South Africa: Solidarity with students

Struggle for free education. 
The second round in the struggle for free education is underway. Campuses across the country were shut-down on Tuesday as protests began against the ANC government’s announcement that universities would be allowed to determine fee increase for the next academic year. At the end of 2015 the #FeesMustFall movement inflicted a heavy defeat on the government, forcing them not only to impose a freeze on university fees in 2016, but to investigate the student demand for free education.

The details of the announcement for 2017 reveal the weakness and the uncertainty of the government; the quick response of students in launching a new wave of protests demonstrates their potential strength. But that strength must be harnessed in a disciplined and coordinated mass movement. If this happens it is possible to defeat the government again.

Divide and rule

The ANC government has clearly decided in advance that they will not agree to free education. The Fees Commission, mandated to investigate the “feasibility” of free education, is no more than window-dressing aimed at sowing confusion by marshalling “evidence” to prove that free education is in fact not feasible. Blade, the general secretary of a party that that calls itself ‘communist’, has gone so far as to state on television that students must accept that we live in a capitalist society.   If the government were serious they would impose a special tax on the R1.5 trillion lying idle in the accounts of big business for lack of profitable investment opportunities. Or they could take serious action against the vast illicit financial outflows where big business hides their profits or demand that ABSA should pay the R3.5bn they set aside to pay for their looting during the dying days of apartheid. They certainly would not be preparing to spend R1 trillion on nuclear power stations!

Determined to avoid a second defeat the ANC government’s strategy has been to consciously divide and disorient the movement. The entire period since their October 2015 retreat has been devoted to resuscitating the PYA structures, lining-up the Cosatu trade union federation behind the government and posturing in favour of the poor and the “missing middle” in an entirely hypocritical attempt to portray itself as pro-working class.

Having disregarded “university autonomy” last year and imposed a zero per cent increase, Blade Nzimande, Minister for Higher Education, has suddenly rediscovered that university managements have the power on fee increases as has always been the case. The government is trying to put the responsibility on the Vice Chancellors in the hope of making them the focus of student protests. This is calculated to deflect attention from the government, provide ammunition to its student formations in the Progressive Youth Alliance to defend the government, keep struggles isolated and cut across a national mass movement developing. But overwhelmingly students have seen through this. In calling for an 8% cap on any increase, Blade has in reality given the universities, which had decided on increases ranging from 6% to 8%, the green light for the maximum.

In a further act of cynicism, Blade has said government will cover fee increases of up to 8% for all students receiving NSFAS support and all students who come from families whose household income is less than R600 000 per year. This is estimated to mean that 70-80% of undergraduates will not pay out of their own pocket for any fee increases next year. To fund fee increases of up to 8% for these students the government will find R2.5 billion.

This pre-emptive concession tells us that the government knows it cannot take on all students and win. They are therefore trying to make it more difficult for student activists to mobilise the masses of ordinary students and are consciously trying to drive a wedge between them. The government has learned lessons over the past year. In November last year in the face of a movement that mobilised all students they were forced back; in January and February they were able to weather protests because they were isolated, involved small numbers, and employed wrong tactics – such as the burning of buildings – that alienated most students.

Correct tactics

So far the government’s divide and rule tactics have not stopped protests from developing. But every effort must be made to reach out to the vast majority of students and involve them in a mass movement for free education. Student activists must draw lessons from the past year too.

The majority of students are protesting peacefully. Only a tiny minority have resorted to the destruction of university buildings and property. The frustrations that lead to violence are understandable. Some students are reacting to the lack of consultation in the Fees Commission and acting in desperation to get their voices heard. But the superiority of peaceful mass protest was decisively settled by the experience of the past year. Nowhere did the burning of buildings mobilise students or win them over to support a mass campaign. It had the opposite effect of sowing the basis for divisions and played into the hands of the enemies of the struggle by distracting attention from the real issues.

That is why the promise from an activist at UKZN of “mass destruction” was extremely unhelpful. But the media plays a reactionary role in sensationalising the minority of protests that involved some violence, considering them more “newsworthy” than the majority that do not. The many statements by different student organisations giving comprehensive explanations for the reasons behind the protests are often not covered in the media or are inaccurately reported. There is no mention of the bussing in to campuses of special squads of private security which engage in gratuitous apartheid-style violence to police and suppress protests. These forces must be withdrawn immediately.

Worker-student unity

Another important development in favour of students is the struggle that has been waged by outsourced campus workers since the government’s 2015 defeat. Cleaners, security guards, catering, retail and gardening workers at many campuses across the country have organised and taken part in strike action, especially under the #OutsourcingMustFall banner in which we have played a leading role. Many concessions have been won with many institutions agreeing to insourcing linked to substantial pay rises. This movement was given courage by #FeesMustFall and the workers overwhelmingly recognise that their struggles and the struggles of students are one and the same.

Workers, remembering that it was the students who had placed the demand for insourcing on their agenda in 2015, feel duty bound to act in solidarity with them this time. Correctly, many students have welcomed this and appealed for more support. But as in all aspects of the struggle tactics must be thought about carefully. Building on 2015, when workers issues around outsourcing, pay and conditions were incidental to the main demands, must be raised as a central demand this time alongside those of the students themselves.  Further, the 2015 student movement encouraged worker organisation and unity. On this foundation, workers/student unity must be consolidated to ensure worker participation is not unorganised leaving workers open to victimisation, dismissal and the removal of the most politically conscious workers from campus, setting back workers’ and student struggles alike.

Workers are spontaneously meeting to discuss how they can support the student struggle this time. On many campuses workers are already organised in committees and other forums. Workers and students should attend each others’ mass meetings as delegates, reporting back to their respective structures for discussion and decisions on organised and united support. #OutsourcingMustFall is actively mobilising on this basis to ensure that here is lasting organised worker/student unity.

Drawing political conclusions

The eruption of protests despite the government’s bribery also shows the widespread political conclusions that are being drawn. For many student activists the demand for free education is not simply about their own ability to continue in education. It is a condemnation of corruption and inequality in society. Many have drawn anti-capitalist conclusions. Many more will.

In early 2015 the Socialist Youth Movement initiated the #Occupy movement in Tshwane which targeted the Reserve Bank and raised the demand for free education. Even before Blade’s announcement, the #Occupy movement was reviving. Following this example, a mass meeting of students at Wits University has proposed a march to the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. Students are increasingly clear that the vast wealth of society is in the hands of the capitalist elite. This is the answer to the question so many ask – where will the money for free education come from?

We have always argued that the struggle for free education must be linked to the struggle for socialism – to the struggle for the nationalisation under democratic control of the banks, the mines, the commercial farms, big factories and big businesses. More and more student activists will be drawing this conclusion too.

New national movement needed

In 2015, the ANC-aligned PYA structures, especially SASCO, were able to manoeuvre into the ‘leadership’ of the movement at a national level and demobilise students after the 0% concession was won, saving the ANC government. Back then they were forced from below to posture on the question of affordable education, if not free education. Now the pretence has been dropped. We condemn the statement of the national leadership of SASCO supporting the government’s position on fees. To the extent that PYA has identified with the proposals such as the march on the JSE, they are exploiting anti-capitalist sentiment in the service of the pro-capitalist ANC government.  We urge the SASCO rank-and-file to reject the leadership’s betrayal and to join forces with other students to create a united movement around a common set of genuine anti-capitalist and socialist demands.

On many campuses SASCO has decisively crossed over to the side of the counter-revolution. They are organising violent counter-mobilisations against student protesters. This repeats the use of SASCO to try and violently break the strike of TUT campus workers against outsourcing early in the year. Any genuine students in the rank-and-file of SASCO must reject being used as fascist gangs to break the struggles of students and workers.

A formal split in SASCO is possible as its structures are forced to choose which side of the barricades they will stand on. The struggle for free education must encourage such a split and help to clear a major obstacle in the emergence of a new national student movement.

And this remains the key task for a successful mass movement for free education. Many important steps are being taken in this direction, for example regional meetings planned for this coming Saturday. We stand in full solidarity with students and the struggle for free education. The most important task faced by the students is the creation of a national free education movement armed with a socialist programme.

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September 2016