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.