#FeesMustFall: Democracy Under Fire

Adam Haupt argues that both the corporatisation of universities and repression of student protests erode constitutional freedoms. The Con

The rise of the #FeesMustFall movement in South Africa has revealed key fault lines. I would like to offer two arguments here. The first is that the use of police brutality against peaceful protesters on campuses undermines citizens’ rights to free speech. The second is that the corporatisation of public institutions produces the same negative effects on the public sphere as state repression of dissent. Public institutions’ mandate to preserve an information commons is undermined by an economic system that places a low premium on public spending. Universities are thrown at the mercy of the market and, effectively, cost barriers to education are introduced. It is in this way that any talk of a national democratic revolution is reduced to empty rhetoric.The #FeesMustFall movement followed on from the success of the #RhodesMustFall movement at the University of Cape Town, which led to the removal of a statue of controversial colonialist Cecil John Rhodes from the campus. As #RMF activists will tell you, it was never just about a statue. It was about starting a conversation about decolonising universities in the global South.

Students at the University of the Witswatersrand took the next step: they took issue with the logic of neoliberal economics that governs access to public institutions. If universities are going to decolonise, cost barriers to higher education need to be eliminated. If the ruling party’s 1994 election promise of education for all is to be realised, it will have to rethink its embrace of free market fundamentalism. Blade Nzimande’s claim that he is a communist but the reality is that we live in a capitalist world simply will not do at all. Government needs to increase public spending to secure the interests of its citizens.

Wits set off a national campaign that resulted in the shutdown of universities across the country. The demand for free education was linked to calls for universities to abandon the outsourcing of workers, often presented as a cost-cutting measure to help universities function more efficiently. This takes us to the heart of the corporatisation of universities. Just as South Africa became a democracy, privatisation was embraced. This effectively ensured white minority corporate interests were protected in the face of democratic change.

Outsourcing at UCT, as one avenue through which this corporatisation took place in the 1990s under the leadership of Dr Mamphela Ramphele, had serious consequences for workers. Apart from low wages and precarious working conditions, workers would not have access to benefits that accrue to other members of staff. For example, academic and administrative staff members receive student fee rebates for themselves and their family members. If such a key benefit were extended to outsourced workers, UCT would become radically more accessible to youth from Cape Flats townships. On Tuesday night, UCT management “made a commitment to the principle of insourcing”. The details of how this will be implemented still need to be made clear. Given that there are serious cost implications for taking on this overhead cost, government will have to offer a clear message on the extent to which it will increase spending on higher education.

The responses to the work of student activists have varied. The media’s initial response was to focus on what appeared to be the violence of students, even though students adopted a policy of nonviolence. Last week’s march on the Union Buildings in Pretoria was a good case in point. Despite the fact that certain students attempted to escalate the event into a violent confrontation with police, the majority of participants objected to their behaviour. Students have been wary of having their cause being hijacked by political parties.

Likewise, at UCT a peaceful march to Bremner building revealed it was the South African Police Service (SAPS) that was active in raising tensions and initiating unprovoked violence. It also revealed that UCT management’s first impulse was to obtain an interdict and invite the police on to campus instead of engaging in dialogue. In turn, the SAPS claimed it had a mandate to engage students with force. This sets a dangerous precedent for dealing with peaceful protest on university campuses in a democratic society. Students at the University of the Western Cape also said they suffered injuries at the hands of the police last Thursday night, despite the fact that an interdict against police action on campuses in the Western Cape had been obtained.More recently, the #RMF movement reported that a worker’s car was bombed in the early hours of Monday morning on campus, and Wits students occupying the Senate building also had to contend with a bomb scare recently. Meanwhile, in Grahamstown, Rhodes University students’ activism was overshadowed by xenophobic attacks in surrounding townships.

Activists also say a certain measure of infiltration of the #FeesMustFall movement has been taking place, and that it is clear that intimidation tactics are now being employed. The response to #FeesMustFall has not been entirely positive, to say the least, but this is not unique to the #FeesMustFall movement. For example, members of the social movement Abahlali baseMjondolo has reported that they have been harassed by the police in the past.

Another troubling issue is that the SAPS initially took it upon itself to charge five student activists with high treason, thereby reminding us of the Rivonia Trial and Nelson Mandela and his comrades’ principled stance against apartheid. The police later denied laying this charge against the students, but their action managed to send shock waves through activist communities. Perhaps this was the intention; it’s difficult to say. The SAPS also invoked the Regulation of Gatherings Act for national key points to deal with students’ march on Parliament last week. According to a statement by scholars from UCT’s law faculty, their interpretation of this legislation was incorrect. The police did not act in accordance with the law, they say.

Are apartheid-era tactics being used to clamp down on constitutionally enshrined rights to free expression and speech? To answer this question, consider the context in which the #FeesMustFall movement came to the fore. President Jacob Zuma recently defended the call for a media appeals tribunal despite widespread condemnation of it as a mechanism of censorship. Likewise, we have seen the approval of the Protection of State Information Bill, which is so wide in its scope that almost any civil servant can classify any piece of information and is at odds with the Constitution and the Promotion of Access to State Information Act. The Film and Publication Board is also advancing a new policy that will regulate online publication, something that has been criticised as an attempt at censorship while pretending to be primarily about addressing child pornography.

The attempts to delegitimise or co-opt the work of social movements should therefore be read in relation to this broader context – one in which attempts are being made to stifle free speech by limiting citizens’ use of media, specifically online media, and limit their ability to access knowledge that would force government to be more accountable to the public. The information commons upon which citizens in a democracy rely to make informed decisions about the common good is under threat. Without a free flow of information into the public domain, the public sphere cannot flourish. Effectively, South Africa will cease to be a democracy.

In the context of this discussion, there are two nemeses of democracy. The first is a state that seeks to censor media and utilise police brutality to squash civic protests. The second is a shift towards the corporatisation of public institutions by treating education and knowledge production as commodities in accordance with free market principles – so much so that it impoverishes the information commons and inhibits a functional public sphere. Both nemeses thus have the same negative effect on the public sphere.

#FeesMustFall, which was actually a named a respondent in a court order sought by UCT last week, has revealed key fault lines in leadership both at universities and in government. A macroeconomic policy that places a low premium on education and does not signal convincingly enough that spending in this area is a long-term investment pushes universities to embrace the inevitable ‘logic’ of the market. And, in the end, they fall far short of their mandate to serve the public in an era when, ironically, universities are expected to transform. Thanks to the rise of the corporate university and the attention it pays to branding and marketing strategies – and thanks to a state that has yet to develop tangible plans to fund this key area of development – we find ourselves in a context where private interests prevail over the public interest.