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Academics must resist undemocratic #FeesMustFall tactics

Co-Pierre Georg is Associate Professor at the University of Cape Town’s School of Economics.

Following the recent resurgence of student protests at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and discussion about protests at the University of Cape Town, we seem to be on the verge of our annual bout of student protests. Last year showed that protests can easily get out of hand if they are not properly managed. By CO-PIERRE GEORG.

At least two tragic deaths are directly related to the 2016 protests. Tshwane University of Technology student Benjamin Phehla was killed when a driver lost control of his car and crashed into a group of protesting students. At Wits, Celumusa Ntuli, a university employee, died after inhaling fumes from a fire extinguisher released by protesting students. As senseless as these deaths are, they were only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Numerous students, security guards, and bystanders were injured during protests that were poorly managed and shamelessly exploited for short-term political gain.

Since students, by resorting to senseless violence, failed miserably in mobilising a broader masses of civil society for their cause, they also failed in achieving their main goal of free higher education.

So, here we are, yet again. And the question is: What have we learned? There are two key lessons that I think all South African academics should take to heart should protests flare up again.

Academics should embrace free tertiary education

There have been tangible improvements with regards to transformation at our universities since 2015 and the efforts of all those involved cannot be overvalued. But the main problem remains: the high and increasing cost of tertiary education in South Africa remains an impediment for those from previously disadvantaged backgrounds, despite Treasury’s additional funding. In a country with a youth unemployment rate of around 60%, access to quality tertiary education is not a luxury for those seeking wisdom and enlightenment, it is a necessity that all too often makes the difference between being able to provide for a family and facing hopelessness, desperation, and even hunger.

No matter which indicator you choose, the picture remains the same: young black South Africans, especially those from rural areas and from townships continue to be disadvantaged. For all the progress we made, for all our efforts, millions of young South Africans continue to be disadvantaged. If we do not recognize this simple fact, we fail these young people and they will have every right to be angry at our failure.

Yes, we need to fix our education system at large, and yes, we can only spend every rand once. But free tertiary education will do more than just unlock the full potential of young South African genius, it will give hope to an entire generation. Yes, we must spend more on early child development and on mental health, but these are not the true spending choices we have to make. The true choice is between spending money on higher education and spending money on a bloated government that leaks billions through captured state-owned enterprises.

Let us join the students’ call for free higher education. Not because it will fix all our problems, or even our most important problems, but because it is a tangible improvement over the status quo. It is something that can actually be achieved and that would have a lasting and positive impact on the country.

The line must be drawn here

As much as academics should support the students’ cause for free higher education, we must resist the tactics of the #FeesMustFall “movement”. The movement claims it speaks for the students, but it fails at upholding even the simplest democratic principles. #FeesMustFall call for “mass meetings” via social media and closed whatsapp groups so that the vast majority of students has no chance of attending a meeting and make their voices heard. And where students with a dissenting opinion were able to attend a meeting, they were met with hostility and aggression. #FeesMustFall claims to speak for a broad group of students, but in reality they only represent a tiny but aggressive minority.

Two examples help to illustrate why I remain adamant about rejecting the moral authority of #FeesMustFall. First, take Mcebo Dlamini, one of the leaders of the #FeesMustFall movement at Wits. He has openly and repeatedly declared his admiration for German dictator and mass murderer Adolf Hitler. Dlamini is a proven notorious liar who claimed he is a grandson of Walter Sisulu (he isn’t) and was personally recruited to study a “secret degree” in nuclear physics (he wasn’t). Despite all this, he was cheered on by Wits students during the last protests and continues to speak on behalf of #FeesMustFall. Dlamini is not an isolated case. Take Ntokozo Qwabe, the UCT student and former #RhodesMustFall leader at Oxford University who gained international notoriety by bullying a white waitress. During last year’s protests he attacked a fellow student at UCT and then stating on social media that he “should have whipped the white apartheid settler colonial entitlement out of the bastard”. Finally, take Lindsay Maasdorp, another #FeesMustFall leader, who physically attacked UCT Vice-Chancellor Max Price during last year’s protests. Maasdorp is also a member of the racist Black First Land First Group of Andile Mngxitama, who are proven to be paid for by the Guptas and act as their private thugs.

This last fact gives the “student” protests of last year a whole different spin. Given the active role of Black First Land First (and of other fringe groups like Pasma) and the timing of last years protests, following the release of Thuli Madonsela’s “State of Capture” report, it is conceivable that at least part of the protests were organised to distract from President Jacob Zuma’s state capture troubles. This desperate attention seeking could also explain the otherwise completely irrational use of excessive violence, which included locking security guards at UWC in a burning building, and throwing a heavy rock from the sixth floor of a UCT building, attacking and critically injuring a security guard.

Whoever negotiates with #FeesMustFall automatically negotiates with holocaust deniers, racists, and Gupta-paid black-shirts. Unless #FeesMustFall disavows these groups, neither UCT nor any other university should engage in any conversation with them. It is simply not good enough to say, as UCT senior management has repeatedly done, that #FeesMustFall is a diverse movement and that the situation needs to be resolved.

With all this in mind, academics should insist on a few key principles that university management should abide by in case of new protests:

  1. No legitimacy without democracy. Only when mass meetings are held with proper due notice given to all students, and when the rights of minorities are protected are the decisions taken representative of what students want.
  2. No violence. Period. Negotiations with students must only happen as long as protests remain peaceful. No damage to property, no attempted murder, and no eating of Zebras. And yes, I cannot believe myself that I actually have to spell out these last two.
  3. No private security forces on our campus. The disaster last year has clearly shown that violence begets violence. Why some universities have relied on former mercenaries from the Congo to act as security guards is beyond me. Most of them have no proper anti-aggression training, and some only spoke French.
  4. Committing to transformation. Students have a point when they demand more transformation. Academia in South Africa is still mostly white and male. This is not something we can accept at our universities since it perpetuates historical power structures.

Academics tend to be more interested in pursuing knowledge than in politics. But sometimes we must step outside our ivory tower and tell the lingering barbarian hordes outside that enough is enough. This far. No further. DM


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