Our universities are burning. But it’s simply a mirror of the country. This government and those apparatchiks who oversee the looting of our state-owned enterprises and government tenders, coupled with a crippling incompetence, are guilty as charged by the student protesters.
It is a social and political furore that reminds one of the burning barricades of the Eighties. And it’s been incubating for decades in our country.
But before we reduce the legitimate struggle of students for free education to the minority who committed the unpardonable sin of burning books and libraries, let us debate why we have reached this Ground Zero.
The reality is that our political miracle of 1994 never dealt with critical issues of dispossession and redistribution. Our vocabulary of reconciliation did lay the basis for a political miracle that averted a racial civil war that would have yielded a scorched earth, with potentially millions of casualties, but we chose not to pursue the logical conclusion of that journey.
We were convinced by the robber barons of our apartheid past that in the interests of stability we should accept their sop of black economic empowerment which created a class of super-rich who would share the spoils and, in theory, the economic benefits would trickle down one day. We deferred our economic transition. We chose not to rock the boat. The benefits did not reach the majority and today that underclass, marginalised under apartheid, has grown. And they are angry and restless. And they have a right to demand that our democracy means more than just the right to vote every five years.
The fact that a few black faces pepper the white privilege of the cigar-smoking salons to drink champagne and eat caviar has not changed the business model of exploitation under apartheid. Today our elites are very much part of the 1%. Inequality has even grown in SA. And the rule of law, so critical in defending and advancing our democracy, is under attack: state capture is part of our daily reality.
I think back to 1994: we had prepared to negotiate democratic participation on the factory floor as the militant union movement. We had the vision that farmworkers would negotiate the sharing of the land with farmers. That our universities would transform. Our curriculum would reflect our history and the future we wanted to build. We had known that reversing the legacy of colonialism was intergenerational. But an accountable leadership, guided by the vision of social justice and economic inclusion, was our beacon of hope.
In fact, reconciliation was a one-sided bargain and now it has come back to haunt us. The captains of industry celebrated the burial of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) and the introduction of Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) in 1996. They welcomed the maturity of the ANC. Our success became the measurement of technical indicators rather than human development. But we destroyed a social consensus.
It cast us in the mould of an elitist transition in which the old system absorbed the new elites. Our deep-seated problems of uncompetitiveness, lack of a vibrant industrial policy and a failed education and training system were swept under the carpet. And it sanitised the vicious exploitation of a system of racial capitalism built on savage oppression of the black majority. We did not change the old system as we intended. It swallowed us up.
Our political elite proceeded to destroy any alternative centre of political power. The ANC branches were captured, the Alliance broken and suitcases of cash and brown envelopes determined policy and implementation. We ended with an imperial Presidency which effectively merged State and Party.
The current predatory elites have just accelerated that process of decay. And the majority of citizens are left in a rudderless country in which public confidence in government is at an all-time low. Business is not investing but sitting on its horde of cash. And even workers’ pension funds are hijacked by worker leaders who have either sold out or surrendered its investment decisions to equity funds who are shop-stewards of global finance capital.
Last year I sat in a discussion in which leaders of #FeesMustFall justified the use of violence because of the reality that many of our current political leadership have absconded or in their political arrogance have chosen to believe their own propaganda that all is fine in the Republic.
My then disquiet, intensified now, was that violence is already the modus operandi of the exploding civic protests, enraged by endemic corruption and service delivery failures across townships. And that confirmed that leadership on the ground was either non-existent or discredited. And so violence from the state was responded to in kind by violence of the burning of any building that represented the state authority and often this, tragically, included schools, libraries and public buildings. Violence has de facto become the language of engagement.
And the failure of the South African government to lead the dialogue with students or intervene in the wide-scale protests in our townships is surely the path towards a failed state. We cannot pass the buck of “free education” negotiations to the university administrations. It is the responsibility of the State to negotiate with the students. And it is the State’s duty to address the corruption that robs our people of the basic services to which they have a constitutional right.
Violence has never been the goal of our resistance and struggle for justice. And we are not unique in the world. That social breakdown and loss of legitimacy of the governments across the world today has seen 60-million refugees fleeing war and a bloodbath across the world; more than any time since the end of the Second World War. The average stay of children in these barren camps is 17 years, and the average recovery from civil war is estimated to be between two and three decades.
Let us look at our own backyard. The war in Democratic Republic of Congo has claimed over five-million lives; its battle zones are the epicentre of rape as a weapon of war. The rivalry over capture of resources such as oil in South Sudan has led to devastating massacres and the same tragic process is starting in Mozambique.
Our education system was always designed to produce zombies who could be the cogs of a gigantic global machinery of exploitation, which never wanted independent thinkers. It brainwashed us into believing that success was an MBA, a cushy job, a BMW and a house in the suburbs. For a while it succeeded in delivering that. But that toxic system came crashing down in the crisis of 2007/8.
Today there is no guarantee that a good education will graduate one to the 1%. In fact, there is no way. Millions of young, highly qualified graduates in Europe and the rest of the industrialised world, saddled with education debt, are driving Uber taxis or languish in precarious employment in the hospitality and services sector.
The collapse of the welfare state and introduction of austerity has caused living standards to decline, in turn fuelling the growing strength of right-wing populism as a global phenomenon. The turmoil in Europe, driven by the immigration crisis, and the explosion of a racist xenophobia in the United States is seeing for the first time since the 1930s signs of an expanding social base for fascism.
While we must condemn the violence, we nevertheless must sit up and question the very nature of the democracy we have enshrined in our Constitution. We cannot sweep this uprising under the carpet any longer. In a country where one in three is hungry and only escaping the deadly clutches of poverty, and one in four is unemployed, we cannot withdraw into our cocoons of privilege, building higher and higher walls to keep out the growing anger and restlessness in our land.
By doing that, we are betraying our next generation. We are betraying the very content of our struggle for freedom. And that complicity extends to all of us. This government and those apparatchiks who oversee the looting of our state-owned enterprises and government tenders, coupled with a crippling incompetence, are guilty as charged by the student protesters. They are the root cause of our dilemma.
The student movement – the most positive development in the last decade – has shaken the political establishment down to its foundations. Now it needs to morph into a mass social movement that fights for a fundamental economic transformation and to completion of the democratic revolution. It’s a return to the basics – to the painstaking organising at a grassroots level, working patiently with communities fighting for their constitutional rights, farmworkers for land, workers for their rights to a living wage.
The emergence of the UDF and Cosatu in the Eighties galvanised millions into the struggle for social justice. I was one of those millions inspired by that struggle – to understand having been baptised as part of the 1976 generation that change was hard work, frustrating and long term. I learnt to shut my mouth and listen. And most of all I learnt that bravado of mindless militancy did not change our lives.
I learnt that my role was to learn, to work patiently with migrant workers living a brutalised existence in the hostels and on the shop floor. That our shared strategy was to build power, to co-create a shared vision and build the strategy, tactics and tools for grassroots leaders to win their victories or learn from their defeats around their bread-and-butter issues. And to always ensure that our action was non-violent and peaceful, even under extreme provocation. We realised that we could not build a militant labour movement by burning the factories. Those workplaces were a site of struggle.
That is my advice to the brave leaders who are emerging out of the crisis we have today. And a call to those of my generation to speak out. We cannot stay silent any more because of misplaced loyalty to the past. At stake is a proud legacy of struggle we have fought since the first white settlers arrived in 1652 and unleashed the system of dispossession and class privilege that we endure even today.
As our beloved Archbishop Tutu so poignantly said, “I am not an optimist. I am a prisoner of hope.” Let us work towards building hope again in our country. And we do that by looking down, not up, for leadership. And looking down means working in our communities painstakingly to build from the ground upwards the activism and social movements that once brought the apartheid regime to its knees. DM
"I know of a cure for everything: salt water...in one way or the other. Sweat or tears or the salt sea." ~ Karen Blixen