OPINION | SOUTH AFRICA 

Student protests are sign of loss of confidence in state

Zuma Administration lacks the moral authority to restore peace to campuses

Security and students clashed on Wits earlier this week. Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee
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The anger of student protests across South Africa are a symptom of the loss of confidence in Jacob Zuma’s government. From 1994 — despite class fractures, continued racial inequality and high unemployment — there was a sense that progress was being made, albeit painfully slow at times. That perception is evaporating under Jacob Zuma.

There’s a pervasive but wrong view that there’s no morality in politics; in fact the moral authority of a country’s leaders is vital to a stable democracy. The ANC and Cosatu once had the authority to hold the country together: their leaders said things and enough people usually listened. Not so much anymore. Commentators and politicians who looked forward to the weakening of Cosatu and a time when people would turn away from the ANC are getting what they wished for, and it’s not pretty.

Just as universities are unjustly blamed for failures that take place in primary and secondary schools, so too they are unjustly blamed for the loss of direction and anger that many young people with minimal prospects now feel. Of course there are problems in academia. These are the cause of justifiable grievance. Inherited wealth is the major determinant of who gets opportunities in South Africa, and tertiary education is an expensive stepping stone to those opportunities. GroundUp’s series on UCT and transformation explains the challenges faced by poor and black students at one institution. But these problems don’t explain the scale of anger and nihilism we’re currently seeing.

Many students come across as leaderless, directionless and desperate. Most poignantly, as Achille Mbembe has explained, many are heavily in debt with a bleak future.

Old ideas are rejected by many students. Until last year, the dominant culture of South African protest, going back to the apartheid era, was that it should be disciplined and that elected leaders make decisions in consultation with their organisations. There were movements that didn’t subscribe to that, but they were marginal and achieved little.

Now two ideas have taken hold in parts of the student movement: that elected leaders are not to be trusted — again a consequence of the loss of confidence in the country’s rulers — and that it is wrong to criticise ill-disciplined protesters.

Consequently student leaders come and go, and there seems to be little accountability. The protests in 2015 attracted some of South Africa’s brightest youth, but few if any became, or lasted as, leaders of the student movement. This environment means that there are students who seek leadership by out-radicalising each other, rather than considering the best strategy and interests of their constituencies.

We therefore see the rise of Ntokozo Qwabe, who wields a stick at fellow students and gets dozens of likes on his Facebook page for hate-filled comments. He expresses what many students seem to feel about the generation that brought democracy: “Older black people who want to silence us on the basis that they fought against apartheid need to shut the fuck up!!! We are here because you failed us!”

And we also see the rejection of what was a patent victory for the students: Blade Nzimande’s concessions this week. On this, read Free tertiary education will escalate inequality by Steven Friedman. The protests increasingly lack clear strategic planning. At UCT, as a friend of mine says, the demands have become so mixed up that they’re “morphing into nothingness”. The push to shut the institution until those demands are met can only worsen student debt and prospects.

Across the country campuses are burning or in turmoil. How to respond to this is hard. Max Price has come under fire for not bringing a heavy security presence onto UCT. But that’s what Adam Habib did at Wits and it backfired. The vice-chancellors are caught in a bind: If they don’t use force, the opportunistic elements among the protesters run amok. If they do use force, the protesters’ numbers swell because they are seen as victims, and more violence ensues. The people who should be bringing things back to order, Zuma, Nzimande, Cyril Ramaphosa, Gwede Mantashe, have lost the moral authority to do so; students will not listen to them.

In a call for UCT to respond with more force, David Benatar wrote on Politicsweb “that law is ultimately backed up by force. Many people comply with the law without the need for force to be used. However, the threat of force always lurks in the background and sometimes has to be exercised. … Laws without teeth are not laws.”

But it’s not that simple. Laws are only truly dependent on the threat of force for warding off intermittent breaches by criminals. What stops hundreds or thousands of people breaking laws (except perhaps in police states) is the moral authority they carry. South Africans don’t usually break laws en masse (except, regrettably, traffic and tax ones) because they accept those laws as useful. We are in a time when a critical mass of students (albeit a minority, with some non-student support) no longer believe in those laws, and consequently it’s difficult to enforce them.

Also UCT is tricky to protect. The upper and middle campuses essentially have no borders and little access control on most buildings. That’s a nice feature of UCT in normal times. Obviously it’s a disadvantage now. Wits has a contained campus surrounded by walls and only a few entrances. But even Wits couldn’t be protected this week with a large security presence. That’s before even considering the problems with the South African Police Service.

I’m not saying UCT’s softly-softly approach is the right one, only that it’s not obvious that it’s the wrong one. Max Price is in a difficult situation. If his approach of waiting for the disruptions to subside works, UCT will be a less fractured place when it reopens than Wits.

This is not an optimistic assessment. Zuma will likely remain in power for at the very least another 15 months, and it’s not clear his eventual replacement will have much more moral authority than him. Perhaps from some of the country’s organised and disciplined social movements leaders will emerge around whom students coalesce, bringing discipline and strategy to protest. But for now there’s no sign of that.

​Disclosure: The author, who is the editor of GroundUp, is a registered postgraduate student at UCT, and has taught there.

Views expressed are not necessarily those of any other GroundUp staff.

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