by Ashley Fataar
After ten days of unprecedented protests, students in South Africa won an interim demand that there be no increases in university fees next year. The “Fees Must Fall” movement was the biggest student uprising since the end of apartheid.
South Africa has a million or so students registered in institutions of higher learning. At the majority of universities they came out to stamp their mark on what the country should look like. The rebellion was highly ideological in its demands and democratic in its practice. The degree of self-mobilisation and self-organisation was astounding. It gives everyone inspiration for their own struggles—and shows that mass action from below is the way to get results.
Students occupied university buildings, stormed the gates of parliament in Cape Town and mobilised 50,000 people to protest at the government offices in Tshwane (Pretoria). Their rebellion was truly a “festival of the oppressed”. Many students joined demonstrations for the first time in their lives—and they did so with joy.
It was easy to engage students in discussion around capitalism’s crisis, austerity, the roots of continuing racism and ideas of socialism as an alternative. Alongside free education, students are demanding that universities end the practice of outsourcing.
In the students’ words, “We cannot continue to tolerate the exploitation, victimisation and intimidation of outsourced workers… Forward to a living wage! The companies must go! The workers must stay.” The revolt shows that we should never be complacent.
Struggle can rise up in a fountain of anger and determination from areas of public life that can seem to be quite passive. With a world in deep crisis, people are pushing back against the austerity measures imposed on them. As recently as a year or two ago, students were not moving at all. They were bogged down by tiring course work and hassles with fees.
There was a mindset that they were going to enter the newly emerging black middle classes as way out of their poverty. Some characterised students as paying more attention to their looks and their phones than to debates about building a better society.
The movement was sparked off this year by the “Rhodes must Fall” campaign. It challenged the continued presence on campuses of statues of apartheid figures such as Cecil Rhodes. It encapsulated issues of racism and the lack of transformation at universities. This movement was dynamic but it did not bring the majority of students out in open rebellion. That took the movement over fees.
It started overnight when Wits students blockaded their university against fee increases of 10.5 percent. Within a week students had closed down the majority of universities across the country. Some further education colleges had begun to join by the end of last week.
The minister for education, Blade Nzimande of the Communist Party, thought he could placate the rebellion by capping increases at 6 percent for the year ahead. For this he was booed off stage as he addressed students outside parliament. Days later president Jacob Zuma had to intervene with a zero percent increase for 2016.
The ANC government is trying jump to the head of the movement to divert it. But the old credentials of a national liberation government have worn very thin in students’ eyes. They want free education now—not in some distant future.
At a meeting to assess the Tshwane march and the “No fees campaign” a student commented that “This mass meeting at Wits is one of the most extraordinary things I’ve experienced in my political life. “The level of debate is extraordinary. The overwhelming argument is to reject Zuma’s ploy, not lose momentum in the fight for free education and pull in the workers townships! Fucking amazing”.
The struggle continues.
Ashley is a member of Keep Left, the South African sister organisation of SWL