#FeesMustFall- So much to do and yet so little done

2016-11-06 22:40

Earlier in the year I penned an article on the #FeesMustFall movement and predicted that the second wave of protests would be longer and more violent than the 2015 protests but despite these warnings, government and universities did nothing to avert the situation. Rather sadly, the media coverage around the protests has been biased and one dimensional leaving the general public with mixed feelings about the recent demands by students for free and decolonised education for all. In this piece, I want to examine and objectively so, what challenges this wave of protests presented.

I should probably set out that as an academic, I do believe that the calls for free and decolonised education are legitimate and they cannot be ignored nor rubbished by the unfortunate course of the protest. I believe that the cause is something to be applauded especially because our young people are developing a healthy appetite for social justice and change. I do however, believe that the course of the movement was less than desirable and lacked a winning strategy.

Protests in general…

I have always maintained that the right to protest when used correctly can yield positive results that other mechanisms and structures have failed to. The underlying power of protests is the power of one –a collective that exerts pressure by means of a boycott, march, sit-in or go-slow. Protests, when used correctly, have the power to bring the powers that be to the negotiating table they were reluctant to be at before the protests.

Free and decolonised education an achievable goal?

The underlying call for free and decolonised education remains a goal that can be realised but it must be done progressively over a period of time to prevent a botched job that jeopardises not just the quality of education but the country as a whole. I understand the concerns of the students that the ANC government has been talking about this for years without any action that indicates their willingness to provide this but I must caution against a Zimbabwe-style execution of reform. We all know how Zimbabwe has travelled this road before with dangerous consequences.

The course of the protest – what went wrong?

There can be no doubt that #FeesMustFall 2016 was not successful in its latest fight and that public support for the movement has dwindled. This does not mean the cause was not noble, it just means the execution was clumsy and poor. So what went wrong this time around?

  1. Lack of Principled Student Leadership

Generally, the communication with constituencies was poor. Most students would find out that SRCs took a decision and were executing it without their input or consideration from social media. That lack of communication and backing from the student would prove fatal because in the absence of such buy-in, there is almost always going to be a failed protest. Protests succeed because of the numbers involved. Indeed, any protest involves the politics of numbers. In my opinion, the poll used by Wits management should have first been used and called for by the student leaders to gauge what their constituents want because they have a mandate to ensure that the needs of every student are met before purporting to act for them.

  1. Failure to take the fight to Government

For a protest to work, it must be taken to the authority one is protesting against so that there is pressure on them to respond to the demands. Unfortunately, the fight was largely on the campuses and government felt no pressure to act. This was a tactical mistake on the part of the students that needs to be remedied in future.

  1. Lack of uniform demands

Part of the problem with this wave of the protests is that there was no uniform voice on the demands. Some wanted government to immediately implement free education, some wanted government to immediately commit to it, others wanted free education for all, others wanted it for the poor and the missing middle and others took decolonised education to mean removing every trace of western ideologies. What was missing in this protest was a unified set of demands.

  1. No-compromise approach

To be fair both universities and student leaders approached the table with a no-compromise approach on some demands. Unfortunately, some of the non-negotiable demands were demands that fundamentally drove the parties away from each other thus creating a stalemate and a protracted protest

  1. Unruly elements in the movement

It would be unfair to brand the entire movement as violent and anarchistic because of a few third wheels that were hell bent on taking the opportunity to create anarchy. Thankfully most student leaders distanced themselves from violence but this was not a uniform call and more could have been done to weed out these arsonists and saboteurs who wanted to destroy infrastructure. I am inclined to believe that the majority of students protesting did so in good faith and intended to do so peacefully. These are the same students who gave the whole country a lesson on peaceful protest in 2015. They should be distinguished from the criminal elements that attempted to hijack the movement and taint it.

  1. The Isolationist Propaganda

A good protest is good because of the numbers backing it. In the absence of such numbers, the pressure is not felt. Some student leaders isolated those who disagreed with them on the course to take. Talk of sell-outs and privileged people thus dominated the movement and often those who disagreed with either the cause or the course were labelled as such. The lack of tolerance in a diversity of views is a worrying picture for the future of the country. What the movement did was that it became more exclusive rather that inclusive.

Who else is to blame?

I would not be doing justice if I concluded without also pointing out the problems with the other stakeholders. The universities are a starting point. Most university teams responded defensively and blocked out attempts to negotiate with students in good faith. In some cases, the action of some university management teams may well have provoked the students further.

One of the most contentious parts of the protest period is the securitisation of campuses. I must concede from the outset that, a legitimate security issue arose at universities when some students destroyed property and threatened staff or fellow students. As much as I hate to see intellectual hubs being heavily policed, there was a legitimate and real concern that necessitated the moves by university management and the State. The violence that ensued was largely due to two things: 1. Overhanded, unnecessary and trigger happy policing and 2. Unruly elements from the student movement that necessitated the use of force. Any narrative that attempts to portray one of the two to the exclusion of the other is misleading and not reflective of the truth.

I have been a vocal critic of policing in SA but even I have to concede that in most cases, they managed to restrain themselves in cases where some elements deliberately provoked them. There are of however some worrying incidents of indiscriminate, disproportional force that warrant investigation and the IPID will no doubt look at these. What remains clear though is that post Marikana, crowd control police units are still not where they should be in terms of training and resources. Rubber bullets were almost always used indiscriminately and in instances where less force would be required. It must also be noted that the police are not given proper riot gear. For this reason, many of them don’t have face visors, riot helmets, body armour (covering the neck, knees, chest etc.) and riot shields.

Part of the problem is that because police are not adequately protected, they respond violently to any possible threat to their well-being, as most humans would. If they have adequate protection, then perhaps throwing bottles and stones will not result in use of force and even if it does, such force will be proportional to the threat. There is room for more use of water cannons, pepper sprays and perhaps even electric tasers which other jurisdictions have started using in place of rubber bullets. Proper training as per the recommendations of the Farlam Commission must be given effect to in order to prevent injuries and possible loss of life in future protests. Police training must emphasise the need to avoid dispersing crowds unless the trigger grounds listed in the Gatherings Act are present (these include where there is an imminent life and death situation , public safety etc.) In the absence of those grounds, police must refrain from dispersing crowds as experience has shown that this only worsens the situation.

Lastly, when all is said and done, there remains one chief culprit that has seemingly been left out of all this – the government itself. I cannot stress enough how much of a national crisis we face in the higher education sector. The government should engage its young people and come to an agreement on this important aspect quickly. The reality is that the issues raised by the protestors are legitimate and the government should, as soon as possible, address these issues.

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