Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A View From The International Left-South Africa-Mass Student Protests Demand Free Education Now

Workers Vanguard No. 1097
7 October 2016
South Africa-Mass Student Protests Demand Free Education Now

OCTOBER 4—A showdown is taking place in South Africa between university students on one side and campus administrations and the state on the other. Student protests which started last year under the call “Fees Must Fall” (see “Student Protests Shake South Africa,” WV No. 1082, 29 January) have resumed and been met with massive state repression. Yesterday, at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), protesters stopped an attempt to restart classes. In retaliation, the administration today unleashed cops and security guards to crush any protest, turning the campus into a virtual war zone.

For two weeks, campus administrations and the government have unleashed private security guards and cops—many of whom are organized in the trade-union federation COSATU—on protesting students. Braving tear gas, pepper spray, stun grenades and rubber bullets, the protesters have succeeded in shutting down almost every university in the country. The bourgeois-nationalist Tripartite Alliance government—composed of President Jacob Zuma’s African National Congress (ANC), the South African Communist Party (SACP) and COSATU—together with the capitalist media have violence-baited the students and threatened them with even greater state repression. Scores have been arrested, even more have been attacked and injured, and many have been thrown out of their dorms.

On September 28, the University of Johannesburg was transformed into a battleground as private security guards attacked and pepper-sprayed students and journalists and threatened female students with rape. In scenes reminiscent of the apartheid era, police at Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape shot rubber bullets at protesters and dragged students across the ground to police cars.
The Wits administration carried out a bogus referendum via text message on September 29, promising that, if a majority voted for classes to resume, it would call on the government and police “to protect the university’s property and safeguard the lives of all students and staff.” As one student put it, “this probably means we can expect army presence—people who are trained to kill.” Other students denounced this sham poll, in which less than half of the student body voted to return to class, noting this fearmongering tactic was an attempt to break their strike. On the other hand, the ANC youth group, which has called for an end to the protests, congratulated those students who voted to return to class. On September 29, the government declared that “university students are being influenced by ‘regime change agents’,” and instructed the cops to act in an “uncompromising way” if the protests continue. As one headline put it: “Zero Tolerance.”

The SACP has denounced the protesters and urged students to isolate “the tiny minority of violent and destructive elements.” Drawing an explicit parallel to the state massacre of 34 striking platinum miners in Marikana in 2012, the higher education minister, Blade Nzimande, threatened the student protesters that they would be “dealt with.” These are the same words that he and other SACP leaders used when they played the role of bloodhounds against the miners and their union. An indication of the resonance that this strike still holds for the black working class and students was shown in a chant by Wits students: “Kill us like you killed people in Marikana.” The slogan “we can’t breathe” has also been a refrain at some protests, recalling the last words spoken by Eric Garner as he was being choked to death by New York City cops in 2014.

It is imperative that the trade unions mobilize their power in defense of the protesters. Students have appealed to the organized labor movement to join their struggle, and on September 23 they marched on COSATU headquarters demanding: “We want COSATU to say when are they calling workers to mobilise.” However, with the exception of staff and teachers at some universities, the union leadership has refused to do so. COSATU and the SACP issued a joint statement on September 21 that hailed the government’s green light to fee increases as “progressive” and lectured the students to redirect their protests from the campuses and the government to institutions of capital. They thereby attempt to divert the students’ anger away from the government, which in fact rules on behalf of capital.

The supposedly more militant metal workers union NUMSA shares the same programmatic framework. While their September 30 statement condemns the violence against the protesters, it also calls on the very state that is carrying out these attacks to investigate itself for “offenses.”

We reprint below a September 22 leaflet issued by Spartacist/South Africa, section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist).
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The response was immediate. On 19 September, within hours of higher education minister Blade Nzimande giving university administrations the green light to increase fees by up to 8 percent next year, students across the country mobilised to shut down campuses and renew the mass protests for free education. Blade’s pronouncement is rightly seen as a slap in the face to the hundreds of thousands who protested last year and early this year. The fact that he also announced the government’s “commitment” to help cover the cost of increases for students from households earning less than R600,000 [US$44,000] per year is faint solace. This just means keeping the price of higher education at its current level for students from poor and working-class families, who are already crushed by mountains of student debt or excluded outright by high fees. In neo-apartheid South Africa, where race and class largely overlap, the exclusion of the poor and workers from higher education means the continued exclusion of most blacks and coloureds. We support the students’ protests against fees and call for free, quality education through to tertiary, with a state-paid living stipend. Abolish the student debt!

Nzimande (who is also general secretary of the SACP) responded to the renewed protests by trying to ridicule the student protesters, portraying them as a bunch of hooligans and/or idiots who want to “destroy our universities in the name of defending no-fee increases for the rich” and are being “misled” by various rogues pursuing “their own narrow political agenda.” With these grotesque slanders, Dr. Nzimande is in good company with the vice-chancellors and other senior managers who earn millions running elite universities like Wits University and University of Cape Town on behalf of the big bourgeoisie. They have issued a steady stream of vomitous press statements depicting militant student activists as little more than violent thugs. This is reminiscent of the racist stereotypes spewed by the apartheid regime during the Soweto uprising of 1976. At the time, thousands of protesting students, workers and township poor were referred to as “tsotsis” [gang members] and “rioting mobs” to justify being mowed down by the apartheid police state. One statement issued by Wits University’s Senior Executive Team on 20 September promised to “identify” and prosecute “those who perpetrated acts of violence on our campus today.” It should not be very hard for the Wits administration to identify the source of violence on their hallowed campus: The administration themselves have paid millions for hundreds of private security guards, many of them equipped with riot gear, to occupy the campus and suppress student protests together with cops from the Metro Police.

Like cops and security guards everywhere, those on Wits and other campuses act as the armed enforcers of the capitalist ruling class to quell social protest seen as “disruptive” to the day-to-day workings of the racist capitalist system. In the past two days alone, cops have repeatedly fired on protesters with stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets, injuring and arresting dozens. Yesterday, one female student was badly burned by a police stun grenade while students tried to protest in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Along with cops and security guards, university administrations across the country have used a whole slew of court interdicts, trumped-up disciplinary charges and other repressive measures to isolate and harass those activists identified as “ring-leaders” of last year’s protests against fees and outsourcing. Drop all the charges against anti-fees and anti-outsourcing protesters! Reinstate all suspended and expelled activists now! Cops and security guards off campus! Abolish the campus administrations—for student-teacher-worker control of the universities!

The fact that dozens of the more militant student activists from last year’s protests have been disciplined and even expelled from campuses without any large protests in opposition is one measure of the demobilising and treacherous role played by the leadership of the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA). The PYA—an alliance of the ANC Youth League, Young Communist League and South African Students Congress—is the “junior” version of the ANC/SACP/COSATU Tripartite Alliance, which acts to contain social unrest and maintain the capitalist “stability” demanded by the Randlords and ratings agencies.

As the dominant political force in most of the protests, the PYA leaders largely sought to ride the wave of student militancy during last year’s protests, and many are attempting to do so again this year when student anger is at its height. But as soon as Zuma announced in October last year that there would be no fee increase for 2016, the PYA began working overtime to stop further protests, openly acting as the lackeys of the university management. This went as far as the national PYA leaders’ January 2016 press conference denouncing Fees Must Fall protesters who wanted to continue protesting as “counter-revolutionaries” seeking to “hijack” students’ grievances for “regime change,” even implying that they were trained by the CIA. A PYA press statement declared: “There is no reason for strikes to continue when the people’s government has addressed all relevant immediate concerns of students.”

Those student militants revolted by this kind of self-serving treachery need to understand that it is not just a result of the personal qualities (or lack thereof) of the individual sell-out leaders. Underlying their treachery are the bankrupt politics of their parent organisations, which are based on nationalism and class-collaboration. These politics cannot be wished away or swept under the rug in the name of achieving an illusory “student unity,” as many activists seem to hope—they must be argued and fought out in the open. They are not limited to the university terrain, but are the same politics responsible for betraying the promise of liberation from white minority rule. As the ANC and the Tripartite Alliance become increasingly discredited, a host of political misleaders—from black nationalists like the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Pan Africanist Congress/Student Movement, to the reformist leaders of the metalworkers union NUMSA—are trying to re-package and sell alternative versions of these pro-capitalist politics as something “new.”

The extreme racial and class divide in the education system is but one measure of how the legacy of apartheid—from “Bantu education” to the Group Areas Acts to the migrant labour system—continues to stamp every aspect of life in South Africa. This is not a “mistake” or an “oversight” that could be fixed if only the ANC would return to the “good old days” of the bourgeois-populist Freedom Charter. Far from being a “people’s government,” the Tripartite Alliance government is a bourgeois government that has administered neo-apartheid capitalism for over 20 years. This flowed from the whole political framework of the ANC-led Congress Alliance, which was always premised on maintaining capitalism. The result was the negotiated settlement that ended formal apartheid in 1994 while preserving the power of the Randlords, a betrayal of black freedom. The massive profits of the (still mainly white) South African capitalists continue to be derived from the superexploitation of the mainly black working class.

The true face of neo-apartheid was shown most clearly with the Marikana massacre in 2012, when the cops gunned down 34 striking mineworkers—a massacre reminiscent of the crushing of black dissent under apartheid. Marikana showed not only the racist, repressive nature of the “new South Africa,” but the enormous potential power of the South African proletariat. In the face of the government’s brutal crackdown, the mineworkers remained defiant, keeping the mines shut until they finally won their demands. This is the kind of social power that must be brought to bear in solidarity with the protesting students, who are under the gun of the same capitalist state that has the blood of Marikana on its hands. The working class must stand at the head of the struggles of all the oppressed in a struggle to overthrow capitalist rule. Mobilising this potential power is above all a political question, the question of leadership. What’s desperately needed is to break with the Tripartite Alliance and forge a Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party, rooted among the most class-conscious workers, armed with a revolutionary Marxist programme and capable of acting as a tribune of all the oppressed.

Such a party must be built in sharp opposition to all variants of nationalism and based on the strict political independence of the working class from the capitalist state and all bourgeois parties. Julius Malema’s EFF is no different from the ANC in its thoroughly bourgeois programme, notwithstanding its use of more “radical” populist rhetoric. The bankruptcy of the EFF’s bourgeois nationalist populism was crassly demonstrated just last month, following the local elections, when the EFF voted in Johannesburg, Tshwane and elsewhere to back the white-racist, union-busting Democratic Alliance—the “lesser devil,” by Malema’s lights—in forming minority governments.

Against all the schemes for “cleaning up” the racist capitalist system, what’s needed is to fight for a black-centred workers government to break the power of the Randlords, expropriate capitalist property and begin the socialist reconstruction of society. Workers revolution—including the necessary international extension to the advanced capitalist countries that dominate the world economy—alone can open the road to the liberation of the black masses and do away with the myriad forms of oppression that capitalism rests upon and reinforces. Spartacist/South Africa fights to build the Leninist-Trotskyist party needed to lead this struggle.

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