The Politics of Spectacle: Reflections on the 2016 Student Protests

This reflection builds on  my earlier analysis of the #FeesMustFall protests, telling the story of the 2016 protests, explaining why the executive team made the choices we did, and reflecting strategically on the challenges facing higher education today.

I do not pretend that mine is an impartial voice, and I recognise that the story of the student protests will only be fully explained in the years to come.

In my last reflection, I stressed the legitimacy of the struggle of the student protestors for lower or no fees. I stand by this view. Fee increases were occasioned by a declining per capita subsidy to universities, and in an effort to retain quality, most higher education institutions annually increased fees, often in double digits. This priced university education outside the affordability of not only the working but also the middle classes. University executives have known for some time that this is not sustainable, but government has not been responsive to their concerns. The student protests changed this and have brought to an end this complacency. As I suggested previously, “the students achieved in 10 days what vice-chancellors had been trying to do for 10 years”.

My earlier reflection also bemoaned, at least implicitly, the lack of political leadership on the part of the state. This is still true despite the initial valiant attempts at consultation by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET). In these consultations, the DHET was abandoned by other state departments, especially the Presidency. Once it announced the fee recommendations and the protests erupted across the higher education system, the DHET effectively retreated, leaving the universities to fend for themselves.

Violent protests

My earlier reflection also subjected the protestors to scathing criticism, suggesting that subsequent to the October 2015 protests, the movement became more factionalised with smaller groups becoming prone to racism and violence. At Wits University, we could count at least eight groups including new informal student societies all of whom represented different political constituencies. These features of factionalisation, racism and violence consolidated in the student protests in 2016 and were especially apparent in the round of protests which emerged in September. Perhaps the most disconcerting feature of the current round of protests has been the propensity to violence and arson. Some analysts of the movement – Jane Duncan in particular – have suggested that the violence is a result of police and security action. But this is a classic case of empirical facts not being allowed to stand in the way of the analyst’s conclusion. It is striking that the conclusion is often arrived at on the basis of an analysis of police action in community struggles and a selective reading of events on university campuses.

Let me demonstrate the fallacy of this conclusion through a study of events at Wits which is the case that I know best. In January 2016, a small group of students disrupted our registration process. They were violent and threatened staff and students. When negotiations failed to resolve the issue, we brought in private security, and I made the case for this in a letter to the University community. The decision was opposed by a small group of liberal and left leaning academics, largely from one or two schools in the Faculty of Humanities, although it was supported by the vast majority of academics at the University. Once the conflict stabilised, we withdrew the security. Subsequently, in the beginning of the second term, some protesting students, many from other universities, tried to disrupt the academic programme. Again, students and staff were threatened and assaulted. Private security was brought in. This repeated itself three or four times during the course of the year, although we did not lose any academic time. We did have a bus burnt (the fire was started with students on it) in February, and there were multiple attempts to burn down buildings, including libraries. Mercifully, none were successful. The fact to note, however, is that none of this happened as a result of the presence of private security, or for that matter, the police. In fact, neither private security nor police were present. Instead, they were brought in as a result of the arson or disruptions of the academic programme.

How then were selected social scientists of good standing able to arrive at a conclusion in violation of the empirical facts? The answer emanates from their overtly ideological approach to the student protests. The conclusions had been arrived at even prior to their analysis. What was also shocking was the implicit condoning of violence by this small group of scholars. They often claimed that they were not partial to the violence, but their complicity was evident both in their failure to publicly condemn the violence and in their deliberate misrepresentations of the events on campus. Moreover, while this small group of academics demanded the withdrawal of police and private security, they were not willing to publicly demand the renouncing of violence by the student protestors. What they refused to recognise is that until violence is rejected, both in rhetoric and in practice, there is no moral legitimacy in the demand that a public institution should withdraw security.

The same could be asked of some non-governmental organisations and groups of progressive lawyers all of whom seemed to have suspended their moral or even strategic political judgements in their representations of some students. Needless to say the court ruled in favour of the university in many of the cases that were brought against it. But in which moral universe can progressive lawyers justify continuously bringing legal cases against the university to prevent it from hosting examinations and determining the sentiments of its student body and university community? Where is the justification in forcing a public university that is severely financially constrained to divert scarce resources to fight frivolous legal cases so that it can effectively fulfil its institutional mandate? How could progressives be party to attempts to shut down a public university’s examinations, or be complicit in a project to advance a political agenda that advocates that there should be ‘no education if there is no free education’? How can one be willing to sacrifice so many innocent lives and then claim to be supporters of the poor and marginalized? These are hard questions that ‘progressive’ lawyers and activists must ask of themselves when they suspend judgement of the tactics deployed by sections of the student movement in this round of protests.

I must hasten to state that the vast majority of academics have been unquestionably critical of the violence at our institutions and largely supportive of the continuation of the academic programme, Indeed, this was evident on multiple occasions. In the beginning of the year, on calling in private security, I visited each of the faculties to engage staff members and the vast majority recognised that, however unpalatable, this was a decision that had to be made. This was also reflected in the poll in which 91% of staff supported the resumption of the academic programme even if security had to be deployed. And it was most gratifyingly evident in a petition which I received from 437 staff members who expressed support for me when some students forced me to leave a peace rally in Braamfontein. My reflections on the behaviour and strategies of left leaning academics and progressives is not meant to imply that they represent the dominant voice within the academy or society. Neither is it meant to target them unfairly. Rather, it is done to robustly confront their ideas and to demonstrate that whatever their intentions, their failure to condemn violence and related behaviours of spectacle could literally undermine the very goal of free education itself. Their narrative of an ascendant, repressed social movement and a hostile management is also not an accurate reflection of the state of affairs. Rather, almost all of us agree on the goal of free education. The dispute is about how to get there and what the trade-offs should be.

Will of the people?

Another feature that has consolidated itself in the current round of student protests is the increasingly factionalised nature of the movement. At the height of the protests in 2015, the student protestors numbered tens of thousands. This time, at the height of the protests at Wits, the protestors numbered less than a thousand and even that is magnanimous. This was perhaps best demonstrated by the University poll in which 77% of students and 92% of staff who responded, voted to return to the academic programme, with appropriate security measures in place. There have been some attempts to question the results of the poll on methodological and political grounds. Some suggest that the results did not represent an overwhelming majority because only 17 000 students voted in favour of resuming the academic programme. But this reflects an ignorance of the process of polling and a failure to realise that there is never a 100% response rate. Given that 30 000 students received the SMS (as a result of a technical glitch on the part of the service provider) and that 21 000 students voted, the results represent an overwhelming endorsement to return to class. No other stakeholder has provided more comprehensive data on popular attitudes of students or staff on the issue.

Given this, it is appalling that the small left leaning and liberal academic cohort argued against resuming the academic programme. It suggests that they were more interested in being responsive to political commissars than to ordinary student voices, especially the poor, who do not have the luxury of sacrificing the academic year. Not only does it reflect a shocking abrogation of their academic responsibility to teach, it also reflects either a lack of understanding of the politics that was playing out, or a political bankruptcy in responding to the challenges of our time, a matter to which I will later return.

Role of the media

But small groups of student protestors and left leaning academics are not the only ones that need to account. The media establishment must also take responsibility for dismaying coverage of the student protests. Mainstream journalism, which has become very juniorised, has been incapable of nuanced reporting of the protests and their causes. Instead, they have focused largely on the most dramatic incidents, which were often staged for the camera.

But there have also been instances of what was simply bad journalism. In a few extreme cases, we observed that coverage of student protests at other institutions was accompanied by video footage of Wits. Essentially, these broadcasting houses were too apathetic to send camera crews to where the protests were actually happening. We had to write to some editors of the broadcasting houses and threaten to sue if they did not stop this practice.

Perhaps what has been most disturbing is the digital media like the Daily Vox which have become crude cases of embedded journalism, even if it is of a left wing variety. There have been too many cases of journalists with conflicted interests, on the one hand serving as activists of the student protest movement and on the other parading as legitimate journalists. Misrepresentations abound on the Daily Vox, because information is at no point verified. Describing itself as citizen journalism, the site has become the online left wing manifestation of Fox TV where information, propaganda and skewed analyses all morph into a toxic mix that is peddled as legitimate journalism.

Engagement and the politics of spectacle

One feature that is striking about this round of protests has been our attempt to use mediators to broker a solution. This of course failed. We had initially engaged Tiego Moseneke and Sipho Maseko, both of whom are former presidents of the Wits Black Students Society. Others subsequently joined them, including one who is the chair of a political party, and other former student leaders. Initially, they brokered a solution involving a pledge in which we committed to the goal of free education, and agreed to hold a General Assembly and to march as the Senate and Council with the protesting students. The intention of the pledge was to create an alliance of students and staff across the system, as well as with civil society, business and other stakeholders, to drive an advocacy agenda for the progressive realisation of free, fully funded, quality, decolonised higher education, without ignoring the systemic crises in primary and secondary education. But at the last minute, only hours before the Assembly, the protesting students reneged on returning to class. The mediators wanted us to proceed with the General Assembly, but executive management felt that we had no choice but to cancel the event, given that there was no guarantee that it would not be disrupted and that the safety of those in attendance was not assured. In the weeks ahead, the mediators repeatedly tried to broker a solution without success.

Understanding why this was the case is important for our endeavours to find a political solution to the crisis. The mediators assumed that it was in the rational interest of all sides to institutionalise the matter and arrive at a resolution. But this was not the case for a small faction. This faction, essentially taking instructions from an outside political party which called for the complete shutdown of universities, was not in a position to accede to a resolution. In fact, given that it was a very small minority (it had not won a single seat in a recent student leadership election), it served its strategic interest to effectively play a politics of spectacle. This involved insisting that all decisions were made in the mass meeting, where rational and pragmatic voices were silenced by accusing them of selling out.

The most dramatic example of this ‘spectacle’ was at a peace rally at a church in Braamfontein. Initially, when the idea of the peace rally was broached with us by some in the academic union, we cautioned against it. We suggested that it was at risk of being highjacked and could reinvigorate the protest that had by then been contained. But not to have gone would have led to us being perceived as hostile to a solution. So we attended, even though we knew that it could turn into a debacle. When we went into the church, we were not particularly challenged. After all, the students had publicly called for such an engagement. But after a few minutes, one of the EFF student leaders, Vuyani Pambo, took to the podium and in his usual flamboyant language demanded that the meeting could not continue with my presence. Suddenly the atmosphere changed. A small group of students surrounded me, swearing and issuing verbal abuse, and took over the meeting. The organisers were paralysed, having been taken by surprise, and the academic left who supported the movement were cowed into silence. The mainstream press loved the spectacle, as did embedded journalists from the Daily Vox and documentary filmmakers, all of whom needed footage. Pambo to be fair, indicated that he did not want violence and asked the students to give me an opportunity to leave. But the event had morphed from a multi-stakeholder peace rally into a student meeting. A student leader from a faction with minimal support had effectively taken control of the political narrative, while those in the majority were outmanoeuvred and stood by, helpless.

This was to play itself out time after time in this round of protests. It paralysed the mediation attempts and effectively held the institution hostage. In this context, the only solution was to secure the campus through police and private security, and to proceed with the academic programme. The failed peace rally reinvigorated the protests. After seven days of no substantive disruptions, protestors broke into lectures and tests, and some even tore test scripts. Police disbursed the protestors, opening fire with rubber bullets, and some students were injured. The police action is currently being investigated by the IPID. Thereafter, an uneasy calm returned to campus, the lecture schedule was completed, and the examinations were started. Two weeks into the examinations, after Mcebo Dlamini had been released from prison, the student leaders called for a negotiated resolution. Within days, an agreement was reached in which the examinations were allowed to proceed and we now refer to our deferred examinations as a second sitting.

Three lessons flow from this narrative of events. First, it is rational for smaller factions to emphasise the politics of spectacle for it is only through this that they can control the political narrative. Asking them not to do so goes against their rational interest. It is worth noting that this strategy was perhaps best perfected by the Nazis in the Weimar Republic in the 1920s. As a minority, the Nazis effectively used the politics of spectacle to capture political power by mobilising on the very real grievances of ordinary people. Moreover, it should be remembered that the politics of spectacle is as much a means of silencing ordinary, pragmatic voices as it is of mobilising others.

To take one example, a student supporter of the Fees Must Fall movement who felt that he could not afford to not complete the academic year went to a student meeting to raise his concerns. Afterwards, he wrote an email to me and this is what he said:

“I took the opportunity to express that I am in full support of the free education movement but not at the expense of my qualification. I explained that I was also a NSFAS student for two years and that I am now funded by BankSETA … I cannot afford to not write my exams this year. I was IMMEDIATELY attacked and told how selfish I was and that I need to heed the call of our generational struggle which is free education. Another young lady expressed the same views and was also attacked and intimidated to the point where the speaker of the house (an incoming SRC member) had to call for our protection. Naturally, there was a lot of whispering among the other students who would like to go back to class but who were too scared to voice their opinions due to what the reaction was towards myself and the young lady … These students will not listen to ANYONE who has an opposing view and I feel that it is unfair to be held hostage by a group of students who are aspiring towards martyrdom or heroism and not a tertiary level qualification.”

This student’s account is one example among many that shows how the mass meeting is effectively used as a site to silence people as opposed to enabling democratic processes to play out.

Duplicitous student leaders

The politics of spectacle has been accompanied by an astonishing duplicity among some student leaders. Many claimed publicly that the executive management was not willing to meet them, and yet they had personally met with myself and other executives and pleaded for us not to reveal these engagements. Many who interacted with me on a face-to-face basis were utterly charming and respectful, but their personas seemed to change fundamentally on Twitter where they engaged in the most virulent, extreme sort of fashion which was frankly typically of far right behaviour. One student leader repeatedly made the most scurrilous remarks about myself and my family, but then sent me an SMS to say that he respected me and that his actions were not personal. Another student leader bumped into me at a seaside resort, suggested that her/his actions were not personal and apologised for any discomfort that s/he may have created, and then promptly became even more obnoxious in the months that followed. Some repeatedly criticised the presence of private security and police, but then indicated in personal discussions that they understood why we had the security presence and that they felt safer as a result. A few who had called for a boycott of lectures and examinations privately approached individual executive managers and asked to write their papers in secret so that other students would not see them.

This kind of duplicity should be of particular concern to all of us. It suggests that despite their criticisms of the existing political elite, some of the prominent leaders among this new generation of activists are displaying behavioural traits that are typical of the most venal of the current politicians. And astonishingly, this behaviour has been defended by academics, politically active parents, some lawyers and even civil society activists. One academic, reflecting a popular view amongst left leaning academics, suggested that we must understand this kind of behaviour because it is merely the theatre of social movement politics. A politically active parent challenged an executive member and I for holding accountable her/his son who was communicating with management in the rudest and most obnoxious manner. Only when I held firm, insisting that we will only tolerate civil engagements from student leaders, did the parent subtly retreat. Civil society activists, even notable ones who had demonstrated incredible bravery in the struggle against apartheid, now pandered to the most outrageous behaviour from student activists, while at the same time privately communicating with me about how unacceptable their behaviour was. Most of this was inspired by a mistaken belief that they could earn the trust of student leaders and then slowly encourage them to behave in more acceptable and principled ways. But these activists had forgotten that if left unchecked, these behaviour patterns could generalise themselves across society. One only has to remember how the politics of spectacle in the ANC Youth League, or the corruption and opportunism of Jacob Zuma and his faction, generalised themselves across the ANC, Parliament and other state structures. Left unchecked, this kind of duplicitous politics could lead to the emergence of a new generation of Jacob Zumas, Julius Malemas and Des van Rooyens, and consolidate the tradition of unaccountability that prevails in the South African political system.

Timing of Negotiations

The second lesson to be drawn from this narrative of the events is that a negotiated outcome, even a temporary one, will not come simply as a result of persuasion, but also of a recognition that the alternative path of violence, or in this case institutional shutdown, is no longer on the cards. This is what some of the negotiators and most of the academic left have never truly internalised. Negotiations are as much a reflection of the dynamics of societal or institutional power, and this needs to be understood, managed and even choreographed. This is why the students asked for negotiations only when the option of institutional shutdown had been effectively closed off through the deployment of police and private security and the resumption of the academic programme. Prior to this, all attempts at negotiated outcomes had failed. It is a lesson, well understood in the academic literature on political negotiations that needs to be learnt and internalised by left leaning academics and even the mediators.

Political issues cannot be resolved through security

Third, it is important never to believe one’s own propaganda by assuming that a security solution can be sustainable in the long term for what is essentially a political problem. This is a point that is often made by one of our council members elected by the academics, with whom I rarely share any level of agreement. However, recognising this must not lead one, as it does among some, to abrogate one’s academic responsibilities. Neither must it lead one to be oblivious of other competing political agendas and to become an unwitting accomplice to these. But the essential message, namely that a security solution can never sustainably resolve a political challenge, is legitimate. This means that ultimately, a political and policy solution must be found.

Under normal conditions, the political solution would have to be led by the state. But given the legitimacy crisis of the state, and in particular the President, it is perhaps best led by credible independent individuals with legitimacy amongst a cross section of society and political factions. Dikgang Moseneke’s initiative for a national convention on the financing of higher education is therefore the best option on the table for such a political process. Essentially called by Moseneke and a number of other individuals, including Malusi Mpulwana, Jay Naidoo, Mary Metcalfe and Yvonne Mogoro, the convention would enable societal stakeholders, including government, to engage in a negotiation around the trade-offs involved in the call for free education. It is these stakeholders that will bear the brunt of the demand for free education and it is important for them to either accede to this demand or to engage the students and moderate it.

Free education and viable financial models

But what of the policy proposal for free education? Currently the demand of some of the student protestors involves not only free tuition, but also fully subsidised accommodation and subsistence. This would effectively approximate an additional cost of R50 billion per annum. There have been a few proposals suggesting that this is possible. The most substantive was perhaps one authored by a few Wits students in engagement with Khaya Sithole. An initial version of their proposal basically made the case for financing free education through the tax system. Much of the document was thoughtful but its collective proposals were problematic. Essentially, it proposed an increase in a range of taxes, including the skills levy, corporate and income tax, and a wealth tax. The immediate collective tax increase on business would have amounted to more than 10%, which would essentially implode the economy and accelerate tax avoidance.

The essential problem with this version of the proposal, and those of many others advocated by   student protestors and other left leaning academics, is that they do not reflect any understanding of economic consequences and societal trade-offs. Even societies far richer and more developed than us have a more measured approach to the financing of higher education. During a recent visit to Germany, for instance, I was part of an African delegation that was made aware that while university tuition is free, this is not true for accommodation and subsistence. Indeed, accommodation and subsistence costs are born by individual students and their families, and while there is a state financial support system that assists, it is limited to only about 25% of the student population. Moreover, the financial support comprises an equal portion of loan and grant, and once the minimum period of study for the degree is completed, the financial support becomes a full loan scheme.

Given the existing growth rates in the economy, and the multiple social needs in society, it is unlikely that free higher education can be fully realised immediately in South Africa. What is possible, however, is free education for the poor which is widely supported by multiple stakeholders in society. But the protests revealed that the middle classes are also struggling to afford the costs of university education. A plan therefore needs to be made for the missing middle as well. One option for this missing middle that I have been partial to in these circumstances is a loan scheme, and a model for this which is being developed by Sizwe Nxasana in partnership with the banks will be piloted in 2017. The rich should of course continue to pay for higher education at levels slightly higher than inflation so that some cross subsidisation can occur. One legitimate criticism of this model by protesting students and progressive academics is that the scheme could saddle graduating students with a huge debt which they will have to spend many years repaying. This could lead to a consolidation of inequality in society. One way to obviate this is by tying the progressive financing of higher education to growth rates in the economy and the expansion of the tax base. In this way, higher education will be made progressively freer as the economy strengthens.

The most sophisticated policy expression of this substantive intent is expressed by the latest version of the student-Khaya Sithole financing model. Essentially the model looks towards increasing state subsidy from 38% to 50% of university financing, and is coupled with a private sector funded Capital Infrastructure Fund (in exchange for tax rebates and capital allowances) and an Education Endowment Fund (EEF). The EEF is initially capitalised through state resources including a 1% increase in the skills levy, but is thereafter maintained by a graduate tax that is structured through the payroll. The model does envisage modest corporate and individual tax increases and a phased in development of a new financing of the higher education system. This policy model on the financing of higher education pushes the fiscal boundaries, yet is entirely pragmatic and is worthy of serious consideration.

However, this kind of pragmatic, progressive proposal is unlikely to be realised in one-on-one negotiations between students and management or even students and government. It can only be realised in a national convention where societal stakeholders engage with each other and arrive at a societal consensus on the financing of higher education. This is because societal stakeholders have to live with the consequences of the policy choices and thereby have the incentive to hold each other accountable. This national deliberative conversation can be coupled with institutional political innovations along the lines attempted at Wits with the hosting of a General Assembly in which the executive management, staff and students form an alliance in favour of the progressive realisation of free higher education. Collectively, these national and institutional engagement initiatives can enable a cross sectoral alliance involving higher education executives, staff, students, societal stakeholders including amongst others business, trade unions and civic organisations, and the state to progressively implement an agenda for the progressive realisation of free, fully funded, quality, decolonised higher education. But this alliance is only viable if it is based on three assumptions:  a rejection of violence, the immediate development of a road map for the progressive realisation of free, fully funded, quality, decolonised education and a rejection of any strategy that shuts down the academic programme and prevents education from taking place while the new model of university financing is being developed and implemented.

What are the alternatives?

If this agenda to realise a pragmatic, progressive model of financing higher education is not successful, then the consequences for South Africa and its higher education system are dire. If student protestors and their academic and other allies continue to pursue maximalist agendas, two scenarios exist for the future. The first is that the implementation of the maximalist policy agenda implodes the economy like it did in Venezuela and deepens the political and social crisis within the society. The alternative scenario is that like in some countries in the rest of the continent, the government concedes on free education, does not make the concomitant investment in the universities, and the institutions disintegrate as a result. This is of course not the only experience on the continent. In Zimbabwe for instance there has never been free higher education. Instead there existed a fully funded scheme of tuition fees, accommodation and subsistence along the lines of the South African National Students’ Financial Aid Scheme, which was successful throughout the 1980s, but then collapsed after the 1990s both with the imposition of structural adjustment policies and the deterioration of the political context. In any case, if the state does not make up in state subsidy what is conceded on the fee front, then the disintegration of South African universities  will happen; not overnight, but they will collapse within the decade and the agenda to address inequality in the country will be permanently impaired.

South Africa and the world are at a crossroads. A populist right is resurgent across the globe including in the West. The progressive activists and intelligentsia bemoan this but do not sufficiently recognise their own complicity in enabling these outcomes. It is worth recognising that Reagan would not have emerged in the US without the failure of Carter. Thatcher would not have emerged without the failure of Labour. And Hitler would not have been successful in the Weimar Republic without the strategic blunders of the left. When progressives abandon representing the interests of ordinary people, then the people turn to the right with devastating consequences for society and all humanity. This is the strategic lesson that progressive student activists, academics and their allies need to recognise. Pursuing a maximalist agenda will not realise the outcome that they hope for. In fact, it may very well create a mainstream backlash that allows the right to take power. Societies can only be transformed by policies that are rooted in the realities of the world as it exists, not a world that we wish existed. This is a lesson that progressives have forgotten in the past, and it is urgent that they internalise it today. For without this, South Africa’s universities and its society are doomed.