The past fortnight’s ferment at our universities was about students rising up against the single issue of fee increases in 2016. This issue-specificity, customary as it is in our country’s evolution, limits the impact and duration of reactive acts of civil disobedience. Thus what is happening does not portray the expected eruption of the people’s pent-up anger at many post-apartheid developments.
There are many other issues that other sectors of the population (some of which possibly even include the students) have strong feelings on, but which are temporarily in abeyance. This means that with just over a million students enrolled in public Higher Education Institutions (extrapolating from the published 2013 figures), these revolts are merely a return of volcanic activity. These signs occur when a volcano merely shows increased seismic activity with smoke, steam emissions and some rumbling occurring at higher than accustomed levels - this time at the academic heights of our society.
However, we must bear in mind that whilst these were also regular features of black tertiary academic life during the apartheid years, they were always the overt manifestation of broader underlying dissent with the entire system. The present higher education tumult being issue-specific is in this way akin to the (Hut and Poll Tax) Bambatha Rebellion, or the Defiance Campaign, or the regular trade union salary strikes - in fact, even the Sharpeville and Marikana Massacres. Similar reasons operated to destabilise the acquisition of education at the “Bush Colleges” of Bantu education ( Fort Hare, Turfloop and University of Zululand/Ongoye). Incidentally most students involved in the current upheavals are those who, under Apartheid, would have been enrolled at these “Bush Colleges”. Now however, every rebellious act is more visible because it is happening in the glare of the media and in the major cities of the land, at Tukkies, Wits, UCT, UOVS, Rhodes and so forth.
Therefore the staple bush college revolts against such things as disgusting food, racist lecturers, or the enforcement of Afrikaans as the sole medium of high school instruction that incubated the 1976 student riots, were and are all symptoms of the disease, but not the disease itself. Such is the case with the current tertiary fees revolt, and intuitively, we probably all know this. We know that this is just a skirmish, and not even a major battle in the historical war that began when the unequal foundations of South African society were laid over two centuries ago. In his/her heart of hearts, nobody reasonable disputes that the foundations of South African society - the word nation has never applied to this country’s people - were deliberately tilted so that the majority produced and the minority reaped the benefits.
We need to note that the word minority previously had black/white racist connotations, whereas nowadays the venal minority has become mixed and refers to a group of predatory adversaries who operate in our broader society. They set the rules that keep the playing field of opportunity and self-actualisation skewed in their favour. This has caused our traditional, centuries-old standoff in which the majority of the populace has really only been able to gain the upper hand once in the history of this land.
The people were only able to gain the upper hand when all the disparate manifestations of discontent were traced to their root cause, coalesced and championed by a single omnibus organisation, the United Democratic Movement (UDM). The UDM was the true voice of the people, because it represented all the people. Its members included the rich, the poor and the in-between of all colours; it had students, teachers, clergy, politicians, trade unionists, employers, employees and the unemployed, all of whom had come together- and were not prepared to disband without fulfilling their mission - to bring about democracy for all, whatever it took.
As such matters turn out, most of the leaders of the UDM are no longer with us, but largely have not yet died. Now, the mantle of leadership in this time of turbulence would have fallen naturally onto their shoulders, but they are not here. Instead of continuing with the long-term and difficult tasks of truly democratising the country after 1994, they chose to shake off the mantle of leadership so sorely needed today in favour of the mask of surrogacy. Hence by preferring not only to leave untouched the unequal socio-economic foundations of our country, but by being unabashed beneficiaries thereof, they have betrayed. This betrayal many now carry out in the corridors of government. So by preferring to join the ranks of the venal minority, and by laying aside their ideals and the legacy of the UDM, they have only showed why at this time we need a new UDM.
It need not be named UDM again, but the new movement must continue the work whose abandonment has brought us to this day. But let us not forget that there have been other such days and other such battles, with more to come from the supply-list: poor health facilities, lack of housing, poor service delivery, dormitory townships far from the workplace, unemployment, crime, poor working conditions. These and other trigger conditions, such as the current institutionalised obstacles to achieving your potential if you are black and at university, all come from the same birth-canal of racial domination that saw this unequal society come into being two centuries ago.
This is why the volcano of discontent is still only emitting smoke and steam, and why it is rumbling but not erupting at our universities. But this too will settle down – it already is - and another time of false calm and serenity, however short, will prevail. But as history has shown that at a time to come, the subterranean pressures will again combine with such might that a true eruption will occur. Then burning lava will flow in every crevice and fault-line in this land. When that happens, a new movement of the people will need to arise to channel the flow.
©Thabo Seseane. Gain Mastery Ltd.2015. Picture: Jan-Pieter Nap