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.

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