South African Students Demand Free University Education While Building a Broad Front (2/2)
Vishwas Satgar of The University of the Witwatersrand, says peaceful and disciplined student protests over several weeks have brought about a concession from the ANC on tuition fees, yet the demands for labor rights on campus remain unmet
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome back. I’m speaking with Dr. Vishwas Satgar. He teaches at the University of Wits in Johannesburg, which has been the epicenter of student protest. Thanks again for coming back on the Real News.
VISHWAS SATGAR: Thank you.
PERIES: So Vishwas, earlier in segment one we were talking about the context which led up to the student protests and the kind of demands they are making on campus. But from what I can see, the student movement has contention with more than what’s happening in campus. They have a number of issues with the ANC government as well. And these protests have been targeted at the government, not the university administration. Why is that so?
SATGAR: Well, I think it’s four factors that come together here. I think the first is we’ve been seeing the emergence of an independent student politics in the recent period at university campuses, freed from the partisan politics that has been associated with student politics over the past 20 years. The Rhodes Must Fall movement which began in March this year made a very important mark on student political life and across the political landscape. It was a symbolic protest action against a statue of an imperialist, Cecil John Rhodes, and students demanded its removal.
But that emboldened students beyond political life that was monopolized by party-aligned student organizations. Beyond that you’ve also seen a politics, as I’ve mentioned, around worker solidarity, around trying to win insourcing, trying to win decent work for non-academic workers at universities. You’ve also seen a militancy emerging even among certain academic unions. My own university union was on strike a few years ago, and again it had to do with the cost structure of our university, et cetera. But you also saw, you are seeing the emergence of campaigns from outside society also coming onto campus. So for example, there’s a politics emerging against hunger at universities.
So the first factor that has fed into this is basically an emergence of a politics after 20 years of democracy that is starting to register in a very independent way concerns about student interest and worker interest at university. The second thing that kind of comes through here is the neoliberalization, the rolling back of the public university, over the past few decades, actually two decades of ANC neoliberalization. But it actually begins with the apartheid government. And entrenchment of managerialism, and an ethos that completely displaces the idea of a, a public university. And essentially, basically reduces the university to a business, and that treats its students as clients, treats its academic staff and non-academic staff as cost centers, and so on. And I think that also feeds into the kind of resistance that emerges over the recent period.
I think the third factor is actually the way the ANC state has neoliberalized education. If you look at the spend on higher education in South Africa, comparatively speaking, it is really low. We are at 0.6 percent of GDP. Compared to similarly developing countries, it’s way, way, way low. India is at about 1.5-1.6, Russia up there as well, and so on. We spend about 12 percent of our education budget on higher education. Comparable countries in the world spend about 19 percent. So essentially the ANC state has been cutting back on higher education spend, while at the same time squeezing universities to mobilize resources, and ultimately through raising student fees. That’s also been a factor that has kind of fed into all the resistance that has emerged.
But I think lastly, I think what we must keep in mind here, is that there is a global cycle of resistance that has been countermovement to global neoliberalism. And this countermovement or cycle has thrown up all forms of resistance across societies, even in transnational spaces. And if you look at the repertoire, the idiom, the grammar of student politics, the language that they were using, they were referencing in a lot of the tactics that have been used in different parts of the world, from Tahrir Square and occupation to what happens in the U.S. through Occupy Wall Street in 2011, and so on. And I think that imagination also feeds into what crystallizes out in the course of October in South Africa, which essentially was a historical attack against a key aspect of the neoliberal framework in South Africa.
The students were able to win at least one important immediate victory, which was a zero percent fee increase for next year. But they also have been winning victories at a decentralized level at universities. And in that context, University of Cape Town has conceded in principle to bring back workers, non-academic workers into the university. Similarly over this weekend, the University of Witwatersrand has also conceded in principle to do away with outsourcing and to work towards an insourcing solution. Students will also not be penalized for not having debt. They will be able to receive their certificates. Non-academic workers, their children if eligible to study will study free of charge at university.
So a lot of these gains have been crystallized. But the bigger challenge is to clinch free education. Now, the president of the country after the, the kind of resistance and the protests that happened outside union buildings announced a commission that will look into the feasibility of having, if you like, decommodified or free higher education in South Africa. There are a few challenges around this. The first challenge is the fact that the student movement itself has to keep its momentum going. And it has to find ways in which it moves beyond the kind of, if you like, social media dimension of their mobilization and their symbolic mobilization to actually think about institutionalizing their solidarity as part of a national campaign platform.
I think the second challenge is to give detail to what free education really means and how this can be funded. There are solutions. There was a study done in 2012 by the sitting minister of higher education. This study shows very clearly, and in a very striking and emphatic way that free higher education is possible in South Africa using various instruments. But again, students have to engage with what this means. They have to define their propositions. They have to define detail to what this means. And that means research, that means further preparation for engagement.
And I think thirdly they’re going to have to set deadlines on outcomes that can be announced nationally. Maybe push the president to announce on the state of the nation address, or the minister of higher education to announce on his budget speech next year. And they’re going to have to rally alliances across society from below to keep the pressure on, to clinch the ultimate victory of free education.
This issue has found resonance across society, because in South Africa today if you decommodify education it’ll go a major distance in addressing social exclusion, as well as the deep inequalities that we have in our society. And the student protest has [registered] this question across society, and in that regard it is historic and important.
PERIES: Vishwas, two more points, if I may. One is that this, the size of these protests, had certain historical resonance and reference in terms of the Soweto uprisings. And you can see, and in fact watching this from abroad, that link I’m sure scared the ANC, because they know how capable the student movement can be when they want to be. Give us a bit of a history lesson here, what happened during the Soweto uprising?
SATGAR: Well, I think what we’ve got to keep in mind in looking back is the distinctions, as well, between the past and the present. I think Soweto is very important because it, if you like, was a turning point in the national liberation struggle. The ANC was completely, if you like, defeated. Leadership was incarcerated or in exile. And in a sense the initiative lay with the apartheid regime. But it took the students, particularly young, black, African students standing up to the apartheid regime in 1976 in Soweto saying emphatically, and rejecting, to be taught in Afrikaans, and rejecting the quality of education they were getting. And taking to the streets militantly, and again, rocking the entire apartheid regime to the degree that many of them sacrificed their lives, and again, marked a whole generation of activists that flooded the ranks of the liberation movements, that also played a crucial role in rebuilding mass politics in the ’80s.
So in a sense, 1976 was a turning point and a harbinger for a renewal of mass politics. Now, if you keep that in mind and you think about what’s happened over this past month of October, this clearly, this parallel clearly evokes concern. And I think, I think what we must also keep in mind, is that this particular expression of student politics, as I said earlier, is part of a renewed cycle of resistance in South Africa. We are seeing struggles happening across different sectors of South African society together. You’re seeing a rupturing in the trade union movement and a realignment of forces there, from a new mining workers union, to the breakaway of the metal workers union, the largest union in the country, to establish a process around left alignment and a united front of resistance. You are seeing new movements demanding greater accountability. There’s been marches against corruption. There have been movements around the right to information. There have been movements for equal education, for food sovereignty, and so on.
All of these things are emerging at the same time. So there is immense potential here for convergance, and if you like for the renewal of a post-apartheid mass politics. However, there are some distinctions that come to the fore. I think the first thing that’s very striking in the whole situation is that while students were able to stand above partisan loyalties and were able to even clinch a non-racial solidarity in this historical moment, the question of institutionalizing this into a national campaign platform still stands. In the ’76 uprising and what happens into the ’80s, all of that gets institutionalized into student movements.
The second difference is the whole role of social media. And it’s clear that social media in itself is just a technology, and it does not have any social determining effects. But married and embedded in social protest and in mass politics it’s a very effective political tool. Now, in 1976 this wasn’t the case. But you do have it here, and the students have very effectively harnessed social media. The whole slogan, #FeesMustFall, became a vibrant social media platform, garnering students across universities, inviting in society and a whole host of social forces. So that’s a second thing. But again, it’s about ensuring that social media is connected into mass building.
And I think the third crucial challenge is to ensure that there are wider social and political alliances that come together, that congeal. Because in the end the struggle for decommodified and free education is also a struggle against neoliberal South Africa. And it is a struggle for a South Africa of systemic alternatives, of transformative alternatives. I think these are some of the kind of political issues that lie at the heart of this.
PERIES: Vishwas, I think we will be watching closely what’s happening in South Africa on two fronts. One, what students already have in South Africa which students here, for example, don’t have, and on the other front the advances that they will be making in the months to come. So I hope to have you back, and I also want to remind those South Africans that might be watching, right here in the United States there’s going to be a Million Student March on November 12 with a slogan: Education Should Not Be A Debt Sentence. And I’m sure we could find some allegiances between the two movements here.
SATGAR: Absolutely. Absolutely.
PERIES: Thank you so much.
SATGAR: Thank you. Thank you.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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