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 27 September, 2016

Text: Raees Noorbhai
Photograph: Makgotso Nkosi

Disappointment requires expectations. So on Monday morning last week, when Higher Education Minister (and personification of incompetence) Blade Nzimande's announcement came, the students gathered in Solomon Mahlangu House weren't disappointed - we were enraged. Moments later, the call was made. "We are shutting down". Fists rose, and voices rose with them. Concourse was once again transformed into the nucleus of resistance at Wits University. Within the hour, students were streaming out and marching to blockade entrances, aiming to reclaim the space in the name of free education. The wheels of history, already in motion at other institutions around the country, began to turn at Wits University.

Before the first wave of protests, the retrograde current of the State was already tugging in the opposite direction - something exemplified by Nzimande's announcement. The minister established that there will be no increase for students whose household income is below R600 000 a year, and that the increment will be capped at 8% for all other students. His lack of resolve was on public display once again, as he passed the buck to universities on the issue of a 2017 increment, while refusing to properly engage the broader issues of decolonisation and free education. The announcement was also a brazen attempt at political obfuscation. By claiming that the decision to raise fees is ultimately made by the universities, the minister is obscuring the reality that universities are public institutions that are heavily dependent on state subsidies. Expenses necessarily increase, due to inflation and other expenses like journal fees which are paid in dollars. Therefore, in the absence of a subsidy increase, universities effectively have two choices - cut costs through austerity measures and compromise the quality of education, or raise fees. When this is accounted for, it is evident that the decision to raise fees, for all intents and purposes, rests with the State.

That decision, however, is not made in a vacuum. It is made within a climate of financial exclusion and exploitation that shuts the doors of learning to the poor and working class - a climate that is empowered by private capital and encouraged by the State. Yes, a fee increment serves to exacerbate this state of affairs, but abolishing the increment will do little to address the core of the problem. Fees, along with the myriad expenses associated with being a student, remain too high for too many. Our universities are still plagued by racism, hetero-patriarchy, exploitative labour practises, and the project to commoditise. The minister's announcement was grounded in the expectation that students will ignore the bleeding once the state has put a Band-aid on our bullet wound, as we did last year. Students are now resolute that this is a mistake we are not willing to repeat. Education is one of many mutually-reinforcing structures of an unjust status quo. A status quo in which your destiny is determined by the hand dealt to you by Capital. This is the status quo which we are no longer willing to tolerate. This is the retrograde current of the neoliberal state. This is why we continue to struggle, to march, to shut down.

Free Education & The Retrograde Currents of State, Society, Police and Party

The status quo, as expected, has not reacted favourably to the attempts to dismantle it. Pre-emptively, the retrograde current of the police was mobilised, with the ruling classes co-opting one sector of the working class, transformed into the armed custodians of oppression, to brutalise another. On Monday morning, before Nzimande's announcement, scores of police vans littered Wits main campus, along with hordes of private security personnel. This was only the latest display of the trend of militarisation that has gripped our campuses since last year's protests. In an essay for theSocialist Register (republished by Jacobin) on the Coup against Salvador Allende's socialist government in Chile, Ralph Miliband notes that those of us on the left are accustomed to seeing class struggle as being waged solely by the subordinate classes against the ruling classes - yet the reality is that the ruling powers, every day, wage a multi-pronged assault on the working class. It is, as he points out, the bread and butter of capitalist society. However, he goes on to say that when "those men of power of privilege sense a real threat from below" to the world they cherish, their assault takes on an altogether different character - it becomes a class war. We are witnessing the manifestation of this at universities across the country. Those allied with the status quo, sensing this threat to the injustice they defend, have made it clear that violence is not a tactic they are willing to disown. The university, in its emails and press statements, preaches peace, while on the ground, its armed men don riot gear and train their weapons on students, preparing for a war against those armed chiefly with a demand for a better future. This, I'm afraid, is often a self-fulfilling prophecy...

On Tuesday, rocks were hurled at the private security blockading the Great Hall entrance, after students were pushed down the stairs in front of that building. Private security, instead of diffusing the situation, chose to escalate it by hurling those rocks back from behind their riot shields. Students were injured, and relatively-minor damage was done to property. Almost immediately, reactionary societal elements employed their calculus of value, with variables tied to Capital weighted disproportionately. Those broken windows were awarded more sympathy than the scores of student bodies, black bodies, that have been brutalised and beaten by the police and private security. This is telling. A zeitgeist of Capital is seldom as evident as it is in the impulse to mourn the loss of property before reckoning with the loss of dignity. The same impulse was present on Wednesday, when the police opened fire with rubber bullets and used teargas on peacefully-protesting students in the streets of Braamfontein. The people who mourned the broken windows were largely silent. Those who condemn violence by students, but are silent when that violence is directed towards students, do not believe in non-violence, but in the monopoly of violence held by the State and Capital.

Nonetheless, the stance of the student leadership at Wits has consistently been in favour of non-violence, and the student movement has indeed been overwhelmingly peaceful. However, as Arundhati Roy points out in her analysis of the Maoist rebellion in India, non-violent, so-called Gandhian tactics only work when the cameras are rolling. Given the preferential treatment afforded to “elite” institutions like Wits and UCT, peaceful (albeit disruptive) tactics are a viable option. However, when our comrades at UKZN or UWC or Fort Hare protest peacefully, they are ignored. We are by no means the first to notice this disparity. Dr Martin Luther King Jr., who is so often quoted out of context as a pacifying platitude, noted that a riot is "the language of the unheard". We should not condone the destruction of universities, but if the establishment really wants to avoid it, then it is imperative that they listen.

Free Education & The Retrograde Currents of State, Society, Police and Party

That said, if we are making the demand that they listen, it is necessary that we, as students, speak more clearly, and with one voice. On the Wits front, factionalism threatened to derail the movement early on, with elements of the Wits EFF Students Command opposing the shutdown if its sole purpose was to stop the increment. Earlier this year, on this platform, I had backed the Wits EFF in the SRC elections, aiming to avoid the possible conflict of interest posed by an ANC-aligned PYA dominating the SRC. I argued that we cannot allow ourselves to be fooled into believing that it is possible to address this crisis without holding the ANC accountable in a concrete way. Indeed, the ruling party as an entity represents a retrograde current of its own, with ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe arrogantly declaring that, were he higher education minister, he would shut down all universities and residences for six months, to “teach protesting students a lesson”. Apprehension surrounding any ANC-aligned faction within our elected structures, therefore, was not without basis.

However, the Wits student body differed strongly on whether the PYA should be voted out altogether, and the Alliance won all 15 seats in the election (with some help from the conditions of the electoral process). This mandate from the student body is to be taken seriously. Those of us who fielded or backed candidates in the election acknowledged the legitimacy of the SRC by doing so. This legitimacy does not evaporate because our favoured parties did not triumph. It should be afforded to the SRC, but not uncritically - and not unconditionally. The reality is that our movement is stronger if our directly-elected representatives are a part of it, so long as they too are held accountable. It is now necessary for both sides to display the political maturity that history demands of us. By the end of last week, it was clear that the parties were beginning to hear this demand.

On Thursday, the SRC leaders of last year's Fees Must Fall occupied centre stage in Solomon House, pledging support for their successors and affording a measure of leadership continuity - yet simultaneously acknowledging the legitimacy of leadership beyond the SRC, notably within the Wits EFF. Crucially, they brought forward a refreshing resolve to confront the reactionary elements within their own party, with former SRC president and ANC member Mcebo Dlamini boldly declaring that if the ruling party fails to deliver on free education, the people must vote them out. Wits students resolved to begin bridging the partisan divide, forging a united student front. The central demand also crystallised that afternoon: free education, not within the ambiguous timeframe of "our lifetimes", but now. On Friday, students marched to the headquarters of Cosatu calling for the support of the unions, before former Cosatu Secretary General Zwelinzima Vavi reiterated that call in Solomon House later that day. A new front is being forged, with organised labour and the working class being called on to down tools in solidarity with students. The foundation is now being laid for a broader movement, a stronger movement that can shake the core of an unjust status quo.

Of course, there are still those cynics hiding behind the mask of “realism” who nonetheless dismiss the demand for free education. This is the retrograde current of Society, which, when it is not hurriedly pointing at shattered windows with indignation, believes that it is duty-bound to remind us of "economic realities", or, more accurately, of the infallibility of status quo economic gospel. They call on a caricature of Dr King to encourage passivity, while forgetting that the same Dr King expressed disappointment in their ilk, when he wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail of those “moderates” who "paternalistically believe that they can set a timeline for another man's freedom" and who are "more devoted to 'order' than they are to justice". Indeed, their continuous defence of “law and order”, in the current climate, is not dissimilar to a defence of unjust laws and an oppressive order. Moreover, their deployment of the “realism” tactic speaks of a pitiful conception of reality. A reality that is perceived to be unchanging, and unchangeable. "Things have always been this way". Slavoj Zizek, reflecting on the first step to freedom, highlights that for many, it is easier to imagine an asteroid destroying all life on earth than it is to imagine a modest change in the economic order. The student uprising in this country represents the refusal to bow to that fatalism. We are the reinvigoration of the political imagination, driven by the belief that we are more than capable of breaking down the unjust edifices of our world, and building a better one in its stead.

History, it seems, is more the vessel upon the waters than it is the tide. It only moves if we move it. The missteps of our past cannot compel us to abandon ship, for we are more than capable of defying the retrograde currents of the status quo. The time has come for us all to reach across the partisan divide, grab the oars, and - with the strength of a unified political will - heave and row until we feel the shores of free education beneath our feet. This time, we can convert the ambitions of the political imagination into a more just reality. This time, we must.