Workers Vanguard No. 1082
29 January 2016
Student Protests Shake South Africa
Workers Must Mobilize in Fight for Free Education!
The following article was written by our comrades of Spartacist/South Africa, section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist).
Under the call “Fees Must Fall,” hundreds of thousands of university students protested against the exorbitant cost of higher education last year, shutting down campuses across South Africa and marching on the seats of government. While proposed fee hikes of up to 11.5 percent were the initial spark for the protests, they continued even after President Jacob Zuma’s announcement on 23 October 2015 that there would be no fee increases in 2016. As many students have pointed out, the cost of tertiary education was already prohibitively expensive for students from poor and working-class families. They want free education now. Zuma’s announcement this January of (yet) another commission of inquiry was rightly denounced by many as an attempt to stall and defuse the situation with bogus talk shops.
This year, protests broke out at universities in Johannesburg and Pretoria before classes even began. Protesters blocked registration, demanding that no one be excluded from registering by having to pay either up-front fees or outstanding debt, and many have linked the students’ demands to the fight against outsourcing and the slave wages of campus workers.
From Johannesburg and Cape Town to Pretoria and Port Elizabeth, protesting students and campus workers have faced brutal attacks by the cops and private security guards, who have fired stun grenades, tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets at the protesters. In Cape Town, 23 protesters were arrested and initially charged with “treason” for attempting to enter parliament as the finance minister gave his budget report in October. In November, the University of the Western Cape (UWC) campus was practically turned into a war zone, with police and heavily armed security guards chasing down students, dozens of whom were arrested and thrown in jail. At the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, the year-end exams were moved off campus to the nearby military base—something that was done in the 1980s amid mass protests against the white-supremacist apartheid regime. Spartacist/South Africa demands: Drop all charges against the anti-fees and anti-outsourcing protesters! Police and security guards off the campus!
The working class has every interest in taking up the cause of the students. It is the sons and daughters of working people and the poor who are being excluded from university education by high fees. And it is the overwhelmingly black proletariat that has borne the brunt of outsourcing—the increasing use of temporary and contract workers, including through parasitic labour brokers. Unless there is an effective fightback, the conditions of the black masses will only worsen, especially as the economy continues its downward spiral. It is critical that the power of the organised working class and its unions be mobilised to support the protesters, including to defend them against state repression.
The police violence faced by the students is but a taste of what protesting township poor and striking workers routinely confront. In a massacre reminiscent of the apartheid era, 34 striking Marikana miners were shot dead in 2012 by the police. The Marikana massacre showed the true face of racist, neo-apartheid South Africa. The Tripartite Alliance—made up of the African National Congress (ANC), South African Communist Party (SACP) and the COSATU trade-union federation—rules on behalf of the white capitalist class, which now includes a few black faces, as well as their imperialist overlords in Washington and London. The South African capitalists continue to derive their massive profits from the superexploitation of the mainly black working class.
The current protests have tapped into the profound discontent of the oppressed over the betrayed promises of liberation from white minority rule. As one sign read: “Our parents were sold a dream in 1994; We’re here for a refund.” The extreme racial and class divide in the education system is but one measure of how the legacy of apartheid—from “Bantu education” to the Land Acts to the migrant labour system—continues to stamp every aspect of life in South Africa. The “Fees Must Fall” demonstrations were preceded by the “Rhodes Must Fall” protests, which denounced the glorification of Cecil Rhodes and other colonial pigs in monuments throughout the country, as well as the endemic racism in universities.
The skyrocketing cost of university fees falls most heavily on the small percentage of black youth who manage to make it into university despite the atrocious state of primary and secondary education for the black masses. It is significant that protesting black, coloured [mixed-race] and Indian students have been joined by white students, who have often placed themselves in the front line of the protests in an attempt to shield black classmates from police attack.
Comrades of Spartacist/South Africa participated in the anti-fees protests, calling for free education and a living stipend for all! Quality education, from preschool to the doctorate level, should be the right of all in society, not a privilege for the few who can afford it. We call to nationalise universities like Wits in Johannesburg, the University of Cape Town (UCT) and Rhodes in Eastern Cape, and to open them to all who want to study there. The resources and facilities at these elite universities stand in contrast to the decaying, underfunded universities—such as Tshwane University of Technology and UWC—that the majority of poor and working-class students are consigned to. Government ministers have lauded themselves for increasing the budget for National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) loans by billions. In reality, many working-class families that can’t afford the tuition fees don’t qualify for NSFAS. Those who do are condemned to debt bondage to repay the loans—even though many can’t find jobs. Abolish the student debt!
The apartheid divisions in primary and secondary education, along with fees, lead to university drop-out rates of up to 60 percent for black students. In order to overcome this, full remedial education programmes must be implemented at the universities, linked to a programme of public works, not least to expand the existing infrastructure for higher education. We also call to abolish the campus administrations as personified by the hated Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib. For student-teacher-worker control of the universities!
Many students wrongly believe that the main obstacle to free education is government corruption. The ANC-led government is plenty corrupt, as are all capitalist governments. But the reason the neo-apartheid capitalist rulers have no interest in the education of the mass of black people is because they have little to offer them for a future other than poverty, unemployment or brutal superexploitation. The “anti-corruption” campaigns being led by various forces are actually intended to deflect the anger of workers and the oppressed away from the capitalist class and into the dead end of “cleaning up” capitalism. This was clearly seen with the protests called by Unite Against Corruption in September and October, which were supported by the NUMSA metal workers union bureaucracy, various NGOs, religious organisations and bourgeois parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). These campaigns serve to tie NUMSA and other unions to anyone who is “anti-ANC,” including very right-wing forces—for example, the white-dominated Democratic Alliance, while not participating in the marches, made clear its support to the “anti-corruption” campaign.
The forces behind these campaigns seek to manipulate popular revulsion at the Tripartite Alliance’s betrayals in order to promote their own reactionary ends, including anti-black racism. The “Zuma Must Fall” protests this December were largely white and filled with barely concealed racist venom. Spartacist/South Africa opposes these campaigns. They are counterposed to the necessary struggle to sweep away the system of production for profit through proletarian revolution and to replace it with a social system where production will be for human need. This is the only way to root out the evils of neo-apartheid capitalism.
Break with the Tripartite Alliance!
The anti-fees protests have starkly exposed the role of the ANC/SACP/COSATU Alliance and its junior version, the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA), in containing social discontent on behalf of the Randlords. The PYA largely sought to ride the wave of the student protests at the beginning, including by (reluctantly) leading a march of tens of thousands to the ANC’s Luthuli House in Johannesburg in October. But as soon as Zuma announced that there would be no fee increment, the PYA began working overtime to stop further protest, openly acting as the lackeys of the university administrators. During a PYA press conference in January, the senior leaders of the ANC Youth League, the South Africa Students Congress and the Young Communist League spewed vile slanders against those who continued to protest. They denounced them as “counter-revolutionaries” seeking to “hijack” the students’ grievances in the interest of “regime change,” even implying that they are trained by the CIA. The PYA made clear what lies behind this demagogy in a January 14 joint statement: “There is no reason for strikes to continue when the people’s government has addressed all relevant immediate concerns of students.”
The January PYA press conference was too hard to stomach even for many of the PYA-affiliated Student Representative Councils (SRC) leaders. On the same day, representatives from the SRCs of Wits, University of Johannesburg, UCT and other universities walked out of a meeting with Blade Nzimande, the minister for higher education and general secretary of the SACP. One of those who walked out, the president of the Wits SRC, bitterly complained, “It is a talk shop, and we are tired of that.” But while the PYA’s SRC leaders are more directly exposed to the pressure of the angry students, this does not fundamentally change their sellout politics. Just a few days after walking out of the meeting with Blade, the Wits SRC reached an agreement with the campus administration to assist with getting student registration back on track and discouraging protest. This agreement was reached even as the university was essentially put on lockdown, with riot gear-clad security guards and a court interdict in place to prevent further “disruptions.” In opposition to such treachery, we seek to win student militants to a revolutionary programme based on the struggle for working-class power. During the protests at Wits, we raised a placard reading: “Blade, Habib, Ramaphosa & Co.: Frontmen for Racist Neo-Apartheid! For a Black-Centred Workers Government!”
Many of the “Fees Must Fall” protesters have rightly linked their demand for free education to the demands that campus workers, who are hired through outsourcing, be made permanent university employees, paid living wages and receive the same benefits as academic staff, such as free enrolment for family members. While several university administrations have agreed “in principle” to some measures against outsourcing, protests have continued to ensure implementation and to extract further concessions.
In Tshwane, Pretoria, a campaign under the slogan “Outsourcing Must Fall” was launched in January, leading to the shutdown of University of Pretoria and UNISA campuses for over a week. The campaign, mobilising not only campus workers but also municipal cleaners, has been largely led by the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP), which is affiliated with the pseudo-Trotskyist Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI). The “Outsourcing Must Fall” manifesto raises supportable demands, including permanent employment for outsourced workers and a wage increase to R10,000 [$600]. But it undermines the important and necessary fight against outsourcing by embracing security guards as part of the working class. The CWI has long had a record of championing security guards, police and prison guards as “workers in uniform.” Security guards—like cops and prison guards—are not workers, but are hired to protect the property of the bosses. It is particularly grotesque to campaign for “better working conditions” for security guards at the same time that the university administrations are hiring whole armies of them to clamp down on student protest.
Many South African trade unions—including COSATU affiliates as well as “independent” unions—organise cops and security guards. The fact that the state, including the police forces, now contains many more black faces than under apartheid does not mean that it is any less an institution for capitalist oppression. As under the old apartheid system, in the “new” South Africa the cops are agents of capitalist organised violence against the working class and the whole of the oppressed population. We say: Cops, security and prison guards out of the unions!
For a Leninist Workers Party!
The protesting students must be backed by the kind of social power displayed by the Marikana miners. In the face of the government’s brutal crackdown, the miners remained defiant, keeping the mines shut until they finally won their demands. South Africa has plenty of social tinder. What is sorely lacking is a revolutionary leadership that can unite the many just grievances in the society behind the working class, which uniquely has the power to bring the capitalist system to its knees. What is essential is the forging of a Leninist vanguard workers party that acts as the tribune of the people, fighting every manifestation of oppression with the goal of workers rule. The struggle to build such a party is intrinsically linked to the fight for a new, class-struggle leadership of the unions, independent of the capitalist state and all capitalist parties.
The way forward in the fight for free education, decent healthcare, jobs and housing lies through mobilising the power of the working class in opposition to all parties committed to capitalist rule. This includes not only the bourgeois-nationalist ANC but also the bourgeois-populist Economic Freedom Fighters of Julius Malema, which despite its more radical posturing also represents capitalist class interests. This was recently highlighted by Malema’s trip to London in November, where he spoke at Chatham House, a top think tank of the British bourgeoisie. His efforts to reassure the investors of the EFF’s potential usefulness for stabilising neo-apartheid for the capitalists were well received by many. According to the director of the SA-UK Chamber of Commerce, one senior South African executive who attended said, “I think we actually agree on many things. If you could just calm down the rhetoric and adopt a softer approach, I think we could stop to talk about partnerships.”
As we in Spartacist/South Africa and our comrades in the International Communist League have always stressed:
“This capitalist regime, based on the superexploitation of the black proletariat, must frustrate the aspirations of every section of the oppressed. Widespread expectations for better housing and jobs cannot be met; even simple democratic demands such as the right to an education for all children or the right of women to birth control and abortion are denied to the overwhelming majority by social inequality and lack of facilities. If the masses’ frustration does not find expression along class lines it will fuel and embitter every other kind of division.”
—The Fight For a Revolutionary Vanguard Party: Polemics on the South African Left (April 1997)
We fight for a black-centred workers government as part of a socialist federation of Southern Africa. It will take a workers government centred on the black majority to break the power of the Randlords, expropriate capitalist property and begin the socialist reconstruction of society, finally opening the road to the liberation of the black masses. Such a government would not be racially exclusive, but would unite the many black tribal- and language-based groups along with the coloured and Indian populations, while providing ample room and full democratic rights for those whites who would accept a government based on the black working class.
Only by extending socialist revolution internationally, especially to the imperialist centres, and building a world planned economy can the material conditions of life for the masses of Southern Africa and the rest of the neocolonial world be lifted to a level of abundance for all. Radical-minded students who aspire to a socialist future must join the fight to build a revolutionary workers party like the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky. Spartacist/South Africa is committed to the construction of such a party, which will represent the necessary instrument for leading the fight for socialist revolution as part of a reforged Trotskyist Fourth International.