Echoes of 1998 in the student protests

Time for a new economic policy

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Photo of author Terry Bell

“The doors of learning and culture shall be opened.” So states the eighth clause of the ANC’s Freedom Charter, adopted in 1955 and still claimed to be the guiding programme of the governing party. It has again come to the forefront as university students embark on another series of protests about the cost of tertiary education.

They won one round last year when government backed down on increasing university fees. But now the demand has extended to registration fees — and to the whole question of whether fees should apply at all.

The media tends to portray this, and clashes with riot police, as a new development. Yet, for those of us with longer memories, it is largely a case of deja vu, of a repeat of 1998, with a few differences. The major difference is the absence now of obvious official trade union support for the protests, although students have given backing to outsourced campus workers seeking permanent employment, better pay and conditions.

Just as in 1998, today’s students are quoting the education clause of the Freedom Charter. It states: “Education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children.” It goes on: “Higher education and technical training shall be open to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit. Adult illiteracy shall be ended by a mass state education plan.”

Eighteen years ago, and against protests from within the labour movement, the government had already restricted the years of schooling and effectively privatised better resourced schools. Two years earlier, at a national meeting that included trade unions, civic and student organisations, the government agreed that there would be no exclusions of university students because of a lack of funds.

However, this undertaking was only “an intention”; it would “depend on circumstances”. In the event, the agreement was not kept and there were no further such “consultations with stakeholders”.

So when the 1998 university year began, thousands of students found themselves financially excluded and protests erupted. In the absence of the instant communications available today, these protests were fragmented. However, especially at the University of the Transkei, they were strong — and met by police batons.

But, just like the protests of today, those of 1998 were, for the most part, aimed at individual university administrations and not at what many trade unionists maintained was the real culprit: the economic policy of the government.

It is the same policy that the labour movement generally admits has continued to lose jobs and to make the rich richer at the expense of the poor. And it is perhaps a sign of weakness and disunity within the movement that an alternative economic policy is not being fought for.

Yet, in 1996, and before the government had announced that it was embarking on a liberal economic trajectory with the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) outline, the combined labour movement agreed on an alternative. It was contained in the Social Equity and Job Creation document, adopted by Cosatu, the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu) and what became the Federation of Trade Unions (Fedusa). This policy package has never been formally disavowed.

But GEAR was announced and Social Equity all but disappeared. And when the macro economic policy issue arose at the Cosatu congress in 2012, the federation’s former general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, did not look to the labour movement’s own document, but to Brazil. He called for a “Lula Moment” for South Africa based on following the policies of the Workers’ Party of Brazil, led by Luis Inacio Lula da Silva.

For obvious reasons, including the fact that Brazil is on the brink of its worst recession in 25 years and shed an estimated 1.5 million jobs in 2015, nothing much is now heard about a “Lula Moment”. But there is also no comprehensive macro economic programme being put forward by a labour movement that managed to combine and agree one nearly 20 years ago.

Now that the students have reopened the debate on one aspect of the Freedom Charter, perhaps the labour movement should consider coming together again to agree on a comprehensive programme that might have a better chance of opening the doors of learning and culture. The alternative is to continue wallowing in contradictions.

TOPICS:  Education Labour

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