South Africa

#RhodesMustFall’s busy week: We’re only getting started

By Marelise Van Der Merwe 1 October 2015

Politics, as the late Harold Lasswell put it, is basically who gets what, when and how. And that’s an issue the Rhodes Must Fall movement is becoming more insistent on getting a say in. On Wednesday, they disrupted an event at the University of Cape Town at which renowned economist Thomas Piketty was scheduled to give an address. By Thursday, they had sent Daily Maverick a detailed statement explaining why. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

If anyone thought the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) movement had done their work for the week, they are very much mistaken. If the group’s Facebook page is to be believed, they’re only getting started.

RMF kept newsrooms and social media busy on Wednesday after they disrupted an event at the University of Cape Town (UCT) at which French economist Thomas Piketty had been scheduled to deliver a much-anticipated address via Skype ahead of the Annual Nelson Mandela Lecture. According to the group, however, that was just the warm-up. As preparations are being finalised to get Piketty to South Africa, RMF are continuing preparations for their National Day of Action Against Outsourcing on 6 October.

Outsourcing labour was the primary target of their protest on Wednesday, RMF say.

The timing of the National Day of Action is significant: it will follow the outcome of a dispute between UCT and the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) regarding a change in conditions for the university’s workers. RMF is adamant that should demands not be met, chaos will be forthcoming.

At UCT in particular, should the university decide not to end outsourcing or implement a dignified living wage in its decision on the 5th, the #RhodesMustFall movement and allied organisations will proceed to the #October6 mobilisation efforts in full force,” RMF told Daily Maverick.

We will no longer stand for the hypocrisy of an institution that hosts elite talks about inequality whilst outsourcing and exploiting its own workers.”

For those who missed the excitement on Wednesday, here’s a brief rundown. There is some disagreement around the finer details, but the gist is as follows: Piketty, a world-renowned French economist, author, multi award-winner, income inequality specialist and general wunderkind, is scheduled to deliver the 13th Annual Nelson Mandela Lecture at the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto campus on Saturday 3 October. On Wednesday, he was to stop at UCT to deliver an address at the gathering facilitated by former finance minister Trevor Manuel, with fellow contributors Associate Professor Debbie Collier (UCT), Professor Olajide Oloyede from the University of the Western Cape, and Stellenbosch University’s Kholekile Malindi. Piketty was unable to fly to South Africa by Wednesday, however, as he apparently had too few blank pages in his passport.

The event on Wednesday proved ill-fated when, in addition to Piketty’s passport problems, chaos ensued. UCT had arranged for Piketty to give his address via Skype but RMF, given a helping hand by technical difficulties, ground the event more or less to a halt.

According to eyewitnesses, RMF members first approached the stage in silence, carrying crosses to represent those killed at Marikana. Manuel initially ignored the protestors, but vice-chancellor Max Price subsequently gave an elected spokesperson three minutes in which to deliver a brief address. Later, during Collier’s presentation on inequality, RMF members marched onto the stage, singing liberation struggle songs. RMF member Brian Kamanzi later told media the panellists were “hypocrites” for holding a discussion on inequality at an institution that outsources workers.

RMF’s Facebook page sums up their position:

In case our message was unclear.

Max Price, Trevor Manuel and Njabulo Ndebele all failed to acknowledge our presence or our message about the realities of outsourcing for the entire duration of their introductory remarks about inequality.”

In their letter to Daily Maverick, RMF, in solidarity with Decolonise Wits, the UCT Nehawu Joint Shop Stewards’ Council (JSSC), the UCT Workers Forum, the UCT Workers’ Solidarity Committee and UCT Left Students’ Forum (LSF), went into more detail.

The statement is nearly 1,500 words long, so it’s not feasible to quote it in its entirety. However, the salient points are:

  • RMF takes issue with the lecture being called “public”, arguing that it was not inclusive;
  • The country’s intellectuals have failed to provide solutions to the country’s problems;
  • Outsourcing is a form of oppression by which workers are denied the benefits that would go along with being directly employed by the university, including a substantial discount on their own children’s education;
  • RMF rejects the name of Jameson hall, where the event was held, being as it is a memorialisation of Leander Starr Jameson;
  • RMF takes issue with accusations that they are unfamiliar with Piketty’s work; and
  • RMF wished to pay their respects to Mam’Victoria ‘Dledle’ Luzipho, a Supercare worker at UCT whose death was not acknowledged by the university but was reported on by UCT’s multilingual student newspaper, Vernac News.

Although many may wish to deny it, the year of 2015 in higher education at historically white institutions has been the year where ‘decolonisation’ has been thrust into the tired imaginations of administrators and ‘intellectuals’ who have failed to lead South Africa towards a more positive trajectory and have succeeded spectacularly in developing one of the single most unequal societies on the planet,” the statement reads.

The advent of outsourcing saw workers immediately having their salaries cut by up to 40%, losing job security and losing the benefits they had once received as direct employees – including the right for their children to attend university for free.

The ideological motivation for the introduction and continuation of this exploitative practice is the idea that universities should be run as businesses … This allows the university administration to deny any responsibility for the wage exploitation, abuse and victimisation of workers on its own campus.”

The statement calls for an immediate return to insourcing with staff benefits. “Exploitative treatment of workers is a fact of all outsourced companies. The only real solution is to end outsourcing and hire workers directly,” it adds.

According to RMF, they are “acutely aware” of the arguments presented by Piketty in his book Capital in the 21st Century. (This presumably follows a Tweet by Max du Preez in which Du Preez asked: “Does #rhodesmustfall disrupters of Piketty video link at UCT even know what his theories are & what he said about #Marikana?”)

We critique his (Piketty’s) failure to adequately consider the intersectional dimensions of the people involved – be it race, gender or otherwise,” RMF responded. “Nonetheless, the fact remains that his conclusions surrounding inheritance and its relationship to growing inequality can and will be taken through to their logical conclusion by RMF and other revolutionary organisations.”

Watch: TED talk by Thomas Piketty

The group further argued that it was inappropriate to host Piketty, virtually or otherwise, in a hall named after Leander Starr Jameson, who “used his reputation to facilitate the dispossession of Africans at the hands of none other than Cecil John Rhodes”.

This, among many other dimensions of Jameson’s legacy, including acts of targeted violence, provide the backdrop through which the #RhodesMustFall movement is prompted to reject his memorialisation, particularly in the context of a conversation with an author such as Piketty, whose central thesis addresses the issue of legacies, inheritance and their relation to capital,” the group said.

RMF said UCT was operating from an “ivory tower” and that panellists at the event made no effort to include them in the dialogue on inequality. “Trevor Manuel antagonised our protesters and called for order even while facilitating an event that clearly cared little for resolving or even acknowledging the inequality in front of our eyes,” they said.

Ironically, the only workers present for this talk on ‘inequality’ were outsourced security guards standing in and around the venue – employed by none other than G4S (an outsourcing company used by UCT).”

In response, UCT said it rejected some of RMF’s allegations but took feedback on workers’ living conditions seriously. Kylie Hatton, deputy director of communication and marketing, said UCT accepted that it needed to revisit the issue of outsourcing. “The University of Cape Town, in partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation and three other Western Cape tertiary institutions, hosted an event on 30 September 2015 to discuss poverty and inequality, as part of UCT’s ongoing strategic initiative to address this topic and seek out solutions to this growing problem in South Africa. Many of our academics work in this field and it is precisely because UCT is committed to addressing these problems that we were honoured to host one of the most important current global thinkers on inequality,” she said.

Advertisements and media releases before the event made it clear that all members of the public were invited to attend, at no charge. Hence, members of RMF and any other groups were free to attend and participate. The event was also live-streamed for those who could not attend. An additional overflow venue where the event could be watched on a large screen was also provided in case the hall reached capacity,” Hatton told Daily Maverick.

It is therefore incomprehensible that members of RMF and the UCT Left Students’ Forum claim the event failed to include them. They had full opportunity to take part, make their voices heard and to participate in the question-and-answer session. Instead, they opted to disrupt the event.”

Hatton said it was the nature of the disruption that was problematic rather than what the protestors had to say. “When they staged a silent protest, the event organisers let the protestors be,” she said. “RMF then proceeded with a second interruption, which brought the event to a standstill. After this they left … They did not take the open-microphone opportunity. Their claim that workers were forced to remain outside is dishonest. Nobody who arrived and asked for a seat for the event was turned away.”

Disruption was unfair to event guests, she added. “The protesting students refused to engage with the discussion; this is not democratic behaviour nor responsible freedom of speech. Disrupting an event that other people wish to attend is not acceptable.”

Hatton defended the university’s labour practice but said UCT would consider the recommendations. “The allegations made by RMF on outsourcing are rejected. While we recognise completely the plight of workers in South Africa, it is sensationalist to accuse UCT as RMF does. UCT has a strict service contract with outsourcing contractors. This contract specifies a minimum wage, directed by UCT, that is significantly higher than the minimum wage determined nationally for each particular sector. A strict code of conduct, monitored by a UCT compliance officer, is also in place.

UCT accepts that the discussion about in/outsourcing is a critical one, as are discussions about inequality and social justice. These discussions by multiple voices are pivotal in forging new paths and improvements. This is how solutions to critical challenges are driven.

Protestors should open up and participate in the debate, not stifle it.” DM

Photo: #RhodesMustFall disrupted the gathering on 30 September.

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