Student Victory in South Africa

Why was South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma forced to agree to zero percent fee increase for 2016?

By Shaheed Mahomed

First of all a big salute to all the students who stood up in the fight for free education, against high fees and an end to outsourcing. A big salute to the worker-student and staff alliance that was growing day by day. There are so many lessons that these struggles can teach us all. This breakthrough moment has come through many battles over the years, some partial victories and several defeats.

Firstly, imperialism draws on the experience of many struggles around the world where the masses have risen up against the state. Their aim was to contain the revolt, to prevent the broader working class from entering the battle. Thus the meeting of the demand for zero percent increase was a move by imperialism to neutralize the growing revolt. They have calculated that it is late in the year, when there generally is a downturn in struggles, and of course, for students, the final exams are looming. The dispatching of some ANC formations to “support” the student struggle is an old technique of planting forces within the masses so that at a strategic moment these forces can either lead the struggle into a dead-end, without confronting the system, or if they can gain complete control of the movement, to co-opt it as part of the state structures. (It is imperialism that is running the show; Zuma and the ANC government are merely their managers.) Just like the march of the 1000 soldiers in 2009, the state had placed provocateurs in the crowd. The leadership of the students out-maneuvered them by withdrawing the students away from the open clashes, marching away from the Union buildings and then back once the situation had calmed a bit.

Historically, the workers movement in South Africa has been under the iron grip of theory of the   (NDR) National Democratic Revolution, which comes from the Stalinist tradition. According to the NDR, the white section of the population, including the white worker and white lower middle class are part of the internal colonial power. On the other hand, the NDR regards the upper Black middle class and the Black capitalist as a progressive force. Thus the NDR defines the problem as being of white capital rather than capitalism in general. The Marikana massacre, the privatization and collapse of public education by the ANC government has shown that the upper Black middle class and the Black capitalist class has not only lost any “revolutionism” but has openly sided with imperialism-capitalism. Inherent in the NDR is a permanent split in the working class. The fundamental mistake of the NDR is its claim that all whites (at least, most of them) are colonizers while at the same time claiming that all Blacks, irrespective of their class position, are progressive.  

The current student struggles have exploded the NDR. Since 1994 there has been an increasing impoverishment of the white working class and of the lower white middle class. Gone are the days of statutory support. This increasing impoverishment, which has been a general trend in the masses, has undercut the artificial barriers that existed under the old regime and which have been perpetuated in part by the new regime.

The new generation is also not under the ideological sway of the South African Communist Party’s (SACP) NDR. They are looking at issues afresh. Thus the material basis was there for the breaking from the notion that a white skin makes one reactionary and a Black skin makes one progressive. The past 21 years of struggles against the ANC government has taught the masses this life lesson in practice. The basis was set for all factions of the students to unite. None of the parliamentary parties could impose themselves to lead the student uprising.

When the white and Black railway workers united a few years ago, they won their demands within three days of the beginning of their strike. Today, when white and Black students united, they won their demands within days. What was decisive was not only that they were students but that the movement was developing to involve their parents. Imagine the consequences, if in the next week, the call materialized for students and their parents to march on the Union buildings and on parliament. You would have had student and worker, white and Black united for the first time on such a scale, bringing the entire economy to a standstill. This in itself was not the only issue. Imagine if the masses had united in this way and drew the lesson of their combined strength and power. The South African Spring would have arrived. The Spring, which looked so promising when the entire mineworkers went on their revolt, but was isolated by the state and the ANC-SACP-COSATU (African National Congress-South African Communist Party-Congress of South African Trade Unions) alliance, would have come to fruition. This revolt could have inspired the working class and broader masses of the entire world.

Every regime on the planet is under threat of revolt from the masses. Imperialism needed to put out the flames. They have tried to do so for the moment with the zero percent fee increase but they also have within their arsenal every repressive weapon in the book.

The momentum was indeed very rapid, on Wednesday, October 21, the march on parliament; Thursday, October 22 the march on Luthuli house; and Friday, the march on the Union buildings. The bourgeois media and their agents will do everything to flatter the students as if they are the center of the universe, in order to disguise the true class forces at play.

The state gave in, out of fear of revolution, not because of any caring for student needs. A task team as been set up as a means to postpone the struggle and break its momentum. There is no time frame and the state will surely frustrate this process as they try to co-opt or neutralize the student leaders. Their main concern is to prevent the working class from taking center stage in this fight. In 1976, June 16 was followed up by two general strikes in August and September. The revolt which beckons from this fight is on a much larger scale. The working class threatens to stand up united. It is this that is behind the rapid attempt to appease students. They want to curb a revolt by the working class and broader mass against the capitalist system.

There have also been other protests starting up in London, and imperialism wanted to prevent the #feesmustfall movement from reaching other countries. (In the USA for example, workers work until pension age just to pay off their student debt; student debt is bigger than debt from home loans.)

We propose that students and workers discuss placing a deadline by which free education should be achieved, an end to outsourcing, end to student debt and other demands. All those who have had their degrees held back due to debt, should have them awarded and the debt scrapped. All students and others arrested in this struggle should have the charges dropped. Increase the company tax back to 48 percent where it was in 1994 (currently it is 28 percent.)  We propose building towards a national day of action of students, parents, academics and communities, to demand a deadline by which all demands be met.

The state claims that there is no money. But the Journal of Southern African Studies (Ashman, Fine, 2011) reports that there is a long trend over decades of transfer pricing and other illegal mechanisms that the mines have used to steal from South Africa. Hundreds-of-billions of Rands are stolen every year, more than enough not only for free quality education for all, but for free healthcare, free decent housing for all and other basic needs. In 2007 alone, they report that over 600-billion Rands were stolen by Anglo American and others. The state turns a blind eye to this, the ANC leaders take up positions on mining boards; the ANC, SACP and COSATU investment companies all have shares in the mines. Thus the call for the expropriation of the mines, to fund free education and other demands, is quite legitimate.

Workers International Vanguard Party, October 23, 2015