#FEESMUSTFALL is, by no real coincidence, a product of the 1% — the proportion of the population who actually go to university, and whose access to university provides many of them with employment (often thoroughly unproductive employment, but who’s asking such questions any more?).
Most of these protesting students are, relative to the rest, privileged; they are at worst the cream of the working class, but more often they are petit-bourgeois. They are studying towards degrees which qualify them to serve the exploitative, neoliberal capitalist system, which they intend to do.
Their campaign, then, is that their families should be more extensively subsidised towards their privileges and towards their goal of becoming servants of the bourgeoisie, by reducing how much they have to pay. There are other demands, but these are essentially smokescreens which are insignificant, as is shown by the disintegration of the movement the moment that they received a promise of financial incentives to stop.
All this is not to say that it would not be a good idea to reform the university system. However, there is not the slightest prospect of sustainably reforming the university system while the national socio-economic system is in its current state. If that were done, it would not last, for the plutocrats control the academic institutions and would mould them to serve their private gain, as they have been doing over recent decades. So at the very least the universities must be placed institutionally outside the capitalist system — which is probably impossible — or else the all-pervasive dominance of neoliberal plutocratic capitalism must be removed, which is what the EFF wants, or at least claims to want.
But there is no plan for this, nor should anyone expect the students to plan for this, because the students are not remotely interested in such planning. Why should they be? They are not being paid to improve the institutions in which they are being badly educated. They have no special interest in instituting improvements which will only bear fruit long after they have left. So therefore, allowing the students to lead the transformation of the institutions in which they are being abused is problematic – especially because the students themselves are not a united body; within each institution there are rich and poor students, and there are rich and poor institutions, institutions which have privileges within the privilege enjoyed by all universities. The students have no capacity to work together in eliminating the special privileges of the elite universities, nor do they desire to, since these universities provide the royal road to the neoliberal social privileges which the students aspire to.
Therefore, the whole student protest movement is a chamber-pot full of diarrhoea. No doubt most of the students are well-intentioned, but they are ignorant, unskilled, politically uneducated, led by morons and misled by charlatans. Their public statements display a moneyed arrogance and a bubble-dwelling insouciant disengagement from the realities of South African working-class or even lower-middle-class life which is naturally to be expected from the protected children of petit-bourgeois families whose political education is provided by Mmusi Maimane and Business Day.
This is not, however, a tremendously bad thing. On the contrary, it is the best which can be expected under the current terrible circumstances. At least a handful of students have come out and said that they are not happy with the way things are happening. Like the inept and co-opted service delivery protests, like the incompetent and often ludicrously mismanaged anti-COSATU trade union movement, it is not much, it is not good, but at least it is something.
Far more worrying, however, is the way in which the ruling class has responded to the student protests.
More or less from the beginning the ruling class media, the SABC radio, the neoliberal press and the corporate-managed blogs, as well as the horde of corporate-sponsored pundits who pretend to be independent commentators and have usurped the position of the intelligentsia, has supported the student protests with a fervour ranging from obscene (SAFM, for instance) to psychotic (the Mail and Guardian). This is very strange given that the students are, supposedly, left-wing, and are calling for more money to be taken out of the fiscus and given to public institutions – universities, that is – and some of them are also calling for universities to hire and manage their support staff directly instead of doing so through outsourced companies, as is the all but universal practice. These ruling-class media normally demand lower public spending and, of course, greater privatization and casualisation as a matter of course. Why should they change their tune regarding universities?
They badly need left-wing credibility. This is because they are speaking to a left-wing audience, an audience which has grown increasingly cynical about its right-wing government. If the corporate propaganda tools are too ostentatious about being corporate propaganda tools – and usually they are – then the public will tune out. On the other hand, they are the self-declared voice of the ruling class, since all others are censored and silenced. Therefore, when they speak, if they speak in a way which seems remotely tolerable, given that they have money and power, people listen. Therefore they need an issue on which to sound leftist, and thus disarm their critics.
So the support for the students is exactly the same as the reason why right-wingers pretend to support other left-wing causes – and sometimes even do support them if they are completely devoid of principle and lacking in support from anywhere else.
But unfortunately this situation is more sinister than the ruling class offering tacit support to powerless leftists. By supporting the students’ demands, the ruling class are waging a form of class warfare against the working class and on behalf of themselves; there is a strong chance that they can ensure that money is shifted from services which the working class use, to the universities which are virtually only used by petit-bourgeois and bourgeois people (and those children of workers who are sponsored to get there are aspirant petit-bourgeois and bourgeois people, however much they may deny it – which accounts for NUMSA’s bizarre statements on the issue; NUMSA’s leadership is petit-bourgeois however much they might pretend otherwise).
There’s another side to it which is more difficult to discuss. However, the press has raised it by comparing the student protests to June 1976 – a bizarre comparison which has almost no merit other than the fact that the students, like the scholars of Soweto, have no power to enforce their demands and therefore depend on the goodwill of the government (which in 1976 was absent, unlike now). The point about those protests was that although they were supposedly about getting the government to stop imposing Afrikaans on black education, they were actually about getting rid of the government – and only the abject weakness of the scholars and the nonexistence of effective political organizations at the time prevented them from directly raising the issue. The courage of the scholars was undeniable; their efficacy less so, and to talk about students scampering about on their campuses in the same breath as the scholars shot down on the streets of Soweto is to deface the memory of the anti-apartheid struggle – a handy plus for the South African ruling class, which dislikes that memory.
It’s interesting that the press is refusing to compare these protests with the campus uprisings of the 1980s, which are in some ways similar – except that those uprisings came out of a highly coherent political tradition, were more or less disciplined, and were directly and explicitly linked to off-campus struggles with which the students sympathized. These are things which the South African ruling class definitely doesn’t want to encourage. What they want is indoctrination and, failing that, incoherence and chaos which can be exploited.
Even more alarmingly, some are comparing the protests with the Arab Spring and hoping that they will lead to something similar. Given that the Arab Spring was a disaster in which corrupt global powers installed tyranny and chaos in the Middle East by brutal force, leading to the current hideous state of affairs there, this is not altogether inappropriate. But this is their vision for South Africa? Apparently, some of the right wing in the ruling class hate the ANC so much that they would be prepared to hand the country over to odious foreign despots rather than see it rule any longer.
Meanwhile, virtually no capital has been made out of any of this. The students are not accomplishing anything of substance, none of the opportunistic fake-leftists have really made any capital out of it apart from the usual temporary hyped “victories”. The scary revelation is how little political significance universities have any more.