By: Sipho Singiswa
(Photo: Sean Burke)
As a former student leader in the 1976 uprisings, and as an ex political prisoner and freedom fighter, I can no longer keep quiet about what I have witnessed over the past few months in terms of the interaction between so-called struggle stalwarts and the Fees Must Fall movement. In fact I hang my head in despair as I watch these ‘struggle stalwarts’ willingly become part of the campaign engaged in by both state and business to smash the student uprisings. It seems to me that these ex-liberation icons have been deployed by the major stakeholders to smooth things over – to give the brutality of Bloody October (when students were shot at, injured, jailed and criminalised) a respectable veneer.
They willfully go to speak to students about how they too were in the struggle, how they liberated the country, how they have the experience – and then, inevitably, they end their speech, which is usually peppered with liberation rhetoric, by telling the students that they must only work within the ambit of the law. What they fail to mention is that those who uphold the law itself transgress the rights of the students by shooting at them when they are exercising their constitutional right to protest. What they do not acknowledge is the utter cruelty of state, business and institution in their brutal quashing of the student struggle. What they seemingly forget to mention is what was promised to the student’s parents in the form of the Freedom Charter, which of course, which never came to pass.
It is as if they forget that the student’s call for access to free, equal, quality, decolonized education is premised on the historical promises of the struggle movement. This call is not unreasonable, much less unlawful and has been backed by nonpartisan academic studies that conclude in the majority that free quality education is possible in South Africa. The modalities differ according to persuasion, such as the introduction of a wealth tax, to realise such an education system in South Africa.
The call for the ‘wealth tax’ was first made by the TRC report. Needless to say, it was not popular among the white corporate sector. The ruling party first showed its true colours by objecting to the report also for different reasons. It is not surprising that the white corporate sector, and the chattering class, object to the call for free education . They hide behind dubious economics and concern for the rule of law, as such you hear them say; “but where is the money going to be found…the students must protest within the ambit of the law” This defeatist and ambiguous approach is not in sync with the students’ clarity.
Surely these struggle stalwarts can acknowledge publicly that the call for a free education is by no means unreasonable given the wealth of natural resources the country has. Some progressive researchers have even suggested that the government establish a Sovereignty Fund by taxing the extraction economy. Is it not clear to the neo petite bourgeoisie with ‘liberation credentials’ that all progressive countries with natural resources follow this practice. In the Scandinavian countries for example, it not only managed equitable distribution of the country’s wealth but has curbed the rise of inequality, which is the major bane of neoliberal economics.
The resistance to the implementation of studied recommendations for free education is well orchestrated. It comes largely from the self-serving white conservative population and corporate South Africa, in solidarity with racist members of the non-white minority communities. It is compounded by the lack of political will from the compromised ruling party, which though purportedly supporting the call for free education suppresses its implementation. The idea is to keep entrenched the profit making, racially skewed and oppressive neo-liberal approach to education.
And the stalwarts, as far as I can tell, play right along with this, assisting in the delaying tactics to buy the unpopular privileged class time to compel the students into submitting to the neoliberal system as an inevitable force that should not be tackled. Suddenly the so-called ‘struggle stalwarts’ who had long since abandoned their liberation struggle ethics in exchange for obscenely privileged lifestyles, are rebooted out of political retirement to host corporate sponsored events at which students are encouraged to focus on their academic studies above all else. Yet we know that in a rat race to secure retirement schemes, enroll their children in affluent educational institutions, and be accepted and assimilated into spaces of white privilege, these jaded struggle stalwarts, mostly shareholders, are no longer in the business of struggle.
It seems to me that this false camaraderie with the Fees Must Fall campaign is nothing more that the abuse of their liberation struggle history as they have long stopped fighting for the rights of the disenfranchised majority. Nowadays it is all about family trusts and foundations which some have pointed to as sheltered employment and a respectable means to launder struggle funds and circulate it among themselves.
Though the ruling party got its tenure by advocating egalitarian socialistic policies and a people’s driven participatory democracy – when they won the majority support it opted for a pragmatic stance that is driven by neoliberal values that favour self-enrichment, individualism and the bolstering of the Washington Consensus instead. They chose to succumb to the pressure of white corporate world and allay white fears in return for minority shares in white controlled business entities. Their co-option into the white cultural lifestyle reduced the stalwarts to a mere buffer-zone between the elite and the disenfranchised majority. In the end the ruling party itself has become a pawn for the white economic global dominance project. It is a spawning factory for Fanon’s new type of black bourgeoisie who speak from both sides of the mouth, and become an obstacle to the people’s struggle for socioeconomic justice.
This is one of the key reasons that the envisaged post 1994 South African socioeconomic transformation process ground to a halt before it began. It has created a huge disconnect between the capitalist ‘former stalwarts’ aka the new bourgeoisie and the poor majority. As such these shadowy stalwarts are used in the manner designed to tame the student’s demands for economic justice for the majority.
It is sad that the aspirant black bourgeoisie and struggle stalwarts are available to be used against the students. They are willing to be the ones to smooth over the abuse and terror meted out to students over the month of October and to manufacture the idea that they still have their struggle credentials in tact and thus will pacify the students. If the students do not comply then the public will no doubt see them as worse criminals than they are already cast as.
They pledge their support but never outline exactly what this support consists of. In truth, because these stalwarts sold out to the neoliberal system decades ago they are simply there to encourage the students to deny the truth of their lived reality, and abstain from participating in radical political engagements and civil disobedience. They are there to ‘pretend-commiserate’ but then to tell them ‘how to’ challenge the status quo – and the rule-of-law is bandied about as if protest itself is criminal.
It is a crying shame and downright hypocritical.
Sipho Singiswa is a founder of Media for Justice, and ex Robben Islander and student leader from Gugulethu 1976 uprisings – Capetown. He is currently making a feature documentary about the student uprisings.