Tuesday, 25 October 2016

#FeesMustFall: Rants, Meltdowns and Recriminations

As the end of the year approaches, and the deadlock that #FeesMustFall student protesters have brought about at universities and other tertiary institutions across the country has entrenched, we have witnessed a mounting number Facebook rants, public proclamations, and newspaper articles pregnant with denunciations and calls for firmer leadership. Senior lecturers, professors and other commentators who are associated with academia in South Africa have stormed into the fray spouting apocalyptic visions, convinced that the nihilism of an unhinged youth is set to destroy all they know and are familiar with.

A fair amount of bluster and recriminations have been leveled against Vice Chancellors who have shut down campuses. Critics among the staff deem the VC’s to be acting with weak resolve, acquiescing in too great a degree to the protesting students. Their most often repeated concern is that non-protesting students are being unfairly denied their opportunity to learn, but there are other dimensions to the crisis that has motivated them into action; universities will likely be bankrupt for the year, there are insecurities around how salary payments will be made to staff, and staff layoffs may occur as a result. Junior academics will likely be the greatest losers, and the threat of academic emigration has come to the forefront.

Yet, these rather late grumblings from the establishment is perhaps the surest sign that the balance of power has changed significantly. Universities – and their staff – are beginning to hurt. With their careers and pay-checks balancing precariously, and with a level of uncertainty not previously experienced in post-Apartheid academia, their responses have been charged with recrimination and angry calls for stronger action to be taken against protesting students have ensued.

They have charged the students with radicalism, militancy, insurrectionism, fascism and a variety of other hyperboles that don’t stand up when compared with other, similar protests around the world. Many of the rants have been unreflective and constitute what I have come to term, “meltdowns by micro-aggression”. In some cases, the aggression is absolute and the calls for action are outraged and misguided.

It begs the question; what stronger action can be taken? Are rubber bullets, water cannons, tear gas and stun grenades not strong enough? Are curfews, restrictions on groupings, searches, guarded access to lecture theatres, widespread arrests and targeting of student leaders, denial of bail, and beatings and harassment at the hands of ill-trained private security not harsh enough? Has the failure of securitising campuses not proven evident enough? Is the involvement of state security agencies that view the student protesters as “regime change elements” not enough?

What’s the next step; live ammunition, call in the army? Is a return to Apartheid era strong arm tactics the solution to this crisis? Or is it now clear that the only way that this crisis will be resolved is through obtaining a firm commitment from government to ensuring universal access to higher education, and clear institutional transformation plans that focus on diversifying staff and syllabuses? It is fair to say that the latter route is the most desirable, and holds the most promise for a much needed transformation of the higher education sector. Things change, that is the nature of everything; it has become untenable to proceed in the same vein as academia did one or two decades ago. The 21st Century has seeded a desire for a new, more inclusive and reflective system of learning and researching. It is not just a local struggle, but a global one; as evidenced by similar protests across the world.

While the traditional establishment figures seem to have wandered into the fray rather late in the crisis, there has been a firm and steady commitment from a small group of academic staff who have repeatedly called for the de-escalation of violent confrontation by taking private security off campus and limiting the involvement of police on campus – rather, choosing prolonged negotiation, dialogue and consensus building instead. These appeals went largely ignored, as the priorities of ensuring business-as-usual took precedence. The result has been disastrous; many university administrations that chose to continue classes with heightened security and police presence are now no closer to resolving a way forward with protesters.

The chorus of establishment voices that have arisen, seemingly out of nowhere, are making their views heard extraordinarily late in this crisis. It does not help that many of them took a dim view of student protesters early on in the crisis, and made ill-advised disparaging and condescending remarks, not only in private, but publicly – on social media – which has the effect of discrediting their current views, no matter how well formulated or sensible they may appear to be on the surface. They did not avail themselves early on in the crisis, did not take the student protesters and their demands seriously, and have dithered along hoping that it would all just go away. Their absence and condescension at a distance has played a strong role in determining where this crisis has ended up.

The VC’s, who have been struggling with the rather complex dynamics of the protest actions have been at it for a lot longer, and in all fairness, the recent calls from the traditional establishment seem rather opportunistic. While it often goes unacknowledged, academics are extremely competitive, and cut-throat manoeuvres are commonplace, precisely – as some joke – because “the stakes are so low”. In a micro-verse where reputations and authority are paramount, careerist opportunism is rife. Money, is not the only driver of competitive behaviour, and it is common for ambitious academics to go for the jugular when the opportunity presents itself. No doubt, some are eyeing the crisis as an opportunity to advance themselves within the establishment.

If they had been deeply concerned from the outset, surely they would have been far more active in resolving the crisis. Surely they would have bothered to engage with student protesters more openly, and with less derision. If they were honestly concerned with the whole student body then does it not make sense to pursue lengthy – even if frustrating – engagements with the protesters. Instead, derogatory remarks and curt dismissals were order of the day earlier in the crisis, and many academics still show a startling lack of understanding of the student crisis.

Their responses, early on, led the universities down the path of polarisation, as they attempted to cast the student protesters as a radical minority whose sense of “entitlement” (notwithstanding that the use of the term in the pejorative ironically refers to privilege i.e. the opposite of entitlement) and radical positions on transformation were sufficient cause to dismiss them. They have proceeded to treat this ‘minority’ (who in reality represent the greater majority of black South Africans) as an outsider phenomenon that have no place in their hallowed halls of privilege.

Now that the “do nothing and see what happens” approach has failed, and universities across the country are in deadlock with protesters, a stream of critics have burst onto the scene, lambasting both students and administrations, the government and all those who support the protest actions. They seem to have forgotten their role in exacerbating and extending the crisis, and their knee-jerk reactions early on in the crisis that catalysed the polarisation of universities. If universities had spent this year in serious engagement with protesters, and had managed to find common ground, they could have by now established a programme of joint action to put before government. This would have been a constructive outcome.

This is not to entirely exonerate the student protesters; there have been incidents of intimidation, death-threats, and acts of violence and arson, and a lack of coherent messaging, but this should not detract from who holds the institutional power in this crisis, and who should have been level-headed and calm, and sincerely devoted themselves to seeking solutions earlier on in the crisis. It is rather disingenuous only to act on a crisis when it has reached a head, having been dismissive and condescending about it all along, and having shown the poor judgement to make those positions known early on in the crisis.

It is entirely likely that the derogatory and dismissive attitude displayed by establishment figures towards the protesters early on this year actually led to the intimidations and threats that were directed at some of them. If they had sought to leave matters in the hands of the VC’s and management alone, their ill-advised public forays early on only stood to make negotiations more difficult for the VC’s and their management teams. That is, if they were going to stay out of it, they should have been circumspect about their public pronouncements.

I think it’s fair to say that they have played a role – from the side-lines – in exacerbating the climate of confrontation and repudiation, and are part of the problem in that sense. To jump into the fray now, with prescriptions and demands of their own – so late in the day – appears to be little more than a panicked attempt to assert an authority that they have already squandered by the lack of engagement and sarcastic disdain they demonstrated early on in the crisis.

These recent “meltdowns by micro-aggression” are merely more of the same, and do little to build a bridge out of this crisis. All it shows is that those who thought themselves comfortable within the establishment are now being dislodged. They face financial uncertainty and job insecurity, and that has led them to lash out. Ironically, they are now in a position to begin to understand the difficulties that student protesters have campaigned so fiercely over; where financial stress and the constant threat of being shut out of opportunities that shape their lives and future have become untenable. A condition characterised by stalemates and deadlocks with institutions that are insensitive to their difficulties.

Finding a way out of this crisis does not require more of the same ridiculous posturing that has led to the polarisation and dysfunction of the higher education system (i.e. on both sides of the conflict, notwithstanding the obvious power imbalance between them). It requires a break from it, and a willingness to begin afresh, make apologies and find common ground that both sides can act from. Internal power struggles and grandstanding are hardly likely to prove useful in this respect. What is needed are conciliatory and sensible modes of engagement that seek to build unity and greater shared understanding. It is only from that basis that the crisis can be resolved in the long term.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

#FeesMustFall: The Questions We Should Be Asking

That South Africa has one of the best academic systems on the continent is beyond doubt. It is, for the most part, well-resourced and actively engaged in ground-breaking research on many fronts. It is exclusive – that cannot be denied – but it has well-established foundations, produces a great deal of research, and by all measures, leads the continent in many disciplines and fields. The South African academic system is also deeply engaged in understanding and solving South African challenges, and views itself as critical in the role of nation-building and intellectual leadership. We have many well-respected professors who are internationally renowned for their contributions, and exhibit a depth of knowledge and analytical capability that is enviable.

So it begs the question; with all the in-depth research and analysis that is undertaken each year, and with all the well-funded and resourced programmes we have that focus on the social and cultural dimensions of change in South Africa, why did nobody see the current student crisis coming? Moreover, why did nobody prepare adequately for it?

Indeed, the public is left with the impression that our institutions of higher learning have been caught off guard, that they have been unfairly cast before a set of circumstances that have appeared out of thin air, a complete surprise; a “black swan” that rose up from the hidden workings of society catching all and sundry unawares. Surely there is something wrong with this picture? After all, is it not precisely the purpose of research to detect significant societal changes that are unfolding, and especially those that threaten to destabilise it?

Climate scientists and researchers, for example, spend a lot of time warning society about the potentially harmful effects of climate change. Let’s not get into the merits of whether these warnings are taken up by society, but the fact is that the campaign to inform society about potential climate change impacts has been widespread and extremely active. They have got the word out.

What failed academia in respect of the youth uprising that is currently on its doorstep? Was it not foreseeable? I have sat in on many discussions where concerns were raised, and laborious data sets were presented about growing public discontent with the status quo (especially service delivery data). Youth politics has changed dramatically in recent years. Closer to home, there have been protests and grievance processes running at South African Universities since the early 1990s. With all the well-paid and highly skilled leadership teams that these institutions have had, how is it possible that nobody picked up on the warning signals?

Surely the question of how the best higher education system in Africa failed to pick up the signs that a veritable thunderstorm was brewing on its doorsteps speaks volumes for its incapacities and inadequacies? And is this not precisely the question that should be given the very highest of priorities right now?

With all the mea culpa’s, the angry accusations of militancy, radicalism and violence, the concerns about the academic year-end and the potential consequences of shutdown; the central question – which revolves around a critical failing of our institutions – is not being asked. Why is this the case?

To reiterate the point, we have many extremely skilled and intelligent academics, who produce volumes of research, secure large amounts of funding for research programmes, and collaborate with colleagues from across the globe. They are not stupid or ignorant. So why aren’t they asking themselves the questions that they should be, namely; how did this happen on our watch? What did we miss?

It’s all fine and well to point fingers in every direction, and descend into the minutiae of who did what first, and who is to blame for what, but surely, the burning question should be – to people who are concerned with understanding society and the changes unfolding within it – how did we miss a discontent so large that it has crippled our institutions?

Moreover, in order to solve a crisis that is characterised by deep conflict, surely one has to begin with recognising one’s role in helping create it, or catalysing it? Is that not what we teach our children? That no conflict is ever one-sided, and owning up to that is the basis for negotiating compromise. Putting oneself in another’s shoes, so to speak?

It simply cannot be that the system we have is beyond reproach, and beyond the need for re-envisioning and transformation, if it failed as dismally as it has in respect of the student protester movement that has all but crippled it, with great pain and regret on both sides of the fence. This must be acknowledged and absorbed, adequately contemplated, before we can even think of moving into a future where these protests cease to be the new norm.

Indeed the logic that poses that our institutions are above reproach, and that any tampering will ruin them, is surely misplaced? Surely this crisis, is a stronger indicator than ever, that the system itself is problematic in some – or many – ways? That it is in need of change?

I have many speculations and observations to offer on why our higher education systems failed to predict the crisis that landed so squarely on its doorstep, but for the sake of keeping the question open I will abstain from colouring the exploration of this question with my own suppositions. Academia needs to interrogate itself. If it cannot, then it is not an academic project in the true sense, it is merely a system of knowledge production, one that does not introspect deeply on the society that it is resides within.

I will say this, however. The fact that questions regarding what kind of changes are necessary are thrown back to twenty-something protesters with annoying regularity, indicates what mode of engagement our academics have descended to in addressing this crisis. It does not matter how many accusatory articles are written in the end, if an honest appraisal of the system is not something that South Africa’s intelligentsia are willing to undertake. And it would be ironic, as they have been central to a number of prescriptions regarding what kind of society we should aspire to live in, and continue to fight hard for their positions; amongst each other as well as in efforts to influence policy and decision-makers.

What is clear, is that it is time for academia to take some of its own medicine, humble itself, and get down to solving the very pressing and potentially enlightening and transformative challenges that face it. There is no way around this central fact; that this crisis has been a long time in the making, and that many feet have dragged on issues concerning inclusivity and transformation. The proverbial chickens have come home to roost and it is ridiculous to treat them as pure externalities, as events outside of the control of university administrations. This crisis is not just about fees, it is about the lack of an inclusive academic culture, and a rigid adherence to a status quo that is unquestioning of itself. The crisis mirrors that unfolding in our society and we would do well to put all our effort into understanding and acting upon it, before it’s too late.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Why State Security Crackdown & Arrests on #FeesMustFall will Backfire!

An Existential Threat

That the ANC is facing a serious existential threat is in little doubt in South Africa today. Wracked by internal divisions, and suffering widespread public discontent, it is faced with a veritable polycrisis. A myriad of corruptions scandals, costly maladministration debacles and accusations of patronage, nepotism and state capture have led a host of ANC stalwarts and former anti-Apartheid struggle activists and icons to denounce its current leadership and call for the resignation of the president. The ordinary public – the majority of whom are traditionally staunch ANC supporters – have grown disillusioned with the former liberation movement turned political party. Headed into the national election in 2019, the ANC as a political party has never before appeared as vulnerable as it does today. Many are expecting serious losses to unfold at the polls.  

The most significant indicator – or gauge – of this crisis is the intensity and reach of the recent #FeesMustFall student protests. #FeesMustFall is the evolutionary birth-child of the #RhodesMustFall movement. Its activities dominate everyday conversations in households across South Africa, so much so, that the danger of other pressing issues that are critical for long-term stability may well go unnoticed in the eye of the general public. Families, friends, colleagues are all too often split on their support or denunciation of the protesters. The student protests have captured the South African public imagination, because it is a direct confrontation with power that has successfully brought significant pressure onto the institutions and government to change. They have delivered fast results for students and workers, and are quick to remind the public of it.

In the years preceding this moment, only one other organisation, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), had managed to capture the public eye (especially the youth) and successfully created significant pressure for political change. Not only did their parliamentary antics – from relentless filibustering to outright protest actions, and physical ejections from parliament – make an impact, they have initiated numerous court actions, winning many victories in the process, that is; including the ‘earthquake’ judgement handed down by the Constitutional Court, which found that the president had violated the constitution (and by implication, violated his oath of office).

The EFF has ushered in a new era of politics in South Africa, one of direct confrontation and open contempt for the traditional, conservative bearings and postures of the 20th Century anti-Apartheid generation. Sporting red overalls and domestic worker outfits, replete with hard-hats – in parliament – they have injected a brand of populist, yet youthful politics that has yet to settle into a stable and coherent political identity. It is still in the process of becoming.

Similarly, but far more explosively, the recent student protests for free – and decolonised – higher  education, have captured the South African imagination with great urgency and immediacy. Television and mobile telephone screens across the country have been lit up daily by images of student protesters engaged in pitched battles with police and private security. This has resulted in country-wide shutdowns of universities, and widespread arrests of students and student leaders. With events changing daily and growing uncertainty accompanying each new day that the crisis unfolds, the student protests are the most observed and commented on political phenomenon in South Africa today. It is a daily unfolding saga that is the centre of public attention.

The student movement poses an existential threat to the ANC government’s post-Apartheid choices, which necessitated significant compromises. They are challenging it at its roots – i.e. on reneging on its original liberation-era vision for society – and are offering a new set of alternative propositions for the future. Those propositions, around decolonisation of, and that of free higher education, correlate with the dual roots that the student movement has since evolved from i.e. the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements, respectively. It represents the most significant break with the rainbow nation narrative that was deployed in service of ‘nation-building’ early on in the new democratic post-Apartheid dispensation.

State Security Infiltration

The widespread shutdowns of universities and polytechnics across the country effectively represents a stand-off between two generations; the anti-Apartheid generation of the 20th century and the new millennials. Referred to as “born-frees”, the millennials are reviving old anti-Apartheid era demands (e.g. nationalisation, free universal access to education, and prioritising worker rights), blending old and new ideas of race and black consciousness, and are adopting occupy-styled protest methods in their challenge to systemic and structural racism and inequality in South Africa. The universities, are but merely the current sites on which this battle is being contested.

The 2016 #FeesMustFall crisis not only threatens the academic year-end, but threatens to show up the ANC as dislocated from society and the youth. The protests have not only reverberated across the nation, they have also garnered support internationally, and has featured on all major international news agencies. With the country in recession, facing a downgrade to junk status, and an internal war unfolding between the National Prosecuting Agency and the Minister of Finance, the very real threat of political and economic instability hangs over the country’s future.

As the rebellion moves into its fourth week, the student protests have come to symbolise the increasing inability of the ANC to exercise power over society. It is the coal-face of the existential battle for survival that the ANC faces. The ground appears to be shifting beneath its feet, and it has proved incapable of adapting. It has been caught unawares and has dithered.

In the absence of concerted, visionary leadership and action, state security has been recruited into the ‘war-room’ of the ANC. This is evident in how the president recently constituted a task team to assist the Minister of Higher Education in dealing with the crisis in higher education. The task team is riddled with security-oriented portfolios, including the Minister of Defence, Military Veterans, Justice Services, Correctional Services, Police and State Security. Strangely, Treasury does not feature on the task team. That is, the response appears to be an overwhelmingly security-oriented one, and not an effort to broker agreement with protesting students on the way forward.

State security agencies specialise in infiltration, and appear to have targeted the student leaders using methods that directly mirror that of the Apartheid state. Many have been imprisoned over the past week or two; 567 protesters have been arrested since February 2016. The countrywide arrests bear all the hallmarks of state security involvement. That the arrests seem directed, is not without foundation and historical precedent. The logic employed by apartheid era state security was to “cut off the head”, presumably, to kill the body of insurgent movements. 

A Many-Headed Beast: The Folly of Crackdown

Yet the consensus seems to indicate that the political direction of the student protest movement is fractious and loosely interconnected. It is one of the few points of agreement between analysts and commentators on the #FeesMustFall movement. It stands to reason that if the student movement is as fractious and loosely inter-connected as it is widely understood to be, then it would mean that arresting political leaders as a means towards killing off the body of the movement may prove misguided. If #FeesMustFall is as heterogeneous as many claim, then the vacuum of political leadership created by student leader arrests will likely backfire, as there may be more capacity to generate leadership from different quarters, both within and between groups.

That is, a security-styled crackdown on the student movement may offer a temporary reprieve from the pressures of the student protests, but it is unlikely to provide a sustainable solution in the medium and long terms. Worse still, a heavily securitised response may deepen divisions and entrench positions further, leading to increased radicalism and militancy within the remaining hard core of the protest movement. Being hunted by the state, as history has taught us, can lead to significant breakdown and loss of trust, which may further compromise the ability to conduct future negotiations successfully.

One thing is sure, this movement is going nowhere. Even if it is brutally repressed, and driven underground, that will only serve as fuel for re-organisation and reconstitution further down the line. The movement may yet grant us a whole new resurgence of grassroots political mobilisation over the next ten to fifteen years that seek direct confrontation with power, but in a more organised and coordinated manner. The realisation amongst students, that sustained effort through broad-based societal mobilisation will prove key to realising their aspirations of establishing a new social contract and compact in South Africa, is sinking in, and they are sure to seek out alternative avenues for contestation should they be crushed by state forces in the short term.

This moment, quite clearly, isn’t over yet, and it remains to be seen whether it will result in the creative destruction that is so desperately needed in South African society today, or whether it will result in a heightened sense of nihilism, a need to tear down the artifices that have grown so ominously large that they haunt every aspect of the everyday existence of the rainbow nation. My feeling is that the more brutal and aggressive the state response is, the fiercer and more retaliatory the student protesters will become.

Short and Long-Term Consequences

The failure to establish widely sanctioned mechanisms for long-term dialogue and involvement from student bodies across the country, leaves a large vacuum where a public conversation and debate is desperately needed. Faced with this eventuality, the students themselves have two – perhaps linked – choices; organise themselves and build movements that can sustain themselves over the medium to long-term within broader society, and/or embark upon a sustained campaign characterised by anarchist tactics that destabilise the state and institutions even further, pressuring them to come to the negotiating table.

Which route is best is up for debate, but the reality is that going beyond fiscal realism and entrenched institutional values to achieve their goals – i.e. for free and decolonised higher education – will ultimately require policy changes that emerge from the very heart of government, so that they can be sustained into the long term. There is quite clearly a need for a short term strategy to get their demands onto the priority list of government, as well as a need to build real organisation and coherent action in the long term. It remains to be seen, how this will be achieved, and what impact the securitisation of this crisis will have on youth politics in South Africa.

What appears clear, is that the ANC is limping towards a showdown that extends far beyond the student crisis in its implications; a showdown between itself and a new generation that are wholly disillusioned with the ANC, and with good reason. With heavy state security infiltration, arrests and brutal crackdown unfolding, the ‘smashing’ of the student movement may split it into further factions, leaving it unable to organise and mobilise effectively and coherently in the short term. In this scenario, the EFF will be the overall winners, as they have established the only political platform that the demands of the youth can be channelled through in real terms.

That is why the wisdom of crackdown makes little sense – for both the student movement and the ANC – but these are the times we live in, and it is fast becoming stranger than the past that, as a society, we thought we had moved beyond. Short-termism has again become the hallmark of government in South Africa as we lurch from crisis to crisis, and long-term political blowback is not being adequately catered for in the in the halls of power. This is sure to result in the further dissolution of the ANC as the unquestioned power block in South African politics. While this outcome is necessary, that it is unfolding unintentionally, and through the consequences of poor leadership and decision-making, is cause for great concern indeed.

The ANC has failed to recognise that the student protests are essentially acting as the great theatre wherein its role and function within South African society is being interrogated. It cannot ‘win’ this battle except through the court of public opinion. The rush to ‘stabilise’ the situation with repressive and aggressive tactics, does not adequately account for – or counter – the central narrative that the students have embedded in the national conversation. That is; that the Apartheid state, society and security apparatus are still with us, and prevent us from becoming the kind of society that our liberal egalitarian constitution has laid the foundations for. That the vestiges of the Apartheid state prevents us – as a society – from breaking with history and establishing a wholly new way of living and existing with each other.

Government’s response to the crisis, in reality, serves to reinforce this narrative. Characterising the protesters as “regime change elements”, and conducting a brutal crackdown on students and their leaders, is sure to resonate strongly with the youth – and much of society – as the thoughtless repetition of oppressive methods that have been inherited from the Apartheid state. Each arrest, and each rubber bullet, stun grenade and teargas canister that is fired, only serves to confirm the judgement that the youth have passed on contemporary South Africa. The wheels of change, however, cannot be but momentarily stalled, and as they have done before, will run roughshod over those who stand in its way. It is only a matter of time before the ANC suffers permanent damage, and gets relegated to an eternity of coalition governments in South Africa.


***Statement on Wits Student Leader Being Held:

Recently the controversial Wits University student leader Mcebo Dlamini, was arrested. He was not told why he had been arrested, was denied his chronic asthma medication, and denied bail, which is indicative of the manner in which state security agencies are being used to repress the protests. Police first stated that his arrest is part of an “ongoing investigation”, and have since claimed that he will be charged with “public violence, theft, malicious damage to property and assault”.

Mcebo Dlamini is widely remembered for his anti-semitic remarks, and is still widely criticised for it – he is also regarded by his critics as possessing demagogic tendencies – yet he has proven to be a charismatic and enduring leader who puts himself on the frontline with great courage. 

Whether one agrees with his politics or not, or whether one denounces his anti-Semitic statements (which he claims was taken out of context), there is no basis for denying him his medication or for unfair treatment or denying him his rights. He could well end up with serious medical difficulties without his medication, and abusing the law to persecute him would undermine the cause of justice. Ignoring that reality would make monsters of us as a society. He is entitled to be treated as an equal before the law, and persecuting him is sure to backfire. 

Moreover, those who adopt a perspective that he – as well as anybody who stands with him – should be isolated  would do well to ask whether continued and prolonged engagement, or isolation, is more likely to result in him overcoming his less considered, more extreme views. It is imperative that Mcebo Dlamini be accorded his rights and given the support that other arrested protesters are receiving. It is unconscionable to act otherwise. I believe that engaging Mcebo is a far more constructive route than attempting to isolate and persecute him. 

Saturday, 15 October 2016

#FeesMustFall: When Violence Escalates

Scenes of riot and pitched battle played out between the police and student protesters in Braamfontein in Johannesburg outside Wits University last night. These scenes are unfamiliar in the city centres, and in the middle class suburbs of South Africa, but they are familiar scenes in the various Apartheid era satellites that dot the peripheries of the metropoles. Until now, they have been successfully contained in the disarticulated and under-serviced townships and slum settlements where poor black South Africans live, often alongside refugees and immigrants from other parts of the continent. So it comes as a shock to the universities and the urbane middle classes that the ordinarily peripheral has descended upon their spaces with such intensity. To them, it belongs elsewhere.

There has been a rush to attribute blame, and in the process causality proves to be the first casualty, an error of judgement that is ordinarily inexcusable for academics and intellectuals, but understandable given the heightened subjectivity that the anxiety and paranoia that uncontrollable eruptions of violence brings. Without pause for thought, the violence is wielded as evidence of the need for – and justification for – the use of state force. Yet little thought is paid to whether the use of force in the initial stages of the student rebellion, served to produce more violence. In biblical terms, “violence begats more violence”, and when it has escalated beyond all reason and become a mode of engagement, its origins appear ever more blurry.

Yet if we are to solve it, and to break with the modalities before they become set in for the long term, before it becomes the language through which contestation is manifested and concessions are brokered, we must bring an extra sensitivity to our perspective. We need to be able to put ourselves in each other’s shoes, before we are able to broker peace. That is, we need to acknowledge each other’s humanity, and the balance of power that resides between us. Brinkmanship and hastily manufactured statements attributing blame, are hardly likely to serve any other purpose than to polarise the camps further.

We are dealing with the symptoms of a national crisis, one that runs deep into the very fabric of our highly unequal society, not just in terms of wealth, but in terms of power and privilege. There is no way around that. It should be the starting point for increasing understanding. When the riots broke out in the French Revolution, the madness of the mob broke loose upon the streets, consuming the society that had until that point proven unable to channel the acute, festering discontent within its core. Hannah Arendt described their rage as derived from a sense of impotence, of being unable to endure – yet no longer able to alleviate – their suffering.

In South Africa, those who have been made invisible by their marginality and their poverty, who have endured great suffering, and who have little means through which to exert power – whether through a dearth of structured grassroots organisation, or through the deafness of power – are rebelling from the roots up, spearheaded by youth facing the prospects of a dim future. And this rebellion threatens to spread like a wildfire in the dry grass that has come to symbolise our collective inaction. It has happened before, so we should be able to choose a different course of action this time.

Those who are calling for yet more bullets, more state-led force, should be aware that it took us a very long time to emerge from the violence of the 1980s and early 1990s. It would be a great error, to feed this fire, to push it over the brink, which it is close to, but has not yet breached. Further down the rabbit-hole lies states of emergency and special presidential powers; we all know where that leads, we’ve been there before. What we need now, is pause for thought, to reflect honestly and deeply on what in our society reproduces this violence, and what decision-making serves to escalate it.

The choice to pause, is sure to have consequences that institutions, and government, will have to scramble and adapt to correct when the dust has settled. But it is the correct course of action. Masculine brinkmanship – fuelled by personality conflicts and the like – have brought us to the precipice. Stepping back from it requires a courage not usually asked of us as a society, and especially the academics who shoulder the burden of ensuring the continuity of institutions in South Africa. More of the same is not going to make a difference now, and it would be insane to plough ahead into the unknown without the reflection, remorse and mourning that the moment requires.

This fire, is still one that can be contained and converted, by giving appropriate expression to its root causes and by engaging in sincere, meaningful engagement. It is not a moment that those who helped bring about can simply shrug off as the sole responsibility of the other side. The imbalance of power needs to be openly acknowledged as well, that there is a vast difference between state power and that of the youths who openly confront it in the streets. This is a moment where visionary leadership can establish a model that the rest of society, especially those on the peripheries, so desperately need. We need to be honest, and confess that we haven’t made the effort – as urban middle class society – to address this simmering discontent until it arrived on our doorstep.

We know that this can get much worse. And it is not just the 1980s, but the 2008 xenophobic outbreaks that should serve to caution us about where we are headed. The leadership that is required needs to draw on a broader set of actors. This is no longer a situation that VCs can deal with alone. Government has effectively handed them the boiling cauldron of failed promises that is symptomatic of broad societal failures; they cannot possibly cope with this burden in isolation. We have many leaders who have seen this before. It’s time to bring them into the fold, and to act as a collective, rather than simply employing them in roles as mediators. It’s time to demonstrate what we are capable of when we recognise each other’s humanity, time to go beyond the brash characterisations and name-calling. Only by putting ourselves in each other’s shoes, and recognising our common humanity, can the solutions to this crisis be found. Unity is strength, and we should resist further attempts to divide us in this moment.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The End of the ANC Just Arrived!

The end of the ANC has arrived. It has not arrived in the shape and form that the middle classes and elite hoped it would, but it is undoubtedly here. For all their remonstration and dissatisfaction it has arrived as a ghost in the night, by complete surprise. Indeed, it has arrived in an outbreak of countrywide student protests that have shaken higher education institutions – and the country – to the core. It has arrived with the energy of a youth who had long been dismissed as a political force for change, under the assumption that they were apathetic subjects of the neoliberal project, too far down the line – indeed too ‘free’ – to imagine shaping a different society.

The sea-changes that the apathetic and dislocated middle classes and elite (i.e. the ‘silent majority’), and the disproportionately un-empowered and marginal working classes (i.e. the real majority) have tried and failed to set in motion – over the past decade – has finally been catalysed by a whole new generation who have taken their struggle to the doorsteps of power and have refused to back down.

And apart from a few parents, priests, dressed in their robes and garbs, and sparingly few public leaders and academics, there has been nobody from within society who has stepped up to protect them from the structural violence that has been unleashed upon them by private security and police across the country. Shocking scenes have unfolded on television and mobile telephone screens across the country in real time, with the most incendiary of them repeated over and over, as though the shock of the initial event required repetition in order to take in and register adequately.

“Unbelievable!” the middle classes and elite exclaim, while the poor and working classes raise an eyebrow. This has been a long time coming. Those who are marginal to power in South Africa, and who suffer the effects of living in the most unequal country in the world, may be disconcerted, but they are hardly surprised. They have witnessed a whole generation raised on a protest culture that is characterised by a drastic escalation of local confrontations with police since 2007, when Jacob Zuma rose to power in the ANC through what many have termed an “internal coup”.

Protests in poor communities began to escalate shortly after Zuma’s rise to power, and grew more confrontational, barricading roads and highways, setting schools and buildings alight, with youth conducting running street battles with police, thumbing their noses at the rubber bullets and tear gas that was meted out to them. These inadequately dubbed “service delivery protests” have proven to be the seed of a new form of protest politics in South Africa, which borrows from similar protests conducted by the generation of the 1980’s, whose protests were geared towards making the country “ungovernable” under the Apartheid government.

However, the millennials have – in the recent student protests – drawn on new “occupy” style protests from across the world, and a new emerging politics of race and decolonisation, to exert pressure on key institutions and centres of power, seeking not just symbolic changes in the geography and composition of their institutions, but the wholesale transformation of them to a wholly new set of values, beliefs, norms and behaviours. They are demanding the changes that liberation once promised.

The political terrain is being reconfigured and that is what scares the establishment. Their time is over, as they presided over the great failure of transformation that post-Apartheid South Africa promised, and now stand accused of betrayal by a generation who – according to those who fought the struggle against Apartheid – are free of oppression. Sensitivities are running high, and that is a good indication that real, substantive changes are unfolding in the discursive movements that are encompass South African society.

The time of the Zuma’s and Helen Zilles of South Africa – the old social conservatives who model their leadership on faux confrontation and ‘working within the system’ of neoliberal soundbyte spin politics – is coming to a close. What will emerge next is unclear, and depends – to a great extent – to how broader society responds to the upsurge in youth politics in South Africa (here, I am referring not only to the student movement, but also to the rise of the EFF as a significant – kingmaker role – in South African politics).

The middle classes are understandably confused, characteristically unsure about whom to side with, as the institutional responses – both from the universities and from government – and press coverage, has revealed a startling inability to interpret events as a result of broader political events that have been steadily creeping up on the status quo for the past decade or so.

Since Jacob Zuma took over the reins of the African National Congress, the urbanised middle classes have steadily grown disillusioned with the ANC. The results of the last election amplified that discontent. Yet the traditional opposition – the Democratic Alliance – largely proved unable to mobilise greater South African society against the ruling party with the urgency that was required, as Jacob Zuma’s cabinet broke every law, frustrated every constitutional obligation and plundered every available source of funds available within government. It followed all the establishment rules, taking matters to court, raising objections within parliamentary frameworks, and garnering the sympathy of the media, yet it was unable to dislodge the ANC’s hold on power in South Africa.

The reason for the failure of the ‘reasonable’ – and main – opposition’s approach, is that it paid little attention to the grassroots forms of dissent that were emerging as a growing force since 2007. Only with the emergence of the youthful, radical-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who splintered from the ANC’s Youth League when its leader was expelled, did politics – and parliament – in South Africa begin to shake at its roots. The EFF were unafraid to hold-up parliament with endless filibustering, direct confrontation, and refusal to be silenced; often resulting in them being – unconstitutionally – physically removed from parliament by security (whom they call “bouncers”). They have quickly become king-makers in three of the four key metropoles in South Africa, and granted the opposition – the DA – their majorities in the recent municipal elections.

Note that along with policies to nationalise the mining sector, and to expropriate land without compensation, one of the central policies of the EFF is free education for all, and by that they mean free education at all levels. They believe it should be a public good. Their demands are not foreign, except to the new status quo that took root in post-Apartheid South Africa. During the anti-Apartheid struggle, the liberation movement strongly believed in nationalisation of the country’s resources, and in free education (and yes, that included higher education, contrary to what the ANC now claims i.e. see Gwede Mantashes comments on the Freedom Charter).

The motivations for free education amplified last year. Widespread #FeesMustFall protests broke out nationwide at universities last year towards the end of the year, and students marched on the ruling party’s offices, parliament and the Union Buildings, forcing the government to halt fee increases, the die was cast. Direct confrontation, had moved from the streets of the townships – those poor, under-serviced and ill-maintained vestiges of apartheid geography – to the most exclusive venues of education in the country.

Academics were left wringing their hands – their funds had been steadily cut down over the past two decades – and government’s responses were confused. At first, the government claimed solidarity with the students, laying the blame for fee increases at the doorsteps of the institutions, only to retreat into a corner and capitulate when the millennials marched on them.  The institutions of higher education responded with intensified securitization, employing private security and inviting the police onto universities across the country, while at the same time proclaiming support for a watered down version of the student’s demands.

This has resulted in a confused mess. While government and institutions claim that they – in theory – support and admire the students demands, they have hardened their positions and subjected the students to state violence, illegal policing by private security, and have targeted student leaders and others for arrest. State and institutional brutality has sent the clearest message to protests, who have responded with stone throwing and street-anarchist tactics (burning a few buildings, cars and buses). The key message that the use of force by government and sent to protesters, is that the ‘new’ government and its institutions were still prepared to use the same tactics – of state violence and tough-talk – while proclaiming that they preside over an enlightened and freedom-loving national project.

This has not gone un-noticed, and the first to come to the protection of the protesters, and to act and serve as mediators between them and the police, has been the clergymen and a few parents and senior political leaders. They are aghast at what they view as a repeat of history unfolding amidst them, and upon a free generation, who should never be forced to endure the same treatment at the hands of the liberation-led government that they once did under the Apartheid government.

Recently, the unions that have split from COSATU and left the ruling party alliance have proclaimed their support, and willingness, to join the student actions in a coherent programme of public action. Recently formed civil society coalitions have also offered their support and are hoping to mobilise, not just on behalf of the students, but on behalf of the burning central desire of greater South African society, that is; to rid the country of its current – disgraceful – political leadership and end the ANC’s unchallenged majority rule in South Africa.

It is only a matter of time before this spark sets in other locations in South African society. It takes a bit of time for the word of mouth interchanges to spread sufficiently through the fabric of South African society and take root in different locations. One scenario that has unfolded before, and may do so again, is that the primary and secondary school systems also enter into protests. These systems have been thoroughly destroyed under the ANC government, and public schooling has fallen into an abyss of mismanagement, inefficiency and pathetic outcomes that cannot possibly serve their scholars well in the competitive new global economy. Consequently, parents try desperately to enrol their children in private schools or fee-paying public-private schools, and there is a mad rush to get newborn children onto the highly competitive lists that enter than on the ‘right’ educational tracks. This situation is untenable, and deeply unjust; it is only a matter of time before it breaks too.

The writing is on the wall for the ANC. When the higher education system, the schooling system and the workers seek to bring about broad-based shutdown of the economy and institutions in South Africa, the room for manoeuvre that has been granted to the ruling party’s leadership by the ‘silent majority’ of South Africa will finally close in on it. There will be no avenues forward for them, and they will most likely attempt a series of crackdowns and states of emergency – as has happened before in South Africa, as well as in other new liberation party-led democracies. And they will, as others have done, hasten their own end in the prices of doing so.

As with most revolutions and sea-changes in political dispensations, the force that a new, irreverent generation introduces into a society breathes life into it, and gives it the opportunity to begin formulating its vision of what kind of society it seeks to be, in the new socio-political  and cultural context that has come to define it. As the saying goes, “in with the new, out with the old”. But it is important to state, that the new requires all within society to participate in building it. That is why, in this current moment, sitting on the side-lines, or on the fence – is in my view – the worst possible position to adopt. It speaks of a dire failure of memory, and a reluctance to put the long-term needs of broader society above that of those that merely serve the short term functions of society, and the self-interest of individuals. It speaks to a failure of unity within broader society, one that has become symptomatic of the post-Apartheid neoliberal era, and one that has allowed the powerful in South African society – from all sectors – to act with impunity and go unchallenged. But change is coming, and it will soon overtake all those who stood in its way, whether through force or through apathy. That much, is guaranteed by the political moment that the new millennials have graced South African society with, and it will resound throughout all of history, as the actions of youth before them have done.

Monday, 10 October 2016

#FeesMustFall: Why Shutdown, Why Occupation?

Historically Speaking

"Protest beyond the law is not a departure from it, it is essential to democracy." 

Howard Zinn

When the struggle against Apartheid intensified in the 1980s, and the country had reached a boiling point internally – schools and universities endured perpetual protest actions, complete with burnings of clinics, schools and the like, and mass worker protests numbering tens of thousands became the norm – the broad-based anti-Apartheid movement, the United Democratic Front, supported a call for economic and cultural sanctions against South Africa. There was a global campaign, supported by the ANC in exile, to impose sanctions on South Africa, who approached South Africa’s main trading partners and others, making the case for sanctions.
Predictably, questions were posed to the pro-sanctions movement by the middle classes, who were afraid of isolating South Africa from the rest of the world. Why sanctions, they asked? Why isolate ourselves from the world? Surely being embedded in global relations would hasten change rather than hamper it?

Their most often asked and repeated question – and claim – revolved around the reality that that sanctions were most likely to negatively impact the poor in South Africa, and would hence damage those that the struggle claimed to be conducting itself on behalf of, and for [1]. How could this possibly prove to be a winning strategy?

The same questions were posed regarding the rolling mass actions undertaken by workers. What was the point of striking in the thousands, when it crippled the economy and hurt the working classes and the poor more than it hurt white capital?

The answers, then, are as it is now for #FeesMustFall protesters. Firstly, anti-Apartheid protesters were confronted by an immovable system, it was insistent that it would not buckle under the pressures that were being exerted upon it by its own society. Secondly, and consequently, that only by disrupting its key functions – the ones that lay at its heart, and which ensured its survival – that is; the economy, its internal bureaucracies (i.e. their functions, processes and controls), and its linkages to the outside world (which included the economy, music, art and sport), could this immovable political system be forced to change course, and respond to the needs of the majority of South Africans.

History clearly illustrates that these methods worked, and while many lives were lost in the process, as divisions were sowed by the third forces of the state and “black-on-black” violence was fuelled by it, South Africa managed to transition to democracy without all-out civil war.

The questions that are being posed to #FeesMustFall protesters now, are very similar to those that were posed to anti-Apartheid movements in the 1980s, both in tone – in that they are rhetorical, and do not actually seek an answer – and in content, that is, they beg the question; why engage in self-harm, just to place pressure upon the system to change?

The questions echo sentiments that were widely espoused by middle class South African society in the 1980s. “Why burn down schools?” they asked. This question was often coupled with the assertion that “it makes no sense to burn down schools because you want better education”.  

The notion of self-harm was used to decontextualize the 1976 student uprisings and those that followed in the 1980s. Yes, the infrastructure was necessary, but the system of education that was administered, unchallenged, through these infrastructures, relegated black people to the position of third class citizens in society. In short, it was an education intended to keep people enslaved. Burning down the buildings that acted as avenues for continued oppression, was a protest action intended to disrupt the notion that people were being educated in a free and equal manner within their walls.

When a system refuses to change to accommodate the majority, the majority grow tired and exert their power in a different way; they attempt to erase it from society entirely. That, is the logic of protest against an authoritarian system that does not respond to the demands and wishes of its people. Bantu education was a cruel system that practically enslaved black people, and we are still living with its legacy today. It was hated and despised in equal proportions that the entire Apartheid system because it was duplicitous; it masqueraded as a public good, when it was an instrument of oppression. That is why people burnt school – and other – buildings down, it reminded them that they were daily being conditioned to be less than human.

***Note: The next section is for people who aren’t familiar with South African politics over the past decade, so it can be skipped if the reader wishes.

Political Background: Failed and Unaccountable Leadership

It is indisputable that South Africa’s political crisis is grave, and precedes the #FeesMustFall movement substantially. The ANC, under Jacob Zuma’s leadership, has all but collapsed, and is barely recognisable when compared to its former self, and to its former leaderships. It has fragmented, and the tripartite alliance (SACP, COSATU, ANC) is defunct. It has been hijacked by a nepotistic leadership of cronies who have flouted every law, and attempted to corrupt every institution of the state. They have milked the coffers on a grand scale, and when the courts have found them guilty, and when Chapter Nine institutions have found against them, they have ignored findings and proceeded regardless.

Not only are the ANC leadership deaf to criticism, they vilify those who criticise them and characterise them as spies of international agencies, or label them “counter-revolutionaries”. The president lies at the core of this mess, and he’s made it clear that despite the very many findings against him, he is going nowhere. His leadership have dutifully batted off every attempt to hold him accountable, whether before parliament, the law or the people. They do not budge, and whether at the very top - or the very bottom - the ANC government only responds when considerable pressure is exerted upon it. That is why service delivery protests have reached ridiculous proportions, numbering hundreds every year in local communities across South Africa. 

The main opposition – the Democratic Alliance – have struggled to hold Jacob Zuma’s leadership accountable. Their respect for parliamentary procedure, and their propensity to do things by the book (i.e. taking matters to the courts, etc.), worked against them, as the ANC leadership used its large majority to quash, stifle and frustrate every new scandalous revelation into the mud that has become the bureaucracy of parliamentary leadership in South Africa. South African’s disengaged from politics after years of scandal-fatigue, and eventually gave up on the possibility of change.

That is, until the Economic Freedom Fighters came onto the scene. With their brash politics, refusal to be silenced, relentless capacity for direct confrontation and filibustering in parliament, they shook up the political establishment and breathed life into South African politics again. The “politics of spectacle” as it has become termed, proved extremely effective, and the parliament channel is now one of the most entertaining and watched channels on television. Love them or hate them, the South African public cannot wait to see what they do next. Jacob Zuma’s ANC, only began to dislodge, when they were met with resolute refusal to allow “business-as-usual” to continue in parliament.

Similarly, students have been petitioning institutions and government since I was a first year student in 1993, for the very same things they are demanding now, including the demand for low-skilled workers to enjoy the same benefits as high-skilled workers at university by being insourced (which allows them to be paid higher, and have more benefits, such as having their children attend university for free).

The demand for free education, long rooted in the demands of the anti-Apartheid struggle, was also a demand back then, but it died down during the widespread neoliberalisation of the 90s and early 2000s. Yet it returned with the resurgence of the EFF, who have responded to the needs of a generation of marginalised, under-skilled and unemployed youth, and have re-articulated the priorities of the working class and the poor[2].

Enter #FeesMustFall

The call was taken up by the #FeesMustFall students themselves and they found themselves in a long, drawn out back-and-forth struggle with equally immovable and unresponsive bureaucracies, both within the institutions, as well as within government and the state. So they acted. Last year, the bubble burst and they occupied universities, shut them down, and then took to the streets, marching on centres of power such as Parliament, Luthuli House and the Union Buildings.

At first, government attempted to appropriate the 2015 #FeesMustFall struggle, proclaiming solidarity with students and placing the blame at the feet of the institutions of higher education (whom government itself has drastically cut funding to since 1994). When the students brought their demands to the doors of parliament, the Union Buildings and the ANC headquarters they were met with a confused and duplicitous ruling party leadership that attempted to make use of the same tactics as they have done with the opposition in parliament i.e. they gave small concessions and drew the demands up into long, drawn out bureaucratic processes (e.g. Fees Commission, etc.), in order to take the wind out of the sails of the protest movement.

In their condescension, government hoped that these ‘short attention span’ millennials, who were more concerned with the material things in life, would quickly forget their demands and move on. They were wrong, and they fundamentally misunderstood how deeply distrustful towards leadership (not just in government but across society) the youth are.

Universities, misunderstanding the demands of protesters – i.e. free universal access to education and decolonisation of institutions – and sometimes exhibiting a deliberate ignorance, have largely come up with sets of compromises that ensure that the academic project to which they are committed continues in the very same form as before, with a few minor tweaks here and there. They have largely proved unwilling to consider the full scale of the transformation that has been posed to them, and have not put forward comprehensive plans to transform the sector (i.e. apart from a few academics who are largely sidelined in the broader academic community, and indeed vilified as “false prophets” by their colleagues).

Why Shutdown?

So the context that the youth find themselves in, is not dissimilar to that faced by the anti-Apartheid movements of the 1980s. They realise – correctly in my view – that the only way to hold government accountable is to force an end to “business-as-usual”, until their core demands are given appropriate priority at the highest levels of leadership. This means that disruption and shutdown are the only options available to them.

As it was with sanctions against the Apartheid government, they are willing to endure short-term personal sacrifice for long-term societal gain by putting their lives, bodies and livelihoods on the frontline, to achieve broader social change. That, in short, is the trajectory they have opted for, and it should be respected and admired, not condescended and demeaned i.e. by the very same society that has handed them a dysfunctional and exclusionary society, replete with systems that reproduce social inequality, systemic racism and marginalisation. Indeed, the student protesters are correct to distrust the establishment as it has failed dismally to deliver on the promise of transformation and substantive liberation from systemic racism.

Why Occupy?

Which brings me to the question of occupation, why occupy?

It stands to reason that the wave of occupy protests and resultant revolutions of the past ten years (which includes the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement, and which goes all the way back to the Battle of Seattle against the World Trade Organisation in 1996), has influenced protest politics in the 21st Century significantly. People all over the world, from Thailand to Tunisia, have learnt that when governments don’t respond to your demands, you occupy critical public spaces, infrastructures and institutions, and shut them down until you obtain clear leadership on the stated demands.

Even if protesters fail to win all their demands, they draw the attention of the public eye to the hypocrisy of the establishment, and begin a conversation in society that can impact later at the polls. We are witnessing a sea-change in the politics of the Global North, in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, precisely because the public imagination has come to view the traditional establishment as untrustworthy and complicit in fostering an unjust and harmful global economic system. It is difficult to argue that the widespread Occupy protests had nothing to do with sparking the public conversation about how deeply interdependent rogue bankers, multinational CEOs and elite politicians have come to be.

Yet there is more, and it goes to the heart of why private security and police are being used to exert brutal force on Wits University #FeesMustFall protesters who repeatedly attempt to convene their mass meetings, in the form of a sit-in, in the Solomon Mahlangu House in the Great Hall (which has traditionally been the space in which they convene and hold their plenaries).

When protesters successfully occupy a space, for a long-enough time, they begin to construct a space of political imagination and interaction that comes to serve as an attractor for more and more people to join the cause. In the Arab Spring revolutions, and in other occupy protests, these spaces came to be diverse spaces of interaction, where everyone from musicians, to artists, to religious figures, interest groups and cultural groups were able to convene with each other, and engage in dialogues, discussions and debates about what kind of society they want to live in, and what kind of political freedoms they seek. 

They become, in effect, spaces where the polis can thrive, and from which new ideas about the fundamentals can be interrogated and established.

So it is rather ironic, but entirely understandable, why protesters at Wits Universities are being prevented from convening in Solomon Mahlangu house and occupying it. 

First, it is ironic, precisely because universities are supposed to be the places from which new ideas that shape society are birthed and given meaning. Indeed, the role of universities, first and foremost, is not just to produce a workforce, but to produce new societies through generating new ideas, innovations and imaginaries. They are supposed to be the places where people from a cross-section of society can work together to change it.

Second, it is understandable, because the fear of the establishment is palpable and pervasive. The establishment is so entrenched, and so rigidly configured in relation to both the state, as well as the global system of academic production, that they are terrified of change. Overblown fears of the loss of an academic year, pale in comparison to the lived realities of the marginal and excluded in South African society, who desperately desire, and need fundamental changes in their society.

Yet institutions of higher education have put all their energies into preserving their short-term goals, and put very little energy into engineering long term change. They have engaged in a fair amount of institutional spin, and have proved incredibly rigid themselves, mirroring the worst qualities of the current government and political leadership in the country. In that way, they have come to represent the same faceless, unaccountable bureaucracy that government does to the protesting students; one that appears to believe that the way things are now, are best left untouched, that change would result in catastrophe.

In short, the institutions of higher education in South Africa have become unable to steer society in a new direction. They are manifestly hamstrung and incapable of playing the central role that knowledge facilitates, that of facilitating adaptive capacity and transformation in society, so that it can evolve and create new avenues for growth and development. That it can become more inclusive and equitable over time. That it can play a central role as a platform for shaping new societies.

They have become stuck in un-reflective modes of operation, and so reproduce more of the same. And it is for this reason that they are being targeted as sites for disruption, shutdown and occupation, so that the seeds of a new system can be formulated, or at least discussed; one that can – at the same time – place immense pressure on the government, and force it to provide the leadership and vision that is being demanded of it by the youth.

After all, pretty much everybody in South Africa is in support of the cause of universal access to education. They just disagree on whether it is possible, or how it should be implemented. To a lesser degree – but significantly nonetheless – there is a lot of agreement, and empirical evidence for the drastic lack of inclusion and transformation in the system of higher education, and the need to approach this challenge anew.

There is also broad agreement that society needs greater equality, inclusion and transformation in general, and that the status quo is untenable in the long-term. There is a great vacuum of imagination and leadership at the highest levels of government and the institutions of higher learning in South Africa in this current, explosive moment. That vacuum needs to be filled with possibilities for a new future. It needs to be activated, not de-activated and crushed under the boots of armed guards and police. It needs to be transformed into a moment of reflection, from which new ideas and societal change can unfold. So that even if the political leaders do not come down and join with these spaces, that they become the vehicles for broader societal transformation and a new social contract in the medium to long-term. Why is this not happening? It is difficult to understand. After all, is that not what universities are supposed to do?

Protesters seeking peaceful disruptions such as sit-ins and occupations are instead being met with bullets, stun grenades, tear gas and batons. The question is why? After all, we have one of the most liberal constitutions in the world, so why can’t we respond with less autocratic fervour than Egypt’s dictatorship did? Why do our police rush in where Egypt’s army refused to? 

Perhaps the answer lies in the protesters demands for decolonisation; that despite how we represent ourselves on paper, we have inherited the systemic and structural features and behaviours of Apartheid society, and it has finally become untenable. That we have not changed enough, that we need to recollect, rethink and reformulate our way forward. That can only be a good thing, and the short term losses that are endured, will be in service of creating a society that will stand us in good stead over the long term.

By focusing on their short-term self-interest, the ‘silent majority’ - who are in reality a minority - are actually campaigning for a more unequal society in the long-term. So it's time to put the question back to the questioners; where exactly do you stand, and what do you stand for? Indeed, what kind of society do you want, and most importantly, where have you been all along?

[1] Note that sanctions did in fact disproportionately impact poor, black South Africans. By some estimates financial and trade sanctions reduced GNP by 1.5% annually, with the latter contributing to the bulk of the losses. Sanctions were not imposed in full, and were not enough to force change upon the Apartheid regime. White South Africans were not sufficiently affected to drive change. The global and national campaign to impose sanctions on the Apartheid regime, however, escalated the prominence of the anti-Apartheid struggle on the global stage, leading to a cultural and sports boycott as well. In essence, Apartheid South Africa lost its legitimacy in the global arena and became a pariah state, and 'business-as-usual' ceased to function in support of it.
[2] Note that this is not to suggest that #FeesMustFall is an EFF initiative; the EFF Student Command is but one player in a large mix that constitutes the loosely connected movement.

First posted 10/10/2016
Revised significantly 12/10/2016