The stark ironies of South Africa, the weak links between rich and poor, and between the governed and their leaders, have probably never been as clear and evocative as they were inside and outside Parliament yesterday. Evidence of the disconnect between formal political structures and the people they are meant to serve was brought home by the images of protesters across our television screens, and the calm demeanor of the Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene delivering his medium-term budget policy statement in the National Assembly. The thick walls of the National Assembly were all that separated angry students from the air-conditioned comfort enveloping MPs. The protests, and the way they have been handled, suggest rapid changes are afoot around class, race and political choice in South Africa. They also show serious weaknesses on the part of our elected leadership. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
There were two moments yesterday that showed, far more than the smoke and anger around police action, that our politicians don’t understand what is happening in the country. The first was the sight of State Security Minister David Mahlobo trying to enter the Parliamentary buildings and refusing to comment when asked to do so by a throng of journalists bearing cameras and microphones. If ever there was a chance to show leadership, this was it. Mahlobo refused the opportunity. This is proof, if it was ever needed, that the African National Congress (ANC) produces Cabinet ministers who were too dependent on the centre, in the shape of the president, and unable to think on their feet, or lead the country away from disaster. The second moment was when the Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande tried to shout “Amandla” through a megaphone. It was never going to work. He was roundly booed. Blade, that was not an ANC crowd.
This is what happens when the only crowds you have addressed have always been made up of people who already supported you. Then again, Nzimande has never shown much appreciation for democratic debate. He has always been too Stalinist in his response to those who have disagreed with him. What was needed yesterday was a simple “good afternoon”, some sort of apology as subtext for the police action, followed by the only message that could be given: “We have heard you.” It is, of course, always a mistake to make promises under pressure. The boos could also have been a sign that the students did not feel any gratitude towards the ANC. Almost completely unseen amid all of this was President Jacob Zuma, who has said nothing of substance on this issue.
There are some, perhaps mainly in the twittersphere, who see these student protests as the start of something, the start of very real change in our society. There is talk everywhere of “revolution”, and that things really will be different after this. It is far more likely, however, that these protests are really a symptom of greater, more serious problems in society, rather than the start of something new.
While student protests have historically led to real change in societies around the world, almost all of them started as protests about freedom itself. Evidence suggests that this is not what students are demanding here. In South Africa students seem to be protesting in their own self-interest; they want university fees to be dropped so they can study, join the middle class, and be assured that they will not be poor in the future. What I am presenting is not a critique, just an observation. There is nothing wrong with mobilising in your own interest, in fact it’s what democracies are about. It does mean, however, that the significance of these protests should not be over-played.
There is a suggestion, for instance, that what happened inside the parliamentary precinct yesterday was historic. This may be true, in that stun grenades were used in the precinct for the first time, but this argument can be taken only a short distance. Earlier this year the jamming of cellphones and the violent ejection of the Economic Freedom Fighters were seen as historic. Not that much has changed since then. What happened yesterday is unlikely, therefore, to change much either.
What is absolutely fascinating about these protests is their multiracial nature. During some of yesterday’s protest at Parliament there seemed to be more white than black people. At other demonstrations white students have heeded calls to move to the front of protests, on the grounds that police would be less likely to act violently towards them. Generally speaking, almost every protest since 1994 has been by black people. With a few notable exceptions, white people have used other tactics. What this suggests is that there is a class dimension to these protests that we have not seen before.
This is to be expected. Students at universities are more likely to be from good schools, of the same class, and speaking the same language than almost every other group in society. They have, invariably, all grown up in a society far more integrated than that of their parents. If the demographic make-up of university students are a marker of what the country’s future may look like, then future tensions may well be more about class than race.
Prince Mashele, from the Centre for Politics and Research, has suggested this also shows that politicians cannot govern exclusively on a historical narrative of the liberation struggle. As people like Zuma spend their time talking about the past, evidence from protests over the past several days suggests they are looking the wrong way. The ANC’s critics may say these protests represent a future South Africa that is not dependent on the ANC, or without the ANC as the political centre. University students certainly don’t reflect all of society. What does seem clear is the these protests are an indication that if the ANC thinks it has problems with the middle classes now, these are nothing compared to what may be coming its way.
What these protests suggest is a rejection of formal politics in all its forms. What, indeed, could be more symbolic than the apparent violation of Parliament’s sanctity, booing of the higher education minister, and rejection of the leader of the opposition in Parliament, Mmusi Maimane. Even those who claimed to be ‘Economic Freedom Fighters’ were told by protesters that they were unwelcome.
Political analyst Ralph Mathekga suggested on Wednesday afternoon that this was really a rejection of formal political structures. It was a demonstration that students did not believe they would be able to use existing formal structures to find a solution to their problems. There is a strong resonance here with pretty much every ‘service delivery’ protest in the country over the past few years. People appear to have lost faith in the system.
One of the more worrying aspects of these protests is that they do not seem to be inspiring any new thoughts on how best to educate our young people. The differences seem intractable. The students demand free university education, and the government’s response is that they cannot afford it. The Institute for Race Relations disagrees. Its chief executive officer, Frans Cronje, has crunched some numbers and he reckons that withdrawing subsidies for parastatals (South African Airways, Eskom, etc. Petro-SA take a bow, your losses this year have been estimated at between R14-billion and R15-billion, depending on which sources you believe), cutting the defence budget by a quarter, and reducing the government wage bill by 5%, could raise enough money to pay for free undergraduate education – with board and lodging included. Cronje is probably right, but it is hard to see the government changing its policies so dramatically.
All of this does not necessarily answer the question of whether tertiary education should be free. Protesters say education is a right. This misses the point that universities already have entrance requirements. The fact that these requirements have generally been accepted implies that university education is not an automatic but an earned right. Also, if the government does pay for education all the way through undergraduate studies, would it not mean that the current poor are subsidising the rich, or the soon-to-be-rich. Why should a street-sweeper contribute to the fees of a law student? There are other questions that arise. Does making something free mean people ascribe no value to it? Would free education automatically lead to a decline in quality? These are all difficult questions which other societies have grappled with for decades, and the answers have remained elusive.
That said, there is so much more that can be done at very little cost. Mass open online courses are becoming more prevalent; respected institutions like Harvard University in the US offer them. Long-distance education is not dependent only on the internet. Britain established the Open University in 1969, and thereby made it easy and relatively cheap to study. Surely this is something that can be done in South Africa. We already have the University of South Africa. Why is it not being properly resourced so it can step into what is surely a gap waiting to be filled? The SABC has an open radio station in Radio 2000, which is supposed to be a public service station but plays popular music and sounds more and more like every other commercial station (they clearly hope no-one will notice). Why does Radio 2000 not broadcast more educational programmes aimed at school pupils and university students? The power of radio reaches commuters and workers around the country continuously throughout the day. Surely educational and public broadcast resources can be directed more effectively, and with a greater focus on the public good?
There are plenty of opportunities that emanate from the current protests that are sweeping the country. All that is required is for political leaders to grasp them – and close the widening gap between the governed and those who govern. Sadly, Nzimande’s basic instinct is to shout “Amandla” into a megaphone. Blade, society’s moving on, buddy. DM
Grootes is the host of the Sunrise show on SAfm. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.
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