/We live in a toxic society – Adam Habib on the difficulties he faced at Wits

We live in a toxic society – Adam Habib on the difficulties he faced at Wits

Adam Habib is leaving a Wits legacy that he is proud of. Heading to the UK for a while, he warns the lawless to not be too comfortable

Fraudsters, thieves and shenanigans by detractors, including left-wing and right-wing elements plotting to take him down, are allegedly some of the difficulties outgoing University of the Witwatersrand principal and vice-chancellor Adam Habib had to deal with in the seven years he has been there.

He told City Press at his office in Braamfontein on Thursday that the most shocking elements were parents who offered to “do something” for him for their children to be admitted into the university’s prestigious medical school.

Habib said he and his team have stood firm and defended the university to ensure that it remains uncontaminated by the toxic, unethical climate in the country, which has spilt over to universities.

Habib, who announced his resignation at Wits last week, said he did not regret taking up the Wits post in 2013.

My job is to protect this institution to allow it to do what it is meant to do

“My job is to protect this institution to allow it to do what it is meant to do … We achieve what we do because I keep the frauds, the thieves and the unethical at the boundaries so that they don’t contaminate this institution’s agenda.

“[But] I don’t do it as Adam Habib, we do it as a collective in the university and that is a responsibility for all of us,” he said.

Habib is leaving Wits for the London-based School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the end of the year.

The move, he says, is because his second term at Wits is coming to an end.

He says at Wits there was a rule that vice-chancellors could only stay for two terms, but that rule will soon be changed to allow for a third term.

But staying longer is not for him – something that politicians usually do to cling to power.

Do you know how many times I have had people walk in here and try to bribe me to get their children into the medical school

“It will be a conflict of interest, so I will not be party to that. My second term [will come] to an end by the time I leave at the end of this year.”

He admits that it has been difficult to manage Wits, which, he says, should not have been the case in a normal environment.

“It’s very difficult … [but it shouldn’t] because Wits is an institution with great scholars, great students and great governance processes. But we operate in a politically toxic climate. There are all kinds of shenanigans happening, where people are trying to take you down, trying to defraud the institution and trying to pass without going through the proper structures.

“Do you know how many times I have had people walk in here and try to bribe me to get their children into the medical school?

“It’s shocking. They all say to me: ‘You know, I don’t mean to bribe you, but can I do something for you.’ What does that mean?

“We live in a toxic, contaminated society. Normally it wouldn’t be difficult, but we are an ethically compromised society, partly because our political elite is so ethically compromised and, frankly, our economic elite is not any better.”

Wits, he says, has managed to withstand this because there are checks and balances in place.

“The strength of Wits, by the way, is not Adam Habib, it’s not the great management team, it’s [the institution’s] checks and balances. So when people [ask me to] make a plan for medical school, it’s 15 people who make a decision for every [admission].

“You can’t go through … not even Adam Habib can override that rule. Why? Because we have checks and balances to avoid the ability of our contaminated society impacting and compromising decision-making.”

Asked if he ever felt stressed or considered quitting, he said: “Which public leader doesn’t feel like that, given the toxicity of this country? But I’ve always said that Wits is more than a job. If it had been a job I would have left. Frankly, it’s a political project. It’s to make sure that we create a social justice outcome, and I’m not letting the right-wing and the crazy left think that they will destroy this country and its institutions. I will fight to save it. I did that in the apartheid era and I’m doing it now.”

He said he didn’t care about being branded a counter-revolutionary.

“They can call me a person who eats curry. They can do what they want, as you see on my Twitter account. It does not threaten me. You know what? I’ve been arrested by the apartheid state … these guys [must] take a number in the queue.

“I am going to rise to the defence of our public institutions and, in this case, public universities because that’s the responsibility of descent South Africans in this historical moment.”

Habib says he is sad to leave because “Wits is important to me”.

He says they achieved a lot despite many challenges.

“I think that, as a public institution, Wits captures a centrality in the imagination of the nation [like no other] institution has. I think we’ve done incredibly well in the past seven years despite the odds. As you know, we were the centre of the #FeesMustFall protests.”

In 2013, he said, 7 000 students graduated from Wits and last year that number rose to 9 500.

Also in 2013, 9 800 postgraduate students graduated, while 15 000 graduated last year.

Wits had 1 200 research units in 2013, which increased to 2 000 units last year.

Habib says Wits has a majority black academic cohort, which, according to him, is an example of both advancing transformation and advancing working-class excellence.

“You can’t talk about the inclusion of society without Wits playing a central role.

“I’m passionate about this institution and I defend its interests.”

He said the decisions he took during his tenure were within the confines of the law.

“I lead to advance social justice, but I will not break the law. That’s the thing which I think is important. Too many people, and I heard it during #FeesMustFall, will say: ‘No, don’t arrest the guy, even if he burns the place down. Give us free education even though it will bankrupt the institution…’

“The law doesn’t allow me to do that. You can’t ask me to break the law. That’s not an appropriate request. It is precisely because we’ve got people who’ve been breaking the law for many years that we’ve got Eskom and SAA in crises…

“[Some] can survive the load shedding because they’ve got a job and money. Imagine a poor person who doesn’t have a job who has to live through the load shedding because they do not have either. Those are the victims of breaking the law.”

This is my home. I will come back. I’ve been out before … I will come back

About his move to SOAS, whose mandate includes Africa and which is facing financial challenges, Habib says he hopes the institution will be rescued through working as a collective.

However, he warned his detractors that he won’t be gone forever.

“I’m not going nowhere. I am coming back to this place. It’s my home. It’s where my memories are. I know some people say they don’t want a curry lover. I don’t care what they think … I’m not going to make them happy. I’m not going to make the fascists and the anarchists happy. I’m coming back to make life difficult for them. I want to be clear – I’m not going to be chased out of this country. This is my home. I will come back. I’ve been out before … I will come back.”

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