Opinionista Brian Kamanzi 20 July 2016

#FeesMustFall Redux: Harnessing the coming storm

The time is quickly approaching when to invoke #FeesMustFall with an air of nostalgia will become decisively unsatisfactory and I believe this will only be good news. Careful considered reflections on the past are important but ultimately the largest hurdles for the burgeoning movements lie ahead, not behind us.

With this said, for the numerous students battling against criminal charges, court orders, suspensions and expulsions it has never been clearer that the state and its institutions are eager to make relatively indiscriminate examples of what is to be done with “problem people”. The unwillingness of purportedly dialogue-loving civil society groups and flourishing, moralising hero-base foundations to engage on restorative justice methods for the protests has also meant that while books, theses and documentaries have focused on the just cause taken up by the movement there appears little hope that the 2015/16 period will be pried away from the temptation to caricature and prematurely historicise living people who suffer the consequences of what happened.

Thus far 2016 has evolved dramatically differently to the trajectory of 2015 with a relative lull in direct action efforts taking place at a number of the historically white institutions. Alongside this, negotiations for the various insourcing agreements for workers at a number of institutions has progressed to some extent in spite of the palpable demobilisation of the student-worker alliance in comparison with the moment that forced the decision. Worker strikes across the country, such as the University of Free State in late May of 2016, demanding higher wage increases and an end to labour brokering, continue as a national position on outsourcing as a practice at the universities remains evasive. The hope for proponents of insourcing can now draw strength from the domino of contractual agreements from other institutions to bolster local organising power.

Protests at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, led in this instance by the local South African Students’ Congress (SASOC), included demands that the policy to withhold results on the basis of non-payment of fees be repealed, therein removing one of the mechanisms through which they pressurise students – read as clients – to pay for their “service”. This protest and many other reported incidents at several institutions implementing insourcing as a practice also included concerns that not all the benefits expected were being carried over to the workers’ new conditions of service, showing that while abolishing outsourcing is and was a victory, many structural problems through the integration process in particular remain.

Looking forward, for proponents of free education, it is important for us to map out key challenges and opportunities. On several occasions the state and a number of Vice Chancellors have suggested that a CPI related fee increase will be on the cards for 2017 to cover the existing shortfall in cash flow. This in line with early sentiments from the Higher Education minister in particular suggesting that “Free Education” in the short term is not on the cards under the present balance of forces.

Within the movements splintering has visibly taken place centring particularly on stark class and gender antagonising factors. As but a few examples, feminist movements in the Universities of Witswaterstand and Cape Town respectively conducted direct action protests against both the institutions and against some sections of the student movements themselves in response to the apathy, silence and incapacity to deal with patriarchal attitudes and sexual violence. If the stalemates between the existing networks of student activists continue then one can be certain that the moral and even populist public sympathy of the cause that has been started will continue to dwindle.

A number of feminist movements continue to organise and educate institutions like UWC, that I am tangentially aware of, and as much of this good work continues to take root it will hopefully not be long before regressive politics on these issues are pushed towards the margins.

In a reflective essay by Adam Aboobaker, Intersectionality and Economists, he asserts, like several others have done, the importance of building strong, dynamic student worker alliances as a matter of urgency. How this is to take shape given the divisions following the 0% increase announced last year will vary from institution to institution. From my observation, while some campuses, like Wits university, have bargaining councils established with non-partisan students, academics and workers who aren’t union leaders, this is not the case across the board.

Natural alliances between the both ANC-allied popular labour union Nehawu and Sasco exist, however the relative strength of these organisations is uneven across the country. Collectives and organisations that have existed for long enough periods to have achieved the stability to weather the infighting that followed the demobilisation of #FeesMustFall will probably be in better positions to participate in more structured relationships with shop stewards and strong unions at the institutions.

Spontaneous formations that arise out of largely “independent” students in the context of popular uprisings will therefore, as I see it, only have the capacity to fight alongside the workers’ struggle on an ad hoc basis, providing tactical vulnerabilities and structural weak points in the broad-based movement should it massify and move at the pace that was reached in late 2015.

Soberly taking in the general criticism from across the board that insufficient community engagement had been had between the university students and broader society must be taken to heart if there is serious will to actualise the demands issued.

The age of social media has been very useful in providing scope for disseminating more information, more quickly; however, the design of the platforms many use such as Twitter and Facebook systematically encourage us to engage within microcommunities and bubbles of agreement. A return of old-fashioned pamphleteering and door-to-door engagement may be the necessary medicine for student movements as the media has consistently proven very difficult to control for information dissemination for the aspirationally decentralised movement.

As I have argued previously on this platform I firmly believe the free education demand, as but one example, will probably only be won in the present circumstances through a commitment to non-partisanship. This will perhaps be easier in the aftermath of the local government elections when the respective parties are realigning their energies from campaigning hopefully to delivering on their election promises. With this said, it takes years to build movements and with the national election taking place in 2019 there is a small window for #FeesMustFall style movements to execute and organise without being engulfed with the popular furore of elections.

Much like everything else, student representative councils in different contexts play different roles; however I do think there are some red flags that need to be discussed for the fees and labour movements that implicate the various SRCs across the country. The first is the widespread co-option of SRC members into the bureaucratic structures of the university. SRCs are becoming gatekeepers of university managements and technocratically policy-minded in ways that mirror what is happening in the state, whose governance structures it mimics.

For ever expanding portfolios on these committees mirror our infinitely widening Cabinet of ministers, show ministers and deputy what-whats, creating a scenario where student electoral politics seemingly exists to plug the holes in higher education. In some campuses, like my own UCT, SRC members are paid stipends and laud their policy efforts and fund-raising schemes for financially excluded students as evidence of their continued relevance when, I would argue, it demonstrates precisely the opposite. Many of the tasks taken up by the SRCs can and should be covered under student support services and direct action will presumably need to take place in order for that to happen; this may mean for some SRCs that they turn their backs on the bizarrely addictive institutional powers of public sector administrators. Three years ago an SRC may have raised R1-million for financial exclusions, today it they may have to raise R3-million – at what point can we rely on this structure to help us kill the head of the snake?

The role of academics and vice chancellors with notable exceptions has been cleared up in the public arena to some extent, it would seem. Organised academics are largely sympathetic to the demand but unwilling to risk as much – physically or with reputation – as their student and worker counterparts. Vice chancellors have seemingly capitulated completely to the will of the state. Despite their consistent complaints of the underfunding of the higher education sector, there is little evidence to suggest that this will change for the remainder of 2016/17.

One of the benefits of the relative lull period has been that there has been an opportunity for the debate around Free Education for the poor vs. Free for All to sediment among the public. Contributions from activist collectives including Salim Valley, Enver Motala, Mondli Hlatshwayo, Leigh Ann Naidoo and Rasigan Maharajh and the GroundUp staff including many other pieces outline the variety of different ways in which spending priorities could realise the demand for Free Education.

What remains, if I am allowed to oversimplify things, is the organic political will to force government to raise taxes and scrap the debt of students that they know full well, under the present economic climate, will not be able to pay them anyway. Threatening statements from NSFAS and SARS suggest that the outcome of the fees commissions will be to restructure and expand the ceiling of the NSFAS loan system. Startling reports from Rhodes University cited that a large percentage of students for the present year still owe more than 50% of their fees, this when read alongside the billions of rand that has not been repaid by former NSFAS recipients give us a surface level feeling of the boiling crisis that awaits higher education.

On 20 July in an interview on the SAFM after 8 debate panellist and Wits PHD student Leigh-Ann Naidoo drew attention to the desire among the student movements to connect with basic education struggles, particular in light of the fact that government financed this year’s 0% shortfall from the unused schools infrastructure budget. Without more co-ordination the education movement more broadly from early childhood development to grave stands vulnerable to being pitted against itself and cannibalised by bureaucrats. It is unclear as to whether a united front of some kind is still possible, particularly with the first year students of 2016 yet to really make their opinions on the matter felt in comparison to their predecessors, a factor which I expect to change within the next 12 months and with it a movement renewal that is long overdue.

In closing, while there are many moving parts, lessons, opportunities and obstacles, the capacity to dream, organise and materialise elements of material freedom remain at the heart of hope for our collective future. If “the people” themselves do not win the right to free quality, decolonised education through struggle, whatever is given to us will forever remain under threat of being taken away.

One thing we can be certain of, with expanding inequality and a slowing economic growth rates a storm is on the way and South Africa has contradictions aplenty to surface – while we have time the question for us is whether we can harness the winds of change or whether we will be blowm away altogether leaving nothing but debris. DM

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