25 years of working class education
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Marikana Workers

FeesMustFall and the road ahead

Vice chancellors, students from the South African Union of students (SAUS – the council representing all the Student Representative Councils) and various other political organisations and a number of “experts” and “researchers” opened the Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training (the Fees Commission) almost a year after the protests that brought it into being had come into fruition.

The self-evident lack of urgency of the state is perhaps only matched by the attitude and posture of vice chancellors, particularly from elite campuses, who appear more concerned with telling us what they think is not possible and unstrategic than actually finding ways to walk alongside students whose interests they claim to be working on behalf of.

 

The mainstream media has also visibly played a role in the past week, stoking students and organisations egging on a response on the unconvincing political theatre unfolding at what can surely only be described as a farcical commission, wasting yet more money that we are consistently told is not available for other things.

In these clouded, noisy times it becomes important for all those involved, and all those wanting to participate, to ask themselves basic important questions in light of what transpired during the 2015/16 period. Do I support free education for all, free education for the poor or a hybrid model? Do I have faith in the commissions established to take seriously my desired outcome? If I reject the commissions, who then do I consider as my allies in pushing for different responses from the authorities? Who are the targets of the intended action and who can I rely on when there are consequences for said action?

For free education and decolonisation

In reflecting on some of these questions I find myself revisiting two key concepts that have and will inform my participation in this particular struggle, namely why free education and why decolonisation? In simple terms, I believe that it is wrong to commodify education and that the public must defend educational institutions as a public good orientated primarily towards the benefit of broader society and enacting in the trajectory of equality and justice. Decolonisation to me represents a historically determined process whose struggle gives content to the basic desires for self-determination and collective self-reliance from the position of colonised or previously colonised people who experience social, political and economic domination from an exploitative layered system.

Building solidarity

Pushed forward from that grounding and given that we are working from the position of relative demobilisation from the early FeesMustFall period I would argue that there is an urgent need to focus energies on building and deepening local solidarities and coalitions between interest groups and resisting the need to quickly re-establish “national” structures that are likely to collapse under the weight of a state that has been preparing for an upsurge.

Another lesson from last year that cannot be overemphasised was the key role the student-worker alliance played in the mass based movement and in line with this I think it would be wise to caution other students from aligning with groups who seek to separate the fees struggle from the workers’ struggle. Insourcing was won as a partial victory at many of the campuses but I am aware of none where there are no integration issues that in some serious instances have resulted in retrenchment and loss of livelihood. As students begin to resist the coming increase it is imperative that this energy be harnessed to bolster the workers’ movement and stand in solidarity with the most exploited people on the respective campuses.

In the wake of the national elections we have an opportunity to demand of our fellow students and workers that political party badges and T-shirts be put aside for the movement as a broad-based coalition be considered, however, acknowledging that there is no strength in “unity” for the sake of “unity” but based on mutual strategic benefit.

Bureaucratic channels offer nothing  

There is little evidence to suggest that bureaucratic channels that presently exist offer more to this movement than a buffer class between the anger on the ground and the manager-vice chancellors and the state. If these groups are willing to withdraw from the processes and structures they legitimise perhaps a broad-church approach can become possible again. I for one am not willing to march for a 0% increase until the farcical fees commission tells us what we already know (no free education); if we are to take to the streets let it be for the principles that form the basis of the free decolonised education demand and let the outcome (including the model of implementation etc) be determined by the content of the struggle we wage and not the one we talk about waging. 

Connecting to high school struggle 

Reconnecting with the high schools, either through the NGOs like Equal Education or through independently organised student movements at that level will be crucial as has been stated by many others up to this point. The courage of the Philippi High learners at the gates of Parliament along with the powerful activist work done by the likes of EE on norms and standards, whatever your feelings about the orientation, are a testament to the capacity of the high school movements to organise and participate in the education struggle en masse – however, the existing fees movement will need to undergo considerable political maturing to handle the responsibility of more vulnerable learners. 

Not just a students’ fight

It is not simply enough for like-minded groups to be together. I am reminded by an interview conducted with NUMSA shop steward Nazeema Samuels in a “Pathways to Free education” advocacy pamphlet compiled by several students and myself were she made the following remarks:

“Students must realise that their fight is not just their fight. When we had meetings with students in terms of the RMF, FMF, and Left student movements, they were quite clear that it’s their revolution. We said: “That’s fine, it’s your revolution.

“My view was that you need assistance but you also don’t want assistance. I know they were clear. From the time of Numsa and the United Front they were quite clear. But they saw it as a political organisation. Whether it’s a lack of, I don’t know how to say it… a shortfall of connection… they are very militant and clear. But you cannot discard those that have been there already, those who have the know-how. We aren’t saying we know everything, but when it comes to guidance or how to guide them they didn’t want it. We understand that they want to follow their own thing, do their own thing.”

Her words remain important, I think, as we consider a path forward, keeping in mind that while connecting community struggles of bread prices, wage struggles, fight against unemployment and poverty that the student movement cannot and should not become the vanguard for all the ailments of society. In practical terms a robust coalition in my mind would involve almost three generations of distributed leadership anchored in, for better or worse, organisations that are strong and reliable enough to last beyond the fleeting moment of fee increases – that is to say if the free education is to massify, the students will need to prepare to loosen the grip of the moment and resist the “youth politics” descriptors’ ability to separate struggles.

Pushing forward struggles

If I am to be frank and open, I think the role of students in this fight against capitalism is catalytic. Ours is to bridge the gaps between community and ivory tower, with our bare hands if necessary, and help others connect the struggles of progressives to the extent that we can incite a moment that can cause a domino effect for working-class movements to capitalise and ultimately steer. The extent to which this will be realised by this year’s movement is uncertain to put it politely but I am confident that so long as they continue to commodify education the opportunity to make these connections and push forward will always exist, but what is clear is that the solution will not come from short cuts, quick fixes nor commissions

 

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