Students force ANC retreat
The climbdown on university fees has left the SACP general secretary looking thoroughly compromised, reports Peter Manson
A week of militant student protests has culminated in an astonishing retreat for the African National Congress government and, even more pertinently, the further exposure of the reactionary role of the ANC’s main cheerleader, the South African Communist Party.
The students were up in arms about the proposed 10.6% rise in university tuition fees for next year, even though the rate of inflation is just under 5%. It goes without saying that such a system, in conjunction with student loans, results in even greater obstacles than it does in Britain - if you are among the millions who live in a shack, you are hardly going to be encouraged to take up further education if it means you are going to be saddled with a huge debt.
In view of this, the main slogan of the protests was “Fees must fall” - ie, they must be scrapped altogether. So what was the response of Blade Nzimande, the minister of higher education and training, who just happens to be general secretary of the South African Communist Party? Well, he proposed a cap of 6% on the 2016 fees increase - only just a little above inflation!
Moreover, as students mobilised in their tens of thousands, there were several incidents of police brutality, including the firing of stun grenades. But the protests seemed to draw in all factions among students - everyone from the ANC’s own student group to those of opposition parties: not just the left-nationalist Economic Freedom Fighters, but the rightwing Democratic Alliance, a direct descendant of the apartheid National Party.
It was the EFF which led the opposition to the increase within parliament on October 21, when ANC finance minister Nhlanhla Nene delivered his medium-term budget speech: there was to be no new money for universities, he said, and in view of the current economic difficulties student protests were “unconstructive”. The EFF’s noisy protests led to several of its MPs being ejected.
Nzimande himself was shouted down by protestors outside parliament when he tried to explain why student demands were “unrealistic”, but on October 23 tens of thousands gathered outside the presidential offices in Pretoria. And, faced with such a united opposition to the fees hike, president Jacob Zuma announced that the proposals would be withdrawn.
Remarkably, the ANC issued a statement praising the protestors to high heaven:
Today, young people of South Africa once again made history. Emulating the courageous and fearless generation of 1976, they stood as a united force and presented to government their unequivocal demands for accessible, quality education … We therefore celebrate the victory of the disciplined and gallant campaign waged by students.1
Zuma said he would try to ensure that arrested students would not be charged and pledged that “transformation” - ie, steps towards real racial equality - would be speeded up.
This left the ministry for higher education - and Nzimande himself - carrying the can. The SACP general secretary, together by implication with the party he heads, had been a target of criticism from the ANC Youth League for several weeks and now leading ANCYL figures were openly calling for his resignation. ANCYL president Collen Maine said:
We need an indication from him as a minister whether he can clearly render issues of higher education or not. If he cannot he must say that to the president and then the president must assist students of this country by placing somebody who will do that.
Fees and ‘the poor’
The attacks on Nzimande focussed on the revelation that in 2013 his Ministerial Committee for the Review of the Funding of Universities had found that “the amount of government funding is not sufficient to meet the needs of the public university system”. The committee concluded that “Government should increase the funding for higher education, to be more in line with international levels of expenditure.” Therefore, a study should be undertaken to “determine the actual cost of introducing fee-free university education for poor people” and for this purpose there should be “a working definition of poor people in South Africa”.
But Nzimande had refused to release the study, because the policy’s implementation was turned down by the government due to “inadequate revenue from the national fiscus”. He did not want to publicise the fact that the treasury would not fund it and in an attempt to justify the decision not to release the review a ministry spokesperson stated: “It is a public document, but due to the nature of the report, we decided not to make it public …”
Meanwhile, the SACP itself continued to back the idea of “fee-free university education for poor people” - as opposed to the demand embraced by the movement as a whole for free further education for all. For example, this gem comes from a contributor to the Young Communist League’s email discussion list (no doubt from someone whose age might stretch the definition of ‘young’ somewhat):
The notion for universal free education is a wholesale approach which ... will perpetuate class inequality, as the descendants of those that accumulated under the racial economic dispensation will also benefit unduly from it.
… the inherent class struggle should converge to come up with a proper higher education funding framework and model to ensure that the children of the aforementioned groups and other well-off households are charged, and charged correctly, for their education, whilst free education is dispensed for designated groups.
So much for the idea of services like education being funded collectively, by society as a whole, in the interests of all. Does that apply to the future socialist society too? After all, the SACP never ceases reassuring us that what we are witnessing under the leadership of the ANC is the “national democratic revolution”, which, as everyone knows, is “the most direct route to socialism in South Africa”.
In response to statements from the like of the EFF in favour of “free, quality higher education”, Nzimande’s line has been to dishonestly argue that the Freedom Charter, adopted by the ANC in its struggle against apartheid in 1955, does not call for free higher education. Well, OK, but it does call for what amounts to the same thing, albeit using slightly different phrasing:
Education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children; higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit.2
In a speech delivered on October 15, in which he also condemned “student violence”, Nzimande proudly boasted:
The proportion of African students in universities has increased dramatically from 49% in 1995 and is estimated to 72% at present, and shows steady and considerable progress since 1994 towards something closer to the demographics of the country.3
And, following the climbdown, Nzimande claimed on October 25: “At one level we are victims of our own successes as the ANC government, because the university sector has really grown. It has doubled since 1994 and it’s now majority black and majority women.”
Shift to left
However, he also came out with the new, publicly expressed SACP line, representing a slight shift to the left in the wake of the protests:
… we should look at all these proposals being made to get more money, whether you use the wealth tax, or you raise the skills levies, but it’s very clear that money will also have to be gotten from the private sector, because they are the principal beneficiaries from the graduates that we produce from our universities.4
But Nzimande was coming under fire not only from students, but from the likes of mainstream commentator Eusebius McKaiser, who on October 19 had complained of the “absence of effective leadership in the tertiary education sector”.5 This provoked an absurd response from the SACP in Gauteng province, whose leadership issued a statement the following day:
Mr McKaiser’s venom and vicious slander of comrade Blade borders on liberal neo-fascism … the liberal neo-fascist lumpenism advocated by McKaiser, definitely leaning on the shoulders of monopoly capital, seeks to drive a wedge between student leaders and their revolutionary government.6
Earlier, Gauteng provincial secretary Jacob Mamabolo had actually condemned the student demonstration of October 21:
The attempt to besiege parliament yesterday is a deeply worrying, alien phenomenon. It corresponds only to the frenzied wishes of elements that are irreconcilably hostile to the SACP, its general secretary, comrade Nzimande, and the working class struggle for socialism.7
The party’s national leadership was more restrained, however, pointing to “the deep-rooted, historical, structural and systemic nature of the fundamental problem - which goes far beyond the mandate of a single government unit, the department of higher education and training, and comrade Blade Nzimande as the minister”.
Its statement continued:
… the SACP will streamline the issue of student funding and the goal of free, quality higher education, technical and vocation training in its financial sector campaign. This campaign will now include a series of actions to the doorsteps of capital to fund post-school education and training for the children of the workers and the poor ...
The SACP will, in addition, push for a wealth tax in this regard. Capital privately controls the largest stake of the wealth produced in our country and is the single largest consumer of our education and skills. Capital’s consumption of education and skills is by far disproportionate compared to its contribution - which is found wanting. This is a key issue for us as the SACP.8
Despite an ANC statement standing by its minister of higher education, the SACP correctly insists that attacks on Nzimande are emanating from inside the alliance just as much as from outside. The party condemns such attacks as “sectionalism”, but in this regard it is quite capable of giving as good as it gets. The current factionalism is connected to the jockeying for position ahead of the ANC’s 2017 elective conference, which will choose the likely replacement for Zuma, who will be 77 when his current term as president is complete in 2019.
It was the SACP that was central to the campaign to force Thabo Mbeki to step down in 2008 and get Zuma elected in his place, but it remains to be seen who the party will back as Zuma’s successor. No doubt the recipient of SACP support will continue Zuma’s ‘good work’ of “deepening and consolidating the national democratic revolution” and advancing the cause of “socialism in South Africa”.
1. ANC press statement, October 23.
8. SACP statement, October 26.