The successes and failures of South Africa’s student movement

South Africans were not surprised by the emergence of the “Zuma Must Fall!” call which manifested in huge protests in April and May 2017. We are accustomed to protest at many levels, from the daily service delivery protests that disrupt traffic, to the disruption of Parliament by the Economic Freedom Fighters, or EFF. On reflection, the movement calling for President Jacob Zuma to step down — if it can be termed a movement at this stage — is the third manifestation of the “fallist” movement, which rocked the country in 2016. While the relationship between the student movement and the Zuma protests is tangential, the current wave of protest can only be understood in the context of the emergence of new alliances and mass movements that are independent of the governing African National Congress party.

Many of us, activist and academic alike, were caught off guard by the intensity of the wave of protest that swept across South African universities late last year. We had not seen anything like it since the mid-1980s. And in those days, the student movement had been acting in concert with a bigger national liberation movement, as a small and relatively privileged part of that movement. Now, students were self-organizing for a change in their own circumstances, to force the institutions of higher education and the government to respond to their demands. After 22 years of democracy, the next generation’s time had come. It was exhilarating in many respects to see the youth picking up the baton and running with it towards another, more distant, goal post — a “decolonized” education system, in a transformed society.

With the exhilaration came other, less positive, elements: intolerance, lack of discipline, racial polarization, coercion and a certain level of violence — all these accompanied by some desperation and trauma, and real losses to some students amid the substantial gains that were made for most students.

I watched this movement emerge from the position of being a professor at the Nelson Mandela University, or NMU, in Port Elizabeth. One of the most interesting aspects of the 2016 “Fees Must Fall” campaign was the shift in leadership. In 2015, an alliance of all the major student organizations led the first campaign against increased fees for university students. The campaign was led by black students who fell into the “missing middle” category — students who did not receive full state subsidy, as their parents were considered middle-class, but who in reality could not afford to be at university. The post-apartheid transformation of higher education has seen huge changes in the racial demographic of the student body; gaining a place at a university is easier, but being able to afford to stay there is increasingly difficult.

For students from rural or working-class backgrounds, there are intolerable hardships: the government National Student Financial Aid Scheme, or NSFAS, covers the bare necessities, but many students lack transport, food, internet access, and even electricity and healthcare. These students came together when the “trigger” for the movement occurred: the announcement of a 10.5 percent increase in fees in 2016. Building on the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement of the previous year — which had called for the removal of symbols of colonialism, such as the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town — the call was made: “Fees Must Fall!”

In 2015, the South African Student Congress, or SASCO — which is aligned with the ANC and claims to adhere to Marxism-Leninism, but mainly provides a stepping-stone for politically ambitious young black activists — was vying for leadership of the elected Student Representative Councils. They were facing off against the Democratic Alliance Student Organization, or DASO, the student movement aligned with the liberal parliamentary opposition Democratic Alliance, which is supported by most white students. Suddenly, two new forces emerged on the left to challenge this dynamic: the EFF, aligned to the left populist party that engaged in disrupting the South African parliament, and the “fallist” Black Consciousness groups, not aligned to any political party and sometimes explicitly anarchist. The resurgence of Black Consciousness thought, anti-colonial Fanonist ideas and Pan Africanism, together with the politics of intersectionality from the United States, merged to form a not-always-coherent but powerfully attractive counter-rhetoric for the intensely frustrated black students of 2016.

In 2015, the alliance held together in pursuance of a common demand: that the universities not increase their fees, as had been announced. The whole student body of most universities supported this demand, and some extraordinary scenes played out, including the march on Parliament in Cape Town, where students were “corralled” and teargassed. At NMU, the main campus is situated on a nature reserve on the coast, surrounded by affluent middle-class suburbs — a “whites-only” Group Area in the apartheid days — and beachfront recreational areas leading into the city center. A spontaneous march through the suburbs into the city center threatened to be violently dispersed by riot police, but after careful negotiation by student leaders the police ended up escorting the march to City Hall. Students designated and trained marshals within half an hour, and with makeshift cordons they kept the march to one lane of traffic, so that the whole suburb was not shut down. Black and white students literally joined hands, and the moment they arrived at City Hall, the minister of education announced that the fee increase would not be implemented. A temporary victory was declared.

Gains were made. Universities responded by committing to more student support, transformation of the curriculum, and a number of institution-specific demands put forward on each campus. But by mid-2016, the fees issue had not been resolved. We waited for Minister Blade Nzimande’s announcement. When it came, on September 19, he passed the buck to the university management, setting a cap of 8 percent fee increase and making it the responsibility of each institution to set fee increases to cover costs. The many progressive vice chancellors of the major universities were placed in an invidious position. As was commonly noted, Nzimande “threw the university management under a bus.” The stage was set for confrontation.

This time, the mood was neither unified nor tolerant. The fragile coalition of student leadership collapsed. DASO and its white student followers — privileged in the context and wanting to complete the academic year — were alienated. SASCO, aligned to the ruling party for decades, was out of practice in using the tools of strategic nonviolence. It was discredited and lost influence, while decentralized Black Consciousness and fallist leadership gained influence. The Black Consciousness leadership were very articulate and used stirring rhetoric, but did not provide much strategic guidance. Neither asked for advice from previous generations of activists. As students will, they cleverly improvised and experimented, using the specific context of each university to find a way to achieve the immediate objective: shutdown.

At NMU, students set up burning barricades at 6 a.m. on September 20, at the main entrance to the campus. The barricades resulted in disruption and then, total shutdown. While police could take action against students in public areas, they did not come onto the campus until invited. Students disrupted lectures, going into lecture halls, calling students out, preventing lectures from proceeding and preventing the normal functioning of the university, without overt violence. All academic activities were suspended, although the university was not formally closed.

On September 21, students marched down from the campus to the main road on the beachfront, threatening to go into the beachfront Boardwalk casino complex and disrupt business at the restaurants and tourist venues. Student leadership were divided, most trying to persuade students against this tactic, but a minority broke away and blocked the main road. Dispersed with stun grenades as they disrupted the flow of traffic outside the entrance to the Boardwalk, students fled across to the beach, some pretending to be going for a dip in the sea as the police went after them on foot. In the parking lot some of the students were arrested, and others were dispersed with stun grenades. The arrested students were released on bail, becoming heroes of the movement while charged with disrupting traffic.

On another occasion the students “locked in” the staff in the evening, controlling the 17-story Main Building. They stated that they would not let anyone go home until the vice chancellor came to meet them. They believed he was on campus, and they would hold the staff hostage until he tried to leave, when they would stop him and demand an audience.

Negotiations failed. The fallists took over a mass meeting in the sports center with church leaders attempting to mediate different sectors of the student body’s demands, and white students and parents left in despair. After a month of standoff, university management brought the police onto campus on October 18, to force the reopening and resumption of classes. Inevitably, conflict escalated. In a bizarre flashback moment, I was teargassed for the first time in more than 30 years.

The confrontation between police and students began earlier, when police chased students from the residences, and even threw a stun grenade through the window of one residence. Blue dye was sprayed by public order police vehicles onto the roofs of residences from where the students tried to stone them. There were police helicopters buzzing overhead; students regrouped in front of the Main Building, determined to maintain the shutdown and prevent the campus from reopening. The vice chancellor and staff entered the campus under police escort, and riot police lined up as students and university management faced off.

Negotations failed again. We stood between the students and the police as the police were given the order to disperse the protest. Student leaders tried to divert the students to an “acceptable” space for protest, but the police were already advancing. After firing teargas, they chased the students on foot between the buildings. The Main Building was reopened by force. The students then rampaged through the campus, entering other buildings and chasing out staff and students.

As the protest and shutdown spread from university to university, a variety of tactics were employed, including those bordering on violence, despite the student rallying cry, “High Discipline! High Morale!” Students smeared excrement in lecture halls, smashed windows, destroyed university property, stoned vehicles and beat up campus security guards on different campuses — although no students or staff were physically attacked or harmed. A number of students were arrested, while an increasing number of police were deployed as the universities desperately tried to complete the academic year. Despite some examples of excessive force being used by police, such as rubber bullets shot at point-blank range, no live ammunition was used and no students were killed.

At NMU, this phase of the struggle ended with students divided, and no clear resolution. All the demands that the university management could meet were met, and the SASCO leadership wanted to reopen the campuses. However the minority of fallists took a maximalist position, saying the university would not reopen until the demand for “free decolonized education for all” was met. University management then halted negotiations with the student leadership, and completed the academic year in secure venues off-campus. As the academic year drew to an end, exams were delayed. Venues were changed. At NMU, we conducted exams off-campus in the secure sports stadium built for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Students walked a gauntlet of three rows of security guards to enter the stadium.

Ultimately, the protest fizzled out as students were faced with the hard choice: Complete your studies in the current year under these conditions, or have to re-register and face the hardship of fees and living expenses for an additional year. The costs were high to many students: They had to stay on campus and delay going home for a month or two; residences were ill-equipped to deal with this situation; money for food ran out. In some cases, such as the University of the Western Cape, desperate battles played out in the residences. Most universities completed the 2016 academic year one way or another, with huge strain faced by students and staff alike.

The struggle is not yet over. While the “Fees Must Fall” movement led to a halt in fee increases and a revision of the NSFAS system to accommodate the “missing middle,” these gains may not be enough to satisfy the minority of students who — using the slogan “Free Decolonized Education for All” — have a long-term agenda of complete transformation of the education system. There are lessons that have been learned by the student movement, including a greater realization of their own power to disrupt and the importance of tactical innovation in dealing with police and university authorities. There are also lessons that may not have been learned: the need to maintain unity of the broadest majority of students; the need to maintain unity of leadership; the need to claim victory and strengthen the movement, rather than holding out for something impossible for the immediate opponent to concede.

As our vice chancellor stated at the end of 2016, “The university will never be the same again.” Neither will civil society, nor the ANC.

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