Is the force with us again?

2016-10-09 00:00
Mondli Makhanya

Mondli Makhanya

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The lesser told story of the uprisings in the 1980s was the development of the concept of “people’s power”.

From the time the nationwide rent boycott began until the concession in 1990 by FW de Klerk’s inner circle that the National Party could no longer govern on its own, there was a relentless drive to snatch power away from government. The anti-apartheid movement – led by civic organisations, student bodies, trade unions, religious formations and other civil-society bodies – gradually prised control from the state and established authority.

So-called organs of people’s power took the place of formal authority. From education to law enforcement, the state was rendered powerless. The only way it could exert its authority was through brute force, the imprisonment of leaders and activists, the unleashing of vigilante squads and political assassinations. They even had a word for it: kragdadigheid (forcefulness).

There is that feeling of deja vu in the country at the moment. For the past two weeks, the state and the country’s formal establishment have been rendered powerless by the student movement. Having ceded the initiative around the funding of higher education, government and university leaders have lost power and control of the tertiary education sector.

This was there for all to see when Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande’s very progressive announcement on next year’s fee increases sparked a revolt on campuses. Nzimande’s proposal – which would have seen more than two thirds of deserving students exempted from fee increases and would take care of the “missing middle” – was rejected outright.

With this significant victory won, the students shifted the goalposts to the unattainable demand for the immediate introduction of free tertiary education. Some even threatened a Chilean Winter, the protest by high school and university students in the South American country that severely disrupted learning between 2011 and 2013.

By the end of those protests, the students had extracted huge concessions from government, including the lifting of the quality of education and a plan to overhaul the funding model within six years.

But it is the total loss of control of power that the South African state should be most concerned about. Over the past two weeks, the student movement has been dictating the nature and pace of engagement. All that government and university management have been able to do is try to manage the public debate while attempting to maintain a semblance of order.

President Jacob Zuma conceded to this loss of power on Monday when he showed up at the multistakeholder Education Imbizo in Ekurhuleni. In what was more a “Hello, I’m back from my foreign travels” cameo appearance, Zuma asked everyone to hold hands and behave nicely before he ran off to the sanctuary of Luthuli House.

Why he had to spend more time with his ANC comrades than he had spent at the weekend with the national executive committee is puzzling.

Here was the country’s biggest crisis since the one he caused in December, and the man with the ultimate power to solve it showed that he had neither the inclination nor the ability to do anything.

The message it sent, though, was that he was afraid to spend the day with the students and have them treat him the same way they have treated his minister and the university principals.

You can’t blame the man. He is subjected to enough disrespect in Parliament and public discourse already. The only endearment he gets these days is from his family, the chairperson of the national airline, the former chairperson of the public broadcaster, and his cattle and chickens.

Anarchists may applaud this loss of power by the establishment as a positive development. They will see a weakened state, a petrified president and perplexed university management as outcomes of a successful struggle. But it is dangerous. No matter what one may think of the incumbents, there are few things more unsettling than a paralysed state and a centre that is not holding.

A government whose vulnerability has been exposed behaves irrationally. It replaces persuasion with force, as the country witnessed in the 1980s.

Once these protests are over and the cause of a free education has either been achieved or a road towards it has been tarred, we will still have to have an orderly society. We will need a society that respects the fact that it is governed and relates to its governors within the agreed rules of open democracy.

That society must also respect that whether or not you like the current minister or the vice-chancellors, they are bestowed with the authority to carry out their responsibility. That authority can and should be challenged in militant ways, but always within the rules of a decent society.

The authorities, too, have a responsibility not to replace formal and legitimate power with hard, brutal power. It does not work. Just ask the authors of kragdadigheid.

The work of the next few weeks must not just be about sorting out the rands and saving the academic year. It must also be about restoring the legitimacy of the centre.

Read more on:    mondli makhanya  |  politics

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