloyd Gedye



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