Friday 23 October 2015

#Fees Must Fall to # Neoliberal SA Must Fall!

#Fees Must  Fall to #Neoliberal South Africa Must Fall
A Message of Support from a Veteran Activist of the Student Struggle

It was inspiring and exciting to listen to students this evening, in the renamed Solomon Mahlangu (executed by hanging in 1979 by the apartheid regime) Building at WITS University, deliberating about tomorrows march to union buildings. Students across South Africa’s Universities have rocked the country this week in their rejection of fee increases and inadequate gestures such as capping fees at 6% by the Minister of Higher Education. It cannot be denied that this is the highpoint of post-apartheid student activism. It is a decisive historical moment with various possibilities.

For me this entire experience took me back to the late 1980s, when I was General Secretary of the Black Students Society at the University of Kwazulu-Natal Pietermaritzburg. The highpoint for my activism was ensuring we unbanned the UDF through open defiance even by courting arrest together with academics, workers and students. I remember the police ‘mellow yellows’ picking us up line by line. We were peaceful, disciplined and united. This solidarity emboldened us for more and eventually we ended up in the streets with over 20 000 marching in Pietermaritzburg and various other cities unbanning the mass movement through solidarity from different sectors of society: religious, sport, cultural, youth, workers and so on. In my view, this was the highpoint of student activism across the country in the 1980s and its horizons were framed by the national liberation struggle.

Of course, history has its overlaps and layers. At the same time, and due to the fiscal crisis of the apartheid state Universities began increasing fees and financial exclusions became the lifeblood of student politics. I remember failing academically in 1989, for the first time in my entire life, due to various political commitments but also fighting financial exclusions. By the early 1990s this  issue dominated student politics. The South African Students Congress (SASCO), replaced the South African National Students Congress which was underground and in the shadows. SASCO  was born in this crucible of struggle: the struggle against financial exclusions. As political education officer of the branch and one of the many co-founders of the new student movement I remember travelling for months in 1992 from Pietermaritzburg to the Durban campus to negotiate with university management to stop financial exclusions. It was exhausting and almost cost me my law degree. Years later the SASCO leadership, bravely defending their independence in the hurly burly of ANC-led Alliance politics conferred distinguished activist contribution awards on a few of us. We were given certificates. Mines hangs on my study wall. Everytime I look at this certificate I have  always been conflicted because I knew we had not won the financial exclusion struggle but more importantly we lost the battle for the public university. Of course there was anticipation and hope that the ANC state would ensure public education is fully realized.

However, financial exclusions  continued for decades and worsened with ANC neoliberal policies and cut backs in university subsidies. The public university has been remade into a quasi private institution with a strong managerial ethos, all kinds of privileged hierarchies and enclaves tied into leveraging non-public finance, the rise of the celebrity academic but underpinned by cost cutting through outsourcing and increasing student fees. The university has become a place of reproducing inequality and ultimately racialised exclusion.

At the same time, we have witnessed the degeneration of student politics with many SASCO types merely understanding student politics as a pathway into the ANC machine. In this context, political depth was substituted: tactics for strategy, militancy for analysis and political partisanship for alliance building. The past few years of student politics have been about degeneration. Financial exclusion issues including fee increases could never win a majority. But this week a historical breakthrough was made; a highpoint has been achieved. A new horizon of national student politics has been defined, grabbing attention internationally and arousing visible support across society. It is animated by disciplined and generally peaceful action, exposing police brutality and further winning hearts and minds. Our students, through the fees issue, have raised the stakes and placed the reclamation of the public university back on the agenda. They have also done more than that: they have opened the possibility to ensure #neoliberal South Africa can fall. This is a generation that can either change the course of history and open a pathway for a new post-neoliberal South Africa or they can carry this mark of history, on their consciousness, into the future and return to this task later. South Africa is not going to be the same again; student politics cannot be same again. A great advance and opportunity has been brought to the fore through courageous students protesting for transformation. However, it can only be fully realized when #fees must fall unites with #bread prices must fall unites with #low wages must fall unites with ….# neoliberal South Africa must fall. This kind of solidarity is surely the key to realize the democratic revolution the students are talking about.

Author: Vishwas Satgar is an activist and academic. He supports the peaceful and disciplined struggle of students to ensure #fees must fall and ultimately we reclaim the public university and more.

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