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. 

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