What a difference a few months can make, or so it would seem. The student-worker protests continuing through to this year entered a phase of the struggle against labour brokering practices and the bid for free education where they had found a growing consolidated list of enemies and obstacles, coupled with a dwindling, fragile and inconsistent set of allies.
“The year of the student”, as 2015 was declared by Afripop magazine and several others perhaps alerted too clearly to the state and the comfortably powerful that there was something more serious bubbling on university campuses than debates about old statues and contestations of ignored histories.
In a press statement released to the public over the December varsity break, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande asserted that they had been meeting with police in order to chart a way forward. This and other bold declarations in the public space, clearly directed at the student movements, were among the early warning signs that the state had begun to interpret the mass protest action as a “threat” and not as a potentially constructive element of an education system that by all reasonable accounts has been flailing and struggling for the kinds of state support needed to empower these intuitions to make the radical shifts society demands of them.
In stark contrast to the debates surrounding the politics and understanding of the use of violence in student movements in 2015, as evidenced through the resurgence of popularity of the likes of scholar Frantz Fanon and the imagination of revolutions from the decolonisation-independence era, the RhodesMustFall, FeesMustFall and EndOutsourcing campaigns were largely constituted by physically nonviolent means of expression. The tide very clearly begins to turn in the wake of the encounters with state police and the university-sanctioned militarisation of their spaces through multimillion-rand security reinforcements.
The construction of the student “protester” became associated with criminality as the iconography of public order policing units and nameless and faceless private security militia descended on campuses in reactionary attempts to re-establish “order”. Vice-Chancellors Adam Habib and Max Price in particular took it upon themselves at different stages over the past few months to divorce and misconstrue the purpose of specific campus protests as they wrestled for control of public sympathy to justify their strategy of militarising campuses by capitalising on sporadic violent outbursts by students and quite possibly agent provocateurs so as to instrumentalise their imagery to separate the movement from the public and sympathisers on their respective campuses.
The absence of the institutionally recognised structures such as “student representative councils” from much of the central and rapidly growing social movements at the heart of the protests across several campuses provided a landscape through which the leaders of these institutions were left with broadly three options: delegitimise, repress and finally dismantle these movements; co-opt potential key people, install hierarchies and control; adapt approaches towards dialogue to be flexible enough to handle new kinds of formations.
Sadly, all evidence seems to suggest that the flexibility, creativity and humility required to engage in dialogue for extended periods of time was to be outbalanced by the desires of the universities and institutions to adopt a back to business as normal approach at all costs in the face of a country and a climate that is anything but normal.
The inability of the existing structures and leadership to admit that the appearance of normality on their campuses should never outweigh an uncompromising desire to resolve the social, political and economic issues within the institutions themselves and the societies in which they are located and by consequence connected has led to what was once about fees, housing or symbols to a naked contestation of order and induction power.
The spiralling chaos surrounding the riot taking place over the Shackville demonstrations at the University of Cape Town in mid-February ironically and suspiciously have taken centre stage in the public space around the topic of “campus violence”. Many sectors of society have been condemning the spontaneous acts of the destruction of various paintings as being unequivocally and unquestionably unethical without engaging at all on what the underlying issues were that led to the degeneration of the situation in that space.
The images of the burning paintings somehow personified the old oiled canvas portraits to the point where they were humanised beyond that of the hands that threw them to fire. The violence “they” faced eclipsed the physical brutality and threat to life that had consistently been faced by students in similar situations across the country.
The scenes at the University of “Free” on their Bloemfontein campus flooded the social media space with clearly racialised attacks against student anti-outsourcing protestors beaten up and removed from the field as those in attendance successfully succeeded with the match. Student witnesses and journalists alike remarked at the disproportionate response against the black students in an incident where they had clearly been the victims. This I believe to be of concern but not unexpected for a number of reasons, not least the relationship between the anti-protester propaganda pumped into the media by high-level officials that have consistently dehumanised these vast and varied groups to the point where their safety and frankly their rights are unimportant in the face of the supreme objective of restoring “order” and “normality”.
Within a short space of time the country is also witness to a devastating fire that ran through the North West University campus administration building emanating out of rising tensions surrounding student representative council elections and consequently heightening tensions between the respective managements and the students. Disparate and conflicted reports surrounding the police coverage and considerably less media coverage of the events in that space, particularly in comparison to the “big name” universities, demonstrated in a wider frame how the literal and abstract proximities to institutional power dictate how pressured the powers that be are to resolve a particular crisis in the relative absence of large local and international interest and interrogation of the issues of conflict and the dynamics around the key role players.
To a similar extent the Tshwane University of Technology, University of KwaZulu-Natal and University of the Western Cape bear the brunt of repression as students and worker organisers are reportedly consistently targeted by police and private security far beyond the protective gaze of the media and public sympathy. The frequent use of water cannon and rubber bullets provide the elements of the kinds of militaristic environments that would be unthinkable in areas like the University of Cape Town. The silence of our broader society and of the officials in those kinds of purportedly liberal institutions tacitly condones and normalises the use of disproportionate force on universities that house greater percentages of black working-class students. As a society we are condoning the perpetuation of a hierarchy of experiences and ability to cope with pain and trauma as we collectively demand and emphasise the need for dialogue at the elite institutions, almost implying that these students and the movements they belong to are inherently better suited to “civilised” engagement in comparison with their counterparts in less “developed” regions of the country or areas of their respective cities.
The University of Witwatersrand (Wits) has taken a firm leadership role in the decisions surrounding how to “manage” the protest action and seemingly postcolonial scholar Achille Mbembe and Habib have attempted to publicly lay the intellectual justification and have challenged with concern, however genuine, the role of “violence” in the student protests as the nonpartisan groups such as FeesMustFall and the Progressive Youth Alliance (ANC-aligned) heavy SRC battle out for legitimacy and the opportunity to shape the trajectory of the free education and anti-labour brokering debates.
The University of Pretoria and Unisa in particular have seen strong Economic Freedom Fighters-driven (EFF) campaigns under their party’s OutsourcingMustFall campaign that has been met with the forceful resistance that has come to characterise this era of student politics.
Following this widespread upheaval across the country, the Higher Education task team investigating the feasibility of free education came out strongly against the “violence” at UCT.
What do these unbalanced reactions tell us about how ideology functions through the politicians and bureaucrats that ration and gamble with our rights in council meetings and Parliament buildings? The protection of private property rights and the ultimate authority of the rule of law underpin the responses to campus protests as the state consistently emphasises its perception of student protests as existential threats to the “order” they see themselves as charged with maintaining — and evidently not changing.
The question must be asked though, are we perhaps witness to a spectacular distraction?
The tactical utility of attempting to make an exception of and decontextualise the context that led to the riots at Shackville UCT is that it provides the perfect storm through which the public can be coaxed into believing that the present disruptions are nothing more than negatively-anarchic and “barbaric” acts of violence by irrational groups that want to destabilise universities for reasons only known to them. Without any need for investigation the institutions together with the public relations teams to assert and ascribe all acts of violence and any act of any nature to group identities that they have vested interests in dehumanising and delegitimising.
This perfect storm provides cover for the swift hands of the state that slowly have begun to creep into the university upper echelons to the point where institutional autonomy will very shortly be a thing of the past. Meetings between the Minister of Higher Education and the commissioner of police in sites like the Wits campus are the beginnings of cautionary flags that suggest that in the midst of the national outcry for change our would-be Vice-Chancellors have become makeshift politicians and have indulged the paranoid elite as together they deploy intelligence bureaus to conduct surveillance on students who must somehow in the face of all this pressure graduate and simultaneously maintain consistent dialogue with detached and overpaid university staff in order to resolve the burning crisis that has been inherited.
The sad irony of the claims from several university Vice-Chancellors surrounding expected increases in political violence leading up to the local elections is the consistent repressive assault they have waged against nonpartisan groups that have only just begun to find their feet and develop into mass-based social justice movements that extend beyond social media hashtags. The transition to this point, while imperfect and full of contradictions, has been openly antagonised and hindered by victimisation, deceit and defamation by university administrations that would sooner spend millions of rands on security they don’t need than admit the failings of their institutions in respect to their relationship to social justice. The inability of these administrations to handle collectives of students who choose to operate under flat structures has led to tactics from management, like selective victimisation, that are used to create an often arbitrary “leadership” class within these movements by exploiting the different propensities for “work” within these groups as among the first foundational steps towards dividing and conquering this wave of the flat structure experiment.
Part and parcel of this attack on the nonpartisan groupings has become the evident but criminally under-discussed threats to freedom of speech at the institution where vocal students who consistently speak out against their administration are tactically targeted and removed from their campuses through court interdicts with little evidence but enough procedural delays so as to effectively operate as a suspension without the opportunity of a hearing — providing a clear case of prejudicial behaviour and a noteworthy example of administrative injustice. I have experienced precisely this at UCT.
As the Vice-Chancellors and the state machinery begin to take openly offensive postures to the student-worker protests, as a society we must remain vigilant and be prepared to defend the looming onslaught against academic research, lectures or other kinds of activities that are now potentially “linked”, specifically topics such as decolonisation that may come under scrutiny as the repressive forces extend their witch hunt to find the spectre-like conspiracy planning the “counterrevolution” of their imagination and driving the securitisation of our collectively reality.
In light of all that has been raised above there is an urgent need to begin demythologising campus violence and interrogating how certain things happen and become thinkable acts. Reflections on the state of the ability for different groups to articulate concerns and ideas to one another and the relationship of that state to the eruptions of violence are necessary in any serious effort that looks to create a space for dialogue based on principle and necessity and not born out of reactionary naivety.
In this global age of the neoliberal capture of universities the role of the courts in South Africa in relation to the student protests has shed interesting light into the ways in which private property rights and the ability to control access to a property can be weaponised as a tool, with courts lenient enough to unquestioningly sign interdicts that limit the freedoms of students with little evidence. This same element of the neoliberal institution is shown through its use of private security forces and their relationship to violence.
The securitisation of university campuses is unwittingly forming the blueprint for tomorrow’s state-sanctioned fascism, I would argue, in similar ways to which the apartheid system evolved out of the hallowed halls of ivory towers. In fact, as numerous reactionary and disingenuous articles flood the public space, desperately attempting to draw links between the burning of ever-so-sacred art and primeval fascist movements, the real and tangible threat of authoritarianism is upon us and is openly being exerted from our public institutions downward, essentially unchallenged. The tragedy of our collective descent into militarisation is that the underlying unthinking and insatiable need for “order” will disintegrate the potential spaces of dialogue where a middle ground could possibly be reached.
Dialogue and reflection have never been more important as the state and the university management corroborators begin to wage a battle to the death with the students they charge. Intergenerational conversations, painful and abrasive as they may be, are crucial at a time when the differences between “success” and “failure” become blurred and obfuscated by a refusal to learn from the mistakes of the past with the same vigour we push as we move forward.
Towards a united front
Multiple layers have predictably hit the largely flat broad-based social movements in different areas of the country as political interference and repression put a strain on difficult compromises that may have once stood together but have shown each other to be incompatible. On the student struggle level, I firmly believe that an organising culture of nonpartisanship is the only way to advance the cause in a manner that would do justice to the principle of free education for all and in so doing creating conditions for a genuine manifestation of “people power”. The tactic of the “united front” in this case is particularly useful. It provides room for multiple groups of different compositions from across the political spectrum to unify under a singular objective — potentially free education for all — while allowing for a difference of opinion, autonomy across the organisations is maintained and different groups may choose to march at different times under the same banner.
A step towards a united front would require a rethinking of groups who attempt to be “purist” ideologically, expending tremendous amounts of energy on utopian ideals at the expense of grappling with the world as it exists and subsequently making practical and imperfect decisions. DM