#FeesMustFall a deadly fight in a tunnel

2016-10-09 07:14
CONFLICT Police tackle student leader Mcebo Dlamini during #FeesMustFall protests outside the Great Hall at the University of the Witwatersrand. Picture: Leon Sadiki

CONFLICT Police tackle student leader Mcebo Dlamini during #FeesMustFall protests outside the Great Hall at the University of the Witwatersrand. Picture: Leon Sadiki

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For the past few weeks, South African universities have been the theatre of renewed protests led by militant students and their supporters among staff and faculty.

The new wave of protests is happening in a context characterised by the increasing factionalisation within the governing party, the incipient crisis of legitimacy affecting the state and the weakening of key institutions.

A new, brutal cycle of protracted struggles for power is under way, partly fuelled by the drastic erosion of the belief in effecting meaningful change from within.

Having reached the conclusion that the ANC is unable to self-correct, a sizeable number of people are now willing to experiment with extra-systemic solutions.

As a result, universities have become soft targets for forces that are eager to experiment with things to come.

After arduous and protracted talks between various protagonists at the University of the Witwatersrand, a general assembly was convened, during which a pledge on access to higher education was going to be issued on Friday.

The one-page document commits the university to support the goal of free, fully funded, quality, decolonised higher education.

This represents a significant moral victory for the forces that have been pushing for this new dispensation for the past 18 months.

It remains to be seen whether, in view of the draconian constraints the South African economy currently faces, this is actually feasible.

The minister of finance, for one, is sceptical. So are many other voices, not all of which are opposed to the principle of education justice.

The general assembly on which many had pinned their hopes for an end to the stalemate has been postponed. One of the latest demands of the protesting students is that Wits and all other universities should be shut down until government agrees to free education.

Where we go from here is unclear.

A few ominous lessons can be drawn from the latest wave of student protests.

Those who were convinced that it is possible to keep the university open while prosecuting the struggle for free higher education for the poor have suffered a setback.

Neither the private security firms hired by the university nor the SA Police Service has been able to help the state fulfil the basic function of guaranteeing equal protection and security for all under the law.

The majority voices of staff and students favouring a reopening of the university have been summarily disqualified by a presumed avant-garde that pretends to speak on behalf of the poor.

It now appears that a relatively small – but well-organised and highly determined – number of militants can severely frustrate institutional power to the extent of plunging the system itself into creeping dysfunctionality.

Under our current legal dispensation, the recourse to the law and to the courts to restore institutional order and discipline is at best aleatory.

Militants themselves have shown remarkable skilfulness at harnessing the resources of the law to further the project of institutional disruption and paralysis, while at the same time avoiding paying a heavy price for the latter.

To maintain a semblance of normalcy in the midst of heightened contestation, institutions are often tempted to resort to increased levels of violence.

But violence as such, whether that of institutions or that of those who contest the policies of the institutions, is never a solution. It almost always denotes a failure of the moral imagination.

It also appears that one way of paralysing or defeating a system that has not been able to crush protest in its incipient phase is to drag it into an endless process of pseudo negotiations.

Turning in circles becomes both a method and a goal in itself, the best way to exhaust institutional power. Goalposts keep changing.

Commitments are made, but they are constantly reneged upon. Leaders keep rotating and almost every agreement is opened to renewed contestation.

Most significantly, the demands that are made cannot, in principle, be satisfied because those to whom they are addressed simply do not have the mandate, the power, the authority or the means to satisfy them.

Such is the case for the demand for free higher education.

There is not one single South African vice-chancellor who can satisfy this demand.

An impossible demand is one of those demands that are wilfully made to the wrong authority or institution, in the full knowledge that the latter will never be able to satisfy it, and therefore the conflict will never end.

Impossible demands have turned politics into a zero-sum game, a deadly fight in a tunnel that can only end with the capitulation and the humiliation of one of the protagonists.

The politics of impossible demands has become a key feature of the politics of viscerality that has engulfed South African campuses.

Where do we go from here?

If indeed the militants’ goal is to shut down all South African universities until government agrees to free education, then they might score a comprehensive victory in this first round, provided they stick to, or intensify, the strategy of disruption that has served them so well so far.

Once the universities have effectively been shut down, they will nevertheless face an entirely new set of challenges.

At last, their main protagonist will be the democratically elected regime in power in Pretoria.

There is no way to know in advance what government will do when faced, unmediated, with the current wave of militants.

If it finally comes to a real fight (as opposed to the ongoing surrogate fight against university management), militants will definitely need to bring on board bigger numbers.

The strategy, which consists of mobilising small numbers of determined and fearful radicals eager to create a pre-insurrectionary situation and ready for the supreme sacrifice, might not work.

University authorities, on the other hand, are not short of options. Paradoxical as it is, the most potent is to take the lead and either shut down or close the university.

In the “take-no-prisoners” kind of fight in the tunnel they are locked in, taking the lead and closing down the univer sity allows them to pull the rug from under the militants’ feet.

In the event that closing down universities implies vacating dormitories, shutting down restaurants and libraries, stopping the delivery of various daily services and eventually stopping the payment of monthly salaries, such a move might force a radical clarification that long days and nights of pseudo-negotiations and turning in circles have not produced.

The South African state, which has so far been playing ping-pong with higher education institutions, would be forced to squarely resolve the issue or run the risk of a severe loss of legitimacy.

Many of those who have advocated the reopening of universities, but have excelled in apathy, would be forced to stand up and be counted.

Read more on:    blade ­nzimande  |  education  |  fees must fall

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