When Nelson Mandela died in December 2013, South Africa went through a period of mourning and soul searching about who we were and where we were heading. We have been in a state of leaderless turmoil for years and moments like Madiba’s death forced a hard look at ourselves. This week, the youth of South Africa shook this nation to the core; they took their destiny into their hands and put a failing political leadership on notice. Through #FeesMustFall, they have shown what true leadership, courage and solidarity means. On Friday the Class of 2015 takes their battle to the seat of government. It is a moment of reckoning for our nation and, mostly, for President Jacob Zuma. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
The worst thing President Jacob Zuma could do on Friday is sit in a closed-door meeting at the Union Buildings with university vice chancellors and any student leaders who might agree to meet him. It would be government, once again, misreading the signs and missing a moment to lead.
The best thing the president could do is to cancel the meeting that already has a predetermined outcome. A statement by the presidency announcing the meeting stated that when Zuma met vice chancellors and chairperson of councils earlier this month, “they had agreed to establish a task team to explore solutions to short-term student funding challenges”. This is the game-plan government wants to stick to while placating the students and get them to suspend the protest action.
The students showed earlier this week that they would not fall for half measures and political stunts. They immediately dismissed Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande’s announcement of a capped 6% increase saying that is not their demand.
Since the protest action began at the University of Witwatersrand last week, the demand has been loud and clear. No fee increase. Now, over a week later, and with a network of firestorms raging at higher education institutions around the country, the message has not sunk in.
As a result, some campuses have been turned into battlefields and learning has ground to a halt. Frightening images of running battles between police and students have inflamed the situation, rallying support across the nation and other parts of the world.
On Wednesday, Zuma and his Cabinet were sitting a few dozen metres from hundreds of students who breached the gates of Parliament to make their voices heard. The reaction of the state was the same as it always is – respond with heavy handed policing rather than acting as a responsible, accountable, people-centred government.
It is the reaction of a leadership that is hopelessly disconnected from reality.
The issue is not complicated. The ANC resolved at its national conference in 2007 that government should implement free higher education for the poor. It was the conference that elected Zuma as the ANC leader. It was ultimately his responsibility to see that the policy is implemented. In 2009, Zuma became state president and appointed Nzimande as Higher Education and Training Minister. The department was the vehicle to implement the policy and Nzimande is politically responsible for it.
The students’ demand for a zero percent increase in next year’s university fees did therefore not fall out of the ether. It is based on the fact that university education is unaffordable for the majority of the population, that the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) has been mismanaged and does not cater sufficiently to the demand, and that the ANC policy on free education for the poor has not been implemented.
Who should have to answer for this?
According to the ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, it is the vice chancellors. At a media briefing on Thursday, Mantashe said universities abused their autonomy and commercialised education.
“We condemn what appears to be unilateral decision-making by some institutions to raise fees for the next academic year,” Mantashe said. “It is also disingenuous for university management and some analysts to try to cast aspersion on the ANC-led government. No sooner had the government increased the amount apportioned to NFSAS, the university management decided to increase fees. Their project is clearly the intention to exclude the poor.”
Mantashe also distanced the ANC from the matter, saying protesting students should not bother to march to the party headquarters, Chief Albert Luthuli House, as the ANC was not responsible for determining fee increments. He also warned that the student protests should not be “overtaken by anarchists”.
Students from Wits and the University of Johannesburg were of a different view and walked from their campuses to Luthuli House to deliver a memorandum to the ANC. Despite Mantashe’s attempts to pass the buck, the students handed it to him. While Mantashe was confronting the dilemma of being instructed by the students to sit on the floor, a powerful message was being transmitted to the nation.
The students refused to be fobbed off by the ANC – like the party has done with so many people on so many issues on so many occasions. Remember how the ANC has washed its hands off Marikana? On the xenophobic attacks? On Nkandla?
Not with #FeesMustFall.
The students went to the man in charge, irrespective of what he had to say on the matter, told him what their demands were and made him sign their memorandum. Most importantly, they did not subject themselves to a lecture from him, which no doubt would have included the warning about “anarchists” driving the protests. For the first time, Mantashe was forced to listen and go and do something about the demand.
At a media briefing later in the day, Mantashe said it was not his march so he did not care that he did not get to address the crowd. He said the issues raised in the memorandum would be “considered and be factored in our continued engagement with students, government and institutions of higher learning”. This imperceptible response seemed designed to play down the poignancy of what happened earlier.
Mantashe said discussions he and alliance leaders held with the ANC Youth League, Sasco, the Young Communist League and Cosas would form recommendations to be presented to Zuma ahead of his meeting with university management and student leaders on Friday. This included reviewing the autonomy of universities.
Again, the ANC was not dealing with the reality. The countrywide student protests are not led by these ANC-affiliated youth organisations and they did not have the mandate to speak on behalf of #FeesMustFall. Why were their demands and not the national movement’s demands being sent to the president?
Mantashe also called on ANC members to join a mass student march to the Union Buildings on Friday, saying this was not an anti-ANC protest as the party believed the demands were “reasonable and understandable”.
Why then have they not been implemented yet? By Thursday night, there appeared to be national consensus that the students’ demands were legitimate and necessary. But government is trying to buy time. The reason for this is unclear as the situation of multiple flashpoints at universities around the country is heading towards disaster. Tensions are boiling over, the police, who do not have a good record of crowd control, are resorting to iron-fist tactics, and the students are growing angrier.
The situation cannot and should not be allowed to escalate further as the ring of fire could soon lead to loss of life.
The moment has come for one person to take control. On Friday, it is the president’s responsibility to decide whether to arrest the situation or allow it to explode.
Controversy is already raging about his meeting as student leaders are refusing to attend, saying there was no consultation with them and that there is no need to meet behind closed doors about their demands. They want their president to come to them on the lawns below the Union Buildings and speak to them there.
It is a big decision for Zuma. He has failed on every occasion he was required to show real leadership. He has let this nation down, time and time again. This time, a generation of future leaders, hungry for education and concerned for the welfare of generations coming after them, want to force him to show leadership. If Zuma does not announce a suspension of the fee increment and misses the opportunity (again) to speak directly to the students, it would constitute the biggest mistake of his presidency.
On Thursday Zuma said he sympathised with the students. “I think it is incumbent upon all of us as leaders, not just from government, [including] the education sector and everybody in the country to ensure that we address the issue and ensure that we make education access easy for everybody,” he said.
“I hope tomorrow we will be able to come with solutions,” Zuma said.
The solution is staring Zuma in the face. He needs to listen, to act and to lead. As the president, as a citizen and as a father of 23 children, he needs to look into the faces of the youth of our nation and fix the crisis.
Over the past week, South Africa has been taken over by a post-Apartheid generation that is not prepared to surrender its future. They have opened our eyes to our own complacency and failure to hold our leaders to account. They have opened our hearts with powerful images of their courage, passion and solidarity.
#FeesMustFall changed the game and changed our world. It has shown us the potential to win this nation back when strong leadership triumphs.
And it has shown us that there is so much more beyond the faded rainbow in this broken tormented place we call home. DM
Photo: Leaders of the student demonstrations against fee increases have said the action is not about party politics, but diverse students with different political affiliations have joined and outside Luthuli House on Thursday some blamed President Zuma for their predicament. (Greg Nicolson)
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