Austerity, enclosure and the bittersweet gains of #FeesMustFall
The future of the “FeesMustFall” generation can no longer be captured by the narrow framing of student politics. Instead, there is a deeper appreciation for the long arduous continuous work across sectors it requires to till the soil from which the fruits of gains won from struggle can be tasted.
As has now become characteristic, 2018 has heralded massive political shifts in South Africa most notably involving the stepping aside of Jacob Zuma for the newly inducted President Cyril Ramaphosa. These developments were undoubtedly catapulted by Ramaphosa’s victory as party president at the ANC 54th national conference in December of 2017.
In the moments leading up to the conference, former President Zuma issued a shock announcement of what he described as “Free Education for the Poor and Working Class”. In short, the proposal outlined large increases in funding for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) institutions, called for the conversion of loans from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) for students with a combined family income of less than R350 000 alongside a commitment to support students who fell under R600 000 of the same category.
What the president’s announcement failed to identify at the time had been the source of the funding which was later revealed in a pivotal budget speech delivered by finance Minister Malusi Gigaba on 21 February. Spending on higher education received a R57 million injection in funding towards the realisation of former president Zuma’s announcement on university fees.
While for many students this news is cause not just for pause and acknowledgement but affirmed that the substantive issues underpinning aspects of the #FeesMustFall could not be ignored and solicited a significant state response, indeed as the ‘new world’ abolitionist Frederick Douglass once remarked “power concedes nothing without demand”. The bittersweet reality of this announcement however lies in the cuts in social spending declared on school infrastructure grants, human settlements, road development, and informal settlement upgrading along with the increase in value added tax (VAT) for the first time in post-apartheid South Africa. Corporate tax remained unaffected and income tax was recently raised under former finance minister Pravin Gordon in the 2017 budgetary address.
The widespread cuts in social spending totalling to over R85 billion over 3 years, have been linked, strategically to the government’s concessions on fee-free education.
The new South African Trade Union Federations Zwelenzima Vavi instead laid the blame at governments door stating,
“The VAT increase… is such a double insult to workers, who are now being asked to clear the mess created by the very person who is reading the Budget.”
For the student movement, which itself was always tightly linked with local worker movements on campuses, the partial gains handed by government in lieu of widespread austerity potentially stand to drive a wedge between students and labour whom have operated, even if at times at a superficial level, as cautious but natural allies in recent years.
Post-apartheid reforms to education more generally and higher education more specifically racially de-segregating old institutions, establishing TVET colleges and the provision of a national loan scheme have provided space for close to a million students at a tertiary level in South Africa’s highly unequal differentiated education sector. While strikes against unequal education have consistently formed part of broader struggles against oppression it is important to acknowledge that the 2015-2017 stands in continuity of those efforts. ‘Walkouts’ against separate and unequal education in ‘bush colleges’ in the apartheid stand in dialogue, contrast and conflict with demands for ‘walk-ins’ advocated by political leaders and student leaders ahead of the announcement of fee-free education reforms out of the clear recognition that more access and gradual gains for agitating movements builds confidence and the ability of constituencies to advocate for deeper social transformation.
With this said, the difficult balancing act held for students put in the most precarious situation lies in the ongoing criminalisation and repression of political dissent that has been galvanised into being in the wake of securitisation imposed in the militant heights of the #FeesMustFall along with older histories.
Protesters across the country are forced to bear individual burden for the failure of structures and institutions to fulfil their stated mandate resulting at the worst of times in scenarios such as the lifetime expulsion of anti-rape protesters at the University Currently Known as Rhodes and the shroud of unaccountability that hangs over the executive complicity and cowardice demonstrated in the devolution of the UFS violence which coalesced in the firing of live ammunition on campus.
Further to this point, in wake of the protests of late 2017 Cape Peninsula University spent over R30 million in three months on private security for dealing with protesters along with R24 million for the University of Cape Town demonstrating the lengths the institutions and state would go to avoid engagement with the heterogenous student movement in favour of a strategy of escalation, militarism, misinformation and isolation. In a clear material and symbolic gesture of the isolation the main campus of the Cape Peninsula University was enclosed in waves of barbed wire which stand to this day. What is often misunderstood about the wall of wire, as deployed in Marikana’s across the country, is that it serves to close off and isolate – to keep IN – the ‘enemy’ and isolate it from its constituency. So for the student movement, the bittersweet material gains of increased funding represent the need to creatively, and potentially forcefully re-establish links with communities and movements beyond the physical and social constructed walls of the ivory towers come-part-time-military-camps for which we hope will contribute to the broader general move towards liberation.
As students at the University of Fort Hare suspend lectures in the fight for decent accommodation and as tear gas and rubber bullets rain on Durban University of Technology campus’s over worker wage disputes in the very week the finance minister allegedly offers the student movement a reprieve we are collectively left with the bitter lesson that not only will the struggle continue but the fight to force the hand of public institutions to even uphold their lofty promises and ideal, even once won in word and ink, will be fiercely contested.
Whether you like it or not, students are looking to the future branch building for their political party homes, contesting the mass student movement, participation in cultural work at various levels, earning their salt in civil society and building alongside the trade union movement.
The future of the “FeesMustFall” generation, to the extent that it is useful as a category, can no longer be aptly captured by the narrow framing of student politics.
Instead, it is my observations that for many involved in organising and struggling through the strikes there is a deeper appreciation for the long arduous continuous work across sectors it requires to till the soil from which the fruits of gains won from struggle can be tasted.
As South Africa drifts deeper into austerity, the measure of the success of the movement will not be its ability to maintain privileged status in public discourse or front sections in popular newspapers. Instead it will be through the relationships built on principled struggle and sacrifices made in the commitment to a broader freedom which goes now by many names but demands of us concrete definition.
“Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it.”