South Africa: The Meaning of the #FeesMustFall Movement

On Friday, October 23, South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, announced that there will be no increases to student university fees for next year. This was a clear attempt by the government to contain a movement which has become too big to control.

mass-youth-protest3This is evident from last Friday’s events. While Zuma was meeting with vice-chancellors and academics, students were kept on the south lawns of the Union Buildings in the scorching sun. Earlier, the #FeesMustFall movement had refused to meet with the president behind closed doors. This is a clear indication of the mistrust which the movement has for the government and of those in power.

Instead, Zuma was meeting with leaders from the ANC Youth League, SASCO, and the Young Communist League, who had no mandate to speak on behalf of the protesting students. One of the striking features of #FeesMustFall is that, while it includes students from a cross section of the political spectrum (including students from the SASCO, the ANCYL, and the Economic Freedom Fighters), the students are not participating in the protests in the name of their individual party-affiliated formations. Therefore, the meeting that Zuma had had with the official leaderships of these formations carried little weight with the students outside. Like the absurd press statements which were released subsequently by the ANC, claiming “victory,”  it was a clumsy attempt to hijack the movement after Gwede Mantashe (ANC’s secretary general) called on ANC members to join the march on Friday. In addition, this attempt to claim victory was an attempt to create the impression that the immediate crisis was now over and that the government was now “on board” to resolve the issue of free education in its entirety.

witsWhile the meeting dragged on inside the the Union Buildings, the mood outside was allowed to simmer. A podium was set up which created expectations that Zuma was about to address the crowd directly. The buildings were cordoned off with barricades and razor wire, which infuriated many protesters. Then a group of provocateurs from Soshanguve started breaking down the barricades,  set fire to portable toilets, and clashed with police. The vast majority of the protests were completely peaceful. In fact, the leadership from #FeesMustFall even withdrew the students from the front where the clashes were occurring. Students started chanting “no violence, no violence.”

Then, minutes after Zuma made his announcement, that of a zero-percent increase in university fee increase for next year, the police started attacking the students with tear gas and stun grenades. Chaos erupted, and thousands of students fled into the streets of Pretoria, affecting traffic around the Union Buildings.

But the dispersal of students by police was premeditated and completely unprovoked. The intention of the state was clear: let the situation deteriorate outside by letting students wait in the baking sun, creating expectations that Zuma was going to address the crowd, allowing provocateurs to cause trouble, thus creating the impression of an unruly mob while Zuma is portrayed as “reasonable” by appearing to give in to concessions.

mass-youth-protestThe aim was clearly to turn public sentiment against the students. Such an attempt would mainly affect the middle class. The middle class is a very heterogeneous class and therefore very fickle, especially during mass upheavals. The reason for this is to be found in the position it occupies in society. The middle class neither controls the means of production, nor does it create the wealth in society. In the struggle between the working class and the capitalists, it has no independent role to play. It is not very consistent but, rather, it bends according to the pressures put on it. While the movement generally goes forward, the middle class will generally support it. But when there are sudden and sharp changes in the movement, it can split the middle class both to the left and to the right. This “fickleness” of the middle class can ultimately only be overcome by a determined struggle by the working class under a genuine revolutionary leadership which is willing to march to the end.

In any event, this attempt to turn the public against the students largely failed. The experience of the past few days played a big part in this. People saw that, even while students were occupying the universities, it was done in a completely nonviolent way. Some students were even studying in the process. On the other hand, the violence of the police was completely exposed during the events at parliament on Wednesday. Another factor is that the day’s events were broadcast on national television, which meant that people could see with their own eyes what was happening.

The #FeesMustFall Movement which has rocked the country over last few days is a pivotal moment. It represents a fundamental turning point for South African society. In the rich revolutionary history of this country there have been a number of historic moments which were led by the youth, such as the uprisings which followed the Sharpeville massacre of March 21, 1960, and the SOWETO youth uprisings of June 16, 1976. Now Friday, October 23, 2015 will go down as such a moment.

The fact that there will be no increase in university fees is a significant victory for the student movement. But it is only a partial victory. The exorbitant fees have not been abolished. Fees have only been frozen for one year.  They still have to be paid.  Nor has the central demand of free, universal, quality education at all levels been attained. Over the weekend, universities across the country, notably Wits, University of Cape Town, UJ, University of Free State, and North West held mass meetings and decided to continue the struggle for free education. Therefore, what we are witnessing is not the end, but the beginning of a student movement.

The students have also decided to link their struggles with workers at universities by demanding that universities stop outsourcing. This attempt to link up with the struggles of the workers at universities is absolutely correct. It must be followed by linking it to the struggle of the working class as a whole.

The movement has been receiving support from NUMSA, the metal workers’ union. In fact, the union has even called for a common struggle. In one of its public statements it said, “Numsa calls its members, as parents of these fighting students, to join the demonstrations, as a way of providing support and solidarity. The proposed increases if they go ahead, are going to have a serious and disastrous impact on the livelihood of workers, who are the hardest hit by meager wages, amidst the escalating cost of living in modern day colonial and capitalist South Africa.”

And in another statement it said, “We call on the protesting students to join with us in fighting the common enemy of South African workers and students: the neoliberal economic policies being championed by the ANC government on behalf of the big corporations of the Minerals Energy Complex. We call on working class and poor communities to join en masse the students’ protests for free education. It is through mass protests we can force those in power to concede to the demands of the students.” This is an entirely correct position, which should be carried into action.

The significance of the concession that the government has given is that it has come on the back of a mass movement. The sight of thousands of revolutionary students converging on Parliament on Wednesday, on the ANC headquarters on Thursday, and the Union Buildings on Friday represent a fundamental turning point for the country. These are earth-shattering events, the like of which have not been seen in the last two decades.

But the significance of the student movement goes far beyond the issue of fee increases. The students and intelligentsia are a sensitive barometer of the mood in society. What these current events around exorbitant fees indicate is that there is a deep anger and frustration at the current state of affairs which will consume society sooner or later.

One of the signs of a looming revolutionary storm is that the ruling class cannot govern in the old way. That is clearly the case in South Africa today. The bourgeoisie has used up the political mechanisms to rule society. On the one hand, its own forces, like the Democratic Alliance, are far too weak, and do not resonate with the masses. On the other hand, the authority of the ANC among the masses has never been lower. This explains the exponential growth in strikes, protests, and demonstrations over the last period. There is a growing resentment against the traditional parties of the establishment.  Workers, students, and poor people increasingly feel the need to take matters into their own hands.

This was clearly seen at the current protests. Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Mmusi Maimane thought that he could capitalize and score some cheap points by attending one of the protest marches in Cape Town. But it turned into a complete farce. As soon as he was spotted, the students immediately turned on him. “Away with your opportunism,” they shouted. The sight of him being chased away from of the march went viral on social media. Similarly, former DA leader Helen Zille was escorted from a march at Stellenbosch. It is highly significant that this has happened in the Western Cape Province, where the DA is the governing party, and at Stellenbosch, which is traditionally a bastion of the Afrikaner elite.

Similar scenes of defiance played themselves out at the march to the ANC headquarters on Thursday. As soon as the march reached Luthuli House, the ANC brought out its election truck. The idea was clearly to turn the event into an ANC rally. This backfired. The ANC’s secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, was forced by the students to abandon such plans and to “humble himself” and come down from the stage and receive the demands from the students in the street. In the end, he never was granted the opportunity to address the crowd. The message from the students was that it was time for politicians to listen and not to speak.

For many people, the ANC headquarters is held in very high esteem. Not so long ago, the very idea of marching on Luthuli House would have been anathema.  The sight of thousands of protesting students surrounding Luthuli House was a moment of historic importance.

The movement over university fees is not emerging in isolation. The tuition protests should be viewed in the broader context of discontent and resentment. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) faces a crisis of governance of unprecedented magnitude. Its rule has never been more questioned and compromised as it is now. And its authority among the masses has never been lower.

2012-08-17-Marikana massacreOver the whole of the last period, the ANC and its president, Jacob Zuma, have been embroiled and implicated in a seemingly neverending string of crises. One crisis after the other has hit the party: the arms deal scandal, Zuma’s interactions with corrupt businessmen like Schabir Shaik, numerous scandals implicating leading party members in fraud and corruption, the Nkandla scandal, the string of crises in the police administration and the prosecuting authority, the electricity crisis, the crisis at the public broadcaster, the e-tolls debacle in Gauteng, and of course, the Marikana massacre and its subsequent cover-up.

This is in addition to a multitude of crises which bedevils society, including unemployment (real youth unemployment is nearly 60%), growing wealth inequality, and persistent poverty. In other words, what we are facing here is not a crisis of this or that individual. Nor is it a matter of policy implementation, as the ANC suggests. It is is a crisis of South African capitalism as a whole.

At the recent National General Council of the ANC, delegates were shocked to learn that the party has lost more than 450,000 members in the last three years. All kinds of secondary reasons were provided for this. But it is clear that the most fundamental reason is that the masses do not see the current ANC leaders in the same light as those of the past. The fact that thousands of students would march on Luthuli House, an unprecedented event, is a clear manifestation of this.

The student protests indicate the coming of a firestorm. It represents nothing else than an anticipation of the South African socialist revolution. The heroism and determination is a glimpse of what is to come from other sections of society. Already, South African society experiences on average 35 protest marches a day, although many of these protests are scattered and isolated. The current student protests will encourage others to come out and directly challenge those in power. In time, they will also learn to come out against the bankers, industrialists, and capitalists who are the real rulers of society.

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