The twinning of signs and photography has always provided the most powerful memories in the history of protests. As demonstrations grow larger they attract photographers who will tell the stories through sentiments expressed in rough Koki pen on cardboard.
It’s easy to forget the impact of last year’s student activism. Looking back at the scenes I covered, there are two unforgettable placards. The first was “We can’t breathe.” The second “The ANC is the third force.”
One touched on Frantz Fanon’s quote: “We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” Even for those who don’t know Fanon’s work, it spoke to the ongoing challenges experienced post-1994; the unmet expectations, the suffocation of being in a system whose foundations have been engineered to exclude. The other responded to claims from those who argued the student movement was driven by a ‘third force’, that notorious label for the apartheid government-sponsored groups who, behind a veil of legitimacy, tried to derail the struggle for freedom.
The sign called political leaders on their attempts to deflect responsibility and spoke to the State’s failures in delivering accessible higher education, including providing funding through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) for all qualifying students. It spoke too, of its neglect of the ‘missing middle’ and the forgotten Freedom Charter clause on free education.
Both posters came to mind this weekend when ANC Youth League (ANCYL) leader Collen Maine called the Fees Must Fall movement counter-revolutionary. Speaking to City Press, he said: “The so-called Fees Must Fall movement is highly funded and so who is funding them? Whoever is funding them is counter-revolutionary. State security should be looking into that because these people are very dirty. They know how to operate; they will not deposit money into your account.”
While acknowledging government spending on NSFAS, which he said should increase, and the need to push for free education, he suggested Fees Must Fall, along with racists, meant to bring down the government.
“The Fees Must Fall campaign and racism – it is all one thing, and has the intent to overthrow a democratically elected government of the people. These counter-revolutionary forces can’t win democratically. Hence, you see the old flags representing apartheid, which goes to the issue of racism. It has begun to raise its ugly head in our country,” Maine said.
The ANCYL, Progressive Youth Alliance, and South African Students Congress have all questioned the agenda of Fees Must Fall groups, linking protests to dark forces.
It’s natural for Maine and others to be sceptical. Last year’s protests were amongst the most significant political events in the last 20 years and most political players were trying to influence the focus. Also, many of the FMF movements have split from campus SRCs, which are mostly led by ANC-aligned student groups. Like all groups they have their own political goals.
But to dismiss the Fees Must Fall groups, which differ from campus to campus as a part of a conspiracy with students’ hand-in-glove with the racists whose way of life the students are directly opposing is entirely without evidence, while setting back the ANC’s attempts to show it takes the students’ demands seriously.
It also marginalises sections of the youth whose vote, if they vote, could still go to the ANC.
President Jacob Zuma and Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande have tried to show they are taking student issues seriously and have increased their responses to the issues this year. Meanwhile, Maine is speaking publicly about how students are trying to overthrow the government. He’s basically a live manifestation of a dodgy leaked intelligence report that blames nefarious forces instead of engaging with contrary opinions. To him, if a movement or organisation doesn’t support his views, State Security must investigate.
Forget the freedom to associate and right to speech – send in the spies!
After Julius Malema and many of his colleagues left the ANCYL to form the Economic Freedom Fighters, the task team assigned to transform the Youth League looked to balance its role as an organisation of the mother body with its position as a vanguard of youth concerns.
“The major challenge for us as the ANC Youth League is to master the art of balancing our public agitation with these [radical] perspectives, even if the ANC has not bought into them, in a manner that doesn’t weaken the ANC,” read the blueprint for the Young Lions.
Under Maine the Youth League has instead closed ranks around President Zuma, making clumsy and desperate attempts to protect the party president. Even if the ANCYL leader does believe in free education, Maine will now be known for wanting the movement that has pushed for free education for 20 years investigated for treason.
He is lucky that the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, has failed to take a leading role in youth politics since the student uprisings. But his fear of the Economic Freedom Fighters only adds steam to their attempts to influence the student movement and take the youth vote.
He may as well be turning his back on the sign, “We can’t breathe,” and carrying the other, “The ANC is the third force.” DM