South Africa’s student movement could be catalyst for wider social change

A major wave of protests has brought to a halt several universities in South Africa – Witwatersrand University, University of Cape Town, Fort Hare, Rhodes and Stellenbosch have all been affected. The issue of student fee increases, and more generally the exorbitant cost of higher education for the average South African, have become the catalyst for these protests. Demands for racial justice and concerns about economic inequality are coming together in a powerful call for change that cannot be ignored or easily dismissed.

This movement emerges from sustained efforts in the last months to build a wider social movement to bring about transformation of university staff and students, and widening access to higher education to include most South Africans – especially the black majority who continue to be excluded and discriminated.

Wits Professor Achille Mbembe has been a source of wisdom and guidance in these months, and makes an important point about the need for protesters to focus not just on universities’ management, and to shift the attention towards the state, envisaged as the key locus of decision-making in these crucial areas.

One question however seems to be less debated, at least in the mainstream reporting on these protests: are we sure that it is just a matter of identifying the “right” institutional structures in order to address the crisis? Why would the state be any more effective than universities’ management in addressing the root causes of the protesters’ demands? Government elites’ collusion with big capital and white interests can hardly be disputed. After all, this was the basis of the negotiated transition to a post-apartheid order in the early 1990s.

There is a great potential in these protests, which might or might not be harnessed by those who are participating in this mass movement: the opportunity to bring together people from different sectors of society who feel the brunt of discrimination and disadvantage, and yet have been unable to break through a sophisticated governance system that privileges “divide and rule” tactics, and fosters fragmentation along racial, ethnic, class and religious lines.

This alliance would give university students the role of ‘spokespersons’, articulating demands for racial and economic justice which people across the country, from informal settlements and townships to disenfranchised rural areas, are making everyday in their own specific ways and contexts. These calls remain largely unheard in a national debate dominated by a strong bias towards university-educated citizens – that’s why university protests attract widespread media attention and can have an impact on policy-making.

A narrow path focusing on representation in current state structures is certainly desirable as a first step towards systemic change. But it is not enough to address the root problem: the vast majority of South Africans are excluded from meaningful participation in the national economy and society, through a mix of racial and class discrimination that is often covered up under the guises of apparently democratic and inclusive structures.

The student movement can contribute to the formation of the grassroots participatory structures that are needed to build a new dispensation from the ashes of the apartheid system and its neoliberal post-apartheid successor. The inability of the current state-capital deal to deliver for most people will be increasingly exposed, especially with the ongoing economic slow-down that is affecting the country.

It might be time to bring together debates that mainstream media have conveniently kept separate, i.e. land reform, public control of the mining sector, access to and transformation of higher education. Ideas about resource nationalism could be easily extended to the realm of higher education. A new agenda for an “intellectual” resource nationalism that brings universities under public control would be one way out of the current impasse.

Public control cannot however be reduced to top down intervention by state structures that are hijacked by the same private interests that hinder transformation and access at the level of universities’ management. Efforts at widening access to and transforming universities should work in parallel with a sustained transformation of state structures. This can only be carried out by a wider social movement that pursues the interests of the excluded majority, and is willing to stand up to the attempts by big capital and the upper-middle classes to keep things as they are.

Neoliberal policies and principles around black economic empowerment have clearly failed to deliver change and cannot be the blueprint for future higher education policies. It is time to rethink the relationship between state and capital, and to reclaim the space for a participatory democracy that puts public control and regulation of markets and services above private interests.

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