Fees Must Fall, edited by Susan Booysen: student revolt, decolonisation and governance in South Africa

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Fees must fall
Edited by Susan Booysen

Publisher: Wits University Press
EAN: 9781868149858

In 2009 I lectured briefly at Pretoria University, after a long career in foreign affairs journalism, and I found my interaction with students very invigorating. Already then a deep sense of disillusionment and disaffection was evident, preparing the ground for often raucous debate in packed halls.

These interactions are indelible in my memory, but after reading FeesMustFall, student revolt, decolonisation and governance in South Africa (edited by Susan Booysen) I am now equally vividly having flashbacks to my own dissatisfaction, and even further back, to my time as a dissident student in the 1970s.

The palisades, for one. These, right around the campus and broken only by formidable single-entry turnstiles, were radically different in 2009 from when I was a student. Trapped inside, I found myself delivered to the delectabilities of neoliberal cuisine, McDonald’s, KFC, Nando’s, you know the drill … expensive, unhealthy, too convenient and too tempting.

One particular memory from my student days, when I had to pay my own way because my right-wing father refused to fund me, insinuated itself: Standing at the old student canteen near the Aula, watching a smiling old woman dish up some generous dollops of sticky mashed potatoes, to go with my piece of boiled wors. There was curry and rice, pie and gravy, lots of fruit and other staple fare of home cuisine, and it was cheap enough to scratch planning for meals from my list.

The old woman was black, and like many others in such subservient positions, called Mama.

When I got expelled, and the expulsion was suspended on condition I moved on, I registered at Wits University. I found the experience immensely disorienting. A bit starry-eyed over its reputation as the epicentre of white youth rebellion, I found, instead, a far greater presence of security people, concomitant with a paranoia in the corridors, and also an unexpected conformism: everybody was wearing blue jeans and white T-shirts. And my heavy Afrikaans accent quickly revealed itself as a distinct disadvantage for joining in with student life.

I spent only a year there, doing an honours degree, and cannot say I suffered much, having got bursaries and running a street photographic business, but the excellent chapter in the book by David Everatt on the sociological background of the South African black youth now and in the past (“Standing on the shoulders of giants? Successive generations of youth sacrifice in South Africa”) reminded me what a change in one’s life going to university is and how culturally alienating it can be.

In 2009 I believed most students in my classes were eager for the experience, but the anxiety and sometimes bewilderment were all too clear on their faces (as were the inadequacies of their preparation), in the poor marks and sometimes unworldly answers given and arguments made in tests – with black students distinctly behind, although there were enough smart individuals from all races among the top scorers to prevent any racist conclusions to be arrived at.

The dire circumstances of black students and a surge in their numbers should be common cause by now – although the fact that many come from “black diamond” homes is underplayed – but what Everatt’s sober analysis shows is how the new generation has been short-changed in the inexorable growth of the black middle class since 1994. Whether it is intended or not, the phrase “youth sacrifice” in his title is highly ironic.

“Youth had been put firmly in their place,” writes Everatt about the Reconstruction and Development Programme: despite the Lost Generation of youth having sacrificed the most during the 1980s states of emergency and the 1990s black on black violence, youth issues were covered in a mere six paragraphs in a 147-page document, as a subsection of Arts and Culture.

Of what little further policy action there was, he writes: “When youth were addressed as a sector it was generally in the context of the potential threat they were seen to represent than the complexities and needs of the generation.” 

Another perspective is that while previous generations of youth could pile into the new black patronage system being installed to replace the old white one, by the 2008 financial crisis, the Black Economic Empowerment jobs were beginning to peter out, and a million such BEE appointees – read: appointees not necessarily occupying jobs on merit – found themselves on the streets, suddenly making the future a precarious thing for black youths.

In this toxic job-seeking environment, inequality between the top educated black youths and those numbers with not even matric is a chasm, and a degree a passport to heaven – according to Statistics SA in 2014, only 6% of South African graduates are unemployed. This figure is sure to deteriorate in the near future, as state jobs get cut back in a spluttering economy and the beneficiaries of the surge in university enrolments flood the jobs market.

Everatt’s chapter should be widely read by anybody interested in assessing the student uprising, but the black Mama from my student days came to be vivified in my memory as I picked up a fascinating strand throughout the book: the many references to parenting, childlike victimhood, motherhood …

One can hypothesise, drawing from Everatt’s ideas, that the BEE system has foregone creating a more creative, entrepreneurial ethos in favour of what is a welfare state within the state, and a very maternalistic one, in which the black child grows up with a triumphalist take on 1994 – the ANC was the sole liberator in an heroic struggle – and in the suburbs at least gets an easy ride through school with the various adjustments to test standards and adjustments to marks. Rather than a patronage system, one could call it a matronage system – merciless patriarchy is revealed only when the uninitiated black child steps into the harshly competitive world out there.

Throughout the book attempts are made to explain why the worker-outsourcing issue was so crucial, since for many observers it was a puzzle (for me too). None is very convincing; most are variations on genuflections towards a Marxist-like wish for substructural workings, such as Booysen’s bland statement that the uprisings “deepened campus-based worker consciousness”.

But such explanations are attempted by several writers because it is necessary to amplify the revolutionary credentials of the revolt. As Vishwas Satgar says in another lucid chapter, titled “Bringing class back in: against outsourcing during #FeesMustFall”: “Without worker intersections the Rhodes Must Fall movement (a precursor to FeesMustFall) is a black middle class nationalist movement, seeking decolonisation of the system for aspirant black middle class mobility rather than transformation of class, race and gender as part of reclaiming the university.”

Or as less kind writers might put it, hijacking white campus jobs in the same way as it was done in the national administration.

One gets a lot closer to a plausible explanation for the primacy of the OutsourcingMustFall component if one takes the language and rhetoric used during the uprising at face value, and not merely as a metaphor. When alienated, anxious, disoriented black students land at university, easy prey for agents of the neoliberal order in which everything is monetised, they need all the encouragement they can get. In “The roots of the revolution”, Gillian Godsell and Rekgotsofetse Chikane point out that such alienation is the case elsewhere in the world too, and other essays elaborate on the funding crisis the university as an institution faces across the world, but in South Africa there is a difference: here, “[a]s they perch precariously in this strange and unwelcoming environment it is easy for students to make common cause with precarious workers”.

The activist-speak “making common cause” may be something more basic, more human. With everything done in English, an encouraging word in the mother tongue, or one close to it, from a cleaner, electrician or fast food dispenser would mean the world, a cultural crutch to secretly lean on. The workers would be far closer to the people that the student has left at home. And so when activists call them their parents, perhaps it is because they are, indeed, proxy parents. The pain of the black child is not, then, a hysterical primal scream-like phrase demanding pathos, but the admission that the black student is still a child expecting the nurture from the maternalistic culture of the post-94 BEE world to continue – and suffering pain upon the realisation that they are on their own now, and have to act as adults, for which the education system has not equipped them very well.

Such a reading is rejected by various of the writers as biased and ignorant. Everatt writes about the generation gap, and Godsell and Chikane put it in terms of criticism of student performance: “Public and university opinion on student pass-rates, or throughput has portrayed students as being in deficit. First-generation students, in particular, have been seen as inadequate students bringing problems (poor basic education, inadequate language skills, lack of books in the home, absence of computer skills) with them onto the campus.” However, the “Fallist movement focuses attention on the problems, previously concealed, which are embedded in systems and structures on campus … and a narrative begins to take shape which is campus-as-a-problem, even society-as-a-problem, rather than simply student-as-a-problem.”

But much support for an oedipal reading can be found elsewhere in Godsell and Chikane’s article, in another by Godsell, this time with Refiloe Lepere, Swankie Mafoko and Ayabonga Nase, as well as in contributions by feminist Darlene Miller.

 A tweet by student Mpho Sithole is quoted: “These workers are our mothers, they suffered through apartheid and continue to suffer through democracy.” A Facebook post by Mmalmalema Molepo says, “We must help our mothers and fathers tell their stories too ... We must tell our stories, we must help them tell their stories.” When University of Johannesburg workers were released from Brixton Police Station detention after an outsourcing protest, the students sang “Mama don’t cry.” Satgar quotes a worker telling researcher Deliwe Mozbe, “Students realised the workers were there all the time with them … They said, We can’t allow this exploitation of our parents to go on.”

Motherhood is addressed directly in Miller’s contribution, “Excavating the vernacular: ‘Ugly feminists’, generational blues and matriarchical leadership”, the most enjoyable chapter as she excoriates older feminists who went “rogue” or became assimilated in society, in favour of a gender-bending one who likes to dress up and not just wear jeans and T-shirts. Somewhat of a tokenist article, since it doesn’t say much about the student uprising per se, it ends with a crèche-at-the-barricades call for activists to stop aborting their children and embrace motherhood.

Further support for the oedipal frame can be found in a Derridean-like approach to the biggest blind spot in the book: the issue of language, which would have prime agency in a process of identification between workers and alienated students on campus

The book was clearly somewhat of a rush job, with the cut-off point more or less June 2016, a time when things were relatively quiet. Although unavoidable, it remains a weakness, since the 2016 phase of FeesMustFall was hugely different. Much of the goodwill towards the students had dissipated by now, as farcical extremism, party-political interference, and the call for decolonisation, without much clarity on what it means, came to dominate events. A much ignored death at the hands of students occurred, and campus security was far more intense, with miraculously no student death as a direct result of police or security action. This time around, campus managements declared victory, and of possibly greater consequence than any gain in funding pledges or Twitter handles is the proliferation of off-campus tuition using technology.

The weakness is far from fatal for the book, however. As a compendium of early responses it remains very useful, and can even be said to be essential reading, as the circumstances that had produced the uprising will remain the same for some time. But this just makes the omission of the language issue, when it was such a dominant matter for at least a period on campuses during the Open Stellenbosch campaign, and social media (the “Luister” anti-Afrikaans activist video has been viewed 400 000 times on YouTube), all the more glaring. It is included as a timeline item at the back of the book, but the only other mentions are a throwaway one in editor Booysen’s summary at the back to it as a kind of “local colour” aspect of the movement and in a table under the heading “Cultural cleansing”.

When are our humanities sectors going to wake up to the importance of language? No matter which side you are on in the Afrikaans language debate, the mere existence of the Open Stellenbosch chapter of the uprising surely is evidence enough that language is a huge difficulty, even the primary difficulty, that alienated students have to negotiate. Part of the alienation – and for this I rely partly on my short experience as a lecturer – is an overestimation among students, black and white, of their command of English. Such a cultural strut, one could hypothesise, is due to English being a “with-it” status symbol, a signifier of “cool”, which “cool” often relies on a reductionist display of linguistic skill to stay “cool”. Clearly this warrants some research.

Part of the book’s omission is the failure to include the 2015 Franschhoek Literary Festival rumpus as being among the movements such as RhodesMustFall and OutsourcingMustFall that prepared the ground for FeesMustFall. This was when young black writers revolted against their readers, because they turned out to be “mostly white old ladies” and when many of the themes, rhetoric and activist moves that would later bloom with such fecundity during FeesMustFall began to gain currency, or at least coverage, in the media. But I suspect the young black writers were written off in many an Anglocentric activist mind when they summed up their “revolutionary” demands in a call to publish more books in indigenous languages.

Yet the demand for indigenous language tuition is everywhere, albeit still on the fringes, but to invoke Derrida again along with Deleuze, the fringes are the future. Some useful chapters are devoted to student actions elsewhere in the world, especially the Arab Spring, driven largely by youths (indeed, the man who started it by immolating himself, Mohamed Bouazizi, was only 26 years old, and had a university degree – his face could easily go up on a FeesMustFall poster). One outcome of the Spring, writes William Gumede, has been to elevate Tamazight as the second official language in Algeria. In South Africa cutting back an indigenous language is seen as a victory.

But to return to the oedipal framework for this review. If the BEE welfare state within the state is the mother, the ANC as the originator of the patronage system has to be the father. Several writers confirm the close relationship between the initially dominant factions in the student leadership gathered in the Progressive Youth Alliance and the ruling party. Student leader Nompendulo Mkhwatsha was unapologetic about wearing an ANC kopdoek: “[W]e gain strength from it.” Several activists were exposed as party workers. Later, after the cut-off date for the book, it emerged that Hitler fan Mcebo Dlamini had a close relationship with State Security minister David Mhlobo. As Susan Booysen observes dryly in the introductory chapter, “Two weeks in October”: “The ANC was never far from the action.”

This relationship has been puzzling to me and to others, such as Achille Mbembe – in not many places would one find the youth wing demonstrating over an issue in which their party in government is one of the main agents. There could be a straightforward explanation: autonomous universities are the last part-state-subsidised redoubts relatively free from direct government control. If this were true, then the whole movement could be seen as rather reactionary, and not revolutionary at all. It would definitely not explain why the greatest violence (in the 2015–16 season) during the march on the Union Buildings, where Jacob Zuma made his hugely destructive 0% fee rise statement, appeared to have been carried out by ANC youth structures.

The beginnings of an answer can be found in another seminal article, by Patrick Fitzgerald and Oliver Seale, “Between a rock and a hard place: University management and the #FeesMustFall campaign”, which gives the Wits management’s side of the story. Apart from pointing out that outsourcing had solved numerous problems at universities, such as theft by staff, poor maintenance, inefficient management and deterioration of facilities, their droll account of the institutional memory in handling student anger through the years elucidates the key role played by ANC links with the university.

It puts a damper on editor Booysen’s occasional triumphalist tone, perhaps guilty of some confirmation bias, in praising the students for achieving what others could not manage in all those years: a cap on fee increases. This is slightly disingenuous, since the fees issue had been on the agenda of successive student leaderships since at least the early 2000s – the truth is rather that it took them quite some time to turn it into a national crisis.

In all those years, most student leaders had to succumb to reason, involving some climb-down from militant intentions. Or as one student leader says, quoted by philosopher Thadeus Metz in his plea for pacifism on campus, “The South African student/worker protests in the light of just war theory”: “History has taught us that the oppressor is not going to willingly give us our freedom and will eventually call us into a negotiation table and you will be outfoxed and still remain subservient.”

Fitzgerald and Seale explain how such outfoxing had gone before FeesMustFall (I am giving my own summary of their account). As a new SRC comes to power, with a budget and with the eagerness to change the world that we all had in our youth, they meet with management to put their demands and threats. At Wits at least, the leaders were almost always linked with the ANC through the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA), and so negotiations took place “in the virtual presence of the ruling party and relevant government structures”. Although “uncomfortable” – read: amounting to use of the students as instrument of government interference – it provided a safety net for negotiating how much disruption and violence (my words) the students would be allowed. Much would depend on the individuals involved and so outcomes would differ from year to year.

Then, in a sort of sleight of hand, financial documents that have already been available to the students would be shoved under their noses. “Student leaders were often astounded to ‘discover’ that the government subsidy is less than one-third of the overall budget … The start is now under way as the complex political economy of a higher education institution gradually emerges.”

Several meetings would follow, some lasting eight hours or longer. Fitzgerald and Seale disarmingly admit that the dozen or so students would almost always be first-timers, confronting a management team that is misleadingly small, as its members “have done this negotiation many times, and are alert to most student arguments and concerns”. After a long, patient process, in which the students are challenged to show what in the budget they would cut to pay for reduced fees, the “leadership often comes to appreciate how little room for manoeuvre there actually is in university budget …”

So what went wrong? To their credit, Fitzgerald and Seale admit that in the time just before the 2015–16 season of revolt, “by some accounts a more autocratic approach was taken, and busy executives did not see fit to block days (and nights) out in their diary for iterative and patient conversations with student leadership”. Elsewhere a key student leader writes of her outrage at the off-hand treatment of worker leaders she observed during the OutsourcingMustFall standoff.

“Most significantly, however,” Fitzgerald and Seale continue, “by 2015 the ‘golden triangle’ of political communication (and communion) involving the outside parties had thoroughly broken down in more than one modality.” This was after the 2014 election, which Jacob Zuma survived through ruthlessly implementing his now infamous slate-based patronage system formed by his election as party president in 2013, putting drastically less qualified people in positions of power.

Fitzgerald and Seale talk of a “perfect storm”, referring in somewhat euphemistic terms to the rising influence of the EFF. Everatt sums it up: “As argued in several chapters in the book, the substantive danger remains party politics, and the ways in which it permeates and plays out its own fights using the student movement and campus-based struggles as a proxy.”

But there is a certain reluctance to name the EFF as the top culprit after it had wrested the initiative from the PYA – as has been revealed in the 2016–17 season of revolt – perhaps in deference to standards of objectivity demanded by science. As one exasperated Wits lecturer told me: “The **** Dali Mpofu (president of the EFF) is on campus day and night.”

In the universities the EFF has identified a soft underbelly of the state, even though it is only fractionally involved through its declining subsidies, since the government department concerned is headed by an inept minister suffused in moribund Marxist ideology which seems to dictate paralysis as praxis. But an oedipal framework uncovers more aspects of EFF motivation.

Fatherless Julius Malema’s revolt against the ANC and his subsequent expulsion is as oedipal as it can get. It should be recalled that his rise to prominence started at the University of the Free State, in the same residence where a group of racist right-wing students had made a humiliating video of campus workers. Malema’s hijacking of the ANC Youth League’s electoral process was infamously carried on intimidation and humiliation of opponents by mooning them – an action that has always begged for psychoanalytical interpretation, in which buttocks are often seen as proxies for breasts. (It may be an interesting exercise in experimental history to try to posit this event as the spark for the student uprising as a whole.)

The EFF does not have any economic programme to speak of; its name is derived from a distortion of ANC slogans. Its hodge-podge of farcical demands can only give rise to cognitive dissonance – a term Fitzgerald and Seale also invoke to explain the state of mind the student leaders find themselves in after going through the negotiations mill. This can be resolved only by bowing out (which happens naturally when student leaders finish their studies) or through irrational, sometimes violent behaviour. This we have seen plenty of in the new season.

As soon as the thinking behind the revolt becomes more rational, it tends to come “full circle”, as Booysen puts it. “The radical rhetoric and insistence on far-reaching change to rid South Africa of the structural legacies of colonialism and apartheid came to dominate the 2016 political agenda. This was well aligned to the style of propaganda and campaigning that the ANC has been assuming in recent times.

“Frustrated ideals and unfulfilled policy promises have been blamed increasingly … on the deep-seated and wicked persistence of colonial and apartheid (inclusive of racist and white capital) disorders. The student movement, in large part, was now breathing this exact rebellion. In its 2016 phase, the big latent question for the student movement became whether it would be captured, contained and be a de facto part of the ANC’s project for political hegemony, or whether it would in time and in numbers again assume an insurrectionary if not ‘revolutionary’ phase.”

The answer, many would say, has been given in the latest season of the revolt. Rationality would mean succumbing to the ANC father in the oedipal triangle, and so the disruptive actions continued, to the point where a police presence became inevitable. Lecturers at Pretoria University have told me informally that the public is not nearly aware of all the attempts at arson or damage thwarted by campus security or the police. The book is rather short on the University of Cape Town, which is a pity, because there the authorities stand accused of abetting the irrationality – “we need to learn how to engage with the chaos”, as one person in the convocation put it.

Keeping the flames going is one option for a party (the EFF) that cannot afford rationality. But there is hope, if one stays with the oedipal framework. The other great event since the 2015–16 season of revolt has been the municipal elections, which for the first time has seen coalition government introduced. Is it possible that the EFF will find a proxy father in the Democratic Alliance? Stranger things have happened in our politics, and learning how to work with budgets just as the students did during the negotiations described by Fitzgerald and Seale might just bring a change of tack towards the fees question as well.

Satgar would not agree that the EFF’s influence is so crucial. “No single political organisation, social group or leader can claim the historical expression and impact of #FeesMustFall. In practice and in its logic it was an expression of multiple determinations and a ripening of several contradictions at once,” he writes.

It is true that the revolt has released multiple energies across the country. There is much that is promising as a new year kicks off for greater rationality entering the process. Decolonisation as the new driver may look like a dead end in a global village that is as thoroughly colonised as ours, and when students themselves look like being colonised by Anglo-American postcolonial theory. But the fact is that we have been decolonising for decades now, perhaps even centuries, and the perceived victims of decolonisation, Afrikaners for instance, have a great deal to offer if they join the debate rather than reject it – after all, the homelands system can be seen as a spectacularly failed experiment in decolonisation, but one from which one can learn certain things.

But there is also the “Cambodian factor”, to distort a remark by Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib somewhat, and in the book there are scattered warnings against what are seen as extremist utterances by some students. Khmer Rouge Year Zero and New Man sentiments are all too evident in a quote used by Metz: “Violence will bring an end to the world as we know it and cleanse all the evil, give rise to a completely new world where the only race that matters is the human race,” one student told a reporter.

A key concern is how representative such thinking is. Oedipal conflict and cognitive dissonance can also be resolved through racism, and it is in this area that some more glaring omissions are evident in the book. Several students I have talked to have dropped out of the revolt, while still keeping their sympathies with the goals, because of the anti-white racism they have encountered. There have been tidal waves of racist tweets and posts on social media. Yet these are not referred to in a list of topics in Godsell, Lepere, Mafoko and Nase’s “Documenting the revolution”.

In such a context, Booysen’s use of the heading “Cultural cleansing” in the table of impacts in her introductory contribution is startling on a second reading. Not to question her bona fides at all, but it may send a chill down the spine of some readers.

  • Photo: Naomi Bruwer
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  • A very insightful review. In-depth dealing with language issues would have enhanced this publication tremendously.
    Seasoned lecturers are familiar with the cyclical nature of tertiary life - guiding the students from first encounter to successful outcome as they move through the various levels. And then starting all over again.
    Administrative staff do not always acknowledge this rhythm, the rapid progress from greenhorn to familiar to in charge that students generations traverse. The repeated attempts to 'change the system' seem to take them by surprise repeatedly. Inclusive management of student experience as an ongoing endeavour could go a long way
    towards lessening the confrontational character of making suggestions and demands.
    Enough has been said (and very little done) about the unreadiness of first-time students. Apart from numerous academic facets, they are often also unable to fathom the drastically changed atmosphere surrounding them in a tertiary place. Gone is the warm and fuzzy certainty of the coaching-style teaching at school; replaced by uncertainty and the never-good-enough manner of academic motivation. The apparent contradiction of a system that flourishes on the still unknown and the not yet understood while maintaining strict academic rigour often is experienced as alienating, over-critical and unwelcoming. It is very easy to, in the South African context, start tagging such a system with colonial labels.

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