“Decolonisation”, as I have previously emphasised, in my understanding is a historical process which is centred on the basic principles of self-determination and collective self-reliance. This demand emerges out of contexts where people collectively organise to resist and oppose the imposition of colonial logic, social, economic and political power insofar as it oppresses and dehumanises people and has found global historical coherence over the centuries through notions of justice, emancipation, liberation and independence for all their limitations and contradictions.
The call for free education is an incredibly old demand and in my understanding arises out of a basic assertion of education as a public good and as something that should primarily serve the basic needs of the broader society – everyone from the cleaners of residence halls to the professoriate.
The marriage of these two concepts does not rest easily, especially in the fraught post-negotiated settlement era of South Africa – how much of what is now desired has already been signed away? While the rhetoric of this moment carries the echoes of the independence era, to what extent are we falling into the trap of ignoring continental experiences of similar moments of crisis? What is Burkino Faso post-Sankara? Or Tanzania post-Nyerere?And what does that mean in light of what we have in front of us?
One of the defining characteristics of the 2015/16 protests thus far, vast and varied as they have been, have been their persistence and ability to pierce some of the elite halls of South Africa that had yet seen raucus disruption. National shutdowns across the universities, while remaining relatively unco-ordinated, remain remarkably successful to the extent that they are able to close campuses. This has coincided with the sidelining and isolation of many Black feminist organising blocs in the 2016 round which still remain contested spaces in and of themselves. This has visibly led to its adoption as a key method of applying pressure to the state without the risks and costs that come with exposing the burgeoning movements directly to the state before it reached critical mass.
Regardless of how one might feel of the utility of this tactic it is difficult to deny its effectiveness in demonstrating the urgencies around the demands at hand – however conceptual some of them may be.
Standing at the brink of possible university closures for the semester, for those of us directly affected, we are left with an opportunity to reflect on the precise nature of both ourselves and the university and society. The prospects of what could be could be “lost” through a premature closure should be read carefully alongside our values and aspirations of a different tomorrow. I think back to my undergraduate graduation where several senior lecturers in the engineering faculty lamented that many of their students would end up in financial institutions and management consultancies. This in the context of a society that is battling to materialise basic infrastructure in favour of the needs of the majority? This is surely a time to take stock of what we are really doing here and begin to dare each other to dream and contest what must be changed to shift our speeding tracks of the train to further inequality and catastrophe.
In recounting Leigh Ann Naidoo’s presentation at the annual Ruth First lecture earlier this year and her comments on the palpable nihilism of our elders and those in leadership, given the past few weeks of campus shutdowns I can’t help but agree.
After months and months of passing the ball between government and politician-Vice-Chancellors the fees increase announcement led to a completely predictable chain of rebellions that continue to gain momentum. Empty have been their countless press conferences and conference speeches about “solutions” and “pragmatic compromises” that have dodged and avoided the conceptual critiques of the present role of commodified education in our society.
Instead they have taken a discourse rooted in pain and exclusions of the present with a gaze firmly set on the horizon of tomorrow and turned it into a debate about percentages and loan statistics. So nihilistic are so many of our former communists and anti-apartheid activists that they no longer wish to entertain the notion of different futures of possibilities – so committed to their nihilism that they have consistently sanctioned the shooting of their own children.
The accusation of “regime change” elements from the likes of Nzimande and Jonathan Jansen are not only surprising but deeply irresponsible and disappointing. Their steady and consistent pathologising of student protesters as somehow being misguided, predominately ungrateful “missing middle” children and all-powerful, well-funded regime change agents leaves one wondering whether in fact there is a need to keep the campus libraries open for our officials who are in desperate need of some reading themselves.
At every opportunity, protagonists of the decolonisation discourse should emphasise that not only is it an ongoing historical process but it is not limited to nor constrained by the walls and structures of existing buildings, institutions or even national borders.
It is something that while broad rooted in emancipatory aspirations gains contextual relevant in the education struggle through the connecting of the parallel struggles of people who are systematically excluded and exploited by the system at large. To this effect both the decolonisation and decommodification of education cannot take place from the campuses alone; in fact they gain their content and thrust from the struggles of ordinary people for food sovereignty, quality healthcare and so on. What this then means, from the formulation above, is that event-based direct action on campuses and key state institutions, while effective bargaining chips, cannot by themselves decolonise nor decommodify the campus insofar as they do not provide scope for ordinary people to seize control of the direction and purpose of the very ivory towers they have been systematically excluded from.
The ongoing privatisation of public institutions, not only through funding contributions and neoliberal policies but also through the worrying securitisation and reification of the university space as private property with classes and seminars that are services provided to clients (read students), is being entrenched in response to these ongoing disruptions in ways that should not be underestimated for the long haul.
Mechanisms of austerity were used over the last year to systematically attack progressive labour gains such as insourcing, however compromised, along with distracting from necessary curriculum shifts and freezing posts across departments. These control mechanisms of the elite reproductive system attempting to regain stability are not only to be expected but anticipated. Protracted strikes that increase in length from year to year are likely to be costly for the movement, let alone individual costs, as the most likely participants of the strikes are undoubtedly the most affected by this tactic over the long term.
With many of the workers still outsourced, protracted strikes offer severe dangers in that these companies are likely to use job shedding schemes to accommodate for the reduced hours, in a post-outsourcing era with greater job security this dynamic is likely to shift considerably. So with the #FeesMustFall moment recurring, defying early predictions that it was a once off event, it is clear that this high-stakes approach will eventually need to shift gears before it collapses before its own weight.
Through the invocations of decolonisation, renewed vigour in discourses around Pan-Africanism as an example have come to the fore; this has come into direct confrontation with the implementation of private security which largely relies on workers from central Africa as part of its regiments. Tense moments and charged engagements between students and security have seen uncomfortable glimpses of the rhetoric that has come to be understood as “Afrophobia” and is perhaps an early flag for the need to reflect and reconceptualise what is meant by “Africa” when it is invoked.
In particular I reflect on consistent references to Amilcar Cabral of Guinea Bissau and Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso but I can’t tell you much of the contemporary political climate in either place – nor can I find recourse to remedy my ignorance in all the many pages of the UCT prospectuses. We must begin to ask ourselves, if decolonisation and Pan-Africanism are important contributions to the present struggle then why have we collectively not made more efforts to include the rapidly growing communities of Africans, from outside South Africa, into the debates and conceptualisation around what an inclusive education could look like?
In reflecting on the #FeesMustFall movement and the call for Free Decolonised Education one can’t help but shake off some glaring potential obstacles in attempts to nationally organise, and what that might mean. In a country woven together through mining networks and the military expansion of European diaspora, there is a visible advantage for those who take the ANC and Freedom charter disposition to politics on this territory when interfacing directly with government.
Beyond the glaringly obvious reasons it is worthwhile raising the question whether or not decolonisation itself is incompatible with the nation-building project as defined by the post-1994 South Africa. The consequences of the answer to that question are fairly severe and the outcomes of the clashes of the student-worker movements on these demands will dictate the extent to which Free Decolonised Education ultimately makes sense as a programme of implementation post-radical realignment of socio-political economy as opposed to something that is coherent under the present constellation of power.
In the short to medium term the tactical route laid out ahead remains rocky for those not aligned to the ANC. Talks of legal strategies and landmark constitutional court cases for #FeesMustFall run the risk of entrenching the rule of law and legitimising the very channels so deeply criticised by the burgeoning movement.
To me, forcing the government to bolster its capacity to provide remedies to the crisis through public engagement across sectors and involving community leaders perhaps creates more diffused avenues of long-term alliance building outside the existing power bloc. If there is one thing you can be sure of, “how” #FeesMustFall terminates politically will be almost as fiercely contested as the models of implementation themselves. Paradoxically, these high stress moments of “shutdown” are perhaps providing the time necessary to navigate our way through the storms in which we find ourselves – with that said, time is short and the stakes are high. This is just the eye of the hurricane. DM