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.