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.


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