Opinionista Saul Musker 21 October 2015

Student protests: A storm rocks the establishment

Events of the past week have exposed the fault lines in South Africa’s democracy. The sands are shifting, and, more than ever before, the establishment faces a major challenge to its stability and legitimacy. How will it respond?

Outside the National Assembly, a crowd of students scatters as flashbangs explode in their midst, clouds of smoke rising, screams piercing the air, chaos unfolding. Police barricade the entrance to the parliamentary precinct, shove the crowd backwards, advance steadily with their riot shields raised. Above the shouts, a steady chant gains momentum: “Senzeni na, senzeni na …”

Inside the National Assembly, absolute calm. Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene reads his speech in a slow monotone, members of his party yawn and twiddle their thumbs. The air conditioning hums, the words hum in synchrony. President Jacob Zuma slumps backwards in his chair, pushes his glasses up his nose, glances around him at the expressionless faces of his Cabinet.

Outside the National Assembly, a student charges towards the line of police and is knocked to the ground. Another throws a water bottle, a third hurls insults through the iron bars of the precinct gate. The mass surges left and right, looking for a way in, unsure where to go next. A breathless news reporter runs towards the commotion: “Historic scenes outside Parliament as students gather en masse to disrupt the budget session …” The noise is tremendous.

Inside the national Assembly, Nene clears his throat and finishes his report. “I hereby, again, as I said in the beginning, table for consideration by this House, the medium-term budget policy statement, the adjusted estimates of national expenditure, the adjusted Appropriation Bill and the Division of Revenue Amendment Bill.” Polite, scattered applause. The president shakes his hand as he descends from the podium. Silence.


It seems impossible that two such different worlds should exist within just a few dozen metres of each other. And yet this disjuncture has become an integral feature of South African democracy. The oblivion of the government is a product of its distance and isolation. Sheltered in the inner chambers of the National Assembly, or Tuynhuys, or the Union Buildings, Zuma and his cohort of officials seem impervious to reality.

The recent outbreak of student protests over the cost of higher education represents a serious, perhaps unprecedented, threat to the establishment. The momentum that the movement has gathered reveals the depth of anger and frustration felt by those who remain marginalised and excluded in post-apartheid South Africa. And the reaction of the establishment to this challenge reveals its state of denial.

Two things need to happen if this crisis is to be resolved. First, those in power need to acknowledge the scale and extent of the protests. They are not going away, and they cannot be ignored. They are not like the isolated murmurings that occur normally when universities announce an increase, which have occurred in the past and have been appeased and wished away. This movement is growing, not fading. For this reason, attempts to force an end to student action are bound to be futile, and reaching for interdicts or stun grenades will only fuel the fire. You can’t place a line of security guards in front of a tidal wave and expect the water to recede. You can’t wave a written statement at a hurricane and demand calmer winds. Not even if you’re Max Price.

Second, institutions and the state need to engage meaningfully with students, listen to their demands and compromise willingly. Breaking the impasse will require serious concessions, and a careful reprioritisation of resources. In the midst of this upheaval lies a real opportunity to fix and reimagine a broken system, by making universities more efficient, securing greater government funding and structuring fee regimes to draw more heavily on wealthier students and less heavily on those who are poorer.

All of this is possible, of course, but only if the establishment wakes up to the crisis at its gates. Real leadership is required, the kind that Adam Habib has shown and the president has not. Apathy and complacency, which have characterised the Zuma administration in every instance, must end, and drastic and decisive action must take their place.

These are simple things to understand. But they are not being heard.


“The beautiful ones are born! The beautiful ones are here!” The man in red shouts above the roar of the crowd. The man in yellow, next to him, takes the microphone. “Long live the spirit of defiance, long live!”

It is fitting that the title of Ayi Kwei Armah’s classic novel should have been invoked during Monday’s mass demonstration at the University of the Witwatersrand. These protests are the birth of a new generation of South African leaders, who refuse to accept a government and a society that do not serve the interests of the most vulnerable, who reject corruption and incompetence and false promises and weak excuses. Indeed, the spirit of defiance is alive and strong. But will the establishment see it? Or will it close its eyes and shut the doors? DM


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