Instabilities at NUL during BNP and military rule

Instabilities at NUL during BNP and military rule

Continued from last week

The Amendment of the University Law in 1989 and Discursive Struggles and Instabilities

Subsequent to the animosity between NULASA and the GOL generated by the Taylor case, the GOL invoked its powers and amended the university law in December, 1989. The NUL (Amendment) Order (No. 21 of 1989) gave more powers to Government to control the University as well as giving University authorities powers “to take prompt action as and when it is deemed necessary” (NUL Order 1989:572-574).
This amendment followed the establishment, by the Military Regime, of a Commission of Inquiry into the activities of the academic staff of the National University of Lesotho – Commission of Inquiry into the Instability at the National University of Lesotho 1989 which reviewed evidence submitted by various players.

It is important to state that, sometime before this amendment, according to the Minister of Education, the experiment of 1975 “overdemocratised” NUL by “implement[ing] the concept of participatory administration complete with its freels” (sic) (Machobane, 1989:11).
Making reference to a legal case in which NULASA had taken the Administration (of which it was part under the participatory concept of administration) to the Labour Tribunal, and won a case against the so-called Administration, Machobane asked poignantly,
Now, who is the administration in this case? Materially, in this regard it was the VC, PVC, Registrar . . . who [all] have no executive powers; the Academic Staff Appointments Committee; the Board of Finance, and Council – of which academic staff are a principal part: the Chairman of the Association [NULASA] himself is a member of the Council.

Hence, in short, in so far as it is an integral part of the so-called management, the Academic Staff is at war with itself, and winning (Machobane, 1989:13-14) (emphasis in the original).
The trade unionism of NULASA and its political activism was loathed by the Military regime which began to cultivate the view that at NUL, the VC lacked real authority and power (Likate, 1989; Machobane, 1989). The majority of those who submitted evidence before the Commission in 1989 felt that NULASA was a destabilising force.

On its part, NULASA felt that management, in collusion with Government, was not only contemptuous towards academic staff, but was determined to destroy or undermine the union (Commission Report, 1989:27; Likate, 1989).
One of those who submitted evidence before the Commission was the University registrar who argued that the University Act, Statutes and Ordinances did not confer any specific authority on university leaders and that authority and power were “diffused randomly amongst officers and committees in a manner which did not define who does what and cannot do what without what having been fulfilled, . . .mak[ing] the University ungovernable/unmanageable” (Likate, 1989:4).

It was therefore not surprising that, among the findings of the Commission, was the existence of too many committees within the University’s administrative structures (Commission Report, 1989:16). In Likate’s (1989:1) view, the participatory governance structure through the committee system was ripe for “deadlocks over issues which may not inspire the support of one faction or the other”.
NULASA did not only refuse to cooperate with the Commission during its evidence gathering stages but it also flatly rejected the findings when they were made public and launched a campaign against the Military regime.

NULASA criticised the 1989 University amendment for its attempt “to supplant the powers of the University’s governing body and to give the Minister undue powers of appointing and terminating the employment of any member without notice” (NULASA, 1989:1).
Thus the amendment, when it finally came, did not give power to the VC but, instead, gave power to the Government through the office of the Chancellor. Instead of addressing the bureaucratic procedures of the University, the Government was given more powers to control the University. Under section 15 (6) of the NUL Order No. 21, 1989, the Chancellor could, without notice, terminate the appointment of, or dismiss any member of the University as he saw fit (NUL Order, 1989:572-574).

Coplan (1995:55) sarcastically suggests that one of Lekhanya’s “…achievements was Order No.4., a law that curtailed public criticism and abolished academic freedom at NUL, providing for the dismissal of any staff member at the governments discretion without explanation required”. This law produced further overt and discursive struggles and resistances nationally and at the country’s premier University.

NULASA led overt resistance against the Military regime with the slogan, Unchain the Nation! Restore Democracy Now!! It appealed to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) for support and calling on foreign governments, Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs), institutions of higher learning, public bodies and “all people of goodwill to support our call that the GOL should immediately repeal the NUL (Amendment) Order 1989”.
The NUL (Amendment) Order (No. 19) of 1992 and the ‘Devaluation’ of the Academic Rank

During the era of the Military regime, one of the most burning issues for NULASA, for which it evidently fought tooth and nail, was the ruling by Council in 1985 that, Statute 24 was inconsistent with the principal law by defining senior administrative and senior library staff as academic. Council intended to synchronise this with the Principal Act. However, NULASA was against this ruling and felt that this move by Council was calculated to undermine its representation on Council (NULASA Minutes, 1987).

Maybe it can be reasoned that, at the time, this definition suited NULASA and its constituent partners, as it allowed them to vote as a bloc and probably to deal with the excesses of power by either the University or the Government or both, what Spivak (1990) calls strategic essentialism.
Yet it can also be said that a ‘golden’ opportunity was missed by NULASA to address one of the issues that has contributed to uneasy divisions among the staff of the University to this day.

The risk of advancing group interests in a simplified and collectivised way, as NULASA did, played into the “hands of those whose essentialism is more powerful than their own” (Eide, 2010:76).
Thus strategic essentialism can function as a double-edged sword (Lee, 2014). It is my hypothesis that the essentialising strategy adopted by NULASA was the beginning of the ‘devaluation’ of the academic rank at NUL because the strategy played well into the hands of the state which saw a golden opportunity to undermine the academic rank for its own ends.

Yet it is important to note that the NUL (Amendment) Order (No. 19) of 1992 saw the return of dispersed and rhizomic power. Observers think that this was only possible because Major General Lekhanya had been replaced, in the coup of 1991, by Colonel P. Ramaema.
Unlike the previous military junta, the new Military Regime was committed to the restoration of civilian rule at the earliest possible opportunity. To demonstrate this commitment, among other things, the Military regime amended the NUL Principal Act by allowing “the NUL established under the 1976 Act [to be] preserved, continued in existence and constituted … as a body corporate” (NUL Calendar, 2006/07:401). The Order thus restored the 1976 University Act – lock, stock and barrel.

But as already alluded, the new law introduced a new, broad and controversial definition of academic staff. The Order simply clustered teaching and non-teaching senior administrative and senior library staff into this category.
It defined academic staff as “VC, PVC, the teaching and research staff, Senior Administrative Staff, Senior Library Staff, Documentalists and all other members appointed on academic terms of service” (NUL Order, 1989:400).

As a result, and through the agency of NULASA and the agency of the state, the academic rank was devalued or, in post-colonial discourse, ‘bastardised’. This was in sharp contrast to the 1976 Act which defined them as simply “VC, PVC and members of the teaching and research staff” (NUL Act, 1976:31).
NULASA thus became inadvertent participants in the devaluation of its own profession. Since the dawn of democracy in 1993, the new definition of ‘academic staff’ has been the site of many contestations and counter-contestations between the trade unions on one hand and between the trade unions and the University Administration.

The chapter has demonstrated, through specific examples and case studies, the nature of power and how that power was overtly and discursively contested during the era of government interference in University’s affairs.

It has demonstrated that the university, as an autonomous centre of power, sits very uncomfortably with the political class in a decolonising environment. Major public universities have often remained key sites for debate, critique and mobilisation on behalf of political change, especially, but not exclusively in the direction of democratisation and the resolution of conflicts.

Throughout the post-colonial era, universities have been simultaneously the best allies and the most dreaded challengers of state power. Universities in Africa have tended to be actors in politics, civil society and the public sphere.

This role has generally not been appreciated by those in power and whose view, according to Cheater (1991:205), is that the best way to silence university ‘dissidents’ is to “destroy universities as a necessary precondition to strengthening not only the state, but also those who, however temporarily, control the state”.

The paper has also demonstrated that repressive power, whether by the state or by individuals, has its own limits. Repressive state power by the BNP government and the Military regime was the chief reason for their collapse. In the 21st century, threats, extrajudicial killings, intimidations, muzzling of the press and systematically targeting those in the opposition and one’s imaginary enemies can only serve to embolden those being targeted.

While violence and instability can never be celebrated, sometimes such violence and instability creates conditions for change. Spivak (1988), while critical of imperialism’s discursive violence, speaks of an ‘enabling violence’ and of the persistent transformation of “conditions of impossibility into possibility”.

By Munyaradzi Mushonga

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