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Post-Marikana SA, birthing the new student politics

Camalita Naicker is a PHD Student at UHURU (the Unit for Humanities at the University currently known at Rhodes University).

The Black Student Movement has established a political praxis that showed marked breaks with traditional hierarchical student representative structures. This has serious implications for the post-Marikana student, who has seen the failings of the government, the party, and the leader, and who has witnessed popular mobilisations that break with traditional top-down politics; practices which have repeatedly failed to fix the problems of black and oppressed people in this country.

In her recent article, The Rhodes to Perdition: Why Rhodes was never ready for the BSM, Black Student Movement member Ntombizikhona Valela wrote that we are not just dealing with the post-Apartheid moment in South Africa, we are dealing with the post-Marikana moment. This moment epitomises the general feeling that any conscious person, no matter their political affiliations, can no longer pretend that we are living the rainbow nation dream. The massacre of 44 mineworkers and policemen has not led to any kind of punitive justice by the state, or remorse in the case of capital. It has, however, led to a proliferation of popular politics that defines itself as living in the dark shadows of Marikana. The new student politics marks the arrival of this politics in the university.

From the Nkaneng shack settlement in Marikana in the North West Province to the Marikana Land Occupation in Cato Crest, KwaZulu Natal and the Marikana 2 Land Occupation in Philippi, Western Cape, the word Marikana now signifies a type of politics and not just a place or event. Marikana has come to mean the violence unleashed by the state against people organising outside of authorised institutions and demanding that the government account for its actions, or to listen to the demands of its people.

Marikana, as a type of politics, is not just about state violence against popular dissent. It is also about the ways in which the liberal media has aligned itself with the state to present poor black people organising themselves outside of authorised institutions as “mobs” and “thugs” who are “irrational” and “violent” and under the control of external agitators of various kinds.

In recent weeks, exactly the same language has, for the first time in post-Apartheid South Africa, also been used to describe students at former English-speaking white universities like UCT and Rhodes. This development has shown that the liberal consensus is not only unable to engage the politics of poor black people on a reasonable basis. It is equally unable to respond to black students challenging liberal authority on a reasonable basis. This makes it clear that the limits to the forms of democracy acceptable to liberalism, and to the forms of political presence acceptable to liberalism, are about race as well as class.

Liberal spaces, like civil society or the university, are underpinned by the logic of exclusion in which the right to speak and to act is not extended to everyone and there are often implicit but clear restrictions on how one ought to speak and act in order to be acceptable. Anyone or anything outside of this has always been seen, in Lewis Gordon’s formulation, as the ‘illicit appearance’. Within this formulation, nothing can be comprehended as valid, reasoned, or rational if it is not presented from within the logic of liberalism. This is why when Lihle Ngcobozi wrote about the responses to #Rhodessowhite, the responses from readers were not unlike public responses to popular mobilisation in shack-settlements. The vitriol, and the colonial tropes her article evoked, were the same.

Once liberals have succeeded in making popular mobilisation appear as violent, thuggish and irrational, it appears that there is no need to engage that mobilisation as a political phenomenon and on the basis of reason and logic. Just as there is seldom any engagement with the content of the politics of striking miners or shack-dwellers occupying land, so too there has been an absence of reasoned engagement with the Black Student Movement. Yet if we step out of the liberal paradigm and engage this mobilisation as the emergence of politics rather than pathology, and on the basis of reason, we are also able to see that it is strongly influenced by the form that popular mobilisation has taken post-Marikana.

The BSM has abandoned representative politics in authorised institutions. While seeking strategic alliances, the BSM has no hope in the Student Representative Council (SRC) ever really engaging with the lived experiences of black students at Rhodes University. Furthermore, the BSM has no need for representatives. If you walk to the Drostdy Lawns when there is a BSM meeting, you will find between 40 – 60 people sitting in a circle on the ground. This practice began organically, from the second meeting of the BSM, as members just sat down. Chairpersons are nominated and seconded at each meeting, and then everyone sits down and talks. The meetings never last less than an hour or two, and no leaders were or have been elected. Everyone is given a chance to speak, to disagree to argue, and then to decide on a way forward. The BSM is also making connections to workers’ unions and community organisations and includes people who are also members of the Unemployed Peoples’ Movement (UPM) in Grahamstown, which, in fact, is where the habit of addressing each other as “leaders” comes from.

On 25 March, after the BSM had handed over a memorandum to the university requesting that students who could not afford to go home for the holidays be accommodated by the university, the Vice Chancellor Dr Sizwe Mabizela agreed to meet the students at 5pm. He arrived at 4:30, as BSM members were still debating their strategy. The chair very politely explained that he and other members of staff had to return in half an hour. In that half an hour, every person whose hand was up was heard and two rounds of voting occurred until we reached consensus, at around 4:55. Everyone then got up and walked silently into the Main Administration Building (what we call the Clock Tower) where we sat down again to hear the Vice-Chancellor speak. Inside the Clock Tower, a different person chaired the smooth, disciplined, and collective meeting with the VC, once again without any instruction.

The movement, then only one week old, had quickly established a political praxis that showed marked breaks with the traditional hierarchical student representative structures like SASCO and the SRC. This has serious implications for the post-Marikana student, who has seen the failings of the government, the party, and the leader and who has, on the other hand, witnessed popular mobilisations that organise autonomously and break with traditional top-down politics. These forms of political praxis, found in popular people’s movements around the country, favour forms of political praxis that stress democratic consensus, collective actions, transparency and, when repression has not made it impossible, autonomy and have their roots outside of the liberal constitutionalism which has repeatedly failed to fix the problems of black and oppressed people in this country.

Today is a new day, and contrary to the views of many established academics, academia has not always been a space of enlightenment; neither has the university been the space for decisive and revolutionary action. There are always exceptions, and these exceptions, like the Students of ’68 in Paris, Mexico and Germany, or the Students of ’69 in South Africa, run contrary to the liberal logic of institutions that more generally function to reproduce privilege. These moments when students issue a real challenge to the university are also often influenced by and involved with the politics happening outside of the university. The attempts at breaking the purple bubble now currently underway in the University currently known as Rhodes are, in part the result of popular politics and its praxis finally reaching into spaces premised on excluding them. The BSM is well aware that its roots lie outside of the university and is committed to sustaining connections between student struggles and popular struggles outside of the university. DM


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