South African university students protesting against tuition fees, photo by Myolisi (Creative Commons)

South African university students protesting against tuition fees, photo by Myolisi (Creative Commons)   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

University students have resumed their battle from last year against tuition fees hikes and for free education. In doing so, they have taken on South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) political establishment. Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp, CWI South Africa) activists explain what’s at stake.

The Fees Must Fall protests are taking place in conditions where the government, after its humiliation in the local government elections, is determined to restore its significantly diminished political authority.

In an attempt to break student unity, it is using divide and rule tactics and also wielding the stick of repression.

It is becoming more and more evident that the arson on campuses is being perpetrated not just by student hot heads who mistake this kind of action for revolutionary militancy, but by agent provocateurs organised by intelligence agencies to provide the state with a pretext to step up repression.

Students must actively oppose the burning of buildings. It undermines public support and student unity and does not advance the struggle one inch.

At the same time we condemn state violence and the conversion of universities into militarised zones. We demand that all private security and police must keep out of campuses, as university students demanded of the apartheid regime, and for our right to protest peacefully to be upheld.

Free education

The demands of this year’s protest wave have centred on a clear call for free higher education for all, accompanied by the demands to drop any legal charges against students arising from previous Fees Must Fall protests.

The ANC government’s proposal to exempt only the poor and ‘missing middle’ (students who are deemed too rich to qualify for government support, but too poor to afford tuition fees) from the 8% fees rise was treated with contempt. It is a political ploy aimed at three things; dividing students, shifting blame from government to university management, and quelling the wave of protest.

The government’s opposition to free higher education comes from the ruling ANC party’s commitment to neoliberal capitalism. Therefore the demand for free quality education is a struggle against capitalism itself.

This year’s protests have revealed the degree of discontent and outrage not just among students but in wider society.

More importantly, from the point of view of the future of the movement, they have posed much more sharply the question of a coherent national programme and a national leadership to carry it through.

The absence of a unified programme and leadership has resulted in the reproduction of last year’s random protests without any campus-to-campus coordination. This problem will have to be urgently addressed.

Leadership and programme

A further consequence of this weakness is that it has left the movement unprepared for the more sophisticated tactics used by the state and management to divide, derail and destabilise the movement.

Forces opposed to free education can lean on the understandable frustrations of many students to mobilise for mass meetings and push through decisions against continuing the struggle.

The lack of national leadership simultaneously feeds into and from the lack of programme. The campus protests have emerged with their own local leaderships which have so far laboured to sustain the protests with more or less success. Where protest has been sustained it is overwhelmingly due to the willingness of the student masses to fight.

In some areas this has opened up competition among the campus leadership for dominance or control of the protest by the adoption of extreme methods just to demonstrate to other leaders they are more radical than them. Meetings tend to degenerate into a competition in radical posturing producing empty shells instead of resolutions with a clear way forward.

The state has been able to take advantage through agent provocateurs and the ANC-aligned student formations.

In what was clearly the result of a well-planned strategy, the government prepared its propaganda about its obligations to the poor and missing middle, lining up ANC affiliates Sasco (South African Students Congress) and Cosatu (Congress of South African Trade Unions) to immediately issue statements of support.

Way forward

If the struggle for free education is to be sustained and triumph, political and programmatic coherence needs to be achieved.

Provincial meetings must be convened as a matter of urgency. These should be followed by a national meeting, from which the institutional programmes must be consolidated into one coherent national programme which will guide and coordinate the movement into national action.

This will assist it to effectively transcend divisions incurred from lack of programme and leadership.

Gauteng Free Education activists have already begun with this initiative, planning to bring labour and civic movements to act in concert.

The Free State Free Education Movement is in the process of organising such a provincial gathering. If repeated nationwide, it would enable the student movement to link up with workers and communities to organise to resist the neoliberal onslaught on education rights.