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. 


  1. At the root of the #FeesMustFall call for decolonized education is that a national border is a colonial monopoly by force. National identity documemts turn people into slaves by limiting their movement and trade. National borders make corporate entities like universities, banks and hospitals master over what people must do in order to get their services. Their most basic command is to force their "clients" to use national colonial titles in a marriage type contract to the states legal arm. An arm that directs the police force.The lack of unique title is a sign of a slave. It is, at its core, the mark of a colony worker, one without separate title. #NoNationalBorder is then the only sign of freedom; to move ones own property, ones body, on any public platform. A passport, ID or drivers licence, an illegal, apartheit style #Dompas

    1. Thanks. The borders on this continent were drawn by its colonizers. They do not adequately serve us, and render regional dynamics defunct, in that they have enabled a proliferation of bilateral (sometimes unilateral) relationships with the Global North. Our timid attempt to overcome this, has been a push to regionalise, but it hasn't proven to be as effective as hoped. It's going to take a few new generations to disentangle and remake the continent, so I hope you're up for the long-term struggle that this entails. We can only make our world anew if we first envision it anew, so I applaud your stance. We need to stop the killings and the afrophobia that has infected South African society in particular, before we can claim to have rejoined the continent as a full member. Youth struggles from East to West, North, South and Centre of this continent are brewing, and need to link up. We need to make these changes ourselves, those in power are not going to do it for us. In the wise words of that old revolutionary Bob Marley, "Africa Unite!"