South Africa

Looking for leaders: Student protests and the future of South African democracy

By V Laterza & A Manqoyi 6 November 2015

Just like the miners in the Marikana moment, and the township residents involved in service delivery protests, university students and workers have now made their demands clear and loud; they want radical change, and they are tired of waiting. It is doubtful, though, that such long-term structural changes can be brought about by a politics of the crowd. By VITO LATERZA and AYANDA MANQOYI.

The South African student uprisings marked an unprecedented moment in the history of the country. Tens of thousands of marchers brought universities to a halt, and took their concerns outside their campuses. On Friday 23 October, students from across Pretoria and Johannesburg gathered at the Union Buildings, and asked to see President Jacob Zuma. On the same day, the President bowed to protesters’ pressure, and announced on national TV that there would be no university fee increases in 2016. Soon after the announcement, police descended upon the students, and sent a clear message that everybody should go home. Hours later, there were still skirmishes with the police in Pretoria, and many across the country continued to protest well into the night.

From then onwards, divisions started to emerge in the #FeesMustFall movement, with evocations of hidden agendas, and fractures along race, class and gender lines. Despite this, the week after the Union Buildings march saw more protests, fuelled by charges held against hundreds of students nationwide, demands for an unambiguous commitment to free higher education, and in some cases the end to outsourcing of university workers. Earlier this week most universities resumed their activities, but some campuses were still affected. At the time of writing, protesters clashed with security guards at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).

Much has been said about students’ demands, and their reasons have been widely acknowledged. They have achieved the surprisingly quick result of building mainstream consensus around the need to make higher education free for all, or at least for those who cannot afford it.

Less has been written about the kind of organisation that sustained the uprisings. Why did things change so quickly from largely peaceful demonstrations, to an increasingly tense atmosphere, with multiple reports of violence, after the Union Buildings march? What kept small groups going after Zuma’s announcement?

Leaderless crowds

Our analysis is based on first-hand observations of the events, and following social media. Some of the trends highlighted here might be more relevant to the Western Cape than elsewhere. Protesters were driven by a strong desire to make their frustrations and aspirations heard. They targeted university Vice-Chancellors (VCs) first, and soon after moved to the national centres of political power. Crowds rejected attempts by leaders and organisations to impose vertical hierarchies on the movement. An impressive amount of self-organisation sustained large numbers of people moving across demonstrations held in various locations. Marchers often decided routes on the spot, but that did not make them any less determined.

Massive deployment of police, and a minority of motorists who kept on pushing through the crowds, posed serious dangers. Yet, the mood was one of exhilaration and liberation, and students had no intention to cause harm. Images of peaceful demonstrators dispersed with teargas and stun grenades, and sometimes rubber bullets, provoked reactions of shock and outrage.

It would have taken a small number of people with different intentions for things to get out of control. And that is what happened in Pretoria. As a large crowd converged without any central organisation to the Union Buildings, a few elements tried to escalate tensions with the police. Even then, the vast majority remained peaceful and did not respond to police violence. But the general mood changed, and irreversibly so.

Increasing tensions

In the last week, much smaller groups have been determined to continue with the action. The focus shifted to other demands, shaped by their own university environments and concerns. The longer-term goal of free higher education for all was one of the connecting themes, and ending outsourcing quickly rose to prominence. Demonstrators’ pressure led to the University of Cape Town, (UCT) and Wits accepting the insourcing of their workers.

Increasingly, however, the keywords changed from specific issues like #FeesMustFall, to a desire to bring everything to a halt with a prolonged #NationalShutdown, so that deeper structural problems would be addressed. The crowds continued to reject vertical structures, and favoured horizontal links, and spontaneous organising. One of the priorities was to maintain the fire through singing and dancing to protest songs.

Suspicions and fears rapidly took hold. Reports of violence across the country increased in the aftermath of the Union Buildings march. Given the high stakes, and the contradictory media agendas that shaped the debate, it is important at this stage to avoid finger-pointing. Spectres of infiltration by government agents were evoked, with suggestions that those who engaged in violent behaviour in Pretoria might have been planted to discredit students’ demands. A counter-narrative depicting protesters as “subversives” intent on bringing down government also emerged. Racial rhetoric re-surfaced, with frequent references to the realities of whiteness and black pain. Class divisions saw accusations of “selling out”, waged at those who had joined the marches up to Zuma’s announcement, but now wanted to write exams. Gender played a role, with concerns over women’s safety aired across the spectrum.

Another topic of debate has been the alleged presence of political organisations in the movement, and their legitimacy. Whether political parties have been directly involved or not, all major players pushed their own agendas and jostled for positions. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), an opposition party in favour of radical redistribution of wealth, marched in Johannesburg on Tuesday 27 October. The EFF leader Julius Malema embraced the language of student protesters, threatening to “shut down” the centres of economic power, including the stock exchange, the mines and the Reserve Bank.

The challenge of grassroots participation

In the second phase of the movement, demonstrators have been calling for solidarity and joint action across different sectors of society. The presence of outsourced workers testifies to this potential. However, there are no evident signs that grassroots participatory structures to support the movement are being formed, although levels and types of organisation show significant variations across the country.

The other side of the equation is that most universities’ management, and government representatives have not started any visible dialogue within and across universities to bring together all the stakeholders involved into a sustained conversation. Some VCs have been more willing than others to engage in debate with their constituencies. On the whole, academics, students, workers, civil society organisations, and political parties are still engaging in separate discussions, brought together by the amplifier of mainstream and social media.

The formation of leaderless crowds cannot be analysed in separation from decades of exclusion and marginalisation perpetuated under the guise of “democracy”. The structural dynamics of the student uprisings are in many ways similar to the spread of mining labour unrest, service delivery protests and xenophobic riots that we have seen in recent years. There are also important differences. The student demonstrations have seen much lower level of violence. Another distinctive feature is that they have unfolded in places of privilege and power. They have been more prominent in public debate than the 2012 horrific massacre of miners in Marikana, a are painful reminder of how media coverage and public awareness are shaped by hierarchies of race and class.

Participants in these movements are caught in a paradox. They reject attempts from the top to impose bureaucratic structures to channel their demands. This is because they have seen elected representatives, and other leaders, failing to deliver on their promises, after high expectations were raised at the end of apartheid. At the same time, their refusal is often an obstacle to the creation of a structured grassroots dialogue that could give long-term direction to their actions beyond the immediacy of protest.

A similar script underlines different waves of unrest. The exasperated crowd brings forward a mix of demands. Some of them can be immediately addressed. Others point at longer-term issues beyond the scope of a short-term negotiating process. Students are asking for free higher education, while Marikana rock-drillers fought for the tripling of their salaries to reach a living wage of R12,500 a month.

Students started with universities’ VCs, and then moved to parliament, and the presidency. When some of the requests are successfully addressed, alternative plans for long-term action struggle to emerge. This is not for lack of thinking or any failure on the side of protesters. People know that, as soon as they are co-opted into negotiations, their concerns are likely to be ignored, and alienating bureaucratic processes tend to take precedence.

Reconciliation and redistribution

The divisions produced by apartheid have not diminished. Comprehensive structural analyses that bring all these factors into a coherent framework, are often discarded in favour of partial explanations focusing on the merits and faults of specific groups. This works against a shared understanding of the situation, and further heightens the existing fractures.

The self-discipline and goodwill of students in the days of mass protests were remarkable, but the last week has shown that the risks are many. Fruitful alliances among different sectors of society need to develop through a negotiated and gradual process. Without the presence of meaningful mediation, race, class, ethnic and gender rifts could easily spiral out of control.

The hope is that all actors affected by the uprisings realise that it is time to resuscitate the important process initiated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after 1994, but admittedly left incomplete. Twenty-one years after the first democratically elected government, it could be tempting to discard what leaders like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu accomplished, in the transition to the new dispensation. Their relentless call for dialogue and reconciliation avoided an outright explosion of underlying social cleavages in the 1990s.

Unfortunately, those dangers have not been averted. The compromise reached then did not address the basic issue of economic redistribution from privileged groups to the discriminated ones. Without economic freedom, political freedom remains symbolic at best. The excluded majority is segregated in areas that suffer from structural disadvantage, and widespread poverty. Black South Africans, and other historically disadvantaged citizens living and working in privileged areas, are still suffering the dehumanising effects of racism. Even where whiteness has moved to the background, class, gender and ethnic divisions are fuelling major tensions.

Just like the miners in the Marikana moment, and the township residents involved in service delivery protests, university students and workers have now made their demands clear and loud; they want radical change, and they are tired of waiting. It is doubtful, though, that such long-term structural changes can be brought about by a politics of the crowd. Shifting blame to the demonstrators will not help either. Their tactics are the direct result of a system ruled by an alliance of technocrats and capital that continues to distance itself from the plight of most people.

If South Africans do not want to be caught in-between a permanent wave of unrest, and exclusionary islands of wealth and power, something in the middle has to emerge. The unfinished work painfully started by the leaders of the new South Africa in the 1990s needs to be completed soon, before social and political conflict escalates further. DM

Vito Laterza is a research fellow at the University of Cape Town. He has contributed to Foreign Affairs and Al Jazeera English and edits the Human Economy Blog. He tweets at @vitolaterza09.

Ayanda Manqoyi is a part-time lecturer in anthropology at the University of Cape Town. He is finishing an MPhil in sustainable mineral resource development.

Photo: Some of the thousands of students and youths from political parties gather at the Union Buildings during another day of demonstrations against fee increases at universities, Pretoria, South Africa, 23 October 2015. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK.

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