Which way forward for the students?

by Mametlwe Sebei, Executive Committee

This article appears in the current issue of Izwi Labasebenzi (Feb-July 2017).

The #FeesMustFall (#FMF) movement swept universities and the entire country with a protest wave against the unaffordable fees that exclude poor students from higher education. Alongside this, the outsourcing of university cleaning, security and other key services, that plunged workers into precarious employment for poverty wages, led to a general questioning of the neo-liberal ‘transformation programme’ of the past 23 years of post-apartheid black majority rule. The movement represented another eruption of the volcanic lava of working class discontent that broke first in Marikana and continues to move through every layer of society.

The movement shattered the wall of media lies about the “apathy of the youth”, which the ruling elite carefully constructed in the preceding decade to create the illusion of a carefree generation of ‘born-frees’ that, they argued, did not know the deprivations of the past, happily enjoying the sweet fruits of ‘freedom’. Sweeping one end of the country to another like a wildfire, in the space of a few days, #FMF politically awakened a whole generation of students and transformed tens of thousands of youth into a radicalised mass that inflicted an unprecedented defeat on the ANC government. They shook not only the political confidence of the ruling elite but also shifted the tectonic plates of the entire political architecture on which the capitalist system rests by laying bare the ‘invincibility’ of the ANC government as nothing more than an illusion. The ANC’s political weakness and vulnerability in the face of a united mass movement was exposed.

Breath-taking images of mass student power were broadcast daily in the news, showing campus assemblies and mass demonstrations to the main seats of political power in the major cities across the country. The scale of the political defeat inflicted on the government in 2015 was huge. They were forced to freeze fees (the zero-percent ‘increase’), allocate more funding to poor students, and even make verbal concessions to the demand for free education. This greatly raised the confidence of the whole working class and inspired outsourced and low-paid workers in universities, as well as other sectors, to rise on their feet and struggle against their ruthless exploitation.


Wrong ideas

However, today the #FMF movement lays paralysed in the face of state repression and an ideological onslaught against the demand for free education.  The incapacity of the movement to defend itself has focused the minds of the activists and the working class on the question of what ideas, strategy and programme are needed to rebuild the movement and take it forward to victory – winning free socialist education.

If the ‘spontaneous’ and ‘horizontal’ character of #FMF was its strength in October 2015, today these features have become its major weaknesses. Attempts to elevate these ideas to theoretically justified organisational principles are not only politically childish but a danger that demands uncompromising opposition from every genuine #FMF activist.

For the masses of the students, the rejection of ‘politics’, ‘organisation’, and ‘centralised political leadership’ mainly meant rejection of the treacherous, collaborationist politics of the ANC-aligned Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA) leadership and the SRCs they control. These structures have long ceased to be accountable and democratic, dominated instead by a conservative and bureaucratic leadership unresponsive to the plight of poor students and insulated from the burning desire to fight back against unaffordable fees, academic exclusions, inadequate accommodation and poor infrastructure on campuses.

This degeneration flowed logically from the policy of remaining in alliance with the ruling party, whose capitalist government and neo-liberal policies are responsible for the crisis of public funding in higher education. It is not possible to bark with the hounds and run with the hare. By this policy the PYA became ‘managers’ of student anger and instead of leading them consciously disorganised them.

It is perfectly understandable that after many years of such conservative leadership and treacherous betrayals, the masses of students would be suspicious of ‘political organisation’ and reject any form of centralised leadership. In this sense, the anti-leadership sentiment represented a blind but correct desire for a break with the politics of class collaboration and a recognition of the need to build political independence from enemy class ‘influences’ – a progressive step toward independent revolutionary class politics.


Campus class contradictions

The tendency to theorise, and make a fetish of the ‘flat’, ‘horizontal’, in effect, unorganised movement has however, a different social and class basis. It is predominantly middle-class and reflects prejudices against working class organisation. This layer wants #FMF to continue with its current lack of organisation and co-ordination long after the majority of students successfully broke from the clutches of the political collaborators in the PYA. To finish them off and win free education we need an organised mass student movement. To build such a movement and co-ordinate effective programmes of rolling mass action, we need alternative centres of co-ordination at regional and national level to unify #FMF activists across all institutions of higher learning, which must include developing a movement of TVET college students.

Whereas the concerns about the ‘authoritarianism’ of official structures are legitimate in the light of the political experience of the student movement in the post-apartheid era, to argue that any form of organisation inevitably leads to ‘bureaucratic authoritarianism’ and ‘unaccountable leadership’ would be sweet if it was only a childish naiveté.

Unfortunately, the prejudices of some middle class students against any form of #FMF organisation reflects their deep-seated class prejudices against the political organisation of the mass of poor working class students and resentment at the democratic traditions of revolutionary student movements. The binding political discipline and organisational subordination of leadership to the mass of poor working class students by democratic majority rule would immediately see the self-proclaimed ‘leaders’ of ‘Fallism’ losing any and all influence. But in the absence of a mass democratic organisation, #FMF has been dominated by a self-appointed and unaccountable ‘leadership’ at each campus and social media celebrities who, owing to their privileged education, networks, and superior resources, enjoy disproportional influence in social media and personal access to public media.

For the working class youth, organisation is the only way to mobilise, co-ordinate and actively participate in struggle. It is only by building mass organisations that working class youths are able to voice their interests and assert their collective power. Above all, it is only through organisation that they are able to openly debate and test the various ideas, programmes and leaders that can take their struggles forward.


Disunity & identity politics

In the same vein, these layers have played a divisive role with their crude anti-white identity politics. They have effectively excluded significant numbers of the student population from the #FMF movement, and in so doing, undermined the unity shown at the start of the movement. In a situation where these ideas are dominant, especially in the formerly white-only institutions, where white students are still a significant part of the student population, if no longer a majority, they have led to a complete paralysis and isolation of #FMF activists from the majority of the students, including the black students in whose name they often speak.

The majority of students are repulsed by these divisive politics and alienated by the tactics flowing from them. These include the preposterous attempts to impose boycotts of classes on the same students that have been chased away from #FMF meetings. For these wrong ideas, and the alienation of the student majority they bring, it is ultimately working class students who pay the price as financial and academic exclusions continue and victimisation arising from state repression on poorly organised and ill-disciplined protests is left unanswered.

Now more than ever before there is a burning necessity for a united student front of all grassroots #FMF structures and activists to cut across all the racial and political party barriers to build a broad working class front for free education involving college and school students, organised labour and communities. As a first step #FMF should convene an inclusive National Conference for Free Education to work-out a programme that can broaden the base of political support beyond university students and unify the entire movement around common plan of action including campus shutdowns, class boycotts, mass demonstrations, occupations and national days of actions.

The defeats of 2016 and the current paralysis clearly reveals the limits of student power and sharply points to the need to bring to bear the organised power of the working class. It was not for lack of heroic determination and self-sacrifice that the movement has not been able to win its main demand of free education but the fact that the government can afford to ‘ignore’ students whereas the same cannot be said about the workers, whose power derives from their ability to bring the country to a standstill.

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