Decolonisation Class in Session @ Solomon Mahlangu House

By Ayabonga Cawe (@aycawe)

Ayabonga Cawe reflects on the nationwide student protests and argues that students, “using their campuses as a laboratory, the educated, informed and energetic students of #FeesMustFall and #NationalShutDown are redefining what is possible, and are on the way naming their envisaged world into life.”


Sizofunda. Ngenkani.

Those two words capture the mood of the students who have held the imagination and anxiety of the nation in their hands for the past week. To learn they wish, and if this is not granted or is blocked by commodification of a public good through fees, inkani (persistence) will define their quest. Another interpretation of this, read by many of us, outside of campuses is that we will learn, whether we like it or not.

It is clear that the actions of the brave students of this country have taught more than just vice chancellors and the government, a few lessons in humility but society as a whole. The promise for free education up and until now, has been a comfortable one-liner in a list of promises that find themselves on the back of ANC campaign t-shirts come election time. Until the smell of burning plastic toilets reminded the powers that be of the stench of their unmet promises.

With their numbers, braving abuse from police, the media and conservative elements in our society, they have won many to their cause. However, before we celebrate and place the #FeesMustFall and #NationalShutDown in the messy annals of our resistance history, we need to take a step back and ask, what really happened over the last few weeks? The media, in itemized detail, in text and in raw footage has shown you what has happened.  A picture of two UCT students holding hands, separated by the ‘antique’ presence of a police Nyala, showed us that the spectre of state violence is one genuine grievance away. Circa 1976? Nope, 2015 South Africa.

The debate on the decolonisation (often uncontroversially termed ‘transformation’) of our society has shifted away from summits in air-conditioned hotels with full conference packages to a discussion deeply grounded in questions of power. To be specific, the question of what the democratic government has done with political power to invest in its youth and deliver on its mandate to provide free education. It is interesting that those who are hungry for and demand education, have taught this society more about itself than any other analyst or tome of social theory could.

Julie Nxadi from Ellen Kuzwayo University (currently known as Rhodes University) summed up, what contradictions this protest brought into clear light for the world to see;

“..Its not even just about universities, it’s about this damn country that we keep saying is one thing, but it isn’t. It’s something else, right? We trying to have a more robust conversation about what it is, and how we can get it to what we said we wanted it to be, and one of those ways is ‘free education’.”

The students last week, with political savvy and a vulnerable unity across political party lines placed the issue of free education on the agenda. In so doing, it unveiled the double-faced imagery of the new South Africa. Alive with possibility? Nah fam, only if you can pay for that ‘possibility’. The students taught us significant things about our state, our society, media and the binding social linkages that reproduce oppression in a liberal democracy. Behind the mask of respectability, process, protocol and procedure, we saw, there lies a state willing to defend itself through performance of rhetoric, negotiation, containment and force.

The students’ action also showed us that the general secretary of the oldest communist party on the continent, can be the biggest stumbling block to the realisation of free education in Azania. The leftist rhetoric espoused at election time is often far removed from the centre-right and neoliberal technical explanations given by our leaders when they need to implement their own resolutions and promises.

During the Wits students mass assembly with Council I asked one of the leaders what would happen if the universities didn’t concede to their demands: “we will sharpen the contradictions my brother, and sharpen these they did, not only within the campus, but beyond it. They taught us that our society has within it people whose investment and returns in the colony, are fed by the constant exclusion of black bodies.

We were not surprised to see large segments of the white community and their counterparts in the black middle class, who centred their personal concerns about property and respectability, on hand to provide unsolicited tactical advise to the movement. These compatriots who were on hand to offer us some market economics advice on ‘user must pay’ principles, were the same who spoke about a declining tax base and scarce skills.

We also saw vice-chancellors who hid behind interdicts of hash-tags, movements and individuals, who shout autonomy but are the first to summon the violence of the state. Seemingly they are also the first to see that the same interdicted hashtags can serve as convenient PR tools. And so we witnessed the musical chairs of blame, played out between the vice chancellors, the Department and the private sector. Then the music stopped and the SAPS showed us the messy nexus of power.

“We are our parents’ children” one protestor at Wits told me. She meant so much in those five words. More importantly for me, her words subversively implied the possibility of an intergenerational unity between students, workers and the unemployed mass. All those left out of the post 1994 gravy train. The students are afterall, the children of domestic workers, petrol attendants, indebted civil servants and the unemployed.

It was Khanyisa Nomoyi from Ellen Kuzwayo University, whose insight tore beyond the non-racial university advertorials we often see, who reaffirmed this;

“We can’t separate high fees  from vac accommodation, from staff being mistreated, to a lack of black academics, from naming a university after a murderer; all of these things are linked, its the colony and that’s what’s happening right now; all these things are linked because people are saying they reject the colony.”

More importantly, this movement has taught us that nation-wide unity of purpose and action, elicits a response from the state. The nature of that response, and how the student movement has received that response has been a contentious issue. Is 0% a victory? The students, informed by the linkages their struggle has with worker and community struggles understand that timely immediate gains are not the same as victories. The CODESA experience should also teach us this.

The fees may not go up, but they will remain as tangible barriers to access. Such a situation is not free education, but an important crossroads in the fight to achieve free education in a decolonised society. It is the point from which those with a narrow conception of the effort, will suggest that 0% is a victory, while fees and the outsourcing of workers in universities continue.

Achille Mbembe is correct that at this stage, the defiance of students is associated with a commitment to direct action, and has the ability to unravel more radical grievances. A colleague of mine unexpectedly said this week: “If Zuma gives them the 0%, the next stop is the land issue”. If a nation-wide and at all times potentially explosive uprising like this can unlock some attention on the question of free education, the queue is long with other grievances.

The issues are numerous, the discussion is open. It may start with free education, coalesce into an analysis of who benefits from the exorbitant fees. This inquiry might uncover an unholy alliance of benefit between university administrations, private and public student loan agencies and banks. The students will have asked, who benefits from the interest on the loans that cover the shortfalls that NSFAS and our bursaries can’t cover? And so will the struggle continue.

It is said that the sweet spot in public policy is the intersection of what is desirable and possible. Using their campuses as a laboratory, the educated, informed and energetic students of #FeesMustFall and #NationalShutDown are redefining what is possible, and on the way naming their envisaged world into life.

Senate House will be Solomon Mahlangu House, the Admin Building at Stellenbosch will be Winnie Mandela House. Nothing is beyond question, the respectability politics of committees and long-winded statements about ‘applying our minds’ to the issues don’t cut it.

Class is in session.

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