In South Africa, Students Protesting For Free Universities Met With Police Violence
The demands of students for free public education is a call for the ANC government to return to its aspirations of uplifting the Black working class and the poor
DHARNA NOOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Dharna Noor.
University students in South Africa clashed with the police on Tuesday while demonstrating for the elimination of University tuition. The protests have been going on for several weeks now and Wits University in Johannesburg has suspended classes until October 10th. The student protests are taking place in a context of increasing frustration with the ANC led government of President Jacob Zuma because of persistent inequality and high unemployment in South Africa.
Now joining us to talk about the student protests in South Africa is Patrick Bond. He joins us from Johannesburg where he’s a professor of political economy at Wits University. He’s also coauthor of the book South Africa: The Present as History, and coeditor of the book BRICS: An Anti-Capitalist Critique. Thanks so much for joining us.
PATRICK BOND: Great to be with you Dharna.
NOOR: So Patrick, student protests at South Africa’s University have been as I said, going on for several weeks now. Give us a brief rundown as to what the protests are about, what the students are demanding, and what has happened so far.
BOND: Yes Dharna, the big demand: fees must fall. That hashtag really caught everyone’s admiration for it’s integrity because a year ago when it was introduced although it’s been a demand of students for at least the 20 years I’ve been an academic in South Africa that the fees are too high. For example, although it may surprise anyone in the United States, the most prestigious university, Cape Town, has a typical fee of about $3,000 per year for an undergraduate year. Just for the tuition. But that’s risen very high in relation to the ability of ordinary people to pay.
As the universities became less the racial enclaves of whites and ofelites and more working class and lower middle class kids were allowed to enter the shortages, especially from very weak credit, student loan system. Then the persistent above inflation increases really drove the protests partly when it dropped out of school because inability to finance it but then in acting in a collective way to demand free education. So last year it was a critical year when this movement really became a national–an incredibly vibrant movement because a year ago, they demanded that the fees be frozen instead of a 10% annual increase. But they did a couple of other things. They also made unity with working class people who are hired by universities but paid a very low wage for cleaning, for security, for gardening. These were workers who used to work for the university and they were outsourced.
So the unique moment for students even in the prestigious universities to make an alliance with the workers and say hey those are our parents and the workers and others are our kids. To have that sense of cross class unity and they won. They won for 0% fee last year and they won also the insourcing of these workers and in many cases, a 3 to 4 times increase on their monthly salary. That’s extraordinary because it required them to go to the national level and that’s what the big dilemma now.
How do they do that? How do they march on parliament against the finance minister when he gives a budget speech, as they did last year? Can they march on the national ruling party, the African National Congress as they did last year? Then can they march on the President’s house in Pretoria? And these are in 3 different cities. Cape Town, Pretoria, Johannesburg and each of these campuses, 16 out of the 26 universities are shut down for students and in some cases being tossed off. They’re still waiting to know should they move their campus protests up again to the national scale.
NOOR: I’d like to pick a thread you just mentioned briefly. An important factor again in these protests is the frustration and rage regarding the lack of change in post-apartheid South Africa where 80% of the population is black. So what is racial representation like amongst South African universities, both amongst the students and amongst the faculty bodies and what role does representation play in the student movements and in the demands?
BOND: Well it’s a very deracialized university community at the lower levels. Certainly the lower paid workers and even the lecturers, the early career academics are predominately black, and the students are well over majority black in every university. Wit [inaud.] where I teach, Wits, it’s about 77% black. Now that doesn’t apply though to the higher echelons because the skills, the traditional Ph.D.’s, professorships, all of the higher skilled positions have been privileged for white people like myself.
So at one university, Cape Town, well known in a way, I think it had 265 full professors but only 5 are black African South Africans and that’s maybe one of the most extreme cases of a racial hierarchy. That’s very interesting. In turn it’s led the students to demand deracialization at the top. That includes a demand for decolonizing the university and it began when Cecil Rhodes’s statue was pulled down at University of Cape Town about a year and a half ago. It was a great moment for those demanding that these universities acknowledge the reproduction of elite power that they’re deeply implicated in including having statues of mass murderers and genociders like Cecil Rhodes in pride and place. It was his land that at UCT that it stands on.
Similarly, lots of symbolic politics emerge but then it became demands to transform the curriculum and to think through what is a western oriented world competitive university system where two or three of these universities are in the top 300 in the world but they still teach the western methodologies and epistemologies, the pro-western lines of thinking. When you combine that with the class analysis of these students who say we’re just unable to afford and we don’t want to be levied with these huge student debts. The United States has talked so much about the danger of the student debt. I think we have an extraordinary moment to reach out more broadly to progressive politics from these bastions of former elite reproductionees, top universities.
I say that because I think these university students certainly last year although it’s a bit harder this year because of tactics have been very militant, including burning buildings down, a law library in the University of KwaZulu-Natal was burned. So there’s much more skepticism by the petty bourgeoisie. Whereas a year ago the petty bourgeoisie basically enjoyed the sight of university students marching on the finance minister, the ruling party, and the president and winning. Because that does something in the society that’s desperately need. It gives a sense that mass action, civil society, mobilizations, legitimate demands that the fees are too high, they should be frozen, that those demands be met. So there was widespread support.
Now this year they’re demanding about 10 times more money for free tertiary education and also they’re making demands for education that’s much higher quality. And higher quality for a secondary and primary. There that’s where they’ve got a very big job ahead of these students to reach out further in the next few weeks to make sure the next finance minister statement, October 26th the next statement in parliament, includes lots more money to bring down the fees, hopefully to zero.
NOOR: So the government has backtracked on some of the increases they were proposing for university tuition. But again now instead of demanding that the increases be withdrawn completely, the students are demanding that all tuition be eliminated in all of South Africa’s public universities. So in other words, they’ve really radicalized their demands.
So two questions. One is the student movement in anyway responsible for the government and specifically the minister of higher education backtracking on some increases? Also what is the logic behind the students’ approach demanding that all tuition be eliminated?
BOND: That’s right. The universities put up the tuition fees last year. In some cases, like it’s 10%. The students protested and said that’s too high and we want 0% as a short term demand. Plus, the insourcing of the low paid workers. The minister of higher education happens to be the head of the communist party, Blade Nzimande. He said no, we’ll stick with 6% increase and with those 3 days of protests I mentioned last October, they brought it down to 0. Then this year Blade Nzimande said you’ll have a 0% increase if you’re poor or middle class. If your incomes are below about 45,000 USD a year for your family income. For the first time proposing a means test to see who fits below that and then they’d get a 0% increase. But they’d still have these huge fees. Fees that are very very high for a working class family and the prospect of massive debt.
So the students went protesting about 3 weeks ago it began. Wits University’s been off for this whole time because of the intensity of the protests. The students seem very very powerfully committed to 0% fees. These are probably I would say the activist community, maybe at Wits University 10% or so of the students probably would support this very militant demand. But they’re the ones who are really setting the agenda.
The militant demand for free future education, say as Cuba does, simply requires one thing. Raising state budgetary support. Cuba is 4.5% of GDP is what the state gives to universities. Here it’s .7%. In the rest of Africa, it’s over .8% and in richer countries. 1.5%. So it’s really that request by these students to rethink the budget and to tax rich people more. They say look, yes rich people who go to university benefit from this but we must make sure that we tax them higher so that for the rest of the lives, they’ll be paying a tax for many more people to also get free tertiary education.
NOOR: By making this far reaching demand it seems that the students are sort of demanding that the Zuma government reorient towards public spending in higher education and that it changes sort of its who approach to the country’s development. Is that accurate and if the government were to engage in that kind of shift, what would that mean more generally for the government’s approach to development?
BOND: This is a government that came to power with great democratic aspirations. Nelson Mandela, the first President and the agenda of reconstruction and development is called that would benefit poor and working class black people, women. These were the demands that came from generations of struggle. But unfortunately quite early on the African National Congress had to do deals and even Mandela. The deals meant they had an 850-million-dollar loan from the IMF from 1993 that really paralyzed much of the ambitious redistribution strategy. They made deals to let the biggest companies leave the country so the tax base shrunk and the foreign debt grows. These are the sort of circumstances where you have Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s, and Fitch, the big credit rating agencies looking over the finance minister’s shoulders.
So it seems to me it would make sense for the finance minister to finally say if he had the guts, his name’s Pravin Gordhan, he once taught me Marxism at the Gandhi settlement in Girbin about 33 years ago and that courageousness that we once saw this government toss apartheid out with such strength and commitment, isn’t there when it comes to standing down big business. So big business has got a huge agenda which is called presidential infrastructure coordination’s projects and they’re basically fossil fuel extraction projects. 18 billion tons of coal is the first priority. It’ll cost about 40 billion dollars. There’s a hundred-billion-dollar nuclear bill to program. There’s a huge dig out port from petrochemical and shipping expansion. Some of these had to be put on hold. There’s lots of conversation but that’s where the big money is, compared to the 4 billion dollars that students want to get the free future education.
I think that is indeed the struggle ahead. Whether a big block lining up like big financers who don’t want to see the budget deficit rise, big mineral companies, [milters] who want very very cheap state subsidized transport and cheap electricity, they get about the cheapest in the world. These are the kinds of powerful figures that I think the students are going to see stand right behind the state as they approach the finance ministry and the president. Its there that the prerogatives of big business and international capital, fossil fuel capital, stand for destruction of these student’s future verses the demand that there be investment in these students future. It’s quite a titanic struggle. It may not end any time soon and it may be much more violence that we certainly saw yesterday. But it’s the kind of struggle that ensure that this country will remain at the cutting edge of the rest of politics.
NOOR: And talk more about the reaction. Judging by the amount of repression, just the sheer amount of violence against these protests it seems that the government is genuinely afraid of this movement. So why is this? What exactly have the student protestors picked up? Wat’s being challenged?
BOND: The main thing that the students have done is win victories last year and gained confidence and the government has two kinds of reactions. One has been a divide and conquer strategy where the allied groups and I’m thinking particularly the ANC youth league, very much in favor of government although opposed to the higher education minister because he’s a communist and there’s friction there. Then you’ve got the SASCO, the South African Students Congress, mostly running the university student representative council. So the student governments are relatively pro government. Yet this huge upsurge of independent progressive students and the students becoming more and more radicalized, the more they realize that with divide and conquer not working, the state has the monopoly on violence. Well the kids throw bricks back.
They’ve been breaking windows, they’ve used fire in the University of KwaZulu-Natal. They’ve even used excrement to kind of—a very very extreme tactic in a place like South Africa when you use your bodily functions to protest. So we’re seeing an escalation and there haven’t been [m]any deaths in these struggles. There was a cleaner at Wits University who passed away a couple of days ago because of inhalation of fire extinguisher fumes during one of the protests. So we’ve already begun to see how life and death this struggle will be.
The state is pulling out all stops. Really they’re threatening that the state intelligence is going to be monitoring everything. And they’re doing that partly because they believe and it’s in their interests to say that there’s a so called third force and they can build up a big conspiracy theory to say international agencies and they’ve often accused the CIA of being involved in these things. We have a tendency to expect from them talk left to walk right. They will as Franz [inaud.] predicted, they will use words of nationalist rhetoric to justify attacks on these dissenters. I think we’ll see more of that and particularly because trade unions this last week were also named as most militant trade union body in the world.
They’ve just had a split but the split pushes the trade unions to the left. At world economic forums survey and the global [inaud.] report, the South African workers have won 5 times in a row and about a month ago the police issued its annual report on protests. Violent protests were up to a record high of about 33 hundred last year. So nearly 10 a day. So these are the kinds of protests that police really have been using high technology to try to come in and squash and that includes the sorts of stun grenades and tear gas. But I think also listening by devices and we’re going to see much more of a repressive state, similar to some of the others in the BRICS group. India and Brazil also showing with China and Russia more oppression against their citizens as they stand up for their rights.
NOOR: Patrick Bond is a professor of political economy at Wits University. He’s joining us from Johannesburg. Thanks so much for talking to us today Patrick.
BOND: Thank you very much. Great to be with you Dharna.
NOOR: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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