The Fees Must Fall Movement has awakened all of us from revolutionary slumber. No one could have predicted that what started out as an ordinary annual protest over fees at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) would spiral into a full-on campaign for free education. What started as a struggle directed at one university ended up as a struggle directed at the leadership of the entire country … demanding that the leadership wake up from the slumber of complacency.
It is always painful when the African National Congress (ANC) has to be reminded of what they signed up for when the organisation was formed in1912, when they adopted the Freedom Charter in the ’50s and when they took over the reins of our country in 1994. They signed up for nothing less than economic liberation. It took a group of youngsters who were not even alive when these revolutionary undertakings were made to say to the retired revolutionaries: Wake up from your slumber.
Universities are the very map of how our society is drawn. They show us all the underbellies that we sometime don’t want to face. So what are the lessons to be drawn from the dramatic events of the last week?
1. The frustrating gap between golden intentions and ‘bronze’ inaction
As far back as Polokwane conference in 2007, the ANC made a decision about free education. It would have been obvious that one of the priorities of the newly established ministry of higher education would be to turn this golden idea into a reality. But alas … The higher education minister has been rather hapless in this regard. For someone whose name is Blade he was not as sharp as would have been expected. For someone of his academic qualifications he has demonstrated lethargy in rising to the occasion since he has occupied this ministry. Once again we sit with wonderful policies and poor implementation. Where is the plan to implement this resolution? Did we need Nompendulo Mkhatshwa and her colleagues to pour into our streets and shut down campuses for this matter to receive attention? It is clear that someone was slumbering on the job.
2. The absence of cutting edge leadership in higher education
Since the dawn of democracy higher educations institutions have ceased to lead in many areas of our national life, even in education. In contrast to their role before the struggle, where they were in the front row of the struggles for liberation and on the cutting edge of thought leadership, it is clear that academia have decided to take a back seat on policy development or advocacy in the new South Africa.
This was exposed by the #FeesMustFall movement as embarrassing policy inertia. The fact that the decision of all universities to raise fees was virtually cancelled is an indication of a failure of foresight by universities which pride themselves on knowing better than the rest of society. This shows that the leadership of higher education was asleep at the wheel and has now been kicked into action by the young leaders with a renewed passion for the future. But what was even more striking for me was how they set aside their political differences to achieve a common goal, something their leaders in Parliament fail to do daily.
3. Lessons in humility
The events of the last week underline the failure of our leaders to humble themselves. Such a lesson was a dramatic one to be taught by students to their elders. Firstly, how did it escape those planning the programmes of Parliament that it would have been prudent to address the masses of students who marched to the heart of Parliament last Wednesday? Who in their right minds thought it would be okay to proceed with business as as usual? The misguided shrugging off of the protest was later to prove disastrous when the leaders responsible reluctantly made an appearance. Not only were they not allowed to address the angry crowds but they adopted an Animal Farm-like posture, with the higher education minister appearing on the stage with the defence and state security ministers. Whoever advises the government on its public relations must truly be shot.
On Thursday more lessons in humility should have been learnt. Gwede Mantashe was at it again with his chieftainship arrogance, refusing a golden opportunity to be seen sitting down with the students, as Adam Habib did with his Wits students. I know the jury is out on whether the mini Hitler’s instruction to him to sit down was respectful or not. The reality is that when that image is beamed around the world it is Mantashe who would be seen to be bringing himself to the level of the people. No one would care how it occurred. We have seen that image plenty of times on the campaign trail with leaders suddenly understanding that it is okay to sit down and speak to the people on their level and not talk down to them. This basic philosophy underlining servant leadership was lost on our so-called de facto prime minister. Across the oceans, though the image of South African High Commissioner Obed Mlaba sitting down with the students was beamed across the world and left a good impression of humility. Mantashe’s reticence is in contrast with this show of humility and shows a belligerent leadership out of touch with a key constituency.
4. Jacob Zuma’s biggest missed opportunity to connect with the young
No words can describe the depth of the president’s mistake in not connecting with young people at the Union Buildings. After hours of waiting, with the stage set for him to show leadership, he chose not to show up at the steps of his own office with thousands waiting to hear from him. Instead he addressed students through the media lenses. Given the positive message to be be communicated there is truly no logic in hiding behind the media conference. This alongside his quick escape out of Parliament on Wednesday shows just how deeply he has lost touch with its constituency. Can you imagine Nelson Mandela refusing to come out of his office to face angry masses? I am sure there were security concerns … I suppose that’s why the finance minister increased not the budget for higher education but the budget for VIP security on Wednesday. We have a government that has become so paranoid that its priorities are skewed. But whatever the circumstances that led to Zuma not addressing students, it was a public relations disaster on a large scale, begging the question: What on earth do the thousands of spin doctors the government hires actually do if we have such constant public relation disasters?
At the end of the day the students must be given credit for shaking the tree of complacency that the leadership seem to be hiding under. They have started a consciousness that has been missing from the highest echelons of power to the latter day university campuses that have ceased to be a melting pot of intellectual intervention in our national life. Mkatshwa, who has become the deserving face of this new struggle for true freedom and a bright future, has woken the sleeping beast our politics has become.
In other news, I just found out the ANC Women’s League will be marching to the Union Buildings on Friday. Bathong Ausi Bathabile Dlamini, I had so much faith and confidence in you. I am very disappointed and beyond shock that your main objective is #HandsOffOurPresident … Really??? #ClapsOnce. DM