We are steadily approaching yet another turning point in the tale of the miraculous and ultimately mythological South Africa story. Public demonstrations and a general frustration from many sectors of our fractured society preceding the student and worker uprisings in 2015 paint a picture that few wish to engage with, publicly at least. These events do not happen in a vacuum.
The student struggle for free education speaks to the ever-hollowing echo of the promise of a better future for South African students that are battling not only to find their way into universities, but also to acclimatise and settle into these spaces that had previously almost explicitly existed for the production of an elite intellectual class. Repurposing these spaces, we are consistently told, will take time and “difficult conversations”. I believe we are witnessing one of those difficult conversations, and that we should be flexible enough that dialogue naturally manifests in different forms and levels.
The workers struggle, as several movements at institutions across the country have attempted to emphasise, is crucially linked to that of the students. The ideological deadlock around labour brokering practices at universities shifted almost overnight, during the November protests, in a manner that had not been seen since Mamphela Ramphele, the then Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town in 1999, had implemented this strategy.
The connection made between what some groups are describing as “decolonisation” while linking “Free Education to all”, and the implementation of a dignified living-wage for workers with a call to end outsourcing. This indicates that the undercurrent of the current uprisings call for radical structural adjustment in South Africa towards something that resembles a socialist future.
Questions arising out of the media-captured and physically performed iconography of partisan political badges, and simultaneously the emergence of non-partisan student political groupings have cluttered the landscape of the demonstrations to the point where it has been clear that a crisis of legitimacy exists within the student space. This renders dialogue with representatives of the university and of the state fragmented, and susceptible to capture for political gain. This can be seen in the ways in which the state, through the Higher Education Department and associated student-worker organisations such as South African Students Congress (SASCO) and the labour union National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU), have attempted to demobilise the protests by offering intermediary outcomes, such as the 0% increase in 2016. These are presented as victories for the aforementioned groups, in the hopes of wrestling control of the uprising with parties who have their interests at heart.
The continuous isolation of non-partisan groupings in particular, through vague and threatening comments, most alarmingly issued by the President, Jacob Zuma, in his address at the 52nd ANC National conference labelling the protestors as “counter-revolutionaries” delaying progress, and calling on the ANCYL to perform its “role” to “protect” the ruling party. These sentiments were somewhat echoed by a statement issued by the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA), suggesting that elements in the #FeesMustFall movement were advocating for a regime-change, and have been receiving training from the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States, and that students should stop protesting and return to class. These are not sentiments that should be taken lightly. In fact, this persistent attempt to alienate groups not aligned to the ANC appears, in my opinion, to be building a narrative towards justifying state-sanctioned repression and demobilisation of groups that will systematically and strategically be tainted with a “black mark”, as it were.
Law, Order and the assumption of stability
Moving to the university space, the eruptions on campuses in 2015 that were met with the state police was immediately followed a groundswell of public sympathy around the campaign, as the intrusion of police onto the university space heralded the memories of apartheid South Africa. In fact, the country has yet to digest the long-lasting effects of force that have made their way onto the campuses both from students and from police.
The University of Witwatersrand’s vice chancellor Adam Habib penned a letter titled “An Open Letter to colleagues critical of campus safety and security arrangements” where he goes on record to explain the rationale for his decision making around the security measures. This letter, I would argue, forms part of a debate that will be central to the resolution not only of this campaign, but countless other contestations that will undoubtedly follow directed both at institutions like universities and inevitably against the state itself. Habib’s provocation, weighing the right of one party to protest in comparison to the right of another to “education” is asserted by the undercurrent that it is also his mandate to restore “law and order” to the campus, and to prioritise the return to the normal functioning of the institution. The question then becomes, surely, does the unchallenged “order” of the present lead us any closer to a potential full realisation of the right to education? What if the normal functioning of the university is in itself is party to the reproduction of social inequality? Is it not then defensible to disrupt this functioning in order to make structural change possible? This should not be understood as an endorsement of an indefinite “shut down,” but more as a provocation to the importance of a continuous disruption, particularly of elite spaces, for the purposes of moving towards scenarios where structural change becomes possible – now is one such instance.
Private Security vs State Police
As previously stated, during the late stages of the #FeesMustFall protests, the practice of senior management of universities acquiring interdicts, and the continuous police presence received a considerable public backlash. As we move into 2016, we see that private security has played a central role in management’s strategy to maintain “order”. The propensity of our public institutions to turn towards private companies to provide specialised security services, I would argue, is a telling litmus test of the extent to which our public institutions have been captured by neo-liberal conceptions of ownership, and by consequence their participation in the profit driven security-industrial complex.
Beyond the padding around finances that Habib’s earlier open letter provides, it seems as though the universities will spare no financial expense to provide measures to restore “order”. This tells us important things about ideology and how it operates in our public institutions. It is precisely this thinking that the demonstrations should seek to fundamentally overturn. We should be moving to a situation where we will, instead, spare no financial expense to move towards the full realisation of free education for all. While many have called for the publishing of the security contracts, a demand I would echo, we should also note the absence of regalia or company badges on the part of private security personnel on campuses, as I have witnessed at UCT. This provides no accountable means through which students, staff or workers can direct their complaints, or conduct research on the history of said company.
Reports across social media particularly coming from the student movement spaces decrying sexual harassment, and in some cases sexual assault, have also proven to be a dimension of the private security presence that seemingly has no mechanism for accountability. If it does exist, reasonable measures have not been taken to make clear which channels members of the university community can use to lodge complaints.
Private security personnel are, also, only allowed to conduct citizen’s arrests. This means that during crowd-dispersal operations, should they decide to make arrests and move students, workers or staff off campus and its surroundings, what are the mechanisms and means through which we can guarantee their safety? Who are these companies? What governs the chain of commands that result in the use of force to curtail protests? Has any of this information been volunteered to the university community?
The Marikana Dilemma
Now, in the context of the #FeesMustFall #EndOutsourcing protests I can’t help but note the similarities in the ways that the existing university management structures respond to pressure groups that exist outside of the “recognised” structures. When the university refuses to negotiate with any workers or student-worker coalitions that exist beyond the unions, and when the protestors consistently undermine the authority and existence of student representative councils (nationwide) we must surely begin to ponder the question: Are we quickly approaching the climax of our own Marikana Dilemma?
The tragedy of Marikana and the logic underpinning the disastrous chain of events that led to the murder of mineworkers who stood steadfast in pursuit of a dignified living wage presented a dark entry into a “dilemma” that lies at the centre of South Africa’s looming crisis. The “wildcat” strike that continued, in spite of a conflict with the recognised labour union, led to a stalemate with the employer who refused to negotiate with the group separately from the union. The dispassionate response from the mine owners sent the miners and state police into a fatal spiral of escalation that vividly revealed the relationship between capital, the state and anti-black, anti-poor violence. Are we doomed into a cycle of despondency as the calls from the ground grow increasingly impatient and distrustful of failed and tired leadership? More crucially, will this despondency be resolved by creativity or state/private sponsored violence? Time will tell.
The State and Free Education
At the end, I would appeal to the leadership of public tertiary institutions across the country to take a turn away from private security. If they do choose a security option to enforce “law and order,” they should make use of the state police so that the students and workers can engage in a political contestation with the state to whom, after all, the demonstrations are directed. Allowing that confrontation to unfold will help provide a closed loop between those who are demonstrating and the powers that have the ability to effect radical change on the topic at hand. To continue to allow this loop to be broken will continue create a barrier to “dialogue”, which comes in different forms, that can result in destructive violence as a by-product of an inability to provide other kinds o expressions that carry meaning to change the reality in which that voice, thought or act is constituted.
If we are genuine about realising “Free Education for all” and “Dignified living wages” we must provide scope for the contestation and the re-imagination of the way that the South African state responds to its citizens and the intersectional identities they occupy. Vice Chancellors should close the loop and provide scope for some semblance of accountability for the use of force. #PrivateSecurityMustFall, towards a better society. DM
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