Sunday, 31 January 2016

Why the ANC Endures at the Polls

As South Africans, we tend to think of the transformation argument as either about diversity, or about economic emancipation, and to think of both as necessary ends in themselves. Yet what we seldom consider, openly, is what the political implications of both these broad transformation goals in South African society would amount to in real terms.
The question of why black South Africans have steadily continued to vote for the ANC in every election since 1994 in such a large majority is deeply puzzling for many white and/or middle class South Africans. The chattering middle classes can often be heard professing deep confusion over why – despite the very obvious problems abounding in the ANC under the Zuma administration – black South Africans continue to vote so convincingly for the ANC.
As each election approaches, there is always some hope that the ANC will finally get its comeuppance for the wayward and unrepentant behaviour of its leadership. Yet repeatedly, instead of a large vote away from the ANC, only slight, incremental aggregate declines occur.
Many reasons are offered for the overwhelming strength of the ANC in the South African political arena. Some say that the ANC’s history and legacy as a long-term liberation organisation inspires an unconditional loyalty; it is regarded as “home” to an overwhelming majority. Others attribute it to the historic conglomeration of liberation and worker representation organisations such as the United Democratic Front (UDF) and COSATU under the ANC umbrella early in the transition to democracy. In the crassest of race-based reasoning, the ANC is simply viewed as a black party that represents black interests in South Africa. More recently, many believe that new growth in the ANC’s support base is attributed to the greed of the “wrong types of people” who have infested the ANC for personal enrichment.
It is true that all these interpretations have merit, although to varying extents, but they miss an essential and key reason that the ANC’s popularity amongst black South Africans remains strong, and why challenges to the ANC remain modest. In my view, the reason the ANC remains so attractive whether it performs well or not in government, is because of the lack of transformation in South African society and its political economy.
As South Africans, we tend to think of the transformation argument as either about diversity (ie diversifying South African organisations and institutions, and through that society), or about economic emancipation (ie class transformation), and to think of both as necessary ends in themselves. Yet what we seldom consider openly, is what the political implications of both these broad transformation goals in South African society would amount to in real terms.
It stands to reason that the more inclusive and equitable a society South Africa becomes, the more black South Africans would stand to gain increased levels of access and membership to different power bases and clusters within broader South African society. Over and above diversification and class transformation in society, access to multiple seats of power, in meaningful numbers and proportions, would – in real terms – open up access to a broader range of sites from which influence could be exercised. The poor substantive quality of transformation in the majority of South African organisations and institutions, effectively translates into a situation where the only viable seat of significant power that black South Africans can gain access to resides within the ANC.
If black South Africans had – over the past 21 years – gained significantly increased access and membership to a broader, more diverse set of power bases within society, then the transition to greater plurality would be more of a reality within the South African political spectrum today. The key power bases that remain weakly transformed in South Africa typically lie outside of the state and military, both of which have undergone extensive transformation by the ANC over the last 21 years, and are closely coupled with the ruling party in many ways. These power bases typically reside in key extra-state sectors, institutions and organisations in South Africa. In particular; the private sector, political organisations, parastatals and academic institutions are amongst the worst performing in respect of transformation.
The defensive posture that was adopted by these actors towards transformation imperatives early on in the post-apartheid democratic dispensation, has in fact worked against the evolution of a democratic South Africa to a more pluralistic and diverse political sphere.
Twenty one years later, inequality in South African society ranks amongst the highest in the world, despite its relative abundance of raw materials, reliable institutions, financial power and a strong economic base. South Africa has become a cautionary emerging market tale, alongside Brazil, and public dissent towards lack of adequate socio-economic change has grown amongst black South Africans, despite the widespread support for the ANC.
Historical loyalties aside, the key thing to understand about what the ANC offers, however, is that it remains the only viable option – in terms of its vast and far reaching power base within government and the state – through which black South Africans can come together and jointly influence the exercise of power within South African society. For all its flaws and inadequacies the ANC remains the single most influential political platform through which black South Africans can exercise real and meaningful power; the power to change society. When black South Africans converge upon ANC meetings and congregations, there is a palpable sense that they can exercise great power through the political party they belong to or support. There is little doubt, among participants, that they can accomplish more by remaining within the ANC’s ambit than outside of it.
There is, in addition, a further irony/paradox to this situation; the ANC itself, by virtue of its unquestionable and reliable support base, has little motivation to oversee a more radical, faster transformation of South African society. It only has to show vague progress towards real socio-economic transformation in order to ensure that voters recognise its good intent and remain committed to the party. Consequently, it has no real urgency – except that which is motivated by its own sense of virtue and/or responsibility – to fight for more radical change and/or pace of change in South Africa. Slower progress towards a fully diversified society means that the ANC has ever more time to consolidate its base as a behemoth in South African political spectrum. It is only reasonable to expect that a successful democratic transition would result in a more diverse set of alternatives for black South Africans to exert political influence through.
A few key factors that hamper transformation efforts warrant brief mention here. Constitutional transformation imperatives alone – ie emphasising the ‘equal in law’ imperative, as above (or the same as) the ‘equal in society’ imperative – is unlikely to lead to a broader, more inclusive political arena in South African society. There also is a clear need to rethink the main mechanisms through which transformation has been initiated, enabled and/or catalysed. 

Black Economic Empowerment, for example, requires considerable reflection and reformulation. Instead of broad-scale transformation, it has resulted in the creation of a powerful black elite, but not a truly inclusive, broad-based middle class, or working class. The transformation of financial capital, and not productive capital in the South African economy, is in part responsible for this. While some “black diamonds” have become greatly enriched through partnering with white businesses or joining them (i.e. owning shares), the economy is still lacking in broad-scale participation by black entrepreneurs and industrialists in the productive economy.
Whilst on the surface, the ANC gives the appearance that is it always busy rethinking and reformulating the economic and developmental strategies and plans of the state, in reality there has been a rather consistent formulation and implementation of middle-of-the-road, sometimes piecemeal designs. Very little significant changes in economic policy, for example, have occurred between different ANC leadership cabinets. The development plans that the ANC puts out publicly, are designed to give the impression that it is inclusive and innovative. However, in reality, they do not have to make substantive contributions to the South African political economy in terms of innovation and diversification; they only have to ensure that it remains stable.
Consequently, stable, incremental progress towards transformation, is what the ANC’s contribution has amounted to in reality.  Black South Africans have scarce alternatives through which to pursue this transformation and so remain locked in within the realm of the ANC's offerings. However, while the lack of political alternatives has been a key feature, recently, alternatives such as the Economic Freedom Fighters and ex-COSATU worker parties have emerged. Their more radical rhetoric may prove appealing to some black voters, but as long as the ANC can play a good game of political spin (i.e. capture the language black political opposition is using, such as the language of “redistribution” and “economic freedom”) it will no doubt remain more attractive due to its vast power base, and remain its most readily preferred option.
It is not due to purely to loyalty, sentiment or race identity that the ANC remains so powerful in the political spectrum, but rather, its popularity is ensured by its centrality as the major political voice for the black citizenry, and the fact that it is so strongly identified with government, the state and the military. Until there is substantive change in the broader South African socio-economy, it is unrealistic to expect that black South Africans would diversify their political support and seek out alternatives through which to influence the direction of the country. It’s that simple.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

What Academics Don’t Understand About the #FeesMustFall Movement

Recent exchanges, statements and debates on the crisis in the higher education system and the #FeesMustFall protests in South Africa have exposed some inconvenient truths about academia and the academic project they oversee.

An unavoidable and critical truth is that there is a tiny academic elite in South Africa on which the academic project is intimately dependent. An academic elite of professors – black and white, men and women – although not nearly transformed or diverse enough, who are essentially gatekeepers of the academic project, while simultaneously acting as its proponents, engineers, shapers, and ‘entrepreneurs’ in the donor-driven global academic funding system.

And they are a tiny elite indeed, not because of their exceptional talents (apart from a few), but because they have acquired a rare privilege in this society. They occupy the tip of the spear with which we ‘hunt’ for the truth of our condition as a nation, and fashion potential remedies to it. They have acquired disproportionate power (in relation to their size) over the way we think about ourselves and our society, how we understand our condition and the various dimensions of it, and how we diagnose and generate prognoses for this condition.

They are undeniably the products of a vastly unequal and biased system. Some have become part of it through the privilege of wealth and greater opportunity, as well as access to exclusive networks and philanthropic funding. Others have fought their way into the system, and gained their positions through struggle, sacrifice, hard work and persistence, or sheer luck.

Either way, they have, by virtue of their membership to this unequal system, become resident within a network of particular privilege and power in South African society. This is not to question the integrity or ethical merits of the academic elite, but merely to state the facts of their existence, and the kind of power they possess. Indeed, the very best of them have the world at their feet, and could relocate with ease should the national project go sour or collapse.

It is an undeniably unequal system that has produced them, however, and herein lies the most critical question that should frame the debate, the awareness of which, appears to be missing from the public debates over the #FeesMustFall student movement. For it is this very academic system that has – in large part – failed to adequately lobby for and bring about the kind of transformation and diversity in its institutions that, 21 years later, have led to a national explosion of protests in academic institutions across the country. The question of why, after 21 years, the academic project and its institutions have failed to adequately transform and diversify, and a tiny academic elite has been maintained, has largely gone unmentioned and ignored in the current debates.

To be fair, there are a few amongst this elite who have agitated strongly for more substantive transformation and change within the higher education system. However, until recently they have been largely side-lined and irrelevant within the greater network of power that reproduces the academic project and its institutions in South Africa. For example, a report on how free education could be realised at tertiary level that was submitted to the Minister for Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, was not taken seriously enough to generate a genuine process of planning towards free education as an ideal in South Africa, even over the long term.

This begs a serious question of both the academic elite, as well as government, who have misrepresented the student demands for free education as a demand for free education to be granted immediately. The reality is that this was not what the student leaders demanded. They made the demand for a plan that would realise “free education in our lifetime”. They did not demand free education overnight. Yet this is the impression that the public have been left with.

The student movement was reasonable in dealing with the question of free education; they were not adopting a position that demanded that radical change occur immediately. They demanded acknowledgement that the vision (actualising free education as a right for South Africans) should be awarded high priority in government planning, as well as that of the higher education institutions, in keeping with the promises that were made to South Africans in the new democratic dispensation, as well as the freedom charter, and the constitutional and developmental emphasis on addressing historic exploitation and inequalities in South Africa.

Surely we should expect that, given the willingness and enthusiasm that both government and the academic elite have expressed – publicly – in support of the student demands, that they should all be applying their minds to how to realise this objective, instead of lapsing into a staid critique of the radical turns that the student movement may embark upon or adopt from time to time.

After all, is it not true that both worker strikes, as well as community-based service delivery strikes – in which the majority of poor and marginal post-Apartheid youth have cut their teeth in respect of learning political protest in the 21st Century – have taught working class students in particular that disruption is indeed necessary to force meaningful intervention from the authorities? Is this so difficult to contextualise and understand?

Indeed, what is most surprising, is that the very academics who study these protests (or should be studying them) seem surprised by the fact that these forms of protest have made their way onto campuses countrywide. No surprises there, but perhaps a profound and telling overreaction; and an indication that the academic elite do indeed occupy an ivory tower that they thought – erroneously – was untouchable by the everyday realities of protest in the public realm in South Africa. In this way, they resemble the political elite of South Africa, who have a deluded sense of their own inviolability.

It is worth, at this point, diagnosing the condition of higher education institutions in South Africa. 

The slow pace of transformation of these institutions – not only in terms of the diversity of their staff, but also the way in which students are received and supported by the institutions – effectively translates into an higher education system that is ambivalent to its socio-political context, and in a sense caught in a slow decline in relation to meeting the needs of the society that it exists in. Instead of a complete re-think of the system, the way forward proposed by both government and the institutions amounts to tinkering with it, making small adjustments. The presidencies response has essentially been to establish yet another ‘committee’; this is essentially a bureaucratic response and not a decisive act of political leadership. It is like bailing water out of a sinking ship, one that can no longer bear the weight of its growing cargo.

It is precisely this slow pace of transformation that has led to the conditions for broad-based confrontation with the public system of higher education and its institutions. Now is the time for confrontation, not more tinkering. Now is the time for meaningful and strategic disruption (that is creative, consultative and cooperative) that can lead to meaningful intervention. We need to envisage the system as we want it to be, not as we have inherited and reproduced it. That is, we do not need more cosmetic change (i.e. based on numbers and token appointments) instead of substantive transformation (i.e. of the culture and behaviour of institutions and their bureaucracies). More of the same is hardly likely to make the difference that is required by our society.

A lot has been made of the potential loss of competitiveness in the global academic system. Yet, why should we, as a society, accept what has been inherited as is? And even when it comes to our participation in the international academic system, are we not capable of interrogating how we interact with it, and on what terms we engage with it? Is it the ultimate system of knowledge production? Is it the “end of history” of academic systems? Has there never been a better system?

Indeed, is the bean-counter approach of producing useless, under-read papers produced only for padding academic CVs, or producing topical jargon laden guff for consumption by like-thinking peers the kind of academic system that will produce a new society i.e. whether locally or globally? Or can we critique it as well, and assess its relevance on the basis of its purpose in our society, and others like it? No sacred cows; should this not be the enlightened perspective academics and intellectuals strive to uphold?

Is an anti-institutional position not worthy of some merit in this regard? The academic elite have indeed become complicit in how the system functions to reproduce the same conditions that prevent its transformation, and so it is left to the youth – though idealistic, naïve and at times radical – to challenge the project, its institutions, and to seek out ways of realising the vision of the struggles of yesterday, and shaping the institutions of today.

To reiterate, I am not questioning the integrity of the academic elite. They are mostly thoughtful, well-intentioned people. However, I do question their ability to think outside of the system that they have inherited, and outside of the global system of academic production that they are trying to construct their academic project within. And it is “theirs”; as it is far from inclusive, and it will never be until a real, robust intellectual and academic culture exists within South African society as a powerful force for introspection, analysis and generating change in the lives of ordinary people.

Their response to demands for change appear to run contrary to the discourse they themselves generate on development and transformation. Indeed, there is a sense that the academic remedies that are proposed for government, business and the rest of society are discarded when it comes to addressing the systemic problems that plague the higher education system and its institutions.

There is a complacency that I have experienced, even amongst people that I greatly admire and respect. There is a pervasive feign left, pro-Global South, anti-global hegemony, anti-neoliberal sentiment, that when pushed to action – in reality – amounts to a walk centre, pro-neoliberal “it is what it is” tautological defeatism. Surely, we have a right to expect more of the elite than simply feigning allegiance to new imaginaries, alternative ideologies, theoretical frameworks, strategies, and so forth?

Indeed, where is the bravery that they recommend and propose that governments in Africa (and the Global South) and the private sector should embrace? For example, the academic driven discourse to recognise and incorporate ‘informal’ systems (i.e. economic activities, land ownership, employment, service provision, etc.) as part and parcel of the economies of the Global South, which is often met with consternation by post-colonial governments, who despite their radical liberation-led origins, lapse into colonial taxonomies and govern on those terms instead of the terms on which liberation was fought for and won? A truly bold discursive position that could ultimately end up benefiting even the developed world.

It is not enough to make radical noises only to retreat into a shell when radical change beckons on your own doorstep. Now is the time to participate in the space of action. It is not a time for ‘getting ones hands dirty’. Rather, it is a time for washing ones hands of a system that does not work or serve its purpose in an inclusive and empowering manner. It is about giving birth to something new – realising the potential for natality within our society – and setting new initial conditions so that new imaginaries can emerge.

With respect to the student movement, there is also a need for a reality check at this moment. It has clearly not yet built the broad-based student support that it needs to confidently embark upon broad-based disruption, both at universities, and in the broader public realm. It needs to devote attention to building unity within, and extending itself to broader society, so it can take action in the public realm. It cannot allow itself to lapse into a divisive internal politics of intimidation, exclusion and recrimination. Rather, more strategic disruption can be embarked upon currently, so as to draw attention to the cause and serve as attractors for it, as well as to facilitate dialogue and learning about it.

There are plenty substantive problems with the institutions to garner support and unity around. University systems, in particular, presuppose that the student body is constituted of a privileged Apartheid middle class that can sustain high tuition fees and endure its strangling bureaucratic processes. This has remained the case since I became a university student in 1993.

These systems de-facto exclude those who do not have the means to sustain themselves through family and/or community. There is an important question here, one of work and labour; it is the 21st Century family (and increasingly less so the extended family and community) that is bearing the cost and uncertainty of producing the labour force and skills base of the country, and not government and the private sector, who benefits the most from it.

In a country with drastic inequality, slowing economic growth, and increasing levels of economic and resource uncertainty; how sustainable is such a system? Is donor and philanthropic support supposed to fill these gaps? If we are talking about hard cold realities, of how systems function in reality, should these considerations not be our first? Indeed, is the reality of first-world countries immediately transferable to our own?

I believe that most of the academic elite would – in their lectures on governments and economies of the Global South – make a completely different argument to the one they make in respect of their institutions and their sustainability that they are currently presenting to the public now. The pressure has taken its toll, and they have played a weak hand in response by becoming caught up in the moment, by succumbing to the (very real) pressures that have mounted upon them. Their defensiveness, while understandable, is far from the response that is required at this moment in time. It is a moment to be seized, not resisted. It has great potential to benefit the academic project itself.

We are assured, by many, that we have the right people in charge. That they have our best interests at heart. It’s time for them to demonstrate just how truthful this is. It is time to break with the logic of boardrooms, bureaucracies and administrations of old, and their prevailing systems and logics. Indeed, the ability to be critical is what we expect of intellectuals, academics and educators.

Yet many university administrations have embarked upon intimidation and fear campaigns of their own. Staff who support the students have been put under the spotlight, and responses appear directed at them, rather than the student movement in particular. Some staff have been turned into objects of derision by their colleagues, for aligning with the student movement.

In response to student protest pressures, university administrations have also called in a police force who have been known to act unprofessionally, often with vicious impunity, and sometimes with direct criminality. Despite their own experiences of being bludgeoned, sexually assaulted, shot at and treated with contempt under the Apartheid police, many “struggle” academics now find themselves justifying calling in a police force that committed the Marikana atrocities without regret.

We don’t need any more Marikanas in South Africa, and we certainly don’t need a repeat of the 70’s and 80’s, and in this respect, the onus lies squarely on the administrations and bureaucracies not to resort to the very tactics that they themselves once faced under the Apartheid system. There are other ways of mitigating violent and disruptive protests, and they should have the courage to try them. It just requires more work, and humility in the face of the complexities of uncertainty and change.

There are also Vice Chancellors and academic bigwigs who are plainly not open to envisaging new ways of building the academic project, despite the many books and papers they write about how to re-imagine our society. Simply put; they need to have the courage to remove themselves from the process of change if they cannot generate the thinking, strategies and plans that are necessary to overhaul the higher education system.

If now is the time for constructive change, then surely this is what is required to make actual progress towards overhauling and re-orienting the national higher education system and its various institutions. Any less would amount to ‘more of the same solutions’, and ‘more of the same’ has already proved wanting and incapable of actualising a higher education system that our society needs, and desperately desires.

It may be clichéd to state it, but we are at a national crossroads, and it will only substantively prove a turning point if we ensure that the momentum of this moment is maintained into 2016 and beyond. An abdication now, and a lapsing into familiar terrain, a refusal to be uncomfortable, is perhaps the greatest obstacle to harbouring in the new. With all due respect to the academics of South Africa; this is also your moment, and you will be judged by how you act upon it, and how you choose not to act upon it.

The consequences of not acting with clarity, vigour and enthusiasm in this moment, will defer change for another generation or two, and then perhaps, our revolution will finally be un-suspended by a generation who have no tolerance for bureaucracies, theoretical retreats and anything that vaguely resembles the old world that we have fought so hard to leave behind. Stand up and be counted, for the sake of the academic project, the future of the youth, and the world they want to live in. It’s never too late or too difficult to embrace and actualise change. That much, the history of our country has taught us; and that is the project we should remain devoted to, lest we become mirrors of that which we fought against.

**Note: This post has been lightly edited since it was first posted; namely typos and spelling errors were corrected, but no substantive changes to the argument or the text was made.  

Saturday, 23 January 2016

#FeesMustFall 2016: Consolidate, Cooperate or Disintegrate!

This is not an historical analysis of the #FeesMustFall movement that draws on personal analogies from past experiences, or the experiences of intellectuals located in other contexts. This is an analysis of the #FeesMustFall movement in its current moment, in 21st Century South Africa. It deals with what is currently transpiring with the #FeesMustFall movement, and what it needs to do to build on its early success as a movement and become a political force to be reckoned with in South Africa. It is admittedly an external analysis, and the hope behind this piece is that it will nonetheless prove useful to those currently agitating on behalf of the movement.

A Powerful Force for Change

The #FeesMustFall movement made a big impact on South African society towards the end of 2015. It was a ‘big bang’ moment for the students and youth of South Africa. Indeed, they captured the South African political imagination and re-energised the political sphere of action, which for so long has appeared stagnated and fragmented, hopelessly incapable of exerting direct mass political action on those in power in South African society. While community-based pop-up service delivery protests and worker strikes have been feature of the 21st Century political landscape in South Africa, the South African political sphere has not witnessed the kind of broad-based political action that cut across class and race lines – that the #FeesMustFall movement introduced – since the 1980s. The #FeesMustFall movement, in that sense, is unique in its contribution and potential to bring about united action in the public realm.

However, #FeesMustFall is still in its infancy. It is a networked socio-political platform that is exerting political influence through its capacity to mobilise various actors across the country. It is not a formalised political party or a civil society organisation of any kind. It is an assemblage of actors from various institutions of higher education, as well as different formal and informal social networks, groups and actors, which includes the representative youth organisations of political parties such as the ANC, the SACP and the EFF.

While it is a powerful force in the public and political spectrum, it has yet to consolidate its support base so that it can act in unison. Hence, the central question for the #FeesMustFall movement in 2016 is what kind of vessel it builds to sustain a medium to long-term societal influence. That is, a vessel that is consistent, readily identifiable in terms of its identity, offerings, ideological orientation(s) and/or principles, and which provides a clear account of the means through which it seeks to achieve its goals.

In its current state of organisation, the #FeesMustFall movement faces several key potential dangers and challenges. All these dangers and challenges relate to whether it will indeed have a lasting impact and achieve its stated objectives, which are likely to expand the longer it remains relevant in the political sphere.

Potential Take-Over Scenarios

One potential danger that the movement faces is takeover from political parties. The main take-over scenarios that the movement faces, stems from the capacity of student wings of political parties to usurp it, either from within the movement, or outside of the movement.

An immediate (short-term) danger for #FeesMustFall is that it may be usurped by a more organised ANC-aligned network within its own ranks or ambit, resulting in it being co-opted for a political agenda that serves the interests of the ruling party. Recently, the City Press reported on 17 January 2016 that the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA), a conglomeration of the ANCYL, YCL and SASCO, met with student leaders and instructed them to shut down protests. The PYA has exerted pressure upon the movement, thereby intimating that they are located at the locus of control of the #FeesMustFall movement as a whole. Should the PYA’S attempt to usurp the movement prove successful, it is likely that the EFF will ramp up their efforts at universities to contest for control of the movement. This would inadvertently increase the support for the EFF, as polarisation takes effect and the middle ground is eroded in the movement, effectively leading to its bifurcation.

A more medium to long term danger is that the movement could also be usurped from the EFF from outside of it. Should the movement become mired in internal battles, or battles with university bureaucracies, it may lose ground in the public arena to the EFF. This is because the EFF has declared its intention to fight for free education long before the #FeesMustFall movement. Moreover, it is far more organised and has already established itself. It is a fast-growing, already existing, organised political platform that is readily identifiable, ideologically radical left populist, and intends to achieve its goals by nationalising the economy, or at least key-resource based sectors within it.

These scenarios would effectively neutralise the movement, and relegate its goals to mere themes within the broader offerings of a political party, and not a central-message political movement that acts as a political platform for a key set of issues.

Moreover, there is a deeper contestation within the movement that underlies the possible take-over scenarios discussed above, but which could also lead to irreparable fragmentation of the movement along class and race lines.

Potential Fragmentation of the Movement

While the #FeesMustFall protests showed remarkable solidarity amongst the youth, some deep fissures and cracks in the loose alliance were clearly evident, especially along class and race lines, and these may yet contribute to the fragmentation of the movement. Students from poorer, former black universities, were not altogether pleased with the high levels of sympathetic media coverage and consideration that wealthier, middle class students in the former white universities enjoyed. There was a sense that the glaring class and race inequalities of South African society were being played out in the #FeesMustFall movement itself, with student leaders from the former white universities taking centre stage in the media, and coming across as representatives of the broader student body. From this, it can perhaps be inferred that amidst the spontaneity of the moment, the burgeoning protest movement gained numbers but not the levels of internal cohesion that the movement requires to sustain its onslaught on government and institutions of higher learning.

It is still a precarious networked alliance of interests that sometimes diverge in their understanding of the movement and what it seeks to achieve through it. It has not had the time, amidst its rapid, meteoric rise, to consolidate itself as a mass political movement that can sustain its own organisation and momentum in the medium and long terms. Indeed, after the initial fee increment was dropped, some students seemed to believe that the purpose for action no longer existed, while others envisaged a more sustained programme of action that would lead to much more substantial changes in the higher education system (i.e. free education for all), and – according to the Vice Chancellor of Wits University Adam Habib – perhaps in government (toppling the current president and his leadership).

Acknowledging the aforementioned dangers and challenges to the movement (as discussed in this section and the previous one), raises the question of how to consolidate the movement and take it further towards building a broad-based social movement that can sustain its activities.

The Way Forward: Building a Broad-Based National Social Movement

There is no doubt that the potential to politicise the movement more explicitly in the public domain, and to consolidate its identity as an issue-based social movement for change, is great indeed. The #FeesMustFall has demonstrated its capacity to take action in South African society; it mobilised students in large numbers across the country, and not only brought universities to a standstill, but marched on government buildings, the buildings of political parties such as the ruling ANC’s Luthuli House, parliament in Cape Town and the Union Buildings in Pretoria. It is not a mere talk-shop. It is a real capability, and as such deserves a fair measure of respect and recognition.

However, the #FeesMustFall movement has – in 2016 – appeared unable to envisage taking action outside of the ambit of higher education institutions. Their first major protest this year has been to shut down the processes of registration at various universities. In a sense, the programme for 2016 appears to be to make the universities “ungovernable” (to use an anti-apartheid struggle term from the 1980s). Yet it does not appear to have a programme of action that extends beyond the boundaries of the universities and higher education institutions themselves. For example, they are not converging upon key infrastructures within the cities and towns that their institutions reside in, bringing pressure on a broader set of societal sectors and institutions, all of which are necessary for actualising the objectives of the movement.

Moreover, there is – as yet – no ideological consensus in the movement, and attempts to preliminarily establish one are likely to split the movement prematurely. It needs time to develop, and holding the space open may yet yield a new kind of politics, one that rises above historical constraints and the limitations and meets the particular contextual needs of South Africa as a relatively new democratic dispensation. The opportunity to reimagine how democracy works, and for whom it works in South Africa, is perhaps the greatest potential contribution that the movement may yet offer.

Given the challenges that the movement faces, it stands to reason that an “occupy” movement style approach is necessary to keep the #FeesMustFall movement in the public eye, and to bring pressure on the various sectors whose participation is necessary in order to realise its objectives. It needs to organise, not just within and between universities, but with a broader set of actors and groups within society, to bring pressure in the public domain, beyond university boundaries (i.e. by occupying critical urban and other infrastructures such as public squares, government buildings, financial districts, etc.).

Perhaps what has hamstrung the movement to some extent, is the notion that having begun a social movement that has had significant impact in the short term, that it has gained an inflated sense of its own primacy, and has hence adopted a proprietary stance towards other emerging protests. Indeed, it has been very careful to distance itself from, for example, the EFF protests (e.g. in Sandton and the inner city of Johannesburg), as well as the more recent #ZumaMustFall protests. In focussing on distancing itself from these movements, however, it appears to have put more energy into the imaginary threat of being usurped by fledgling movements outside of itself in society, than the very real threat of appropriation from within it by established, organised entities.

The #FeesMustFall protest does not ‘own’ protest culture in South Africa. Even though it had a major impact on society last year, and brought the means of “occupy” style protests into the South African political spectrum, it is part of a long history of protest culture in South Africa, and currently only constitutes representation of a particular sector (albeit sizeable and important); the youth. In order to mobilise for broader socio-political change in South Africa it needs to; (1) consolidate itself as a vessel, and (2) link up with other social movements in the political spectrum – e.g. worker movements, other issue-based networks and alliances (both local and international), NGO’s, civil society organisations, communities, and so forth.

The #FeesMustFall movement needs to embrace the importance of actualising these two objectives in order to contribute to building a broad-based socio-political platform through which various sector interests can participate in driving key changes in the South African political spectrum, whether these changes consist of ‘free education for all’, or more ambitious objectives to bring about changes in the state, government, and the objectives of government. Contesting power on an issue-by-issue basis will likely prove more effective in garnering support for the movement’s objectives, as it does not require that strict ideological commitments be established early on in the formation of the movement. For example the movement can help stop the R1Tn nuclear deal, target corruption and maladministration, and hold government accountable for other wasteful expenditures, in order to free up the reserves for its own objectives. It can also hold power accountable for its various transgressions, and bring pressure on political parties and government to act upon them.

Concerted, united, multi-level action is necessary in order to achieve the objectives of the #FeesMustFall movement. Bringing the bureaucratic processes of higher education institutions to a stall through temporary disruptions is a necessary first step, so that sufficient attention and importance is drawn to the cause of the #FeesMustFall movement. However, ramping up the importance, visibility and impact of the movement in the broader political sphere will require that it takes its struggle beyond the boundaries of the universities and higher education institutions, where pressure is effectively gathering only upon Vice Chancellors and their counterparts, and not upon the broader set of actors whose participation is necessary to sufficiently address the central objectives and broader cause of the #FeesMustFall movement.

The Role of Higher Education Institutions

The #FeesMustFall movement is not the only potential benefactor of its goals. Higher education institutions of all kinds also stand to benefit from them, and should carefully consider what role they can play in enabling the movement. The question of what tangible vessel is being built in service of the #FeesMustFall efforts, is also critical for universities and other higher education institutions to reflect and act upon.

Can the institutions of higher education not enter into, or help provide the services and funding for a cause that is in its interest, and which it believes in, in principle? Can they not, at this point, enter into talks about how to effectively harness such a social movement and help it see the light of day as a serious player in the politics of education in South Africa? Perhaps not, but the potential for building an important issue-based political platform that is independent of the institutional frameworks, but operates in close cooperation with them, is perhaps its highest right now. In a sense, an artificial dichotomy between higher education/university administrations and the movement has been set up, as they both stand to make considerable gains should the movement’s objectives be achieved.

This logic can also be extended beyond the ambit of institutions of higher learning. Broadly speaking, the #FeesMustFall movement is an important cause, with justifiable and warranted aims, and it deserves the attention of all the sectors and institutions that make up society. Simple retorts to the impossibility of the cause, stands in contrast to most struggles, which appear – in their respective historical moments – as impossibilities. It is precisely the objective of most struggles to realise what appears impossible given the conventions and constraints of the time.

Concluding Remarks

To reiterate, the solution to the crisis does not lie within the ambit of university bureaucracies and administrations alone; it lies within the bureaucracies of the state, the private sector, civil society organisations and all other parties that contribute to actualising the particular social compact that the South African constitution encourages and makes provision for.

Currently, the debate within the universities and institutions of higher learning have resembled an exercise in intellectual mud-slinging, with accusations of intolerance, fascism, armchair activism, “when-we” syndrome, and all manner of invective dressed up as intellectually cogent debates. Personal squabbles (even though unacknowledged) are discolouring the debate and holding back the movement. The debates seem removed from the realities of the moment that South Africa, 21 years into its new democracy, finds itself in. Instead they tend to rely on historical precedent, drawing on experiences that – while instructive – are considerably removed from the realities of the 21st Century South African socio-political context (not to mention the current global context).

The danger of restricting the movements activities to internal contestations within the universities, is that it effectively remains a storm in a teacup, removed from the greater political forces that it is necessary to influence in order to achieve its objectives. Furthermore, should the movement fragment from within, it will effectively remain divided and conquered. This only serves the interests of those in power, as they are able to escape out the back door while the ‘brawling’ remains restricted to the universities and other institutions of higher education.

The movement has already sparked similar protests in other sectors, and re-energised the will of workers to take political action, so the potential to expand its ambit exists in real terms. However, should the movement fragment and disintegrate, its contribution will ultimately amount to nothing more than introducing the hashtag prefix to the 21st Century South African political landscape.

An important opportunity for substantive change may hence go amiss should the debate remain the preserve of higher education institutions alone. It needs to be broadened, so that a variety of voices can enter the debate from all sectors in South African society, voice their concerns and desires, and find representation within the movement through identifying with it. In doing so, the #FeesMustFall movement will itself leapfrog into a more substantive entity in the public domain, and stand a greater chance of sustaining its cause and bringing about substantive change in South Africa.

The movement currently occupies a valuable space in the public conscience. However, the moment is fleeting, and should it not be consolidated and built upon, it may be well lost before it has truly begun. The political sphere in South Africa does not need another cautionary tale, another “I told you so”. It needs an effective public voice that cuts across class, race and generational lines, and can help spur on and bring about substantive change.