How can we take forward the struggle for free education?

Statement of the Socialist Youth Movement

The #feesmustfall movement made history. After just ten days of struggle the ANC government was forced to agree to 0% fee increases in 2016. This was a major victory – the most humiliating defeat of the ANC government since it came to power! At campus level many other concessions have been wrung out of vice chancellors and university managements. For example, at Wits, labour broking will be phased out; at the University of Pretoria poor students will not have to pay the registration fee. The #feesmustfall movement has placed the debate about the ‘affordability’ of free education at the top of the political agenda. There is now a widespread feeling in society that free education is entirely possible. Not just free tuition, but free accommodation, an adequate transport and book allowance and affordable canteen food too.

But there is a lack of clarity on the way forward for the #feesmustfall movement. Some campuses have returned to class; some are still enforcing a shutdown; others are split. There is a danger that the mass, country-wide unity of students could be lost. But it was this that enabled #feesmustfall to achieve its successes.

The question for all those wishing to take forward the struggle for free education is: how do we consolidate our gains and preserve the mass, country-wide unity of students?


Maintaining and advancing unity

It is entirely understandable that many students wish to return to class and sit their exams before the end of the year. Many of these students participated in the #feesmustfall movement and support the struggle for free education. However, they feel that they would be throwing away the gains of the struggle NOT to sit their exams.

But it is also entirely understandable that others wish to continue the struggle and fight for free education now. For many poor students the struggle for free education is the only way to continue their studies and sit their exams. For example at TUT, 5,000 students are required to pay their fee arrears by 31 October or face exclusion. In such situations mass struggle must continue.

There is a feeling amongst other students who wish to maintain the national shutdown that it is a matter of principle to continue fighting. There is a feeling that any retreat or pause in the struggle is a ‘sell out’. Many of these students have, in the course of the struggle, drawn the revolutionary conclusion that diseased SA capitalism and the corrupt politicians that defend it must be swept away. On this point SYM is in full agreement. Nor can government be trusted to keep its promise to provide free education. However, it does not follow that the best way to continue the struggle for free education is for a minority, however genuine and well meaning, to attempt to continue the national shutdown until they have martyred themselves through arrest or exclusion. The desire to sit for exams now and maintain the struggle for free education are not mutually exclusive.

The role of revolutionaries at this stage of the struggle is to stay rooted in the mass of students, helping to raise the political and organisational level of the movement in order to continue the struggle for free education from a position of unity and strength.

What immediate conclusions should we draw for our tactics from these different moods amongst students? Those students wishing to sit their exams have not suddenly become the enemy. Any attempt by a minority to disrupt the exams could lead to an entrenched split in the movement. Exams and classes should be allowed to go ahead. But this must be on terms demanded by the students. We should demand that (i) the exam timetable must provide for sufficient time to study and prepare (ii) that no student be excluded from sitting for exams regardless of their debt situation (iii) that all students must be allowed to write without having to pay registration fees (iv) that all students be guaranteed their results irrespective of their debt situation (iv) that all registration fees for next year be scrapped.

Our tactics should shift from enforcing campus shutdowns to protest marches, pickets and lobbies that maintain the pressure on vice chancellors and university managements. Students should reach out to lecturers and university workers for joint struggle for campus reforms, for example against labour broking and for transformation.

On campuses where the immediate issue is the struggle for free education, such as TUT, the shutdown should continue if it does so upon the basis of MASS struggle. If TUT does continue with a shutdown against immediate financial exclusions, the reasons must be made clear and support and solidarity from other campuses built-up patiently.

But we must not only remain on campus in the next days and weeks. Organising pickets and marches to the seats of political and financial power is vital to raise the understanding that the struggle for free education is a POLITICAL struggle. For example, the #occupy march to the Reserve Bank is an excellent initiative. We must also be careful to ensure that we preserve the enormous sympathy for #feesmustfall that exists throughout society. We must ensure that all of our protests are disciplined. That is the only way for our message to be heard clearly. Worker and community organisations should be invited to take part in such actions building unity with the working class.


#feesmustfall must organise

The ‘spontaneous’ and ‘bottom-up’ development of the #feesmustfall movement was its initial strength. It pushed aside the squabbling leaders of the ‘Progressive’ Youth Alliance – SASCO, COSAS, the ANC Youth League and the Young Communist League.

The PYA organisations are all linked to the very government we were fighting against! We have consistently warned that the leaders of these organisations would try to divert #feesmustfall into safe channels. At the height of the struggle, the PYA scrambled to create the appearance that it was leading whilst in reality it was far behind the students. For example SASCO initially condemned the march to Union Buildings! But the mass movement put limits on their ability to do this until now. The ordinary members of these organisations united with each other and the mass of students who have no political affiliation.

But as the movement catches its breath the PYA leaders, often via the SRCs they control, will attempt to put the movement into a box. This is already taking place on a number of campuses with the PYA taking advantage of the fracturing of the movement. At Wits, for example, the PYA-led SRC has ignored the nightly student assembly and entered into an un-mandated agreement with the vice chancellor for the resumption of the academic programme from 28 October.

There is growing suspicion, and even outright rejection, of the SRCs that the PYA dominates. But the initial strength of the mass movement – its spontaneity – is now becoming a barrier to it advancing further. Our lack of organization is the reason for the present confusion in the struggle and it is creating the space for the PYA leaders to betray the struggle for free education. We must get organized!

SYM believes we must immediately:

  • Convene mass campus assemblies to elect #feesmustfall leadership committees accountable to the mass movement alone. These committees to co-ordinate continuing protests.
  • Convene regional assemblies of #feesmustfall delegates building-up toward a national assembly before the end of the year.

Upon this basis, we can safeguard the gains we have won and take the struggle for free education forward. Government and university managements must negotiate with #feesmustfall NOT those in the PYA and SRCs pretending to speak on our behalf. In future SRC elections, #feesmustfall must stand their own candidates.


Who are the SYM?

The Socialist Youth Movement’s goal is to assist in the creation of a socialist society where the needs of all will be put before the profits of the few. It is the tens of millions of working class people who have the power to create socialism. Students need to build a mass revolutionary youth movement as their contribution to the struggle for socialism. We believe that the campuses are but one of three ‘theatres’ of struggle alongside the workplaces and the communities. In each theatre struggle needs to be united and new mass organisations built. In turn each theatre needs to be united by a socialist mass workers party.

SYM is linked with the Workers & Socialist Party (WASP), a revolutionary party linked to a revolutionary international struggling for socialism in more than 40 countries. But SYM and WASP are entirely different from the existing student organisations and their discredited ‘mother bodies’. We are not fighting for SRC positions in order to manage the system and enrich ourselves; we are fighting to CHANGE the system. Real change comes about through mass movements as #feesmustfall has demonstrated. We base ourselves on the masses and our unshakeable confidence in the masses to draw revolutionary conclusions. For us, a genuine revolutionary organisation has no interests separate and apart from the interests of the mass of youth and workers. Our role is to help the youth and the working class to take power through its own mass democratic organisations.

We call on people to join SYM not with the promise of SRC seats or jobs in parliament when they graduate but to help us spread the ideas and tactics which can assist in building a mass movement in order to conquer power for the millions of youth and workers.