As by Fire


When I finished my term at the University of the Free State (UFS), I had a lot of ideas bubbling in my head about those seven fascinating years. Since the start of my appointment, and on its renewal after five years, I had informed my nominal boss, the Chair of Council, that I had never stayed in a job for longer than seven years. In fact, one of the tweets in my other book, Letters to my children, says something to that effect—that you leave a job after seven years. The problem was universities were caught up in the throes of the so-called “fees protests” of 2015-16 and it was hard to leave. But I told my boss that South African universities will always face challenges into the future whether I was there or not. Long before leaving I had asked for a year of leave to reflect on and write about my experiences in this 100 year old university. There was even more to say given the national protest movement that had shut-down and disrupted many of our universities.

I felt a very deep need to understand what happened in those two tumultuous years. The sudden and sometimes violent protests had caught many university leaders off-guard. I thought we had done everything we could at the UFS, anyway, to meet the needs of students from constant fundraising for bursaries down to free food for hungry students. I was also intrigued by the range of demands that went from accommodation to everyday sustenance. My instincts as a scholar are never to accept the easy explanations but to look more deeply for what lies beneath the surface appearances of a problem. That is how As by Fire came along—it was to explain what few had given serious thought to, such as the welfarisation of our universities and the normalization of violence.

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