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