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

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