Friday, 13 November 2015

Students and Workers Rise Up in South Africa: The Invisible Becomes Visible - From the Peripheries to the Centre

Twenty one years after the first democratic vote in South Africa the year 2015 has witnessed a rise in public protests that is unprecedented in the new democratic dispensation. The student and worker protests that recently flared up across the country are reminiscent of the anti-apartheid protests of the 1980s. Over the past four weeks, tertiary education students across the country protested against fee increases, worker exploitation at tertiary universities, and called for free universal education. They occupied and shut down institutions, eventually taking their protests to the doorsteps of parliament in Cape Town and the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

A bewildered ex-liberation ruling party seemed to be caught unawares by the rise in youth protests, and at first attempted to appear as supporters of the protests. As the irony of the situation grew, and the protests converged upon government buildings in cities across the country, the president and the Minister of Higher Education and Training were forced to intervene, eventually declaring that a zero per cent increase in fees would be guaranteed by government.

Yet the warning signs were clear. Public protests have been steadily rising over the past decade in South Africa. Major service delivery protests in poor communities have risen dramatically (peaking at over 400 in 2012, from 14 in 2004). Worker protests have hit all sectors, from mining to agriculture to government. The student protests of the past four weeks, are but the tip of the spear. It has penetrated, and opened up room for new, more direct tactics to be employed in making power accountable. The students took their cause to the gates of parliament in Cape Town, and converged in their thousands on the Union Buildings in Pretoria, forcing government to capitulate to their demands.

The student protests have set an example to worker groups, who have effectively been trapped within a leadership vacuum following the dramatic and bitter split of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which governs in partnership with the ANC in a tripartite alliance that includes the South African Communist Party (SACP). As labour leadership has dithered, a new party – the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – have captured a key demographic in the youth bulge (i.e. marginal, unemployed and poor youth), and are set to capture the votes of workers who are disillusioned with their lack of representation and political power within the tripartite alliance.

When mineworkers embarked upon a “wildcat” strike in 2012 at Lonmin mines in the remote town of Marikana, they did so under a newly established new union – the Association of Mineworkers and Construction (AMCU) – which had split from the traditional National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), having grown impatient and disillusioned with unfulfilled promises and lack of adequate representation. AMCU members viewed the NUM leadership as part of a system of political power that negated serving their interests independently and adequately. 

Notably, AMCU declared itself “apolitical and non-communist”, in stark contrast to NUM, which as a member of COSATU governs in alliance with the SACP and the African National Congress (ANC). It’s refusal to call off the strike led to a standoff with police that resulted in the largest mass killing by police that South Africa has experienced since the 1964 Sharpeville massacre. In all, 41 mineworkers were gunned down by police in Marikana, many of them under suspicious circumstances. 

The Marikana massacre shocked South Africans deeply. There was a sense that the nation was witnessing a nightmare play out. It couldn’t be real. How could it be that the new ex-liberation party led government could massacre the very constituency that had repeatedly won it its large majority vote? It seemed surreal. Time folded and many South Africans felt as though they had been transported back to the bad old days, when the police acted as an armed wing of the Apartheid state, gunning down black South Africans without pause. But the signs that tensions were building between the state and the public had been clearly present and evident in the years preceding Marikana.

It is within this context that the protests of parliamentary workers (over the past few days) should be understood. When the police fired off stun grenades at parliamentary workers who were protesting in the parliamentary precinct, after having faced criticism for adopting the very same strong arm tactics against students who had stormed the precinct a few weeks earlier, a deeply disturbing message was communicated. Even though parliamentary workers work side by side with politicians, it was clear that the ruling class and the working class inhabit completely different spheres, and that the plight of workers is largely invisible to the ruling class, despite their left-leaning rhetoric.

In reality, workers are not the driving force behind the ruling party, they are merely a convenient voting stock that can reliably be drawn upon come election time. They are not equals in any real measure, and their issues and demands – many of them entirely reasonable given the long terms of service parliamentary workers have put in – lie in the background of day to day politics. They are not the first priority of the ruling party; rather the first priority of the ruling party is holding on to power, and securing the relationships with business and capital that enable them to do so unchallenged.

The lesson – the invisibility of the working classes – also resonates in the student protests. Protests at former black universities have been met with heavier police action than those at the former white universities. There is a sense that the former white universities, which typically house more privileged students, are treated with greater sensitivity and enjoy more attention by the media. As was the case during Apartheid, police cracked down heavily at former black tertiary institutions. This has not gone unnoticed.

The key to understanding the violence that unfolded during some protests requires only a cursory understanding of the history of protest in South Africa. The protests of the 1980s, which were intended to “make the country ungovernable”, has transmuted in the new dispensation. It lay somewhat dormant by comparison in the first decade of democracy, However, the ‘service delivery protest culture’ that has grown exponentially over the past decade, was born of communities who had grown frustrated with the lack of delivery by politicians that they had voted into power.

The main sentiment was that communities could vote for the ANC, but they had to get out into the streets and make communities ungovernable in order to get ANC structures to take action to resolve the day to day issues that arose. It is predominantly a tactic to become visible in the public domain. In a society characterised by drastic inequality, that inequality manifests most severely in the invisibility of the poor and those who are marginal to the formal socio-economic systems and institutions.

So when parliamentary workers occupied chambers within parliament, and giving speeches, chanting slogans and singing protest songs there was a sense that a “peoples parliament”, however briefly, had come into existence. The EFF, whose members attend parliament in red workers overalls, construction helmets and domestic worker uniforms, seemed vindicated in their assessment of where the leadership vacuum is most stark in the South African political landscape.

When police fired stun grenades at the protesting workers, it was reminiscent of the violent treatment that the EFF experience at the hands of ‘parliamentary bouncers’, who wrestle them out of the chambers whenever bring parliamentary procedures to a standstill; in essence adopting “occupy” tactics within parliament. The EFF is acutely aware that the moment they have been waiting for has arrived; the disillusioned and fragmented constituency of the ANC is now rebelling directly at the doorsteps of power.

The service delivery protests – most often located in far-away peripheral urban settlements – seem poised to transform into a more significant protest force i.e. by taking their causes directly to the buildings and spaces where politicians go about their work, in the centres of major cities.

This new development cannot be underestimated. It indicates that disgruntled and ignored constituencies are beginning to understand how to exert pressure on the government. The students, to their credit, were the first to sink this lesson into the psychologies of South Africans. What is indisputable, is that while Marikana resulted in shock and disbelief, and a sense of futility, the student protests have bolstered sentiment and determination to tackle power directly.

The youth have led the charge against an insensitive political system and state, which continues to entrench the very inequalities that the struggle against Apartheid was based on, and in doing so have demonstrated that there is a way to make power accountable in South Africa. The lesson has been learnt and it is unlikely that it will be un-learnt anytime soon. I expect that protest culture will intensify over the next few years in South Africa, and that a crisis of mammoth proportions will likely unfold.

The struggle of the long-marginalised and desperate poor of South Africa is yet again converging from the peripheries to the centres of power. That, more than anything, is a strong indication that the winds of socio-political change have begun to blow again in South Africa. Whether they are miners or farmworkers in remote mining and agricultural towns, residents of informal settlements and poor communities that are scattered on the peripheries of cities, or students and scholars whom the system does not service or prioritise, the indisputable fact of the momentum that is gathering is that it will sustain itself until it reaches a tipping point.  

Exactly where it will lead is uncertain, but what is certain, in my view, is that there is no going back now. That’s a lesson that South African history teaches clearly; when the momentum is on the side of the public, they are relentless and resilient. The groups that feel invisible to power now have a way of making themselves incontrovertibly visible, and it is likely that they will make every effort to capitalise on their newfound visibility to drive for serious and lasting political changes in South Africa. Perhaps it will serve as a second political enlightenment, perhaps it will lead to increased chaos and anarchy. Whatever the case, it is long overdue.

P.S. Incidentally, after writing this blog, I learnt today that the deputy president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, an ex-trade unionist turned billionaire, has been served summons over the Marikana shootings.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Divide and Conquer: #FeesMustFall

The South African government’s response to the countrywide #FeesMustFall protest that erupted in tertiary institutions across South Africa has proved dismal. Perhaps I have lapsed into cynicism, but in my view the responses have been clumsy at best, and the ruling party has squandered a potent opportunity to provide clear and decisive leadership on an issue that is dear to all South Africans.

After initially claiming that the responsibility for responding to the #FeesMustFall protests did not lie with his department, but was rather the responsibility of Universities (at a press conference), the embattled Minister for Higher Education and Training (Blade Nzimande) appeared to make a quick about turn. The very next day he announced that fee increases would be capped at six per cent. Later, having rejected his offer, the students converged on the Union Buildings in Pretoria in protest. At this stage, the president announced that a zero per cent fee increase would be put in place.

Minister Nzimande, like our largely absent president, has attempted to manoeuvre out of the crisis by placing the blame with the institutions of higher learning, and by calling on the private sector to fit the bill. This despite the fact that state funding to universities has fallen from around 70 per cent to 40 per cent in the new democratic dispensation, and that the Governor of the Reserve Bank stated that it would likely not be necessary to draw on private sector funds free education.

So far, government has only committed to a zero per cent increase in fees. The two other pressing demands were to end outsourcing of blue collar workers at tertiary institutions, and to commit to providing universal free education to all in the country in the foreseeable future (i.e. “in our lifetime” as the students put it). These demands went unaddressed.

The events of October 2015 are unprecedented in recent history i.e. the past two decades since the first election. Only in the 1970s and 80s did South Africa experience large scale mobilisation across class and race lines, with students coming together with workers to champion the struggle for democracy. And the ruling government’s response, as well as that of tertiary institutions, initially mirrored that of the Apartheid government to a startling degree.

The police were mobilised, and acted brutally to suppress protests, and targeted student leaders where they could to destabilise the protest movement. Apartheid era legislation was invoked by universities to clamp down on protests. The National Police Commissioner recently announced that a “third force” was at work, because the protests appeared largely “leaderless” (this itself speaks volumes about which century the country’s leadership are stuck in; it’s as though they have never heard of the “Occupy” movement or the Arab Spring).

The public stood by shocked, unable to comprehend how the ex-liberation party rulers of today could invoke the very same tactics that the Apartheid government used to suppress dissent and eliminate opposition. Yet there is more to the spin that the government has engaged in. Their responses have been cynically poised to extract benefit out of the crisis rather than responding to it with genuine resolve and leadership.

Firstly, the government’s response has been to challenge the autonomy of universities. In the same way as it has challenged the independence of chapter nine institutions such as the judiciary and the public protector, as well as the media, it is now attempting to use the crisis to tighten its reigns on the country’s intelligentsia.

Secondly, the offer of a zero per cent fee increase, with no mention of the other two demands of student protesters, can cynically be interpreted as a deliberate attempt to split the student-worker alliance so as to limit the potential of a large scale countrywide protest movement emerging as a new political force to be reckoned with.

Thirdly, the statements by the Minister, that free education would only be made available to “poor” students, is a thinly veiled attempt at two things. Firstly it attempts to effectively maintain the existing NSFAS (national financial aid) system, which does not address the key demand (free education for all) and still prejudices students in near poverty conditions (so no real change to the existing system and all its pressing problems). Secondly, it can also be viewed as a strategic effort to divide the students along class lines.

By splitting the middle class and wealthy students from poor students, and from the worker movements, the energy of the protest movement can be significantly dissipated. Nothing saps the energy out of a movement as discord and division, something that the ruling party is acutely aware of given their own deep divisions and discord. The ‘divide and conquer’ tactics of the colonial and apartheid era rulers seems to have been adopted our erstwhile liberators.

The irony and short-sightedness of the response from government and tertiary institutions is that by splitting the protest movement along class lines, the result is sure to play into the hands of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). If poor students and workers are abandoned by their middle class comrades, the only viable political vessel that currently exists that can represent their interests is quite simply the EFF.

The Council for South African Trade Unions has split disastrously – even the ex-President Kgalema Motlanthe recently announced that the tripartite alliance between the ANC, the SACP and COSATU was “dead”. In other words; broad based representation of the multi-class and multi-race agenda (which the ANC once held the complete mandate for) is now in tatters. With COSATU still dithering within the alliance, having lost around 8 large unions, a large vacuum exists the political representation of the poor and working classes.

Only the EFF stands to gain from this ill-thought out set of responses to the very genuine and real concerns of the youth, who represent the future of the country. Poor leadership, from both the government and universities, has revealed the extent to which leaders have been co-opted by a set of logics that render them incapable of capturing the moment and converting into a major turning point for the country. Instead, puerile tactics and smug, grudging responses have been the order of the day.

And what an opportunity has been missed. If Jacob Zuma had seized upon this crisis to boldly declare that education would be free for all in South Africa within ten years, and that government would begin working on a plan in earnest to realise this vision, despite its numerous difficulties, he would have departed from the presidency having left behind an indisputable victory as his legacy. It may well have overshadowed the many misgivings and disappointments with his presidency.  

Instead, what has unfolded, has simply resembled more of the same indecisive, half-way-here half-way-there, stumbling leadership that has characterised much of his presidency. It is a pity, and a great shame, that the older generation in power could scarcely find a way to live up to the very same ideals that they once risked life and limb for. It is a telling lesson, and if my cynical perspective proves valid, they will pay for their lack of leadership in the next election. 

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Student Protests Scuppered by Institutions

The capitulation of government and universities in South Africa to student demands for a zero per cent increase in fees has enjoyed a fair amount of premature celebration. Students, universities, government and commentators alike have lauded the speed with which the hashtag mini-revolution in the higher education sector was achieved. 

Student protest action captured the imagination and admiration of broad swathes of South African society, for taking concerted and decisive action, and mobilizing in their thousands to take to the streets, march upon parliament, the union buildings, Luthuli House (the ANC headquarters) and a variety of other university and government buildings to voice their demands directly to those occupying the seats of power in South Africa. 

Indeed, it appeared as a clarion call to a new order had risen up out of nowhere, taking the older ruling generation by surprise. The Minister of Higher Education and Training - Blade Nzimande - had initially played down the protests, stating that it was not a "crisis", and had nothing to do with his department, deflecting the responsibility to the universities themselves instead. The very next day the mass protests forced him to concede all his previous statements and he proposed a 6 per cent cap on fee increases. 

The students were unmoved by Minister Nzimandes proposal, and intensified their protests. They made three clear demands to government and universities. These were for; (1) a zero percent increase in fees, (2) an end to outsourcing of blue collar workers at universities, and (3) a commitment to providing free education in their lifetime.

When the students marched upon the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the president Jacob Zuma was forced to concede to the demand for a zero per cent fee increase. He did not appear in person to the thousands of students amassed on the lawns of the Union Buildings as demanded. Instead, he appeared on television and made his announcement at a speaking pulpit that was positioned against a gold wall background. It was reminiscent of Hosni Mubarak's many announcements before his own capitulation in the Egyptian uprising in 2011.

Celebrations followed. Many students were euphoric, stunned by the speed of their own success, and by the power they possessed when they came together as a unified voice. Many had suffered police brutality. Some had sacrificed themselves as human shields for their fellow students because they were white, and understood that the police forces were more reluctant to harm white students than black students (they were correct in this assumption, as protesting students in former black universities, who are majority black, suffered more brutal treatment at the hands of police). 

The celebrations, however, were and remain premature. The inconvenient truth of struggle and revolutionary action is that the state and institutions rarely ever capitulate readily. You have to read the fine print and make doubly sure that you have indeed won a victory for your cause. It has since become evident that while the zero per cent increase in fees (presumably for a year) has been met, the other two demands (ending outsourcing of workers), and a clear commitment to free education, were not met. 

Instead, some sinister developments have unfolded. Hidden away in the stuttering presidents capitulation speech was a reference to challenging the autonomy of universities. The embattled leadership of the ruling party have repeatedly attempted to gain control over (independent) Chapter 9 institutions of the state (such as the judiciary and the public protectors office), as well as the media, in their quest to silence dissenting opinion and voices in society. 

By gaining control over universities and their purse strings (i.e. reserves and endowments) the leadership of the ruling party hope to be able to exert more control over the intelligentsia. The leadership of the ruling party are attempting to turn the crisis to their advantage, by slipping their own agenda under the door, hoping that nobody will notice because they are too happy celebrating a single, temporary concession.

The embattled Minister for Higher Education and Training - Blade Nzimande - had a few surprises of his own in store for parliament when he delivered his rebuttal and denial that he had not acted appropriately to resolve the crisis. In his speech he announced that the ruling party was working towards free education, but not for the rich. The rich, however, would be sought after to fund free education through extra taxation. 

This attempt to deflect attention towards the rich is problematic on several levels. Firstly, if you expect the rich to pay extra taxes to enable social welfare, then that social welfare needs to be available to all citizens. That will ensure that society is not divided on the provision of free education as a social welfare benefit. This notwithstanding that sheer wasted expenditure by government, and funds lost to corruption, would be more than adequate to fund free education for all. 

Secondly, and more importantly, in order to exclude the rich, you have to define what rich is. It is more than likely that the definition of rich would include the vast array of middle class students who have joined the protests, and who rightfully do not want to be saddled with student debt. In this scenario, the free education provided by the state would amount to little more than an extension of the NSFAS (National State Financial Aid System) i.e. a slightly modified version of the current system. This would scarcely lead to a wholly transformed education system, which lies at the centre of the demands that are being made. Free education in our lifetimes, remains a mirage in this pathetic offering. The buck is passed and what we are left with is 'more of the same'.

The universities have also played a tactical game in dealing with the student demands. After initially dealing with the protesting students, many universities opted to sideline the student body by dealing with elected student representative councils instead of the broader protest bodies. The result has been to split the student body. Some students want to get on with their lives, write exams, and worry about the outstanding demands later. Protest leaders and other students, however, understand - correctly in my view - that if the moment is not seized now, it may be a very long time before these issues are revisited. 

The leverage exists now, it may well dissipate substantially after the moment has passed. By missing the opportunity to leverage the significant power that they have gained over authorities now, they may well give the authorities the breathing space to recover, reorganise and ensure that further attempts are suitably thwarted. Moments of great change are fleeting, they do not endure beyond the culmination of events and processes that enable them. Struggle may be long and hard, but the window of opportunity to ensure that change actually happens is cruelly short. 

By putting their own interests before the workers who supported and accompanied the students in protest, as well as future generations, the students would have achieved very little in the end apart from a fantastical display of temporary resolve that caught the public imagination only to eventually disappoint in real terms. 

We have had many such experiences since 1994. There have been many potential pivotal moments (e.g. Nkandla, Polokwane and Marikana) that have been swept under the grinding wheels of the institutional and bureaucratic machinery and disappeared. In their wake they have left no significant progressive changes that society can hold up as real benefits. Instead, more of the same has resulted, and moments of great potential for radical change become lost in the overwhelming noise of every survival and institutional and bureaucratic process. 

This does not happen by accident, as it serves those in power more than it serves the rest of us. And as a result, the ruling classes can easily laugh off every attempt to challenge them, as they can rest assured that the vehicles that the apartheid state left behind contains all the mechanisms to stall and prevent substantive change, even if the majority are desperate for it.

A moment such as this, which has brought the entirety of the South African society back into political life, has the potential to be leveraged to great advantage. But it cannot be differed, left until later, as by then the circumstances that have enabled protesters to place pressure upon government and institutions would have passed. 

Adam Habib - the Vice Chancellor of Wits University - wrote a book entitled "South Africa's Suspended Revolution". It is not without irony, that he now finds himself as a key actor in a moment where the potential for radical, revolutionary change has presented itself, albeit on the opposite side of the fence where he is forced to service the institutional and bureaucratic norms of the university he runs and the higher education system at large. It is worth noting, as the ground gained over the past three weeks can easily be thwarted, and the revolution will yet again be suspended, this time perhaps indefinitely.


Tuesday, 27 October 2015

New Book: Lazarus in the Multiple: Awakening to the Era of Complexity

Lazarus in the Multiple: Awakening to the Era of Complexity

Surviving the Anthropocene

Published January 29 2016
Zero Books, UK

“Lazarus in the Multiple” presents a new philosophy on how to navigate the complex challenges that society faces in the 21st Century. It deploys the biblical “Lazarus” as the everyman of modernity, who is caught between past and present, life and death, and sleep and awakening amidst the humdrum and complexity of the “multiple”. The multiple is the great sea of noise[i] that lies both within and without Lazarus, from which social reality is born. In this casting, Lazarus is unable to distinguish the signal from the noise and hence remains trapped within enduring ritual and an unfulfilled existence. He is unable to find expression and take actions to bring about meaningful change within himself or in the world around him.

This book builds on the work of Michel Serres, as well as many other philosophers and theorists to articulate a new way of understanding real-world complexity[ii] and acting upon it. It invokes the metaphors of jazz musicians and fighters, and their particular ability to improvise and adapt to environments of great complexity and adversity. They achieve this through their ability to sense, intuit and seek out moments where rules can be broken in order to produce creative and innovative responses to change. As such, the philosophy put forward in this book has significant implications for leaders, strategists and everyday people who are tasked with navigating the challenges of modernity in an era that is characterised by fast changing and complex socio-cultural, economic, environmental, political and technological phenomena.

Whereas the departure point for traditional approaches to formulating theories of complexity draw on the mechanisms of complex systems, the theoretical approach adopted in this book takes the properties of complex systems as its starting point. This enables a wholly new way of deploying complexity theory in relation to societal challenges, and shifts the focus away from mechanistic, cybernetics oriented frameworks towards a post-humanist conception where sense, awareness and intuition become critical factors for negotiating the complexity of the multiple.

The book’s conceptual framework is deployed in a diverse set of complex societal challenges. These range from identity and the politics of forgiveness, to thoughtlessness and the manifestation of evil in society, to the bipolarity of left-right politics, and to the burning need for a behavioural transition that is required for society to adequately navigate the emerging developmental challenges of the 21st Century (such as global economic change, climate change and the loss of life supporting ecosystems). Thus, the usefulness of the conceptual framework is demonstrated. South Africa’s particular challenges are discussed in parts of the book, but these analyses are always strongly linked to their global relevance.  Through these discussions, the book identifies the debilitating and empowering potential of the multiple in an increasingly complex world.

However, while this book delivers new knowledge, it is not written the way an academic book on philosophy typically is. Rather, it is written as prose, and makes use of the power of narrative to accommodate contradictions, paradox and duality in understanding and navigating complexity. It is intended for a popular intellectual audience – i.e. a combination of philosophy-oriented creative, esoteric and academic readers – who are concerned with how to navigate the societal challenges of the 21st Century, and are interested in new ways of thinking about and conceptualising the challenges we face.

Details of Release:

“Lazarus in the Multiple” is a forthcoming publication of Zero Books (John Hunt Publications, UK) and will be released on January 29 2016. It is available in both electronic and print versions and can be (pre)ordered online at:


Surviving the Anthropocene

[i] As articulated in the work of the philosopher Michel Serres: see Serres, M. (1995/1982). Genesis. USA: University of Michigan Press. James, G. & Nielson J. (translators). Originally published in French by Editions Grasset et Fasquelle (1982).
[ii] Complex systems exhibit emergence i.e. surprising, often abrupt changes that cannot be predicted, but arises from extensive, ‘open-ness’, rich interconnectedness and multiplicity. Complex systems are hence highly variable, and are heavily characterised by uncertainty and non-linearity. Moreover, complex systems cannot be understood from one perspective alone because they are multivariate.

Why Sustaining the Student Protests is Important!

The momentous events of the past two weeks in South Africa do not guarantee that any significant and lasting changes will be achieved, unless students are able to put their principles before personal interests. This is the unfortunate fact of struggle against oppression. It involves sacrifice, and there is no way around that. 

No significant political struggle is easy, because bringing about change requires sustained effort against established and entrenched systems and bureaucracies that resist change, and absorb pressures without substantially changing their essential DNA. They are remarkably resilient to small, incremental changes, and quickly bounce back even more strongly when they are subjected to fickle pressures.

While it is understandable that many staff and students will be concerned about postponing the academic curriculum – and examinations in particular – the partial victory that students have obtained is unlikely to lead to the sea changes in the education system as a whole, which the majority of the poor in South Africa have waited on for the past 21 years. 

At risk is the loss of semester in the lives of student body and academic staff. Many are in rush to complete the year, so that their lives aren’t put on hold, and they do not have to endure sacrifices that will impact their lives. There is that scholarship to hold on to, there is that job waiting, there is a postgraduate degree to embark upon … that’s all quite understandable. However, when you focus on partial, short-term gains you often lose perspective on the long term goals of struggle, and the ability to see them through.

There is a long history of struggle in South Africa, and there are plentiful resources to draw upon to understand what it takes to bring about meaningful change in systems that resist them fiercely, and when forced to act end up appropriating change on their own terms. This results in a thinly disguised perpetuation of the same basic system – i.e. cosmetic changes in language, jargon and appearance – but no substantive change, no fundamental change in the role and functions of the institution and its bureaucracy. 

The bureaucracies and institutional arrangements that sustain and perpetuate the old order rarely change as a result of partial, short-term victories. Sustained and concerted effort is required to change systems. The idea that you can bring about substantive change by embracing the system and working with it, instead of resisting it and exerting pressure upon its functions, is misplaced.

In order to shift a long-standing bureaucratic system into a new state, where its useful functions are maintained, but it is fundamentally transformed in relation to its past (i.e. without all-out complete revolution where the system is dismantled entirely), the rhythms of the bureaucracy need to be disrupted. Simply put, ‘business-as-usual’, if allowed to continue uninterrupted, results in weak, cosmetic change, instead of an evolution into a wholly new modality where the services and functions performed by the bureaucracy are fundamentally transformed.

That is why it is important for the students to maintain their demand that government and institutions of higher education commit to their third demand – i.e. free and fair education in their lifetimes – and to refuse to service the requirements of the bureaucracy until a political commitment is announced. It is not important to address all the questions of how it will be achieved at this stage. What is important is to make the political commitment and establish timelines for achieving it. 

Because South Africa is governed by a ruling party with an overwhelming majority it is possible to make such a political commitment by both the government and the state. The ANC now needs to commit clearly to the central demand of a generation for whose freedom it struggled. It is a powerful opportunity for leaders to fundamentally reset the trajectory of the democratic dispensation, and ensure that equality – as a central principle – is serviced by the state and its key institutions.

Real revolutions require endurance; they are marathons. In order for hashtag revolutions to amount to more than brief moments of instant gratification, it is important to organise and mobilise against the key institutions and bureaucracies that are required to transform their essential roles in society by disrupting them. Simply going along with systems that have successfully resisted change for many generations, and are incredibly resilient to the pressures that are brought to bear on them, merely results in more of the same. 

You can’t work within the system in order to change it; you have to disrupt it strategically by finding the key leverage points within the system that allow it to perpetuate itself. Those key leverage points are examinations, semesters, academic years and so forth. By targeting those leverage points, students can ensure that they bring about change without destroying the entire system. Yes it requires sacrifice, but it is the essential truth of life that nothing worthwhile is gained without sacrifice and persistent endeavour.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Today The Students Became The Teachers in South Africa

The 23rd of October 2015 will go down in history as a day of legendary and eternal significance. While the events of June 16 1976 (where schoolchildren were shot with live ammunition by the apartheid government for protesting against being taught in Afrikaans and for receiving sub-standard 'Bantu education') shook the country for the cruel and callous actions of the apartheid state, leaving a deep mark in the black psyche, today's events constitute a critical lesson for both the older generations and the generations still to come, that is, 

If you want government to take action over the issues that concern society, society must march up to the doorsteps of power and demand it!

We should thank them. Some of the youth, barely out of school, gathered in the thousands to converge upon key government venues, most significantly parliament in Cape Town on the 21st and the Union Buildings in Pretoria on the 23rd. They shook up the country. They showed us, by example, how appallingly pallid our apathy has been, and how easily we could have shaken it off and brought about the changes we desired much earlier on in the transition to democracy.

The largely peaceful demonstrations by tertiary education students across the country were, in small part, accompanied by some violent acts. Some commentators, notably Angelo Fick, expressed surprise and disdain towards the pockets of violent behaviour that flared up at the Union Buildings as well as in other venues in the country where students had gathered. The basic argument was that they would be undermining their own struggle by engaging in undisciplined behaviour. 

However, this lofty perspective fails to acknowledge a range of key realities about what has transpired, and what persists in the socio-political landscape of South Africa. Most of the youth of today grew up in an era of constitutional freedom that wasn't accompanied by adequate social and economic freedoms. Over the years, the ruling ANC government had become a bulky political party apparatus and bureaucracy that has scarcely been able to mobilize the ample resources of the country to the benefit of the majority of the citizenry, who expected that a post-Apartheid dispensation would attempt to reverse the vast injustices of Apartheid. In this plodding and corrupt new democratic dispensation, power became difficult to hold to account through the ballot. There were no viable political alternatives to the ANC, which has ruled by more than a 60 per cent majority for over two decades. 

Under these conditions, the only viable way of holding power responsible was to take to the streets. Indeed, since 2004, major service delivery protests grew from double digits (around 14), to over 100 per year in 2008, growing to a peak of over 400 in 2013. This does not take into account smaller, peaceful protests, which according to civil society sources, vastly outnumber major events. 

Communities learnt to take to the streets to demand that water services be adequately provided and administered. The same went for demands for proper sanitation, affordable electricity, transport, and an array of other basic needs and services. The youth of today learnt how to take action while growing up in this environment. They learnt that you needed to raise your voices, blockade roads, throw a few rocks at the police, dodge rubber bullets and buckshot, and disappear into the side-streets when the police force came rolling into your neighbourhood in their apartheid-era styled Nyalas. 

Service delivery protests have been mounting steadily over the years. Anybody who paid a keen interest in them could see that they were a continuation of the Apartheid era protests that sought to "make the country ungovernable" as they ANC had called for. With scarce avenues to hold power accountable in the new democratic dispensation, poor and marginal communities and neighbourhoods all over the country had to resort to civil unrest in order to get the simple services that had been promised them in every election since 1994 by the ANC government. This learning ground has constituted the formative political territory in which their active political identities have taken shape.

The youth have aunts, uncles, fathers, mothers, grandparents and whole extended community and other networks, in addition to the new media and communications available to them, and through this they have learnt many key lessons about their history under apartheid, the failings of the post-apartheid dispensation, and how to take action in the political realm. In addition, they have the aforementioned territorial learning and experiences upon which to draw. They can organise themselves. They can articulate themselves. We need to join hands with them, let them lead us into a new future, and facilitate their desires as best we can. 

They have tasted - not only the sweet treasure of taking political action fearlessly against the state - they have emerged victorious. They will continue to take action, as they have revived the mechanisms through which broad-based political action emerges from. They have earned our respect, and we had better start listening, and closely, lest the world move ahead of us and we are left with no other option but to climb into the dustbin of history and watch the world go by. Today I am not a teacher, but a learner, and I am looking forward to learning more!


6 Steps to Free Education in South Africa ... & the Price of Failure

If education had been made free, at all levels in South Africa, early on in the post-1994 democratic dispensation, we would be reaping the benefits right now. We would not have the highest levels of inequality in the world and a schooling system that ranks second last in the world in mathematics. We would have a more agile and capable citizenry who are able to create and exploit opportunities more confidently and keenly. We would also have created a larger middle class, and significantly lowered the potential for socio-political instability in the country. Our drastic levels of inequality - the highest in the world - would be significantly less.

Instead, we wasted large amounts of taxpayers’ money on corrupt arms deals with spiralling costs, outdated and defunct energy infrastructure (Medupi and Khusile), enriched a small elite and entrenched inequality, and created a whole generation of useless BEE shareholders and tenderpreneurs who are incapable of contributing to the productive economy in a real and meaningful way. The Apartheid bureaucracies that the new, democratic government inherited proved to be the real winners, as they have ‘carried on regardless’ of the new political realities that have emerged with democracy. South Africa remains a police state, where indiscriminate force is used against democratic protesters, whether they are workers, communities or students. The systems of exploitation that existed under Apartheid still exists today, and that lies at the core of the continuation of the struggle today.

On the plus side, we have a whole new generation of youth who have now demonstrated that they are willing to take the fight to the doorsteps of the national institutions and government, even parliament. Soon, they will constitute the voting majority in the country, and their voices will be made even clearer.

The burning question today, however; is how do we free up the resources to make education free?

Over and over again, we hear the voices of outdated pragmatism stating that there simply aren’t enough funds to achieve this. However, one only needs to do a little bit of research to understand that there are many countries, some of them with even more drastic funding challenges, who have managed to provide free education in their countries. The issue is not about the extent of government funds; it is about how we administer funds.

It is also a matter of how capably our leaders are able to understand the future that is emerging and to innovate new offerings. It does not follow automatically that what worked in other countries will work in South Africa. Moreover, there are a range of opportunities that exist today to improve and free up education that did not exist even 15 years ago. A wise strategy for freeing up education in South Africa would look to exploit these emerging opportunity spaces as well as reallocate funds. It may be possible to reap considerable benefits from such a strategy, benefits that extend far beyond issuing qualifications.

So here are a few key steps that can be taken to free up funds, and overhaul the education system so that no child is denied a quality education:

1.       Transforming bloated bureaucracies: Institutional bureaucracies for education in South Africa dismally fail the people they service. Whether school-children whose textbooks do not arrive until half way through the year (if at all), or the bloated and inefficient systems at tertiary institutions are concerned, there is a clear and evident opportunity to overhaul the bureaucracies so that they work simply, efficiently and at minimal cost to users. One direct observation that I can make of universities is that they have not made good use of ICT to streamline their operations. Instead, they recreated electronic trails alongside paper trails and doubled the bureaucratic requirements, creating complex webs for simple tasks to be executed. This requires decisive leadership, systems experts and technocrats who are proven competence in reducing bureaucratic inefficiencies, while providing improved service at the same time. This is perhaps the simplest step that can be taken towards free up funding in the education systems in the country; it needs to directly target the administrations of institutions and organisations of education in South Africa.

2.       Harnessing innovations in education systems and technologies: There is ample room to harness innovations in systems and technology that contribute to education, so that the educational model that prevails – whether at school or tertiary education levels – can be made more broadly accessible, affordable and effective. Re-thinking how education is conducted, and harnessing innovations to achieve a revamped system, is a necessary and important step in the right direction. The current form in which education systems function is largely a continuation of outdated and defunct institutional and organisational education systems that have historically serviced elites. Distance learning, electronic learning and tutorials, interactive knowledge and information portals etc. have the potential to vastly transform the educational landscape and are doing so elsewhere in the world. The South African fear of innovation, and desperation to mirror Oxbridge styled institutions, is the main obstacle in this respect.  

3.       Community service: Paying back to communities and the country through public service (e.g. in education, civil engineering, social services etc.) is an employment creating strategy that can – at the same time – ensure that young graduates have secure employment after their education instead of large student loan debts, and can contribute to national priorities of government at the same time. This also has the potential to significantly improve our public service institutions and organisations by ensuring that fresh talent is regularly brought into these institutions, along with new skills, ideas, energy and potential for innovation. Instead of a being lumped with a student loan, students can move into civil service positions where they earn income, gain experience, and get the opportunity to build up savings, while paying back to the society that they belong to. This has the potential to significantly increase the relevance of the youth to society, and to curb selfish, individualist aspirations that are fuelled by the financial insecurity they experience in an uncaring system.

4.       Private sector involvement: Where private sector companies make substantial gains from educated members of society entering their workforce, a portion of their taxes can be allocated directly back into education systems. They can also become involved – and indeed many are – in directly funding efforts by educational institutions that either directly benefit their operations, or efforts that they feel are worthy of philanthropic support. A range of bursary, scholarship and internship programmes already exist, and these could be boosted through additional tax relief for such programmes. 

5.       Re-allocation of government funds: As a whole, however, the private sector cannot be expected to act as anything more than a gap-filler. Government needs to re-orient its priorities and restructure its budgets accordingly. Putting education before large global deals – such as the arms deal, the coal-fired power station deals and the nuclear power station deals – in response to public demand, is the responsibility of elected leaders. As a society, we should not accept that elected leaders negotiate developmental deals that fly in the face of what the citizenry considers as its highest priorities. Restructure the national budget to reflect the needs of the people. Spend a minimum of 2.5 per cent of GDP on education. Reducing government inefficiencies and wasted resources is key to this. 

6.       Harnessing opportunities in emerging sectors: The next wave of global technological innovation and economic growth is the green wave. Investment flows into green technologies (renewable energies in particular) far that going into conventional technologies and there is much room for establishing a strong national skills base by investing in training, education and internships in this sector. There are many global funds that could potentially be leveraged in this respect (e.g. Clinton Climate Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, carbon funding, as well as global banks and the new BRICs bank), to build a skills base that will enable the youth to participate and grow a new sector, as well as to vastly increase the national competencies and competitive leverage in the sector.

These are six simple steps that can be taken, in addition to others, to transform education in South Africa.

There is no equality without equal access to education. At the core of the struggle for socio-economic equality lies this simple, but critical truth. The potential of whole generations has been wasted due to this simple truth not being placed front and centre in the priorities of government and the state. It is a truth that my generation, who entered university just before 1994, were deeply concerned about. However, at the time the prevailing narrative was not trust our leaders and not to destabilise the fragile new democracy. We complied, and we regret it greatly. Neoliberal values set in, and many of my generation forsake the struggle for the sake of the desire for wealth instead of paying attention to what was unfolding in the new democracy. Quite clearly, that failure has come back to haunt us today, as the next generation have revived the struggle for freedom and equality.  

We paid for this apathy; the result was that most of my generation were saddled with student debt. In my case, my mother spent upwards of 16 years in exile as a member of the ANC’s military wing, so she has precious little financial security herself. My father’s pension went to funding my first degree. Years later, after giving 8 years of devoted service to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) due to a strong desire to contribute to “rebuilding the nation”, I too had to draw my pension to fund the final year of my PhD in 2009. 

I had secured funds internally to complete the final year of my PhD, but was told by the acting director at that time that “The CSIR is not in the business of producing PhDs!” He declared null and void the agreement I had with my main line manager (who supported me) to use the funds I had won to focus on writing up my PhD, away from the office. Instead, my acting director wanted me to focus on money-earning projects (this despite the conditions of my employment requiring me to do a PhD). My white colleagues were treated differently when they were engaged in PhD studies; granted permission to work from home. I wasn't asking for any favours, just the same privileges I had seen others enjoy. I saw the writing on the wall and quit. Without a PhD I had no future in my field, and would never enjoy the same status as my white colleagues no matter how hard I worked, or how much funds or awards I won. No exit interview was granted to me; I filled out a form and left, my dreams in tatters but my determination intact. 

I still don’t have financial security at the age of 41, and now have a wonderful 3 month old child to care for, whose future I fear for. I am blessed, however. I have a good career as a consultant, and work globally. My first book will be published by a UK publisher in January 2016. It is a book born of the reflections of living 20 years under apartheid and 20 years free. I have been made offers to join the ‘get-rich-quick’ BEE networks, but I searched my soul and decided to go my own way. I am contributing, in my small way, to building a future for humanity that I believe in.

I have rarely spoken of why I left my job to complete my studies, and have never written about it. I felt too alone in my fate, but the events of the past week have reminded me that I was never alone. I share this last personal note publicly as a message to the students who are marching on the Union Buildings today to confront the president. The price of failure is high; do not back down, do not give in. Don’t stop until you attain free education for all, for it is only that which can lead to equality and dignity for you, and for the generations to come. Without this victory, your empty hands and pockets will stay empty, and your children will face the same struggles that you, your parents and theirs before them did. It's time to break the cycle. I am so full of joy to be alive to witness your bravery, solidarity, compassion and resilience.

Aluta Continua!
#FeesMustFall #NationalShutDown


Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Storm Clouds Brewing in South Africa: Forgotten Promises and the Post-Apartheid Youth

There is a familiar narrative that the current African National Congress (ANC) government responds to with every crisis that unfolds in the country. Criticism, whether from the media, the poor, middle classes, or elite are greeted by accusations of conspiracy, anti-black government racism, or ideological ignorance. The standard response of government is that it is not responsible for whatever crisis is unfolding, and that sinister post-Apartheid forces in South African society are capitalising on the crisis.

The response to the current tertiary education fee crisis is no different. When confronted by the students and the media over what course of action he would take as the Minister of Higher Education and Training, South African Communist Party Secretary General and ex-trade unionist Blade Nzimande made it clear that the issue of fee increases had nothing to do with his department, and was solely the responsibility of the universities. A day later he announced a unilateral 6 per cent cap on fee increases for all universities in a rather quick about turn.

In the days leading up to Nzimande’s original denial of responsibility, the ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa stated that the student protests were “legitimate” actions taken against “unreasonable and exclusionary fee increments” that were being “imposed” by universities. The South African Communist Party website also proclaimed its support for “the student protest against exorbitant fees and sky-high fee increments”. The ANC Women’s league and Cosatu (the Council for South African Trade Unions) also proclaimed their support for the students.

This inconsistency in government’s role and positioning on key issues of importance is not new. There is a strong sense that the ruling government, which has experienced great tensions with many societal institutions in South Africa, engages in spin-doctoring where they’re perceived ‘enemies’ are attacked. It serves as precedent to exercise undue control over errant organisations and institutions that – in its view – undermines its liberation-party narrative and exposes the inconsistency between its language and actions. Their vocal support for the #RhodesMustFall movement is a case in point; they did not expect it to turn against them.

However, the ruling government cannot escape the steady and increasing public discontent and societal unrest that has ramped up since 2007. Major service (non) delivery protests increased from around 14 in 2004 to around 100 per year in 2007, and reached a high of over 400 in 2013. These are protests conducted by poor and marginalised communities over service delivery failures by local governments in their areas. The events at Marikana, where the slaughter of mineworkers by police was initially praised by the now suspended police commissioner, served to reinforce the notion that the ruling government had become disconnected from the plight of ordinary South Africans. In addition, numerous public sector and private sector strikes have disrupted services and slowed economic growth while the country’s broad-based worker union COSATU has largely fragmented and fallen apart over its alliance with the ruling ANC government.

But the key demographic that has been hamstrung by the antics and arrogance of the ruling party are the youth. The government schooling system has suffered greatly; South Africa now ranks second last in the world in mathematics education at schooling level. Private education is desirable by most parents even though wages have not kept up with inflation, and spiralling debt has rendered many household budgets precariously balanced between near poverty and poverty. That South Africa ranks highest in terms of inequality in the world, only serves to exacerbate the social tensions in a post-Apartheid society where the previously excluded, marginalised and exploited have legitimate expectations that their plight would have improved after more than two decades of democracy. Indeed, that was the future that was promised to them by the ruling party, and early on in the post 1994 dispensation (when I was a student) the quest for free education at all levels was a key point of discontent with the ANC-led governments neoliberal policies.

Yet the analysis put forward by some political commentators from the media and elsewhere seem out of touch with the realities that are driving the agenda for change in South Africa. Facetious, trite, didactic analyses such as that put forward by Judith February in her op-ed “Why is the state not the target of student protests” fail to acknowledge that the students are not politically illiterate, but have access to a much broader range of information, discursive movements and potential for networked action than in recent history. As it turned out, the very next day after the article was published, the students converged upon Parliament in Cape Town, where the budget speech was due to be given. Indeed, this was followed by a protest by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who disrupted the parliamentary session by chanting “Fees Must Fall!” and holding up placards. In turn, the students, who were protesting at the gates, broke through and stormed the parliamentary precinct where they were met with teargas and stun grenades.

What is worrying about such an article (and similar perspectives put forward by numerous other writers, most notably from the white middle class and business sector) is that the author appeared to be speaking down to the very constituency and demographic that has agitated for, and brought about a resurrection of political action in South Africa. In the past 21 years, there have scarcely been changes of the magnitude that have unfolded since young political leaders such as Julius Malema (of the EFF) and Mmusi Maimane (of the Democratic Alliance) have risen to ascendancy in opposition politics in South Africa. The EFF in particular, who campaigns on the basis of free education, has much to gain from the discontent of the youth, as they have no viable political alternatives through which to find representation.   

At the heart of this lies a distinct generational attitude that has arrested South African politics since 1994; of an older generation that is out of touch with the youth of today. It does not matter whether this older generation is in government, the private sector or civil society; they are often so caught up with their own legacy that the crises facing the youth of today are cast as frivolous and petty by comparison. They are deeply mistaken. They seem oblivious of where the major forces for socio-political change almost always emerge from. Even worker struggles are often spearheaded by the youth. This much history is consistent about. They are a critical voice for society, because the future is mostly theirs to live out. The decisions made today, on their behalf, should not exclude them, and it is becoming increasingly unlikely that they will allow themselves to be excluded from power and decision-making to the extent that South African political elites have become used to.

The ANC-led government, who sat stoically listening to the budget speech while university students outside, seemed limp, an elite waiting for their numbers to be up. And it is only a matter of time before the winds of change come sweeping through the corridors of power again. It is unwise to underestimate or discount the people of South Africa and a youth that have now tasted real freedom (i.e. the freedom to directly take on the state). South Africans may be reluctant to take action, and they may ordinarily prefer normality to disorder, but when push comes to shove the entirety of South African society takes action. You underestimate them at your peril.

P.S. On a personal note; I haven’t been prouder of South African students in almost two decades. #FeesMustFall