Paper presented at the 3rd Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Touch me I'm sick"
8 & 9 September 1997, University of South Africa Regional Office, Durban

Images of deviance and control on campus

Caitlin Evans

University of Venda

This paper is based on an analysis of a sample of recent news articles, which appeared in local newspapers, viz. the Mirror, the Citizen, the Mail & Guardian, the City Press, the Sowetan and the Star, since the beginning of 1997. The articles are analysed within a discourse analytic framework. Articles reporting on campus crises at the two universities in the Northern Province, namely University of Venda and University of the North are studied. The paper focuses on the representation of students in these crises - as well as the ideological function which this may serve - in the different newspapers surveyed. The research is placed within the context of current dialogue around tertiary education in South Africa.

The purpose of this research is to investigate images of students in the crises at the two universities in the Northern Province over the past six months. As 'historically disadvantaged universities, both these universities, University of Venda, and University of the North, still show consequences of apartheid political ideology. Current news articles implicitly perpetuate some of the images which these universities, and their students, have inherited. The intention of this article is to, within a discourse analytical framework, make these images explicit, to allow alternative ways of construing crises situations at these universities.


It is precisely when people consider themselves free agents, motivated by obvious 'common sense', that they actually are motivated by a powerfully internalised ideology (Tomaselli, Tomaselli, & Muller, 1987). However, ideology should not be considered as a 'thing having content, but rather as describing relationships and effects in a particular place and historical period (Parker, 1990).

News events are made intelligible against a background of culturally shared knowledge, and journalists apply their social schemata strategically in the construction of news events. Although models journalists have about events are inherently biased in terms of underlying social representations, personal variations and deviation are not excluded (van Dijk, 1988,). These manifest in contradicting discourses which are important. When ideas of progressive change are built into the contemporary political discourse, these dynamics are reflected in our everyday language (Parker, 1987). For example, the relation between active and passive clauses, or the absence of the agent in clauses expresses ideological choices. Although a linguistic form has many possible meanings, when it appears in the context of a systematically selected range of forms, the meaning of each form becomes more or less specific. However, selection is often merely reproduction of what the speaker has already learned (Kress, 1985).

Kress (1985) refers to content-structure of texts as the way in which events are portrayed causally. Events appear in a transactive form (arising directly out of an agents action and with a direct effect on a goal) or in a nontransactive form (arising as self-caused action or actionthat happens in an unspecified way). The mode chosen is related to the way in which the action is integrated into the speakers ideological system, and is related to a specific discourse.

The current state of tertiary education in South Africa has given rise to a crises discourse. The newspaper reports analysed are directly relating to (and nourishing) this 'education crises' discourse. However, crises should be understood as subjective evaluations of the significance of events rather than as real events. Newspaper reports are structured to be a surrogate reality (Bruck, 1992). By giving them attention and value, newspapers frequently facilitate the public construction of disruptive events as crises (Roth, 1992). The media sensationalises crises when they can be reported as profoundly disrupting 'normal' life and have an institutional (not only individual) context. Three sets of roles are characteristic of crisis reports. These are: perpetrators, objects/victims, and authorities (Bruck, 1992).

Newspaper sensationalisation of crises also involves a reporting technique, Bruck (1992) calls 'spectacularization'. A spectacle is a social relation among people mediated by images. Spectacularisation allows readers to participate vicariously in the reported crises, whilst being protected by the assurance of being a distanced observer. Aware that readers are vicariously involved in the crisis, reporters can subtly cast protagonists and antagonists. Stigmatisation (of antagonists) and labelling has been said to justify behaviour towards those labelled in a way which would otherwise be considered unacceptable. As Gerbner (1992, p. 97) says:

Stigma is a mark of disgrace which evokes disgraceful behaviour.... Classifying some people as criminals permits dealing with them in ways otherwise considered criminal.... Proclaiming them enemies makes it legitimate to attack and kill them.... Stigmatisation and demonization isolate their targets and set them up to be victimised.

In other words, language is used to constitute status and roles which justify claims to power, and to stigmatise opposition forces as 'deviant' assigning them to subservient roles (Fowler, 1985) . In press reports, certain groups are defined as 'illegal' to justify authorities in treating them as 'problems of justice' (van Dijk, 1987).

In a similar way, violence can be seen as a physical show of force which demonstrates who has power to impose what, on whom and the circumstances under which this imposition can take place. It functions to designate winners versus losers, and victimisers versus victims. Violence in stories symbolises threats to human integrity, and to the established order. Violent stories often demonstrate how in the process of restoring order, the threats are combated, and the (deviant) violators are victimised (Gerber, 1992).

This research focusses on the application of these strategies in news reporting on university crises, and the evolving discourse.


Discourse can be defined in various ways. A definition appropriate for the present research is that '[d]iscourse is a system of statements which constructs an object' (Foucault, in Parker, p.191).

Fluid movement between different stages (which should be a conceptual rather than a rigid temporal scheme) in the process is required for analysis of discourse. Initially, the researcher searches for patterns (of variability as well as of consistency) in the data. However, discourse analysis is basically concerned with function and consequence. In the second phase then, the researcher forms hypotheses regarding the functions and effects and searches for linguistic support (Potter and Wetherell, 1987). As Hartley, (1982, p.6) says, 'Discourses... are perhaps best understood as the different kinds of use to which language is put'.

Newspaper headlines are a significant genre of discourse in that they make the first and sometimes only impression on the news reading public. They sometimes seem deeply ambiguous - yet the surface differences can just be a mask for deeper correspondence. (Tomaselli, Tomaselli, & Muller, 1987). In expressing the top of the semantic macrostructure, headlines provide a subjective definition which programmes the interpretation process. Analysis of headlines allows a first qualitative step in which inferences can be drawn from topics expressed and their structural form or style (van Dijk, 1988). In indicating which information is most prominent, headlines have a special role in the 'relevance structure' of news (van Dijk, 1985).


Newspaper reports on student-related crises at the University of Venda and the University of the North from January until the end of July were acquired by means of a media search done by the 'Instituut vir Eietydse Geskiedenis at the Orange Free State University. Unfortunately, it seems that this search was not thorough - some articles were found which were undetected by the database search. These were included in the analysis. Only English South African newspapers available in the Northern Province were used (The Citizen, The Star, Sowetan, Mail & Guardian, Pretoria News, City Press). The headlines of each of the texts were analysed. The analysis was then synthesised into themes which consolidate images of students in the reports.

The Report

Causal implications

The transactive form is used in articles referring to University of Venda under three discernable circumstances, namely:

1. when a polarised deadlock between students and management is indicated (e.g., university denies bias; 'Azasco protest continues);

2. when management exerts control (opens or closes Azasco office or the university);

3. or when Azasco is portrayed as deviant.

Circumstances two and three also create the image of polarisation between management and students.

In ten of the sixteen headlines causality is transactively stated. This indicates that more than half the headlines do in fact assume a polarisation between management and students. It is in the context of this assumed polarisation that students are portrayed as deviant and management as in control.

In the other six headlines, the nontransactive form is used. No specific pattern is clear here, but situations referred to could signify resistance to management. Class attendance/ boycott; increase of fees; Azascos anger; the presence of the military or security on campus; Azasco students expulsion; and Azasco members disciplined are the topics which are headlined nontransactively.

Most (19 out of 26) texts referring to the University of the North are nontransactive. There is a strong tendency for those which are transactive to refer to legal justice in some way. This again suggests control of management, now with support beyond the limits of university authorities. Of the seven which are transactive, only two do not suggest legality, namely, overdue fees crippling university' and 'ANC seeks meeting with students on Turfloop crises'. These seem to link the crises to political and financial realms, suggesting the university is part of the larger social context of South Africa. No pattern has been identified among the University of the North nontransactive headlines.


The following themes have been identified from the way in which headlines portray students:

1. Students as destructive and a threat to social order

2. Students as objects

3. Students as disgraceful objects

Discussion of each of these themes follows.

1. Students as destructive and a threat to social order

Students are portrayed as actively destructive, threatening to withhold their fees, as reflected in the following headline: Students vow to withhold fees [Sowetan; 13/2/97]. The strong emotive connotations of 'vow' makes students seem almost fanatical. Although the university is not mentioned, 'withhold' implies that it, and, by implication, the society which is seeks to serve, are the victims of students destructiveness. A similar image is portrayed in a headline from the Star : University owed millions as students refuse to pay fees [The Star 21/2/97]. Ambiguity of 'owed' is effective. By placing 'university' first, the impression is created that it is the university which owes. This impression is then changed with the words 'as students refuse'. Immediately, the university takes on the status of a misjudged victim of students' injustice. The word 'as' implies the causal relationship between students refusing to pay, and the university lacking funds which it rightfully should have. The sequential order serves to implicitly acknowledge the universitys financial difficulties, and then attributes this to students wilful defiance of the university authority.

Besides the image of being a burden to universities and society, students are also presented as destructive and disruptive of social stability:

Universities around the country in turmoil over funding and damaging leadership crises [Mail and Guardian; 21/2/97]

Ndebele at centre of Turfloop row

Student protest is expressed as 'damaging leadership crises'. Such a label excludes an alternative image of students as demanding integrity, accountability and transparency from those in leadership positions. Instead, an image is constructed of students as destructive, and attacking authorities who are responsible for sustaining order in society.

As a contradicting image, consider:

Student protests over subsidy cuts go off peacefully [The Star; 27/2/97]

The superficial image is that students are calm and that their behaviour - even when protesting - is acceptable. However, there is a sting in the tail in that the protests are considered as something which 'goes off peacefully'. An assumption of the potential danger of student boycotts is implied in that the additional words 'go off peacefully' is newsworthy enough to become part of the headline.

This image of students as destructive is exploited in conjunction with splitting of the student body. Impressions that students who challenge university authority are deviant are intensified. We see this in the following report, where Azascos accusations of intimidation are reported.

University closes down Azasco office [Sowetan; 6/5/97]

Student movement accuses Venda University management of intimidation

unfair increase

The visual pattern between the two headings is revealing. 'University' is first in the main heading. In the second heading, 'Student movement' is first. Could one associate the word 'movement' with other words suggesting motion, i.e., 'closing' and 'down'? If so, there is a suggestion that students were active in causing the closing down of Azascos office -they share the blame. In the first heading 'university' is used, which could suggest that all constituencies of the university are equally party to the decision, but that Azasco, as antagonist, is excluded. This portrays Azasco, the antagonist, as deviant from other students, and the rest of the university community. Effectively, this could stigmatise Azasco, as a 'divide and rule strategy would. In contrast, in the second heading 'Venda University management is specified as separate from the 'university', reinforcing the suggestion that 'university' refers to general university community rather than management. One can speculate about the effects of the words 'student' and 'management' being placed on the same line. Could this be a tactic which relies on readers tendency to place the two parties juxtaposed in opposition, and to preserve authority, vicariously supporting management as opposed to students? (This is the tendency discussed by Gerbner, 1992).

The smaller headline which is inserted later in the text, namely, 'Unfair increase' could suggest that students are not coping with, or accepting, inevitable social change, e.g., inflation. An image of students as projecting their own unrealistic expectations and demands onto management in an accusatory fashion is possibly created. Simultaneously, another image of managements imperviousness to the circumstances of students is suggested. This image is supported by the mention of 'intimidation' which suggests oppressive control.

To defend management and the status quo that it represents, critical students are shown as criminals. Images of deviance are aggravated, shown as violations of the national justice system. One example is the Sowetans (19/5/97) headline, Court interdict bars students from entering Turfloop.

The legal jargon 'court interdict' creates a context of legal accountability. The word 'bars' also has connotations of deviance, in that one associates 'bars' with criminals: criminals are 'behind bars' (in prison). '[E]ntering' is redundant, so intensifies the effect of 'bars' in restraining students. That the authority of the court is necessary to protect the university from students, implies that they are destructive, and deviate from social acceptability. A sense of the universitys vulnerability and need for protection against students is created by the informal name 'Turfloop' which makes it seem more familiar, and contrasts with the formal language which precedes it.

Another reference to the judicial system comes from The Star (23/5/97):

Sasco plans to disrupt justice system

Student organisations defiance campaign will start at Mankweng hearing

Sasco (South African Students Congress) is presented as being deliberately antagonistic ('plans to disrupt) and threatening a symbol of order in society ('justice system'). The word 'plans' indicates Sasco as having a systematic strategy to ensure success of intentions. The second heading concretises the situation by indicating when the protest is expected to take place and qualifying the 'plans to disrupt' as a 'defiance campaign'. One function that this serves is to present students as a formidable opposition force. Another, seemingly contrasting function, is to suggest students as rational, having 'method in their madness'. The positive image this could project is counteracted by the word 'disrupt' in the main heading. If the journalists intention was to create a positive image of legitimate protest, then a word with more positive connotations (e.g., 'interrupt') would have been selected.

2. Students as objects

As the literature has shown (van Dijk, 1987; Gerbner, 1992) antagonists or threats to dominant ideological systems are often presented as inferior, so as to justify their oppression. The tendency to dehumanise students, and portray them as deviant from the rest of humanity, is part of this strategy. Consider the following examples.

Azapo angry about university decision [Sowetan; 7/5/97]

Organisation says Azascos rights violated by the closure of its office

Juxataposed to the rational sense of 'university decision', Azapos anger is expressed as a dangerous (opposition) condition. The human aspect of anger as emotion is not expressed in that the organisation (not human members) are described as being in a condition of anger. Another example is, Azasco three to carry on studies [Sowetan; 15/7/97]. The three students are portrayed in an objectified, dehumanised way in that they are referred to in terms of numbers and the organisation to which they belong and not by name.

Univen orders Azasco two out [Sowetan; 18/7/97]

Managements action ('orders) indicates a command expressed with authority and control over students. In another sense, also suggestive of control, 'orders' could refer to demands in the sense of material requisitions. Above the sense that management exerts control over Azasco, this gives the additional meaning that 'Univen' gains something positive (for example, unchallenged space) by the exclusion of Azasco. The students are stereotyped in terms of their association with Azasco, and numerically. No acknowledgement of their humanity is signified. Another example appeared in the Citizen (21/2/97):

Non-payers owe varsity R54 million

In a society dependent on mass production, and technology, even students are stereotyped in terms of their material and financial worth. Instead of associating them with their role of acquiring skills and knowledge to contribute in community service, they are cast only in the role of consumers. They are also stereotyped in a way that stigmatises them as deviating from social expectations. They are 'Non' payers, indicating them in terms of what they lack, and their failure to meet managements expectations.

3. Students as disgraceful objects

It is clear at times during the following discussion that there is a dominant trend to present students negatively. However, at times the socio-political emphasis on transformation of South African education and society filters through and students are portrayed as agents of change. Intrinsic contradictions of this nature are a feature of discourse. The following headlines have been selected to facilitate discussion of this theme.

Crime rife at Turfloop [City Press; 5/1/97]

This image of the University of the North as a dangerous, deviant place implicates students in criminal activities. Furthermore, it casts doubt on the value of the education taking place in such an environment. Also in reference to the quality (value) of education in this environment, read

Back to class, but conflict simmers [Weekly Mail & Guardian; 6/6/97]

This headline suggests that although attendance of lectures resumes, conflict is latently present. The word 'simmers' suggests a fluid substance, hot, but just below boiling point. The impression is given of a volatile environment, in spite of the semblance of control and normality. The use of the word 'class' instead of 'lectures' suggests the university as inferior, more like a school than an academic institution. Along the same lines, consider:

Degree of embarresment [City Press; 23/2/97]

Morewa honour added to list of grievances by Turfloop students

Does the ambiguous use of 'degree' connote any embarrassment or inappropriacy in terms of the qualifications issued by the University? If so, it is camouflaged by the informal name 'Turfloop' which suggests the university in terms of its social rather than academic role.

In the second heading, the 'Turfloop students' are the agents, who are reported to be compiling a 'list of grievances'. A list has connotations of order and rationality, suggesting control. As a list of grievances, it brings the dimensions of power and injustice into the arena. It shows students attempts to prepare themselves to challenge authority constructively. Students are shown as proactively involved in initiating transformation in the system they find themselves victim of.

Turfloop students in court [Sowetan; 28/2/97]

This heading places 'students' in a context which implies them having to defend themselves. The lack of qualification as to how many, or which students are in court allows the reader to generalise, and associate all students with the suspect situation. In this way, the image of students as a trouble-making body who need to be forced by law to be accountable to society is created. This is disempowering in that it presents an image of students as lacking an internal locus of control and being incapable of taking on their own authority constructively. They are presented as requiring an external authority figure to 'call them to order'.

The 'call to order' is sometimes taken further. Look at the following headline again:

University closes down Azasco office [Sowetan; 6/5/97]

Student movement accuses Venda University management of intimidation

unfair increase

'[O]ffice' denotes a physical space for work, but it also denotes a functional position in society. The statement shows the university as having the power to 'dethrone' Azasco, in the sense of lowering status and success by prohibiting the office space and functioning of the organisation. Further, when they cannot be controlled within the campus, they are expelled, as the following headline shows:

SRC leaders told to leave the campus [Sowetan; 16/5/97]

Here the managements rejection of student leaders (Student Representative Council) is expressed euphemistically, in comparison to 'ordered off' (Citizen; 16/5/97). Yet students are still portrayed as in disgrace, with disrespect in that their leaders (who symbolise their authority) are ostracised and rejected. At the same time, they could be imagined as heroic victims of a system which fails to accommodate them. For example:

Azasco protest continues [Sowetan; 26/5/97]

The protest is said to continue, but no clear purpose, or motivation supports the statement. Azasco seems to be expressing opposition indirectly and continues to do so indefinitely. An implication is that Azasco is envisaged as antagonistic and destructive, rather than constructive. In the absence of any sign of success for the protest, Azasco is represented as powerless.

In the same way in which students do not really have much choice as to how they can communicate their dissatisfaction effectively, they are even portrayed as helpless, management (not themselves) determines their destiny. We see this in the following headline:

Council to decide students fate [Sowetan; 28/7/97]

This picture of students totally at the mercy of the university council is an example of how the medias sensationalising tendency to polarise participants in a crises, serves to disempower those designated to a transgressor role.

Azasco members disciplined [Mirror; 1/8/97]

Azasco students/members are simply objects of managements show of authority. The word 'disciplined' also is usually associated with school children, not with adults. The students who are disciplined are not portrayed as students, but as members of Azasco. This differentiates them from the rest of the student body, and stigmatises them as deviant. The stigmatising excuses and justifies managements punishment, whilst warning other (potentially deviant) students of the consequences of this type of deviance. On the other hand, society sometimes construes discipline as empowering. For example, to some, discipline is a necessary stage in the process of development, as the proverbial saying 'spare the rod, spoil the child' implies. The ambiguity then reveals this report as portraying an image of students and authorities grappling with the transformation process in South African tertiary education. There seems to be an awareness that power cannot constitute empowerment without accountability of all stakeholders to each other.


This article would have accomplished its mission if the audience has been sensitised to the way in which the media entrenches prejudices about students as deviant. Themes of images of students as destructive threats to social order, and as objects which are disgraceful show that media functions to reinforce an image of students as powerless. This role stereotype is recorded in the minds of readers and then reproduced so that the stigma is reinforced. It is hoped that awareness of alternative, positive images is facilitated by having made these images of prejudice explicit as themes. Discourse analysis should be viewed as a variety of action research because, in challenging an internal system and its relation to others, new (different) spaces for resistance are revealed (Parker, 1990). Further, an exploration of images of university authorities and management is suggested as a possiblity for extending this research.


I would like to express thanks to Norman Duncan. Without his time/expertise this paper would not have been possible.


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City Press, 5/1/97 Crime rife at Turfloop

Sowetan,13/2/97 Students vow to withhold fees

Citizen, 21/2/97 Non-payers owe varsity R54-million

The Star, 21/2/97 University owed millions as students refuse to pay fees

Mail & Guardian, 21/2/97 Universities around the country in turmoil over funding and damaging leadership crises

City Press, 23/2/97 Degree of embarrassment

The Star, 27/2/97 Student protests over subsidy cuts go off peacefully

Sowetan, 28/2/97 Turfloop students in court

Sowetan, 6/5/97 University closes down Azasco office

Sowetan, 6/5/97 University closes down Azasco office

Sowetan, 7/5/97 Azapo angry about university decision

Sowetan, 16/5/97 SRC leaders told to leave the campus

Sowetan, 19/5/97 Court interdict bars students from entering Turfloop

The Star, 23/5/97 Sasco plans to disrupt justice system

Sowetan, 26/5/97 Azasco protest continues

Mail & Guardian, 6/6/97 Back to class, but conflict simmers

Sowetan, 15/7/97 Azasco three to carry on studies

Sowetan, 18/7/97 Univen orders Azasco two out

Sowetan, 28/7/97 Council to decide students fate

Mirror, 1/8/97 Azasco members disciplined

Caitlin Evans is a research psychologist who (although exposed to quantitative research in undergraduate psychology) has a phenomenological/ hermeneutical research background. The current research was undertaken as an exploration of discourse analysis. Other research interests are Afrocentric psychology, gender and authority, and career development.

Paper presented at the 3rd Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Touch me I'm sick"
8 & 9 September 1997, University of South Africa Regional Office, Durban
critical methods society - -