Workers Hammer No. 238
South Africa: ANC unleashes apartheid-style repression on student protests
The following article is reprinted from Spartacist South Africa no 14, January 2017, paper of the South African section of the International Communist League.
After last year’s Fees Must Fall protests were met with violent state repression, the university administrations managed to save some face by formally completing the academic year. But it is clear to everyone that absolutely none of the burning issues that underlie the protests were resolved. This was highlighted when the minister of higher education, Blade Nzimande, met with vice chancellors on 17 January to, among other things, make plans to contain any possible protests. As Nzimande put it, “the year must start properly, how ready are they, how ready are we as government”. This comes on the heels of many university administrations cowardly announcing in December — when virtually no students were on campus — that they would implement the full eight per cent fee increment recommended by Blade for the 2017 academic year.
Among the many protest leaders arrested last year, Bonginkosi Khanyile of Durban University of Technology languishes in jail to this day, having had multiple bail applications turned down since he was arrested last September. Blade vindictively singled him out, likening him to a violent thug and sneering that he “must face the music”. Others who were arrested during the protests still face charges. Many students since 2015 have been suspended for their involvement in the protests. As emphasised in the leaflet reprinted on page 5, it is urgent that the social power of the organised working class be mobilised in support of the students including for their defence against state repression. Drop all the charges against Fees Must Fall and anti-outsourcing protesters! Reinstate all suspended and expelled protesters now! Police and security guards off campus now!
During last year’s protests the central rallying cry became the call for “free, quality, decolonised education”. Previously, during the 2015 protests, this slogan was mainly associated with the more militant sections of the student protests, including those around “Africanist” black nationalist groups like the EFF, Pan Africanist Student Movement of Azania and Black Consciousness types.
The widespread popularity of the call for “decolonised education” is one indication of how nothing has fundamentally changed regarding the national oppression of the black majority in this country since the ANC-led Tripartite Alliance came to power over 20 years ago. In countless ways, black people are made to feel like second class citizens in South Africa’s universities, which — like the rest of the country’s valuable economic and cultural resources — remain dominated by the white minority, competently assisted by a layer of black, Indian and coloured [mixed-race] frontmen in the university management.
Only 14 per cent of university professors are black, and only 3.1 per cent of black South Africans aged 18 to 29 are enrolled in higher education. University drop-out rates for black students are as high as 60 per cent. This is a product of many-sided racist discrimination and neglect — from the wretched state of basic education for the black masses, to academic and financial exclusions, to lack of food, transport and academic support, to reports of black students sleeping in libraries and bathrooms because of lack of accommodation. Coupled with all this is a suffocating teaching environment which, from the curriculum to student-teacher interactions, remains saturated with the racial and class bias that was passed down from apartheid.
In raising the slogan of “decolonised education”, many students are also reacting to the vicious racial oppression that permeates this society more broadly. Thus, many have linked this slogan to a denunciation of the myth of the “Rainbow Nation”, and to decrying the Marikana massacre. Inevitably, this has generated racist backlash from governmental apologists and all manner of rabid white racists.
For many students the call for “decolonised education” represents a protest against this racist state of affairs — a protest with which we strongly solidarise. A number of the specific demands falling under the broad umbrella of this slogan — such as increased hiring of black academics (not managers), or expanded course offerings in African history/studies — are just, democratic demands directed against aspects of the national oppression of the black majority, and are supportable from a Marxist standpoint.
However, the “decolonised education” slogan has also come to encompass a petty-bourgeois black nationalist political outlook that we oppose. Central to this outlook is the liberal-idealist notion that the racial oppression of the black majority in South Africa can be fundamentally altered under capitalism by changing the curriculum of the universities or otherwise tinkering with the education system. But black oppression is not simply a product of backward racist ideas, and the road to black liberation cannot be opened by simply combating these ideas and changing some faces at the top. Rather, black oppression and the racist ideology used to justify it are materially rooted in the structural workings of neo-apartheid capitalism.
A monopoly of knowledge through control of the education system is one of the fundamental mechanisms of class rule. In the past, both the missionary-run school system and Bantu education were instruments for maintaining white-minority rule in different periods of South African capitalism. With the advent of neo-apartheid capitalism in 1994, the rigid apartheid legal strictures were removed, but the economic and social foundations remained — that is, the superexploitation of black labour and the attendant racial hierarchy.
For the bourgeoisie it makes very little financial sense to invest in the education of the black masses, for whom they have nothing to offer but a “future” of poverty, unemployment and brutal superexploitation. What little education the capitalists see fit to provide the masses is aimed at instilling obedience and discipline. As for those students that are privileged or lucky enough to make it to the elite universities, the bourgeoisie looks to select and train the next generation of capitalist administrators and apologists, as well as the scientists and technicians required in a modern economy. In all these functions, the education system under capitalism necessarily promotes racism and other reactionary bourgeois ideology.
Especially for the “Africanist” black nationalist ideologues, the call to “decolonise education” has been used to push rejection of what they term “Western” science; they are particularly hostile to Marxism, ie scientific socialism. Dismissing such scientific knowledge as a “European product”, and as such anti-black, they argue that it should be rejected and be replaced by what the more sophisticated of these ideologues euphemistically call “Afrocentric science”. In reality, this is a promotion of “traditional” mysticism. Romanticising pre-colonial African societies, the “Afrocentrists” also exploit a real sense of distrust about science stemming from the brutal history of white domination, including grotesque racist “experiments” like Dr Wouter “Death” Basson’s “Project Coast”.
In fact, this promotion of African mysticism is a cruel mockery of the reality faced by the black masses trapped in rural hinterlands, who are forced to consult sangomas and other traditional peddlers of snake-oil remedies because they lack primary health care resources. This outlook harks back to the “AIDS denialism” of the Thabo Mbeki regime whose criminal policies of dismissing anti-retroviral drugs in favour of “traditional remedies” such as beetroot, olive oil and garlic resulted in the needless deaths of over 300,000 people. (For more, see “South Africa Torn by AIDS Crisis”, Spartacist South Africa no 1, July 2001, as well as “Against the Nationalist Slanders of Marx and Engels”, Spartacist South Africa no 13, Spring 2015.)
Quality education, from pre-school to doctorate level, should be the right of all in society, not a privilege for the few who can afford it. To do this means not only opening the gates of the elite universities to all, but also using the wealth that is now hoarded by the bourgeoisie to vastly expand the educational infrastructure and programmes for the masses. A black-centred workers government that expropriates the bourgeoisie would use these resources for building modern schools, labs and libraries in the townships and rural areas; providing adult education courses in literacy and science, with instruction offered in all the local languages; and other measures aimed at giving the black, coloured and Indian toilers real access to the scientific and other advances that are now the preserve of a wealthy, mainly white, minority.
Marxists are vitally concerned with science, not least because when the workers have conquered power on a world scale and have become the new ruling class, they will need to apply the scientific and technological knowledge amassed by previous societies in order to realise the communist goal of creating an egalitarian society of material plenty. In such a society, all the positive gains of modern science will be put at the service of mankind, and all the fake science that was used to justify and defend racist capitalist rule will be a relic of the past.
The following leaflet was issued on 22 September 2016. A minor factual correction has been incorporated.
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SEPTEMBER 22 — The response was immediate. On 19 September, within hours of higher education minister Blade Nzimande giving university administrations the green light to increase fees by up to eight per cent next year, students across the country mobilised to shut down campuses and renew the mass protests for free education. Blade’s pronouncement is rightly seen as a slap in the face to the hundreds of thousands who protested last year and early this year. The fact that he also announced the government’s “commitment” to help cover the cost of increases for students from households earning less than R600,000 [£37,000] per year is faint solace. This just means keeping the price of higher education at its current level for students from poor and working-class families, who are already crushed by mountains of student debt or excluded outright by high fees. In neo-apartheid South Africa, where race and class largely overlap, the exclusion of the poor and workers from higher education means the continued exclusion of most blacks and coloureds. We support the students’ protests against fees and call for free, quality education through to tertiary, with a state-paid living stipend. Abolish the student debt!
Nzimande (who is also general secretary of the South African Communist Party [SACP]) responded to the renewed protests by trying to ridicule the student protesters, portraying them as a bunch of hooligans and/or idiots who want to “destroy our universities in the name of defending no-fee increases for the rich” and are being “misled” by various rogues pursuing “their own narrow political agenda”. With these grotesque slanders, Dr Nzimande is in good company with the vice chancellors and other senior managers who earn millions running elite universities like Wits University and University of Cape Town on behalf of the big bourgeoisie. They have issued a steady stream of vomitous press statements depicting militant student activists as little more than violent thugs. This is reminiscent of the racist stereotypes spewed by the apartheid regime during the Soweto uprising of 1976. At the time, thousands of protesting students, workers and township poor were referred to as “tsotsis” and “rioting mobs” to justify being mowed down by the apartheid police state. One statement issued by Wits University’s Senior Executive Team on 20 September promised to “identify” and prosecute “those who perpetrated acts of violence on our campus today”. It should not be very hard for the Wits administration to identify the source of violence on their hallowed campus: The administration themselves have paid millions for hundreds of private security guards, many of them equipped with riot gear, to occupy the campus and suppress student protests together with cops from the Metro Police.
Like cops and security guards everywhere, those on Wits and other campuses act as the armed enforcers of the capitalist ruling class to quell social protest seen as “disruptive” to the day-to-day workings of the racist capitalist system. In the past two days alone, cops have repeatedly fired on protesters with stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets, injuring and arresting dozens. Yesterday, one female student was badly burned by a police stun grenade while students tried to protest in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Along with cops and security guards, university administrations across the country have used a whole slew of court interdicts, trumped-up disciplinary charges and other repressive measures to isolate and harass those activists identified as “ring-leaders” of last year’s protests against fees and outsourcing. Drop all the charges against anti-fees and anti-outsourcing protesters! Reinstate all suspended and expelled activists now! Cops and security guards off campus! Abolish the campus administrations — for student-teacher-worker control of the universities!
The fact that dozens of the more militant student activists from last year’s protests have been disciplined and even expelled from campuses without any large protests in opposition is one measure of the demobilising and treacherous role played by the leadership of the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA). The PYA — an alliance including the ANC Youth League, Young Communist League and South African Students Congress — is the “junior” version of the ANC/SACP/COSATU Tripartite Alliance, which acts to contain social unrest and maintain the capitalist “stability” demanded by the Randlords and ratings agencies.
As the dominant political force in most of the protests, the PYA leaders largely sought to ride the wave of student militancy during last year’s protests, and many are attempting to do so again this year when student anger is at its height. But as soon as Zuma announced in October last year that there would be no fee increase for 2016, the PYA began working overtime to stop further protests, openly acting as the lackeys of the university management. This went as far as the national PYA leaders’ January 2016 press conference denouncing Fees Must Fall protesters who wanted to continue protesting as “counter-revolutionaries” seeking to “hijack” students’ grievances for “regime change”, even implying that they were trained by the CIA. A PYA press statement declared: “There is no reason for strikes to continue when the people’s government has addressed all relevant immediate concerns of students.”
Those student militants revolted by this kind of self-serving treachery need to understand that it is not just a result of the personal qualities (or lack thereof) of the individual sell-out leaders. Underlying their treachery are the bankrupt politics of their parent organisations, which are based on nationalism and class-collaboration. These politics cannot be wished away or swept under the rug in the name of achieving an illusory “student unity”, as many activists seem to hope — they must be argued and fought out in the open. They are not limited to the university terrain, but are the same politics responsible for betraying the promise of liberation from white minority rule. As the ANC and the Tripartite Alliance become increasingly discredited, a host of political misleaders — from black nationalists like the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Pan Africanist Congress/Student Movement, to the reformist leaders of the metalworkers union NUMSA — are trying to re-package and sell alternative versions of these pro-capitalist politics as something “new”.
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 Group Areas Acts to the migrant labour system — continues to stamp every aspect of life in South Africa. This is not a “mistake” or an “oversight” that could be fixed if only the ANC would return to the “good old days” of the bourgeois-populist Freedom Charter. Far from being a “people’s government”, the Tripartite Alliance government is a bourgeois government that has administered neo-apartheid capitalism for over 20 years. This flowed from the whole political framework of the ANC-led Congress Alliance, which was always premised on maintaining capitalism. The result was the negotiated settlement that ended formal apartheid in 1994 while preserving the power of the Randlords, a betrayal of black freedom. The massive profits of the (still mainly white) South African capitalists continue to be derived from the superexploitation of the mainly black working class.
The true face of neo-apartheid was shown most clearly with the Marikana massacre in 2012, when the cops gunned down 34 striking mineworkers — a massacre reminiscent of the crushing of black dissent under apartheid. Marikana showed not only the racist, repressive nature of the “new South Africa”, but the enormous potential power of the South African proletariat. In the face of the government’s brutal crackdown, the mineworkers remained defiant, keeping the mines shut until they finally won their demands. This is the kind of social power that must be brought to bear in solidarity with the protesting students, who are under the gun of the same capitalist state that has the blood of Marikana on its hands. The working class must stand at the head of the struggles of all the oppressed in a struggle to overthrow capitalist rule. Mobilising this potential power is above all a political question, the question of leadership. What’s desperately needed is to break with the Tripartite Alliance and forge a Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party, rooted among the most class-conscious workers, armed with a revolutionary Marxist programme and capable of acting as a tribune of all the oppressed.
Such a party must be built in sharp opposition to all variants of nationalism and based on the strict political independence of the working class from the capitalist state and all bourgeois parties. Julius Malema’s EFF is no different from the ANC in its thoroughly bourgeois programme, notwithstanding its use of more “radical” populist rhetoric. The bankruptcy of the EFF’s bourgeois nationalist populism was crassly demonstrated just last month, following the local elections, when the EFF voted in Johannesburg, Tshwane and elsewhere to back the white-racist, union-busting Democratic Alliance — the “lesser devil”, by Malema’s lights — in forming minority governments.
Against all the schemes for “cleaning up” the racist capitalist system, what’s needed is to fight for a black-centred workers government to break the power of the Randlords, expropriate capitalist property and begin the socialist reconstruction of society. Workers revolution — including the necessary international extension to the advanced capitalist countries that dominate the world economy — alone can open the road to the liberation of the black masses and doing away with the myriad forms of oppression that capitalism rests upon and reinforces. Spartacist/South Africa fights to build the Leninist-Trotskyist party needed to lead this struggle.