South Africa: Dramatic student protests - a harbinger of revolutionary developments

This week has seen a dramatic escalation in the student protests which have flared up on a national scale over the past four weeks. The protest movement is sweeping across the country and shows no signs of abating. Protests of the scale and scope of these have not been seen since the student uprisings of the mid-1980s.

At University of KwaZulu-Natal Howard College campus in Durban, there are ongoing running battles between protesters and police. The university has responded by suspending the academic programme due to the “volatile” situation. At UKZN’s Westville campus, classes were also suspended after clashes between protesters and security guards on Monday, October 10. Police returned to the campus to support the security guards and followed the students to the  residences of the college, where the clashes intensified. Police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades. Demonstrators responded by throwing tables, chairs, and other objects.

Similar scenes have played out at Wits University in Johannesburg, CPUT in Cape Town, the North West University in Mafikeng. There are also ongoing clashes at UWC in Cape Town, NMMU in Port Elizabeth, DUT in Durban, UFS in Bloemfontein, the University of Johannesburg and Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape. The University of Cape Town has been closed since the start of the week. In a dramatic turn of events, students from Tshwane University of Technology brought the capital city to a standstill on Wednesday, October 12. Police fired rubber bullets at the protesters who have found an ingenious way of shielding themselves from incoming bullets with ironing boards!

In some of the campuses the prevailing mood can only be described as insurrectionary. At universities such as the University of Witwatersrand, Cape Peninsula University of Technology and the University of Kwazulu-Natal the scenes are reminiscent of the insurrectionary situations of 1976 and 1985. The state has responded by deploying police on a scale not seen at universities since the days of the hated apartheid regime.

Running battles between students and police, a common occurrence in the townships for years, have now spilled over into leafy suburbs, such as Braamfontein in Johannesburg.The sight of riot police, protesters, barricades, and the sounds of rubber bullets and tear gas being fired in the more affluent areas have shaken the middle classes. Suddenly, scenes at “black” universities like TUT and CPUT which they had seen on television for years, are now taking place live in their very doorsteps.  In horror, words such as “anarchy” and “thuggery” are expressed together with references to so-called “violent revolution”and even “Arab Spring”. The ruling class, through its control of the media, has gone into overdrive in its attempt to demonise the legitimate struggle of the students. Suddenly “violence” is bemoaned only because the students, who are defending themselves, are seen as a threat to the absolute monopoly of violence of the bourgeois state.

The acting national police commissioner, Khomotso Phahlane has ruled out declaring a state of emergency “for now”.  But it is clear that some sections of the state are considering the possibility. At a media briefing in Pretoria, the commissioner gave an insight into the thought process behind it: “As and when the need arises, there are processes to be activated, but we believe we are too far from a state of emergency. This is an issue we are grappling with in confined spaces - the institutions of learning.”

FMF Wits - lose#Feesmustfall Wits - Photo: Thobekani LoseThe very fact that they are even mentioning it speaks volumes. The implication is that it is a question of timing and circumstance which will be “considered” once the protests go beyond the “confined spaces” of universities. Ironically as he was saying this, the turmoil at Wits overflowed into the streets of Johannesburg.

Panic demands are made on the government to “do something!” The government responded to this chorus by the deploying police on campuses on a scale last seen in the days of the regime of P.W. Botha. But this huge show of force by the government is in fact the greatest display of its weakness. The fact that the ANC government, which not so long ago commanded the overwhelming support from the masses, should respond to the legitimate demands of working class students through brute force is only confirmation of the collapse of its moral and political authority.

Crisis of the ruling class

This is the problem the ruling class as a whole is facing: the precipitous decline of the ANC over the recent period. Furthermore, the ruling class does not have a second party with the necessary authority to redirect the anger and frustrations which have been pouring out onto the streets into ‘safe’ channels. This is a crisis of monumental proportions for the bourgeoisie. The only solution for them from this perspective is the kind of heavy handedness we are currently witnessing. But, in a downward spiral, this is only further eroding the authority of the government.

This crisis facing the ruling class has been brewing since the so-called “transition” of 1994.  For the last two decades the ruling class has tried to overcome the crisis by governing society indirectly through the ANC. In an attempt to chain the ANC leaders to themselves, the white capitalist class conceded direct state control to the upstart black elite. An elaborate system of illegal and legal corruption was put in place. Over time this introduced contradictions in the ruling class itself because it spawned a Frankenstein’s monster in the form of upstart capitalists which make their profits through plundering the state machinery. The contradictions within the ruling class have grown into an open life and death struggle. This has resulted in deep factional battles within the ANC and in the heart of government itself. In the words of Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa, the government is “at war with itself.”

Jacob Zuma - World Economic Forum  Matthew Jordaan CC BY-SA 2.0Jacob Zuma - Photo: World Economic Forum /Matthew Jordaan The role of the ANC leaders from the perspective of the bourgeois class was to hold back the masses and to implement capitalist policies which an openly bourgeois government could never have done given the balance of class forces. But the very success of the ANC in implementing these capitalist policies, together with the looting of state resources has eroded the very legitimacy and authority of the ANC leaders. That is why the “old/traditional” big bourgeois are opposed to the Zuma clique. They are not opposed to corruption and nepotism - which are a natural part of the way capitalism works - but to the blatant and crude way the Zuma clique is carrying this out, which in turn is destabilising the system as a whole.

Ironically, as the students protests intensified this week, the “war in government” has also intensified. After months of infighting, the National Prosecuting Authority, one of the state institutions which is being used by the Zuma faction in this thieves’ kitchen battle, has brought a charge of fraud against the finance minister. The same NPA is fighting tooth and nail to prevent bringing 783 charges including corruption, fraud, racketeering and money laundering against president Zuma which have hung over his head for the past seven years. This is only intensifying the factional battles raging in the ANC. These shenanigans of the ruling elites confirm that these actors neither have the necessary internal cohesion nor the legitimacy to solve the higher education crisis which is part of the broader crisis of the capitalist system. What we are witnessing is a crisis of the regime.

Dead end of capitalism

The students, reflect a deep seated sense that the government has nothing to offer other than broken promises. In the last analysis, the students are conveying a deep unhappiness and resentment with the post-1994 dispensation. The ANC came into power on the back of a mass movement in 1994 with promises of housing, better jobs, healthcare, land reform and education. But now two decades later the new “born free” generation is having to fight the same battles of past generations.

Since 2008 tuition fees have climbed by as much as 80 percent. This was as a direct result of the cuts in government funding of higher education. The government has introduced cuts in an attempt to cap the budget deficit, currently standing at 4 percent of GDP. With growth stalling at under 1 percent and the economy hit by the crisis of overproduction on a global scale, the government has introduced a programme of serious cuts and attacks against living standards. This shows the complete dead-end of capitalism in South Africa which is incapable of solving the most basic needs and problems of the masses.

The crisis of higher education is only the tip of the iceberg. In fact the struggle has already gone beyond the question of fees and education itself. The mood of the youth reflects a widespread rage and frustration against the ruling class itself.

While the latest splits and crises in the trade union movement might have had a temporary depressing effect on the trade union struggles, the working class is very strong and confident coming out of a period in which it gained many important victories. But the protests of the students can give us valuable insights into the mood of the working class masses themselves. As always, the youth, are a barometer of the way the wind of class struggle is blowing and anticipate larger developments in the next period.

The lack of direct participation from the working class in this struggle is reflected in the character of the movement. The greater numbers, discipline and organisational capabilities together with the role of the working class in the production process could given the protests an entirely different character. Although the shutdowns of universities look very dramatic and are certainly causing serious headaches to the government and university managements, they do not shut down or affect the economy like a workers’ strike would do.

Students across the country have instinctively come to this realisation as is shown by the support given to workers throught the fight against outsourcing. The students of Wits have also marched to COSATU House on 23 September to ask for solidarity from the labour federation. This has shown a correct instinct to connect with workers. However the right-wing COSATU leadership is not up to the challenge. They did not put forward any programme which could link up the struggles of workers and students. The only commitment they made to the students was to march with the students on 14 October. Had the students accepted this and postponed their protests for three weeks, it could have killed the movement. Luckily, the pressure from the ranks of the movement was sufficiently strong to overcome this blatant manoeuvre from the COSATU office bearers. Thus the crucial step of connecting the workers and the workers’ movement is being blocked by the workers’ leaders.

Here NUMSA and the unions which were expelled from COSATU bear a big responsibility. The NUMSA leadership has correctly sided with the students, demanded the abolition of tuition fees and condemned violence against the students. In a statement it clearly identified the broader implication of the students’ struggle: “The union reiterates its full support for the students’ struggle for free education and urges them to unite with primary and high school learners, and young workers, employed and unemployed, to fight the common enemy – the neoliberal economic policies championed by the ANC government on behalf of white monopoly capitalism, which have perpetuated and worsened the levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality.” This is absolutely correct. When the students demand free education, the obvious question is: who is going to pay for it? And the only answer is: the expropriation of mines, banks and monopolies is the only way to guarantee free education, jobs for all, decent houses, etc.

NUMSA should go one step further and call for a national day of action in support of the struggle of the students, with mass meetings in the workplaces, work stoppages and joint mass disciplined demonstrations.

The students are determined and repression, at this stage, is only making them more angry and determined. As the Fees Must Fall Western Cape FB page declared: “As we run for our lives from private security and police rubber bullets, lest we forget Blade Nzimande’s words when he said ‘Students Must Fall’. Indeed students are falling. But like the soldiers that we are, we will rise again, and march towards victory, for it is the only logical conclusion.” The government is weak and against the ropes, faced with massive protests and riddled with corruption scandals. But it will take sustained mass action and worker-student unity to make it retreat.

Whatever the immediate outcome of this struggle, the crisis of capitalism is opening up a period of fierce class struggle and revolution in South Africa. The ruling class is in a deep crisis and is unable to rule as it used to; the middle classes are in turmoil and are gradually being drawn into mass struggles and the poor and working masses are being radicalised. The student movement is an anticipation of revolutionary mass struggles on a far bigger scale in the next period.

What is needed is to prepare for this by building a real revolutionary leadership to connect all the struggles and focus them. An independent revolutionary leadership of the working class, committed to fighting for the overthrow of the system of capitalism which is the root cause of the problems of the masses.

But such a leadership is not simply proclaimed nor does it fall from the sky. It is the task of the revolutionary youth and workers to patiently build such a force, basing themselves on the fundamental ideas of Marxism. Once the core of such a force has been established it can grow rapidly in the conditions of crisis and class struggle in South Africa today. Capitalism has nothing to offer the South African masses, the only solution is the overthrow of this rotten system and the building of a new socialist society. We call on all revolutionary workers and youth to join the International Marxist Tendency in South Africa to prepare for the revolutionary struggles which are to come.