Tag Archives: Wits

Red Flags, Red Berets and the Ballot Coup: Free Education and the Wits SRC Election

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(Photo: Delwyn Verasamy, Mail and Guardian)

Wits is alive with the tumultuous energy of struggle song, while political regalia dots the campus with patches of yellow, and patches of red. With the SRC election less than a week away, the campus which birthed Fees Must Fall last October is set to elect its next set of student representatives. At this crucial juncture in South African student history, this year’s SRC election is far more significant than a mere exercise in political posturing. Its outcome will shape the future of the student movement and the strategy that will be implemented in the battle for free education. This year’s election, therefore, demands the undivided attention of us all.

Three parties are set to face off next week. The incumbent party, holding thirteen out of fifteen seats in the current SRC, is the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA) – a coalition of the ANC Youth League, SASCO, the Young Communists League and the Muslim Students Association. They are being challenged by the Wits EFF Students’ Command and Project W. No party in the field is perfect. However, this should not render them equally ineffectual in the eyes of the student body. Some are better, some are worse, and others are, if we are to be honest, an embarrassment.

To get the embarrassment out of the way, let’s deal with Project W. Project W is a cynical experiment in solipsism, built upon the fallacious notion that a university’s SRC can be apolitical in a political world. Their stunning refusal to engage the complexities of the socio-political space is matched only by their masochistic impulse to lead with this idea of an apolitical campus when publicly squaring off with their opponents. The party patronises students by assuming that we are equally incapable and unwilling to tackle political complexity. Given the role of politics on campus – and indeed, the role of campuses in politics – over the decades, Project W is as ahistorical as they are apolitical. Their neutrality in political situations of moral urgency serves to bolster oppressive power structures and inflate the confidence of the ruling class. Engaging the country’s socio-politics is crucial, extraordinarily so in the context of the movement for free education. Project W is hence extraordinarily irrelevant, even by their own standards. Their conspicuous absence during Fees Must Fall is a sobering reminder that, were they to win this election, their line will jeopardise the future of the student movement. Project W is a galaxy of fallacies that aggregated from a cloud of delusion and apathy. They are a non-option.

The choice is hence between the PYA and the Wits EFF. The EFFSC has abandoned its distaste for the official political space (a distaste that one may argue is justified, given that their party was collectively punished last year and barred from running) and is now a serious contender. The campaign they have implemented balances Bikoist ideology with the consideration of basic issues that directly impact students. (It is noteworthy that this exposes another flaw in the Project W line, for one needn’t be apolitical to aid students in graduating). Echoing the process which drafted the Freedom Charter – amongst the most radical leftist documents in our nation’s history – the EFF has crowd-sourced their election manifesto, compiling it from the suggestions of the students whom they wish to represent. The party’s propensity for political disruption, a core tenet of effective protest, is indubitable – something indispensible in a battle against a system that stifles momentum through bureaucracy and delay. The EFF has therefore built a base from which they hope to claim the majority of the SRC from the PYA. Come next week, the Fighters’ Student Command is hoping to execute a Ballot Coup.

What, then, justifies the urgency of ousting the old guard? The incumbent PYA is aligned with the ANC, and hence a contradiction lies at the core of their organisational identity. Luthuli House provides the party with funding, support, and the occasional order to pacify student populations and halt protests. At times, it seems the PYA has inherited the arrogance of its parent organisation. When the Wits council debated the overhaul of IT infrastructure on campus, a project that will cost over half a billion rand, this SRC supported the move without consulting the student body, failing to account for the fact that it’s absurd to spend a nine-digit figure on improving wifi access on a campus where students don’t have accommodation or food. Moreover, red flags must be raised over the PYA’s decision to halt the university shut down last year before an insourcing commitment had been won. When a party intends to exploit the pain of exploited workers, only to dispose of them afterwards, students must respond in kind and dispose of that party. The workers are not a periphery concern – betraying them is inexcusable.

All of that said, I do not wish to discredit everything the Alliance has achieved. Nor am I implying that there aren’t committed comrades within the PYA who are invaluable to the student movement. It is possible to be more nuanced.  Yes, the PYA-led SRC played a crucial role in halting this year’s fee increase, galvanising students and driving free education to the top of the agenda. However, the PYA-led SRC was also crucial in the dissolution of student unity and the obstruction of that very agenda. The breakdown of trust between a university’s SRC and its students crippled last year’s movement for free education and squandered the momentum that we had gathered. We cannot allow for this to be repeated.

The SRC is the sole body with an official popular mandate. Tremendous legitimacy is lent to the movement if its leadership is elected by students, for students. However, we cannot have an SRC led by a PYA that can prioritise its partisan alliances over workers and the cry for free education. We should not accept an SRC that implores students to celebrate a non-increase within a broken status quo, while refusing to address the core of the problem because it involves confronting their superiors at Luthuli House. To allow the ANC to speak through a PYA SRC is to allow the establishment to dictate the terms of a movement that was forged in opposition to its failures. 

Soon, it will become necessary to indict the ANC government and hold it accountable in a concrete way. At the moment, it seems the PYA would rather pander to xenophobia and punish innocent immigrant shopkeepers than do so.  We cannot allow the SRC to be turned into a fundraising office while the structural inequality is left unaddressed. Last year’s failures are proof that we cannot trust the ANC to march on itself. Moving forward, we need a student leadership that is not tied to the agenda of the ruling party. What is needed now is student unity – a unity that is difficult to forge while this conflict of interest is alive within our elected structures. The PYA can be part of the new SRC, but if it’s unity we want, it is best if they do not lead it. If they do, we need to disabuse them of their loyalty to their parent party, or organise beyond the official. However, achieving either of these will be no easy task. Ideally, we need an alternative.

At this election, therefore, I will cast my vote in favour of the party with the largest base among workers, a party that didn’t evaporate after the marginal concession of a 0% increase was won. It is also the party whose iconoclasm has animated our national politics and that is unafraid to articulate the rage of the black child against an ANC that is corrupt and failing to redress inequality. When I walk into that voting booth, I shall strike my pen across the boxes next to the red berets.

The reason for doing so is simple: if the EFF wins a majority in the SRC, effectively counterbalanced by a smaller contingent of PYA members, we will place ourselves within a dispensation wherein student unity can be rebuilt without the risk of the ruling party completely derailing it. The ANC is not the only threat to the forging of a united student front, but it is quite possibly the greatest one we face. If we overcome it, we can prompt a surge in momentum that will once again transform us into a formidable force – a force that must prise open the doors of higher education, with urgency.

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Suspension has Ended: Revolution is Returning

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The fierce urgency of now. This was the phrase, coined by Martin Luther King Jr., that I scribbled onto a piece of paper on Friday afternoon, while camped in solidarity inside an occupied Senate House. Surrounding me were scores of students – sisters, brothers, comrades, the dispossessed and their allies – sitting in the nucleus of a movement that was in its third day of a successful shut down of Wits University. A few meters before me was the student leadership, donning the shirts of parties accustomed to rivalry between themselves, negotiating with Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib. Habib had suggested he leave Senate House to convene with council and was met with thunderous objection from the crowd gathered. Eventually, the people decreed that they would not wait – council would meet that day, in Senate House, in full view of the students whose lives were impacted by their decisions. No closed doors. No secrets. Direct accountability. Habib agreed. At that moment, Dr King’s declaration echoed in my mind: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today”. We were indeed confronted with the fierce urgency of now – and it was glorious.

This departure from the lethargic politics of bureaucracy and delay was invigorating. Inside the dimly lit, vast chamber of Senate House, we were a revolutionary collective. Although student leaders (crucially, female leaders who were pushed out of the spotlight too often) spearheaded the movement, they were aware of their role as a proxy for the people. They stood on the shoulders of the students, and weren’t allowed to forget that without popular support, they could not stand up to the powers that be. Every decision, down to the organisation of food, was ratified by popular consensus. The spirit of democracy danced among us. A healthy suspicion of authority sat in our ranks. Hierarchy slowly dissolved in the acid of persistent mockery, directed towards power structures and their petty manifestations. Inside our contingent collective, the vice-chancellor wasn’t afforded his title. Civility remained, but decorum was discarded. We refused to engage in the fruitless spectacle of ceremonial flattery and political theatre. In contrast to the town hall meetings hosted by political representatives, where citizens queue for the opportunity to ask a question of an aggrandised figurehead, the engagement with Habib did not give him much leeway to engage in tactics of diversion and duplicity. Although he was not being held against his will, he was under pressure to engage with students possessed by an uncompromising political will. The ordinary, impotent mode of discourse had been turned on its head.

The Senate House I sat in was radically different from the one I’ve walked into countless times before. Of course, it was materially indiscernible – the same brown and blue university banners hanging from beams spanning the high ceilings, the same concrete pillars climbing to the skies, the same set of converging stairs rising like a peculiar altar from the polished floor and descending into a crypt below. However, the first time I walked into that foyer of the executive, the fumes that clung to the walls of my nostrils were those of polish from the gleaming floors. On Friday evening, it was the choking stench of pepper spray. The space had changed.

It was not just the halls of Senate House that had transformed. During the three day peaceful occupation of the university, it was all too apparent that business as usual had ceased. Some areas of campus were left almost eerily deserted; others were filled with the vibrant energy of rhythmic protest. Seeing the university in this radically different light is, if I may be so bold, a variation of Camus’s Absurd, spawning a peculiarly pleasant kind of Sartrean Nausea. The buildings on campus ordinarily wear the garment of the Institution. The occupation disrobed it. It divorced the space from the veneer of authority and the presumptions of power which usually pervade it. It illuminated our agency to radically redefine it. The realisation of radical freedom may be existentially unsettling, but it is politically liberating. Looking upon an institution that has departed starkly from its usual character, an aura of anarchism meets the eye: the university is not inherently imbued with any indomitable hierarchy, nor is the society which surrounds it structured in a manner that is unchangeable. Its people have no concrete, pre-ordained telos. We are the agents who define the essence that existence precedes. This movement is the product of a generation’s realisation of its own power. And, when we stand together, worker and student hand-in-hand, powerful we are indeed.

Later on Friday evening, while the pepper spray dissipated in the packed halls of Senate House, key members of the council convened. Feverish negotiation followed, stretching deep into the night.  As the sun was only just beginning to peer out from beyond the horizon the next morning, an interim agreement was signed: the decision to raise fees will be suspended, no students or workers who participated in the protests will face punitive measures and crucially, the university will not be at liberty to revert to its original position if negotiations break down. In a vindication of protest tactics, the students had emerged with a clear path towards victory. Those perched atop their privilege, who spent much of last week trying to justify their inaction or opposition by cynically criticising the occupation, were forced to face the concrete results those tactics had produced. In our hands, we held a declaration of our own power Рa testament to the strength of our political will.

The Student Awakening is spreading. As sparks from the fire raging at Wits find kindling at UCT, Rhodes University, and the others that will most certainly follow, it’s clear that our generation is shedding its image as the one born outside of Apartheid and inside of Apathy. As we move forward today to hear from council, we are mindful of the fact that our struggle will not end here. The decision to raise fees was not taken in a vacuum, but rather in a climate of marginalisation, commercialisation and dispossession that has excluded the poor for too long. It was the flashpoint, the prelude to a paradigm shift that must occur. Reasons to resist have not evaporated: from the exploitation of outsourced workers, to wealth inequality that is staggeringly high; from dwindling government subsidies, to the fact that even without increases, fees remain too high for too many. Struggle, therefore, should not cease. No longer can we allow our universities to perpetuate a status quo they ought to challenge. If we conserve this momentum, we can become the custodians of a force Victor Hugo deemed indomitable: an idea whose time has come. South Africa’s students have awoken, and we’re ending the suspension of its revolution.